Fun with St Ethelreda: some thoughts on the Wilton Life

Toward the end of semester, it was determined that Middle English Reading Group should make forays out of the well-trodden path of romance and into the exciting world of hagiography. Predictably, for any group with me at the head, we began with the Wilton Life of St Ethelreda.

Flagstone in Ely cathedral - here stood the shrine of St Ethelreda

What to say about the Wilton Life? Well, as our most august group member informed us all, it is not a patch on Ælfric’s version, or even Bede’s. It’s also not nearly as much fun as the Anglo-Norman Vie Seinte Audree. But, at least to me, that doesn’t make it entirely unremarkable.

I was immediately enamoured of the composer’s dialect: not terribly difficult to read, but sort of charming. The text is early 15th century, apparently composed at Wilton itself. The scribe and/or author has used he interchangably for ‘he’ and ‘she’ – I assume that’s what happens when you haven’t quite abandoned the Old English heo nor yet caught onto this nifty she term – which made it quite an adventure at times to figure out who was talking about what. I like that the editor, Mary Dockray-Miller, didn’t clean that up, although I take issue with some of her translation choices.*

As an example, consider this description of the fate of King Colwolf (Ceowulf), who by þe Danys was put ouȝt and dedde. (Deposed and killed, according to the translation.) I just like that description. Put out and dead-ed. Straight to the point, and rhyming with redde, two lines above.

Something I like about both this Life and the Anglo-Norman Vie is their interest in recounting Anglo-Saxon history, in making sure we know both from what family Ethelreda is descended, and what the political circumstances were like at the time. I confess I can’t remember if Ælfric’s Life does the same, and obviously Bede’s account is embedded in his Historia Ecclesiastica (and I now have a list of other Lives of Audrey which I have yet to read), but bear with me here.

It seems to be a thing, that lives of Ethelreda have to go with a historical and geographical description of England – and the Wilton author certainly doesn’t have the same source as the Anglo-Norman author.  Dockray-Miller tells us that the Wilton author’s geographical and historical information comes from John Treviea’s English translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, which wasn’t even written at the time that possibly-Marie-de-France composed the Anglo-Norman version; June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban tell us that the Anglo-Norman author abbreviated her genealogical information from ‘her source’, which I think but am not quite certain, because their introduction isn’t quite clear, is probably the Liber Eliensis or something like it.

The Anglo-Norman focuses on Audrey’s relatives, with minimal extra political detail, but gives thorough coverage of the religious careers of her female relatives. The Wilton life is fascinated with geography, describing each of the seven kingdom’s of Anglo-Saxon England, where its borders lie, something about its founding, and its political history, before zoning in on East Anglia. Both texts make a link between St Edmund and St Ethelreda, interestingly – the Wilton version privileges him in its overall history of East Anglia before telling us that it was in East Anglia that Ethelreda was born; the Anglo-Norman Vie tells of several co-operative posthumous miracles performed by the two saints.

Medieval - a woman readingBy and large the geographical descriptions in the Wilton life are straightforward, but can anyone clear this one up for me:

Þe kyndam of Northumbrelondys þe sixste kyndam was,

þe which upon þe Est syde and also upon þe west syde had þe sowthe se.

The kingdom of Northumberland was the sixth kingdom, that which had upon the East side and also upon the West side the south sea.

The south sea. On the east and the west of Northumberland. BECAUSE THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. Anyone happen to be secretly an expert in Middle English geography and want to clear that up for me?


* One, replacing the Middle English names for all the characters with their Anglo-Saxon equivalents; two, being apparently unable to distinguish between thyncan and thencan, and thereby rendering many seeming-processes as thinking-processes. I JUST CARE A LOT ABOUT THOSE TWO VERBS, OK.


One Response to “Fun with St Ethelreda: some thoughts on the Wilton Life”

  1. historienerrant Says:

    If I’m not mistaken, „the south sea“ was the medieval name for the sea along the south coast of England (i.e. what we’d call the English Channel today). So my guess would be that on that basis the writer simply (and mistakenly) figured the name could be applied to “the sea around England in general”.

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