When I was working on my Kalamazoo presentation last spring, I was looking for references to famines or malnutrition. Bede’s History is pretty pitiful in this regard. He only records two famines, one before the arrival of the English and the second when Bishop Wilfrid first came to Sussex. As we will see below, this famine is more than suspect.
“For three years before his coming to the kingdom no rain had fallen in those parts, so that a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them. For example it was said that forty or fifty men, wasted with hunger, would go together to some precipice or to the sea shore where in their misery they would join hands and leap into the sea, perishing wretchedly either by the fall or drowning. But on the very day on which the people received the baptism of the faith, a gentle but ample rain fell; the earth revived, the fields once more became green, and happy and fruitful season followed. So, casting off their ancient superstitions and renouncing idolatry, ‘the heart and flesh of all rejoiced in the living God'; for they realized the He who was the true God had, by His heavenly grace, endowed them with both outward and inward blessings.
The hagiographical tools are hard to miss. A drought induced famine that is only relieved by a gentle ample rain that began on the day of the first baptisms. A three-year drought without a single drop of rain, in coastal Sussex? I find a three-year drought hard to believe anywhere in England. Then there are the very strange ‘suicides’. According to Bede its desperation that drove 40-50 men who hold hands and jump off a cliff into the sea. A single person might be driven to suicide but a whole group of only men? I have to wonder if these were not pagan sacrifices to the sea, perhaps of slaves or prisoners of war who were tied together. The suicide story could have come up when Bishop Wilfrid’s party inquired about bones scattered on the shore.
When the bishop first came to the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds. There were divided into three parts: a hundred were given to the poor, a hundred to those who supplied the nets, while they kept a hundred for their own use. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all and they had the greater hope of heavenly blessings from the preaching of one by whose aid they gained temporal blessings.” (Bede IV.13, McClure and Collins, p. 193-194)
More fishiness in Wilfrid’s net casting. Apparently people in Sussex are happy to believe that Wilfrid taught them to fish (as seen in this church window). So let me get this straight, the rivers are full of fish but all they can catch in nets are these slippery, snake-like eels?
Wilfrid doesn’t bring any new technology or reported techniques. He teaches them how to catch fish with their own eel nets?
Wilfrid’s party may have brought more modern administrative skills and organizing the community into a church owned collective would have improved production. Yet, Wilfrid’s fishing skills appear to be as hagiographic as the drought. It mimics the large fish catches of Jesus in the gospels.
There is good reason why the people of the South Saxons venerated Bishop Wilfrid. For all his abrasive actions with other parts of England, it is very likely that Bishop Wilfrid made lives better in Sussex. At least for some Wilfrid may have been a protector during the worst ravages of King Caedwalla of Wessex in both Sussex and the Isle of Wight. After Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, the West Saxon overlords of Sussex annexed Sussex to the territory of the Bishop of Wessex. After he was gone, the South Saxons could romanticize Wilfrid for bringing them the faith under their last independent kings.