|London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 83r. Image: British Library.|
Take the activities of Alfred Westou, an eleventh-century sacristan of the church in Durham. The monastic community of Lindisfarne had relocated to Durham in 995, bringing with them the coffin of their beloved saint, Cuthbert, and the reputedly incorrupt body inside.
The main sources for stories about Alfred are the late eleventh-century writings of Symeon of Durham and the twelfth-century Libellus of Reginald of Durham, both of whom, like many others, had a weakness for highly improbable miracle stories about Cuthbert, so it’s up to you how much you want to believe. Alfred seems to have taken very seriously his duties as the guardian of Cuthbert’s body: according to Reginald, he regularly opened the coffin in order to trim the dead saint’s hair and fingernails. When Alfred neglected to close the lid properly before leaving on a trip, Reginald says, a pregnant weasel got into the coffin and had a litter at the corpse’s feet, so that the annoyed Cuthbert somehow called the sacristan back to Durham to deal with the nuisance. Not even a dead saint likes to have baby weasels chewing on his toes. Cuthbert does not seem to have objected, however, to Alfred taking some of his hair trimmings and showing his friends that, when put into fire, the hair turned to gold.
This little barber-trick by Alfred is in keeping with another of his enthusiasms, which was to acquire (or, more bluntly, to steal) relics from other institutions and bring them back to Durham. His usual practice was to have a vision in which a saint buried in another location would plead with him to exhume his or her remains to be properly venerated, after which Alfred would travel to that location in obedience to the vision, and then translate those bones, or as many of them as he could get away with, to Durham. In this way he reportedly acquired for Durham the bones of hermits Balther and Billfrith, bishops Acca and Alchmund, king Oswin, abbesses Ebba and Ethelgitha, Cuthbert’s mentor St Boisil, and, most triumphantly, the bones of the Venerable Bede. Symeon suggests that Alfred was quite coy about how he managed this last feat of pious banditry, so his methods must have been rather shady; Bede’s bones would have been especially valued and it is doubtful that Alfred asked the permission of the monks of Jarrow.
Whatever one thinks of these stories about the haircuts and the weasel, it is a fact that, when Cuthbert’s coffin was excavated in the nineteenth century, a large number of miscellaneous human bones were discovered along with the coffin fragments. These were most probably taken from surrounding reliquaries and put into the receptacle containing Cuthbert’s coffin when the shrine of Cuthbert was dismantled at the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. From a very early date, however, even before Alfred’s relic-collecting, the head of St Oswald and the bones of some other Lindisfarne bishops had probably already been placed in the Anglo-Saxon coffin, possibly for ease of transport when the monks of Lindisfarne were fleeing the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries.
the St Cuthbert Gospel was deliberately placed where it would be surrounded by the remains of dead peopleSometime in the Middle Ages, probably at the translation ceremony when Cuthbert’s remains were installed in the new cathedral in Durham in 1104, the St Cuthbert Gospel was taken out of the coffin and kept separately as a relic of the saint. After the Dissolution it made its way to the collection of a Jesuit school, Stonyhurst College, from which the British Library purchased it in 2012. So the book has been separated from its bony company for a long time, most likely since the sixteenth century. Yet, for a much longer time, the St Cuthbert Gospel was deliberately placed where it would be surrounded by the remains of dead people. Perhaps this is appropriate, given that the only direct evidence for how it was used before it was buried with Cuthbert are four late seventh-century annotations in its margins, indicating passages to be read during offices for the dead.
|London, British Library MS Additional 89000, fol. 20v. Image: British Library.|
References and Further Reading
Battiscombe, C. F. , ed. The Relics of Saint Cuthbert. Oxford: Oxford UP for the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1956. Battiscombe on Alfred Westou is entertaining: ‘Relic stealing was a popular pastime among clerics of the Middle Ages and the profession of holy burglary was a quite respectable profession’ (40).
Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, ed. St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge: Boydell P, 1989.
Brown, T. Julian, ed. The Stonyhurst Gospel of Saint John. Oxford: Roxburghe Club, 1969.
Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1940. Rpt. New York: Greenwood P, 1969.
Cronyn, J. M., and C. V. Horie. St Cuthbert’s Coffin. Durham: Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1985.
Marner, Dominic. St Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.
Meehan, Bernard. ‘Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090–c.1128).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25556, accessed 19 Aug 2014.]
Raine, James. Saint Cuthbert. Durham: George Andrews, 1828.
Story, Joanna, and Richard N. Bailey. ‘The Skull of Bede.’ Antiquaries Journal 95 (2015): 325-350. Story and Bailey note that, although Symeon’s story of Alfred stealing Bede’s bones might be scandalous, it is also probable.