PW: Cynefrith, Physician of Ely

octors are not very common in early medieval works so Cynefrith really stands out in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Cynefrith is the primary witness to the miraculous ‘healing’ of St Aethelthryth’s neck wound while in the grave. Bede actually talks as though he knows Cynefrith: “more certain proof is given by a doctor named Cynefrith, who was present at her deathbed and at her elevation from the tomb. He used to relate how…”. Bede then directly quotes him and unlike elsewhere, he doesn’t find the need to tell us who is relaying the story. The implication is that he had personally talked to Cynefrith. It is not all that difficult to imagine how these circumstances worked out.

Cynefrith was apparently a physician in residence at Ely during the plague outbreak of c. 679. His testimony relates how he was ordered to lance the tumor on Abbess Aethelthryth’s neck to drain out the infection (poisonous matter). She seemed to recover for about two days and then rapidly declined and died on the third day. Note that he didn’t lance it on his own authority but was ordered to presumably by the abbess herself. He goes on to say that she was buried with a gaping neck wound and when she was raised from the grave it had sealed itself shut with only the slightest trace of a scar. [Today we can take this as evidence of natural mummification where the desiccation of the body dried out the wound and, as the stretch skin collapsed, it matted together.] It may also be Cynefrith who related Aethelthryth’s quote that she deserved this fiery red wound for her childhood vanity of wearing necklaces with gold and pearls. It is easy to imagine that this might have been some of Aethelthryth’s chat as he prepared to lance open her neck.

I find myself marveling today at Cynefrith’s endurance as a physician. He survived a plague where one of the treatments was for him to lance the swellings/bubos. He must have been continually exposed to a large amount of bacterium and still survived over 16 years later. If the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis (the black death) then survivors of infections might be able to fend off future exposures. Physicians required an excellent immune system in those days due to their high exposure.

So coming back to how Bede might have met Cynefrith, it is quite possible that by c. 705-709 he had joined Bishop Wilfrid’s retinue. We know that Wilfrid was present at Aethelthryth’s translation. If he wanted to promote Aethelthryth’s sainthood he might have insisted that Cynefrith travel with him as a witness to Aethelthryth’s sanctity, her own miraculous healing in the grave, and the healings that surrounded her translation. If Cynefrith was indeed traveling with the elderly bishop, who by then had cause to keep a physician nearby, then Bede would have had ample opportunity to discuss Aethelthryth with him, when he also questioned Wilfrid, if not other times.

Cynefrith is found in Book 4 Chapter 19 of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.