The Humourous Later Life of St Aethelthryth

So, my attempt to make Arthurian fudge cookies isn’t going so well. When the recipe says ‘refrigerate for an hour’, but your fridge is full, covering the mixture and putting it outside for a while will only be a suitable substitute if you live somewhere where winter is actually COLD.

And on with the later life of St Aethelthryth! If you recall, we left her two weeks ago, newly proffessed as a nun at Coldingham. One week ago, we looked at her image in the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, in which she appears the right holy sourpuss.

After only a year as a nun, Aethelthryth was appointed abbess at Ely, which, if I recall correctly, was a new foundation at the time. Aelfric tells us she was a mother to many nuns- Mecthild Gretsch, in her book ‘Aelfric and the Cult of Saints’, writes as if everyone knew that Ely in Aethelthryth’s day was a double monastery, but how everyone comes by this information I’m not sure. (It could be Aelfric’s use of the term ‘mynstre’, but I don’t know what the word for convent would be if it were a distinct term…) I also read a theory once- and this was back before I had any idea how to spot a crackpot Anglo-Saxon theory when I saw it- that Ely before Aethelwold refounded it was never a ‘real’ monastery, but a house where Aethelthryth and her sisters and their women retired to live chastely (not unlike the ‘nunnan’, not nuns but consecrated widows, a distinction Sarah Foot makes in her several-volume work, ‘Veiled Women’).

Regardless of the formal arrangements at Ely, Aethelthryth continued to be on her best saintly behavior. She fasted, eating only one meal a day, except for feast days; she prayed alone; she wore woollen clothes. She took a bath only on high feast days, and then only after first bathing everyone else in the convent with her own hands.

Eight years on, she grew a ‘swelling’ under her jaw- variously accounted for as a tumour, swollen glands, and a leftover plague buboe. As you do, if you’re a saint, Aethelthryth thanked God for sending her an ‘affliction in her neck’, concluding that it was punishment for having worn necklaces adorning said neck in her youth. ‘And now’, she said, ‘me thinketh that God’s justice may cleanse my guilt, since I now whave this swelling, which shineth instead of gold, and this scorching heat instead of sparkling gems.’ (Trans. in Skeat, which is not, as it turns out, by Skeat, but by Skeat, Gunning and Wilkinson, the two latter ladies having done all the grunt work and Skeat the revision.)

A leech was called to ‘shoot’ the swelling, and shoot it he did, ‘and there came out matter’. In spite of this helpful leech, Aethelthryth ‘gloriously departed to God’ on the third day after his ministrations.

Strangely, dying of a tumour qualifies her for an entry in Bede’s Martyrology- the only Anglo-Saxon saint therein, in fact-, which interesting piece of information I found via Michelle of Heavenfield.

Having carked it, Aethethryth was buried in a wooden coffin and remained quiet for sixteen years. After sixteen years, her sister Sexburh, now abbess, decided Aethelthryth belonged inside the church itself, and ordered the brethren- (ah, that’s where the double monastery thing comes in)- off into the fens to look for a nice big stone to make a sargophagus out of. Off they went, rowing their way to Grantchesteter, where they found a coffin-ready made, standing against a wall, made out of white marble. The brethren nicked off with the coffin, declaring it a miracle. This explanation seems to have been acceptable, and no one asked who the coffin might have belonged to in the first place.

Next stop: the graveyard. They pitched a tent over Aethelthryth’s grave and dug her up, singing hymns all the while. Lo and behold, she lay there as if asleep. The leech who had tended her was there, and gave assurance that she looked exactly as she did the day they buried her, save that the wound he had made was healed, and all her clothes were freshly pressed and laundered. Despite this last fact, Sexburh took out the body, had it bathed and dressed in new clothes, and interred in the church, where, conveniently, the new marble coffin was found to fit her body exactly and to have a hollow in the pillow just the right size for her head. Aethelthryth’s shrine, her first shroud and her first coffin all went on to be mighty potent in the way of healing miracles, and it was generally agreed that between the incorrupt body and the miracles, we had definite proof she had been a lifelong virgin.

Ely Cathedral- which did not exist in Aethelthryth’s day but is neverthless very pretty.

Aelfric doesn’t go into any great detail about Aethelthryth’s posthumous miracles, as he did with St Edmund. Instead, he goes on to a little appendix, beginning ‘In like manner have laymen also, as books tell us, preserved often their chastity in the marriage-state, for the love of Christ’, and proceeding with a short story adapted from the Vita Patrum, about an upstanding citizen who lived with his wife in ‘claenysse’ (chastity, purity, continence- the same word Aelfric uses for the virgin Aethelthryth, but not limited to absolute abstinence), had three kids and then abstained, lived a virtuous life and finally entered a monastery. There have been all kinds of speculations about this appendix- a good summary of which you can find in Peter Jackson (not the director)’s article in Anglo-Saxon England for the year 2000, entitled ‘Aelfric and the purpose of Christian marriage’. Suffice it to say, Aelfric seems to have had nearly as much trouble with Aethelthryth’s obstinate abstinence has he did with Judith, who used her sexual attractiveness to manipulate men. (Aelfric wrote a homily/letter on Judith, which can be found in an eddition by Assman or in an online edition by Lee.) In the case of Judith, he carefully wrote out all hints of sex from the narrative, but it’s not really possible to rewrite Aethelthryth as a good wife and queen, when her whole sanctity rests on her virginity. Instead, throughout the Life Aelfric refers back to Bede and his judgement of Aethelthryth; he also shifts power off Aethelthryth and onto God, as he does with Judith; and finally he appends this example of marital ‘claennysse’ appropriate to the layity. In my humble opinion, it’s the word eac (also) which is crucial here. Laymen also have often preserved their chastity, Aelfric announces, implicitly setting Aethelthryth appart from the laity even though she lived most of her life as a laywoman. Aelfric certainly didn’t like sex much, or want anyone to enjoy it, but he did understand that the laity had to marry and reproduce; if anyone, male of female, was going to neglect their conjugal duties in imitation of Aethelthryth, he, Aelfric, wasn’t going to be responsible for it.

So that’s St Aethelthryth for you. Next week… who knows? Maybe something really odd, like the Seven Sleepers.

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2 Responses to “The Humourous Later Life of St Aethelthryth”

  1. In Which Highly Indulges in Hagio-Tourism « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] forgotten. And then right at the west end of the chapel, but still on the south wall, there is St AEthelthryth, under the name of […]

  2. St Audrey gives you the runs! « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] really like St Audrey/Ethelreda/Æthelthryh. Patron saint of No, let’s not, and with a rather humourous afterlife: she’s absolutely my favourite […]


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