Verse Hagiography

I’ve been thinking about devotional materials a lot lately. The history of devotional practices doesn’t seem to be very well explored for the early medieval period. There is devotional material to study but it is largely overlooked.

Verse hagiography is considered for devotional purposes, while prose hagiography is for historical or liturgical purposes. Sometimes these works are paired, as in the Alcuin’s Verse and Prose Life of Willibrord. Other times they are separate. Bede wrote his verse Life of Cuthbert and the hymn on Aethelthryth for purely devotional reasons or meditation. He later happened to write historical works on them both — but only after being specifically commissioned to do so. The verse works served his devotional purposes. The prose Life of Cuthbert was only done upon commission by Lindisfarne. He included Aethelthryth’s story within the Ecclesiastical History of the English People which seems to have been commissioned by Canterbury.

Bede’s double hagiography inspired others. I seem to recall that the Miracles of Nynia are patterned on Bede’s verse Cuthbert. Alcuin gives us the best comparison. He specifically provides the Verse Life of Willibrord for monks to meditate upon in their cells — private devotions. The prose Life of Willibrord was composed to use during corporate liturgy and for the laity (ie for political uses).

Verse hagiography in 8th-9th century Northumbria

  • Verse Life of Cuthbert by Bede
  • Hymn on Aethelthryth by Bede
  • Verse Miracles of Nynia (Ninian)
  • Verse Life of Willibrord by Alcuin (while on the continent)
  • Alcuin’s York poem
  • Verse Guthlac A and B (unsure about dates)

The big problem is that Alcuin’s York poem is the only one available in a good English translation. None of the others, including Bede’s Verse Life of Cuthbert are found in English. You might wonder why not! Well, apparently everyone has dismissed them as uninteresting because they don’t provide new historical information. They were never intended to be historical documents! Its just amazing to me that Bede’s verse Cuthbert is not available in translation, and neither is the verse Willibrord. So if there are any graduate students out there in need of a project, this looks perfectly open!


3 thoughts on “Verse Hagiography

  1. I’m finding a growing fascination with examining the various literary genres in Anglo-Saxon England and how they interact with each other. While in the past there were such clear-cut definitions of prose and verse genres, that all seems to be falling together in recent scholarship. This post really gets at that idea: the interaction of the prose and verse, and how they really could work together in devotional uses. It’s especially interesting that the two generic tendencies were inspired by the same needs for devotion but were used in different specific instances–generically similar, but also diverse in their implementations (and the way that we now read and receive them).

  2. I think that the clear cut definitions were a little artificial. It reflects the biases of previous generations. (Keeping in mind that every generation has its biases.) I find it odd that so many literary scholars from previous generations just dismissed works because they didn’t add historical information. I think the whole area of private devotions has been understudied.

  3. I think you’re right about devotions being understudied. Or, for that matter, most of Anglo-Saxon religious literature (other than some of the poems). Homilies, homilaries, the more subtle aspects of Christian literature, have all been largely overshadowed by things like the elegies and *Beowulf*–which are perfectly nice pieces of literature, but scholars need to look beyond them.

    I think a lot of our *own* devision between genres and literary boundaries have led to this, and I often wonder how anachronistic these genre divides are for us to impose. But there does seem to be a body of scholarship developing that question such boundaries in A-S literature and how we read such diverse texts across the spectrum. Exciting times.

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