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.


St Audrey gives you the runs!

So, folks, I disappeared from the blogosphere. Again. It happens. It will probably keep happening.

A string of paperclips, and the text 'What do you mean, procrastinate?'Having dispatched all my marking, reorganised my thesis topic, and attempting to buckle down to a solid two and a bit months of writing my goddamn thesis, I am, of course, procrastinating on the internet.

Let me tell you about something I learned while I was in Cairns on the weekend.* I gave myself a break from the actual thesis and spent my lying-about-dying-from-heat time reading the Vie de seinte Audree instead. I really really like St Audrey/Ethelreda/Æthelthryh. Patron saint of No, let’s not, and with a rather humourous afterlife: she’s absolutely my favourite saint.

I was pleased to discover that she is no less entertaining in Anglo-Norman than in Anglo-Saxon. The Vie de seinte Audree is at once fascinating and somewhat badly organised. It keeps repeating itself in odd ways, and the author, Probably-Marie-de-France, has, in her efforts to pull Audrey’s story around to suit 12th-century marital law and theology, ended up contradicting herself in several places.

The story has also got considerably more fun since Ælfric’s day. Audree and her followers get chased across the countryside by her vengeful second husband! And are saved by a divine flood which strands them on top of a mountain without food or water, until Audree miracles up a spring to drink from! I don’t remember that part being in the Old English version, but perhaps I just forgot to put it in my summary.

A bath ducky with the text 'Silly Duck'Also, there’s a story about poo. And because I am secretly five (actually, I don’t think I liked poo jokes at five. Making up for lost time now, obviously!), I am going to tell you this story about poo! I would quote the original, or the translation, at you, but I left them at home so I couldn’t procrastinate with them. You’ll have to suffer through my retelling instead!

St Audrey, or possibly the Devil, gives you the runs!

So, there are monks busy being monastic on the island of Ely, after the establishment of the Benedictine foundation there. One day, one particular monk gets up, runs out of church, and threatens violence upon the refectory table.

Fortunately, one of his fellow monks stands up for the table’s right to continue its existence unmolested. It is concluded that our unexpectedly violent monk has been possessed by the Devil (who clearly has a grudge against furniture). His brothers gather around him, drag him back into the church, and pray to St Audrey for his salvation.

Possessed!monk falls asleep in front of the altar.

When he wakes up, his brothers are standing around, staring at him, waiting to see what the Devil’s going to do next.

Possessed!monk announces that he wishes to empty his bowels. Off he goes into the courtyard outside, and everyone follows him, still wanting to find out if he’s been de-possessed or not.

The poor chap proceeds to fill the courtyard with such spectacularly stinky excrement that everyone understands that he has, in fact, been relieved of demonic possession: St Audrey pushed the Devil down from his stomach, so that he had to come out through the backside!**

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a bout of diarrohea proves that St Audrey is watching over her followers! And also how you get a poo story and a nice religious message all in one go.

A sad face with the text Buggre Alle this for a LarkeI feel for that poor monk, I really do. Everyone staring at you speculating about the devil while you’re trying to have a tummy bug in peace. And I wonder about his “runs out of church, threatens to strike the table” episode – was he running a fever? Hallucinating? Was he actually running out to attend to his tummy bug, and the story’s been expanded in the telling? No way of knowing, of course, but it can’t have been any fun for him.


* I learned many things in Cairns, such as: for the love of glod, don’t go to Cairns in December! And: people who do intensive physical training in Cairns in December are mad! And: how to rollerskate, and more importantly, how to stop rollerskating, and how to fall without getting yourself run over by other rollerskaters. Also: feeding dinner to small children is no task for the weak!

** I am charmed by the term used here in the original: fundament, or possibly fondament, I can’t recall the spelling with any certainty.

Robert Curthose and the chamberpot incident, or, how a dunny can changed history

[personal profile] gominokouhai explains why it is inadvisable to revolt against a man known as both “The Conqueror” and “The Bastard”:

Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror (known as “William the Bastard” before 1066), “instigated his first insurrection against his father” in 1077, aged about 24, when his younger brothers emptied a chamberpot over his head. Apparently they’d grown bored of playing at dice and decided that this would be a go[o]d way to liven up a dull afternoon. Yeah, and you laugh at what Harry gets up to in the tabloids these days.

Angry that William failed to punish his brothers sufficiently, Robert rode forth the next day and attempted to capture the castle at Rouen. Like you do.

The rest of the sad tale of Robert Curthose and the chamberpot incident can be found here.

Also, if anyone’s using Dreamwidth (I am!), the aforementioned [personal profile] gominokouhai made me a DW syndicated feed of the Naked Philologist. Shiny! You can also find me at [personal profile] highlyeccentric instead of my old LJ, if you have any deep investment in watching me babble about Weird Things I Saw on the Internet and Strange Methods of Cleaning Things Which My Housemate and I Have Invented.