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.


I went to Ely to visit St Audrey

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

I lit a candle for her.

Close-up of the statue of St Ethelreda at the east end of Ely CathedralBut I don’t think she could’ve heard me over the din.

View from the transept of Ely cathedral - a christian rock band rehearsingRave in the nave. I kid you not.1

A signboard announcing Rave in the Nave

I have… complicated feelings about my own hagio-tourism. A lot of it’s historical curiosity and artistic appreciation. But then. I was raised in a really protestant environment. I developed a sense of connection to the past, to traditional liturgy and saints at the same time I was losing my faith. The faith’s gone but I still have a sense of connection to, say, St Audrey, one which doesn’t fit with either my upbringing or my current state of atheism. Maybe it’s just that I wrote an essay on her once. I don’t know.

I also don’t know why I’m telling the internet at large this.

Speaking of supernatural encounters on church grounds…

Transept of Ely Cathedral, with TARDIS, Daleks and Cybermen


1. In all fairness, Rave in the Nave seemed like a pretty cool production (it was being rehearsed as I came through). I’m just not sure that there’s any way to hit on more of my religious angst at one time than put up a mass youth event with what looked like a tilt toward the evangelical side, in a church dedicated to St Audrey, on the day I decide to pop in. Wait. I can think of one way, but fortunately, there were no truly vicious atheists around to mock these guys. If you feel like mocking in the comments, keep it gentle, OK? Yes, it’s incongruous and the name is ridiculous, but be gentle, as a favour to me.

A fun story about dead kings!

My favourite kind of story. Over at Heavenfelth, Michele talks about the humble and very much dead King Oswine, who was murdered by King Oswiu after a period of intrigue involving battles that never happened and treasonous retainers. She also talks about the reasons why Bede might have included this story in his history.

What interests me about this story, though, is that Oswiu’s queen, Eanfled, was Oswine’s cousin.  So she demanded weregild from her husband – it was to be paid in the form of the foundation of a monastery at Gilling. Now, as Michelle notes, Oswiu had seriously pissed off the church by killing Oswine, so Eanfled probably had some powerful churchmen backing her demand. But it’s interesting to me that the demand was framed as weregild, not merely as penance; and that a wife could claim weregild from her husband for the death of a cousin. I don’t recall ‘found a monastery’ ever appearing in any of the law codes on weregild that I slogged through, although obviously this is a couple of centuries earlier than said codes. But that still leads me to conclude that this is a very odd social/legal transaction, and all the more interesting for it.

Besides, as Michelle noted in the comments, that means that the monastery of Gilling was founded to pray for both Oswine (murdered) and Oswiu (murderer). There’s a special sense  of narrative coherence to that.

Europe, good grief

Aachen was shiny, as expected. Then we went to Maastricht, to see a bookstore, but it was closed for the day. Most of Maastricht was closed, because we just happened across St Servatius being taken for his seven-yearly jaunt about town.

Nice to see the old boy gets out every now and again.

Still, he interfered with my attempt to buy myself a jar of Speculoospasta, which was mildly annoying. As that site suggests, though, it seems that i can order jars of it directly to my doorstep in Sydney, so I will forgive St Servatius for the inconvenience.

Also, I correctly dated the reliquary as it went past. My supervisor’s lecture on medieval art paid off!

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.

In Which Highly Indulges in Hagio-Tourism

Did you know that St John’s Cathedral Brisbane has all the windows in its south chapel dedicated to founding Anglo-Saxon, Irish and Welsh saints? I didn’t, but now I do and they were very lovely.

I went up to St John’s yesterday on the recommendation of assorted fellow-conference-goers at AEMA. On the Wednesday of the conference, before my flight got in, there had been a trip down to The Cathedral of St Stephen, the Catholic cathedral, for a demonstration and lecture on medieval organ music, which I’m rather sorry I missed. At any rate, St Stephens was declared to be nice, but not up to exacting medievalist standards in architecture, and so an excursion was made on the Thursday, by several attendees, up to St John’s.

Rear view of St Johns from Adelaide St, 1910. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

St John’s is the Anglican (Episcopal, C of E) Cathedral of Brisbane, and will be the last Gothic cathedral ever built. The initial planning began in 1885; the nave was only finished last year, and the final of the three towers is yet to be erected. It is beautiful. I’ve never set foot in a more stunning building- although that just tells you I’ve never been to Europe.

So let’s talk about some of the outstanding features of St Johns. First of all, from the front, it looks a children’s birthday cake. The outer cladding is in shades of grey and pink, and having gone there expecting a neo-gothic marvel, my heart sank a little.

Front view of St Johns before the two front towers were erected. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons- released into the public domain by the photographer. Presumably that is him or his friend in the picture.

Happily, as soon as you step under the west porch, you look up into an intricate web of vaulting, made from sandstone, cut small and fine. WikiCommons has a slightly blurry image of the vaulting in the quire (although actually i think it’s the apse).

Inside, everything is long and thin and delicately curved, as a good gothic cathedral ought to be. The only odd thing about it is that the final bay of the nave- completed only recently- is of noticeably different stone to the rest of it.

The nave of St Johns, looking toward the west door.

I was struck by the overwhelming emphasis on verticality- this photo is taken facing the wrong way, so it doesn’t quite capture the effect. You walk in and your eyes are drawn up before they look along. The ornamentation at the top of the columns is minimal, and the lines are kept clean and vertical on the second tier of arches as well (can someone give me the technical term for that second tier?). Compare, for example, to the interior of Salisbury Cathedral (Below left, courtesy of WikiCommons), an early example of English Gothic:

English Gothic, I am told by Wikipedia and also by a book whose title I have forgotten, is characterised by emphasis on length and horizontality which is equal to or greater than the emphasis on height and verticality.

On the other hand, St Johns has in common with Salisbury a slim light feeling to the columns which the vertically-oriented French cathredals don’t seem to have. St Johns has less clustered columns per actual upright that does Salisbury (only three), but compare to the heavy columns of St Denis (Below, courtesy of WikiCommons):

Where St Johns falls down, in my humble opinion, is in the matter of windows. Look at St Denis here- you can see the light pouring in through these upper windows. Salisbury has the same second teir of arches going on that St Johns does, but you can still see that light floods in from the apse and from the sides. The windows at St Johns are exclusively thin, individual English Lancet Windows. If you look back up at the interior view of the west front, you’ll see that there are just three windows- long, thin, and spaced apart. Compare this to the west facade of York Minster:

(York Minister, courtesy of WikiComons)

York Minster, I presume (having never been there) is completely flooded in the afternoons by light from these windows, which are composed of individual lancet windows combined into one. Now consider Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, which was designed by John Loughborough Pearson, the same architect who designed St Johns Brisbane:

(Truro Cathedral, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

That big rose window, which is typical of French Gothic cathedrals, as well as the four lancet windows on either side of it, would do a wonderful job of lighting the nave.

No one seems to have pictures of apse windows, but logic tells me that if you need electric footlights at the base of the columns in your apse (which St Johns does), or hanging lights in your quire, then there is only one thing to say: Gothic Architecture: UR DOIN IT RONG.


Leaving the architecture alone for a bit, the other reason I went up there was the cushions, about which I heard much praise over Thursday night’s conference dinner. All the pews have cushions on them, each cushion being donated by and dedicated to a different Anglican parish in Australia. When the cushions are properly arranged (and it looks like someone in the congregation enjoys mixing them up), each pew has four cushions which, when placed side by side, form one long machine-embroidered picture. There are some lovely landscapes, and some striking sets depicting Australian water-birds.

(Lady Chapel, St John’s Brisbane, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

In the Lady Chapel on the north side, however, is a set of eight four-cushion depictions of the life of Mary in ‘modern times’. For some reason the medievalists who told me about this were half-cringing, but it’s not like medieval iconography was free of anachronisms, is it? Granted, the sight of Mary and Joseph peering at a parking meter which said ‘no spaces’ made me cringe a little too, but the Madonna and Child depiction is particularly lovely. How many cathedrals have a depiction of the Virgin Mary naked? Not many, I’ll bet. She has not long given birth, and is holding the infant Christ to her breast. The newborn Christ does not mysteriously look nine months old, as many of them do. He’s not quite the wrinkly red alien most newborns are, but he does have the ridiculously oversized head and hair all stuck down to his scalp. And no halos in sight. Joseph is peering over Mary’s shoulder with an expression of mixed concern and confusion, which seems about right for a first-time father.

I do want to know how the heavily pregant Mother of Christ found time- while travelling, too- to shave her legs and underarms and keep her pubic region neatly trimmed, though. I wonder if the cushion designer even thought about how bloody difficult it would be to depilate when nine months pregnant?


And now, as promised, the bit about Anglo-Saxon saints! The south chapel has all its windows dedicated to founding saints / patron saints of important British cathedrals. Along the east wall you will find St Alban, St Augustine, St Oswald (twice. or are there two St Oswalds?), and someone else whose name I have aggravatingly forgotten. On the south wall, there are St Patrick, St Ninian, St David and another Welshman whom I have likewise 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 Etheldreda.

The iconography seems to be heavily based on this image from the Benedictional of St AEthelwold, which I have abused in the interests of icon-making (right), but in much brighter colours. She wears blue, with a blue halo and gold crown; her neck-coverings are white; she carries something green and leafy in her left hand, as in the Benedictional, and but the book in her other hand is red and is accompanied by another long piece of foliage topped by what looks like it might be white Australian flannel flowers, but could as well be any other white flower for all I know about botany. There’s a red, green and blue background behind her, and a red ribbon with the words ‘Ely Cathedral’ in gold (as with one of the St Oswalds and the other bloke whose name I’ve forgotten, who were accompanied by their cathedral titles. I wonder if they were all cathedrals associated with the Benedictine reform?). I have a feeling I’ve seen another window or picture somewhere which is closer to this than is the Benedictional, but google images isn’t turning up anything helpful.

Furthermore, to my great delight, as I was buying postcards, the lady in the shop told me their Etheldreda postcard (the only postcard with a saint’s window shown on it) was the most popular card :D.


To finish up, and speaking of postcards: having tacked three to my wall and put aside various ones for friends, I have two left over. First two people to comment and then send an email to nakedphilologist AT gmail DOT com with their postal address can have a postcard from the last gothic cathedral ever to be built! One is of the apse and the high altar, and one is a view of the Genesis Window from the side, under an arch.

The High Altar, St John’s Brisbane. (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.) Note the slim three-part colums, and bemoan the fact that down in the ambulatory, there are footlights lighting up the base of each column from the rear.

And the moral of today’s lecture is: when in Australia, visit St John’s Brisbane :D.

Dear Google

Just to be clear on this:

none of AElric’s Saint’s Lives deal with Homosexual saints. Most of AElfric’s saints are stridently celibate, so at best you could call them anti-sexual. I doubt AElfric had any idea about ‘Homosexuality’ as an umbrella identity, although he certainly knew some people commited acts of Sodomy. Just not his saints.

We here at Helpful Industries suggest you look elsewhere for legends about homosexual saints (I believe you will find relevant, more recent, accretions to ledgends like that of St Sebastian).