Cuthbert’s early career and social standing

I’ve been reading the Lives of Cuthbert tonight and a few things strike me. It occurs to me that Cuthbert’s career was on track to become a bishop from the day he arrived at Melrose because of his high social standing. Cuthbert was coming to Melrose at a time when men of high social standing didn’t consider the church for a career so that set him out from the others from the beginning. We know that Aidan took his first English disciples from orphans and slave boys. Yet Cuthbert leaves his horse and spear at the gate of Melrose, and we know from the Anon. Life that he had a foster mother who lived near Melrose. Cuthbert was of high enough social standing to be fostered, and trained as a warrior. Bede makes clear that Cuthbert is trading secular warfare for spiritual warfare, a necessary equation for someone of high social status.

The timing of Cuthbert’s tonsure is one of the conflicts between Bede’s life and the Anon. Life. Bede simply states in the same chapter that narrates Cuthbert’s entry into Melrose that Boisil asked for permission from Abbot Eata for him to be tonsured. The implication is that be was tonsured at Melrose. The Anon. Life claims that he was tonsured at Ripon, Abbot Eata’s ill-fated second monastic foundation in Deira that he was forced to hand over to Wilfrid. The Anon. Life exaggerates claiming not only that he was tonsured at Ripon but that he always had the Roman tonsure, which he would not have had before the Synod of Whitby. Most young monks were at their monastery for quite a while before accepting the tonsure so it seems unlikely that he got it as quickly as Bede suggests, though it was certainly an Irish style tonsure even if given at Ripon. However, it is possible that he was tonsured just before leaving with Abbot Eata for their new venture at Ripon.

Both lives agree that Cuthbert was a neophyte when he was unusually given the task as guest-master at Ripon, a very important job. It occurs to me that Cuthbert may have been given this job because of his high social status. If he did attend at least one war camp as the Anon Life claims, then its quite possible that he was known to the royal brothers Alhfrith and Ecgfrith. As someone raised in the upper levels of Bernician society, he would have understood how to treat VIPs visiting Ripon. Soon after Boisil’s death he appears to become prior at Melrose and/or Lindisfarne, quick promotions.

His social status could have also put on him on the fast track for leadership in the church. Boisil may have been so excited by such an unusual, high-status (but not royal) recruit that he predicted that he would be a bishop. In Ireland it was not uncommon for high status young men to join the church, but when Cuthbert joined in the mid 650s it would have been very unusual for English men who did not need the protection of the church. We only know of a couple other high status men to enter the church in this period: Aldhelm, Aldfrith, Ceolfrith and his cousins. Aldhelm was one of many nephews of the childless King Cynegils. Given the ruthless politics of succession in Wessex, he may have been seeking protection in the church. Aldfrith was a bastard who may have never been tonsured, and Ceolfrith, his brother and his cousins were kin of slain King Oswine, a dynasty that the Æthelfrithings were determined to end. To some extent they may have all been seeking some protection in the church. If Cuthbert had no political strings to hold him back or give him enemies from the beginning, he could have indeed been prime episcopal material. Given his desires to get away from the life of a warrior/noble, he may indeed have resisted leadership in the church from an early period as well.

Reference: Bertram Colgrave, trans. (1940/2007) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.

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2 comments on “Cuthbert’s early career and social standing

  1. Donna Farley says:

    Thanks for this great post– linking here.

    I was always fascinated by the story of young Cuthbert being rebuked by the smaller boy for his part in rough and tumble games with other boys. The story demonstrates Cuthbert’s athleticism, but as he seems to have been the ringleader, it also shows his leadership qualities. The denunciation of this behaviour as unfit for a future bishop seems to refer to some sort of show-offy tumbling antics, but I have wondered if there might not also have been some sort of aggressive war game going on amongst the boys– another instance of the contrast between secular and spiritual warfare you mention.

  2. […] Michelle of Heavenfield provides a very intriguing post about St. Cuthbert’s early career and social standing. […]

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