The first Life of Cuthbert

I was looking at the Anon. Life of Cuthbert the other day and I was surprised at how many differences there are from Bede’s version. This version was also written under orders from Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne, who also commissioned Bede’s version about a decade later. Eadfrith clearly knew the power of a Vita in establishing Cuthbert’s sainthood and was a literate man. He is one of those credited with working on the Lindisfarne gospels. Eadfrith’s insistence that a Vita be written and then revised by Bede may be because Cuthbert clearly did not have a very widespread reputation before his death. He had been bishop of Lindisfarne for only 3 years and part of that was spent in solitude.

There are some fundamental structural differences- it is divided into four books each with a table of contents where Bede is all one book. The first three books are relate to his life before the church, his entry into the church and training, and his life as a hermit, and the last book is on his life as a bishop. Place-names mentioned only in the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert (AVC) suggest that Cuthbert’s youth and probably birth was located in Bernicia. He observes Aidan’s soul ascending while tending sheep on the River Leader, a tributary of the Tweed only two miles from Melrose, another episode occurs on the River Trevoit another tributary of the River Tweed, and he later travels past Kunacester (Chester-le-Street). The site on the River Leader probably means that Melrose was the closet monastery to Cuthbert’s family’s lands. In passing the author mentions that Cuthbert spent time in a military camp and was provided for with abundant rations by God. Colgrave believes that Cuthbert was fostered in the hills around Melrose based on the home of his nurse Kenswitha, who raised him from age eight until manhood. His fosterage suggests that his family was of fairly high social status. This fits with his military service and his apparent ease at traveling by horseback (when most Irish trained monks only traveled by foot). Although its possible that a knee injury from childhood may have kept him from walking great distances.

It really doesn’t explain his early movements between monasteries. There is no mention of Boisil or Abbot Eata. Eata is only mentioned as the Bishop of Lindisfarne who calls Cuthbert there. Interestingly, the Vita doesn’t claim that he first entered Melrose and claims that he was first tonsured at Ripon. The author then jumps to Cuthbert at Melrose being called by the widow Abbess Æbbe at Coldingham. The AVC is our source for knowing that Æbbe, sister of King Oswiu, had once been married. The AVC constantly shows Cuthbert traveling about while based from Melrose but there are no scenes actually set in the monastery of Melrose. While at Lindisfarne, the author mentions that Cuthbert sets the rule of life that is observed along side the rule of Benedict that is still used there at the time of writing but then goes on to spend all his time writing about Cuthbert establishing and living as a hermit on Farne.

We reach a pivotal point when Cuthbert prophecies the death of King Ecgfrith and the successful succession of his brother Aldfrith. Although it comes at the end of the third book it is near the middle of the whole work because book four is so much longer than the rest. It just occurred to me that Bede must have learned that Aldfrith was on Iona when Ecgfrith was slain from the Anon Life of Cuthbert. As this text is contemporary with King Aldfrith, who as a highly literate king, could be expected to read and study the AVC. So this piece of information is as secure as we could wish for. Its interesting that the AVC specifically recalls the “fall of members of the royal family” with Ecgfrith in Cuthbert’s prophecy. We should of course expect that many others would fall before the king, but perhaps we have underestimated how many cousins and perhaps nephews who would have been eligible heirs died with Ecgfrith. The peace of Aldfrith was absolutely necessary to give the Northumbrian royal family a generation to recoup.

Book four, the longest by far, is all about his election as bishop and his last two years. It specifically lists Bishop Tumma (Trumwine of Abercorn), King Ecgfrith and Archbishop Theodore in his election. Æthelwald, future Bishop of Lindisfarne appears several times in Book four and we learn that he was close to Cuthbert, serving as his young servant when he was at Melrose. By the time the AVC was written he was prior of Melrose and would be abbot of Melrose when Bede wrote his version.

The AVC has three main themes: 1) that Cuthbert was provided for by God throughout his life, 2) that Cuthbert worked miracles as he traveled doing the business of the monastery and caring for common people, and 3) as a holy hermit.

The Anon. Life of Cuthbert really is a good, perfectly adequate foundational piece of hagiography. Bede will make a few political tweaks. The biggest omission is his life inside of Melrose abbey. This is understandable if the hagiographer was writing to support Lindisfarne as the center of his veneration. Melrose was a distraction and perhaps a rival as an early center for Cuthbert’s veneration. Later when the site was better established as the focus of interest in Cuthbert, Melrose was less of a threat and Boisil being put forward as their primary saint.


3 comments on “The first Life of Cuthbert

  1. Donna Farley says:

    Thanks for this excellent summary of the AVC– I will link here in a post next week.

  2. Swain says:

    I know Lapidge has done this but I don’t think he ever published it, but he talks about it in some of his Cuthbert materials: that is, a table showing the similarities and differences among the lives of Cuthbert, the Anon and Bede’s prose and metrical versions. I have a few Cuthbert projects in hand that I have no time to think about, one of them being a table that compares and contrasts the three in detail. Someday I’ll finish and put it up online prepatory to publication.

    I have a paper that I need to revisit and revise that addresses the question of Eadfrith and what he was doing commissioning two lives in about the span of 20 years.

    • Michelle says:

      I look forward to all your work on Cuthbert Larry. As you’ll see in a future post, I’m looking at them for something specific. I think the verse life is most interesting because it is what led Eadfrith to pick Bede as the second hagiographer. I also wonder about similarities to the Miracles of Nynia (Ninnian) that dates from the early 8th century. I don’t remember if the MIracles of Nynia were written in Latin or Old English but it was written by the English.

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