Northern Lights 2019 – Conference Report

Our project conference “Northern Lights: Late Medieval Devotion to Saints from the North of England” was held at the University of Lausanne between 28 and 30 March. We welcomed around 40 delegates from across the UK, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, the US, and Japan.

The four cornerstones of the event were the exceptional plenaries on topics as diverse as ‘Northernness as a Hermeneutic’ (Julian Luxford, University of St Andrews – Art History); ‘Praying to Northern Saints’ (Cynthia Turner Camp, University of Georgia – English Literature); ‘The Reception of St Oswine in Late Medieval England’ (James Clark, University of Exeter – History); and ‘Hermit Saints and Human Temporalities’ (Catherine Sanok, Universtiy of Michigan – English Literature). There were also interdisciplinary sessions on female sanctity, Cumbrian hagiography, reading, translation, and materiality, alongside sessions dedicated to particular northern English saints, including Richard Rolle, Aelred of Rievaulx, and Robert of Knaresborough.

Such a broad array of investigative avenues can hardly be summarised here, but emergent themes from the conference include questions around the definition of ‘the north of England’ (traditionally thought of along a north-south axis), as well as questions about the centrality of St Cuthbert. The interdisciplinarity of the event highlighted that when analysing northern English saints’ cults according to the poles of region and nation, this must be done with recognition of the fact that different types of evidence (literary, liturgical, material, etc.) may yield conflicting results, complicating any one picture of region, nation, and northern sanctity in the late medieval devotional landscape.

Light relief was provided, however, by way of a varied programme of cultural and historical events. On the first evening, delegates were treated to a drama workshop on the play of St John of Beverley (run by Professor Elisabeth Dutton, University of Fribourg). This interactive session introduced most of us to the play for the first time, and many were surprised to find the script littered with hairy hermits, unspeakable crimes, and resurrected sisters – a drama far removed from the saintly life-story of the 8th-century Northumbrian bishop who stars in the play’s title.

Delegates were also given the opportunity to explore the cathedrals of Durham and Canterbury, and Hexham Abbey, thanks to a 3-D digital model demonstration by John Jenkins (University of York) who showcased the fruits of a digital humanities project based at York’s Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture. Our Saturday excursion to the medieval Abbey of St Maurice was followed by a scenic and convivial wine-tasting in the vineyards of the Domaine Croix Duplex in Grandvaux, while our fondue evening in Lausanne’s historic Pinte Besson rounded off what proved to be a most friendly and fruitful international meeting.

Brepols have expressed interest in an edited collection arising from the conference, which the FNS project team is planning to publish in 2020/21. Conference tweets can be found under the #Lights19 hashtag.

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CfP: Medieval English Theatre Conference, Friday 12 – Saturday 13 April 2019

Medieval English Theatre Conference, Friday 12th – Saturday 13th April 2019
University of Fribourg, Switzerland

People and Places: Networks, Communities, and Early Theatre

Theatre is inevitably collaborative, as actors, with the help of designers and creators of costumes, props, sets, present script-writers’ words to a generally willing and cooperative audience. In order to understand Early Theatre, it is often necessary to consider very particular types of collaboration, seeing plays as the distinctive products of specific communities, considering the importance of specific performance sites to a play’s interpretation, exploring the significance of certain social groups or networks — religious, professional, academic — as creators and audiences of individual productions. This kind of understanding will inevitably draw together a range of evidence in a scholarly enterprise that is often also highly collaborative: historical fact drawn from the archives; literary insight drawn from textual analysis; information about material circumstances drawn from practical performance research. For forty years, the conferences of Medieval English Theatre have offered an opportunity for intellectual collaboration, and the journal has presented some of the best scholarship that has resulted from the vibrant intellectual network that is METh. At this celebratory conference, honouring the first 40 years of METh, we invite papers that explore examples of early theatre as site-specific, or as the products of particular networks or communities, medieval or post-medieval.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

• Multiple hands in play manuscripts
• The influence of patrons on plays, whether individuals or groups such as guilds
• Adaptation of plays for a particular historical performance or location
• Adaptation of performance texts for print
• Transmission of play texts through networks of religious orders
• Confessional adaptation of plays at the Reformation
• Critical reflections on early plays translated e.g. The South African Mysteries
• Critical reflections on post-medieval adaptations e.g. Duffy’s Everyman

Please submit your proposals for 20 minute papers, by 1 December 2018, to

On the day before the conference (Thursday) there will be a Postgraduate and Early Career Symposium organised with the Early English Drama & Performance Network.

This is a special celebration METh conference, in honour of the organisation’s 40th anniversary, and is therefore longer than the traditional one-day conference. We encourage conference attendees to consider arriving in time to join the EEDPN delegates for dinner on the evening of 11 April; METh attendees might also wish to consider staying in Fribourg until 14 April to witness the Palm Sunday procession in town, and other local medieval and theatrical delights. We understand that a longer stay in Switzerland will add to costs for delegates; flying mid-week is, however, usually cheaper and booking early also ensures reasonable fares. Easyjet, Swiss, and British Airways offer good low-costs fares if booked well in advance: Fribourg is easily accessible from Geneva, Zurich and Basel airports. Food and accommodation are both expensive in Switzerland, but we are all set to help! We have sponsorship to keep registration fees low (these include lunches and coffees); we hope to offer some graduate bursaries; we are happy to help with finding
affordable accommodation options.

Further details and registration information will be posted at

Snakestones and Sanctity: the Medieval Origins of the Cult of St Hilda of Whitby

Guest-blogger Christiane Kroebel, who is an independent researcher and volunteer curator at Whitby Museum, reflects on the origins and development of St Hilda’s cult from the middle ages to the present day.

The 1338th anniversary of St Hilda’s death, or the date of her birth in heaven, is coming up shortly on 17 November. The life of this English woman who stood up to pressure from Wilfrid to conform to Roman practices, specifically the dating of Easter and the tonsure, continues to generate a sense of pride in the present-day north. To try to understand why there is this perception of a Celtic versus Roman divide, I started a search for the saint from the twenty-first century back to the Middle Ages and for Hilda as a person from the seventh century forward.

A woman of strong character

St Aidan visits St Hilda, Gloucester Cathedral.

The person who emerges from the pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is of a woman of strong character and principles. Although she was portrayed by Bede and Wilfrid’s biographer, Eddius Stephanus, as opposing the Roman dating of Easter and tonsure (correct in their view), and standing with the Irish clergy against the Romans, it should be remembered that Hilda had been baptised by Paulinus, the monk from Rome sent by Pope Gregory in 601. Paulinus also instructed her in Christian practices until she was probably 19 years old, i.e. until 633, when he returned to Kent after King Edwin’s death.

Hilda, a great-niece of Edwin, re-emerges in Bede’s narrative at the age of 33, when Aidan persuaded her to leave the South of England and return home to found a small monastery on the north side of the River Wear. The following year, she became abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool, and eight years later, in 657, she founded the double monastery at Streanæshealh (Whitby).

The ruins of Whitby Abbey church from Lionel Charlton’s History of Whitby (1779)

It was usual in the seventh century, for women from royal families to head double houses (foundations for both nuns and monks). At Whitby, Hilda established the same rule as at Hartlepool and the Wear, teaching the virtues of justice, devotion, chastity, and the necessity of living in peace and charity. There was to be no private property: everything was held in common. In Bede’s words, ‘so great was her prudence that not only ordinary people but also kings and princes sometimes sought and received her counsel when in difficulties’ (HE iv.23).

Relief of St Hilda on Caedmon’s Cross (Victorian) at Whitby.

Hilda is likely to have founded a minimum of two schools at Whitby. One was for those wishing to study scripture; here many became priests, and six were promoted to bishoprics. The other was for novices who were educated in a remote part of the monastery. She died in 680 at the age of 66, after 23 years at Whitby, and was succeeded by another abbess from the Northumbrian royal family, Aelfflæd. It is to Aelfflæd and her mother Eanflæd, Edwin’s daughter and King Oswiu’s wife, that we should look to for the first commemorations and then memorialisation of Hilda’s life.

Northumbria’s ‘golden age’

Aelfflæd’s tenure at Whitby, until 714, coincided with Northumbria’s golden age, the time of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus, the various Lives of Cuthbert, Wilfrid, and Pope Gregory, and Bede’s earliest works on scripture. No Life of Hilda has survived but there are indications in the ninth-century Old English Martyrology that one existed then.

Fast-forward to 2015 when I started my search for the origin of the myths associated with St Hilda: the story in which she forces the snakes at Whitby over the cliff and turns them to stone so that they become ammonites, and the story in which she banishes geese from flying over the abbey because they have eaten all the community’s corn.

‘Snakestones’ from the Whitby Museum collection

These two stories are repeated in all the popular books about Hilda but without any attribution to original sources. Three years later, I know that Hilda’s myths were included in Richard Pynson’s 1516 printing of The Kalendre of the Newe Legende of Englande in Middle English, and in Wynken de Worde’s Nova Legenda Anglie, a 1516 edition of John of Tynemouth’s fourteenth-century Sanctilogium. A fifteenth-century Latin manuscript in Durham University library additionally takes the ammonite tale back into the late medieval period.[1]

A nineteenth-century revival

Along the way, I got side-tracked by the nineteenth-century revival of church dedications to St Hilda, mostly in the North and appropriately, the dedication of two colleges to her: one in Oxford for women students, the other a women’s teacher-training college in Durham. It was not easy to find an answer to why there was renewed interest in Hilda at this time, but the medieval period and especially the early medieval seemed to have been coloured with a romantic hue in the public imagination.

South building of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

For historians, this became a search for the values of people in the past, which took me straight back to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarians and their Italian humanist inheritance. There is no doubt that we owe these English antiquarians a huge debt for collecting and saving the medieval documentary heritage, which enables us to research and discuss people like St Hilda, and those who became interested in her after her death.

St Hilda’s Well with view of St Hilda’s church, Hinderwell (Yorks.).

Back in the medieval period, my search took me to look for churches with medieval dedications as well as references to Hilda in church calendars and liturgies. The story of why a former soldier in William the Conqueror’s army (the Evesham monk Reinfrid) wanted to re-found a monastery in Whitby is so well-known that it does not need repeating, but some credit should be given to the Abbot of Evesham for supporting Reinfrid’s quest.

The story highlights that southern English monasteries knew their history, probably from the pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and valued their past. Credit is due also to William Percy, who gave Reinfrid some land on the site of Hilda’s monastery. Reinfrid was a hermit at heart, but his devotion attracted a following and, by the end of the eleventh century, after Reinfrid’s death, the Percy family asserted their interests and William Percy’s brother Serlo became prior, followed by a nephew, who became abbot in the first decade of the twelfth century.

Mysterious origins

The question of whether church dedications reflect the post-Conquest revival of interest in St Hilda or had their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period cannot be answered with certainty. The archaeology can tell us much about the early origins of church buildings, but dedications in the documentary evidence are late. References in calendars and liturgies are also late, mostly dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Whether this is a reflection of the survival of sources or of the spread of the cult is difficult to know.

When the two myths came to be added to St Hilda’s life is a mystery; although both are appropriate, neither is unique to Hilda. It is easy to imagine the ammonites as fossilised snakes, while nearby Scaling Dam is a greylag and Canada geese winter breeding site today – and it’s true that they don’t seem to fly over Whitby to get there!

Christiane Kroebel
Independent researcher and Whitby Museum volunteer curator for the Abbey collection

[1] A. I. Doyle, ‘A Miracle of St Hilda in a Migrating Manuscript’, in Crossing Boundaries, ed. by Eric Cambridge and Jane Hawkes (Oxford: Oxbow, 2017), pp. 243-47.

St Robert’s Day! Searching for Knaresborough’s Holy Hermit in the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts

On the 800th anniversary of his death, Hazel Blair discusses some key manuscript sources for St Robert’s life and cult, all of which are held in the British Library in London.

St Robert of Knaresborough was a medieval hermit from Yorkshire, famed for his asceticism, miracles, and inexhaustible care the poor. His name is less well known today, although his tiny cave-chapel in Knaresborough remains a popular tourist attraction. Complementing the archaeological and artistic evidence for his life and cult, however, there is a wealth of literary material relating to the saint among the treasures of the British Library manuscripts collection.

The Lanercost Chronicle (BL Cotton MS Claudius D VII) says Robert died on the 24th of September 1218, and – according to chronicler Matthew Paris (Historia Anglorum, BL Royal MS 14 C VII) – he worked tomb-based miracles of such renown that he was counted alongside the likes of St Hildegard of Bingen as one of the most noteworthy saints of the first half of the 13th century.

‘St Robert the hermit at Knaresborough’ (lines 3-4) listed among other notable saints from England and Europe in Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum. Image: © British Library Board, Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 150r (cropped).

According to his legend, Robert was born in York and showed signs of holiness from a young age. He first tried out life in the church, but this young man’s Christian faith was so strong that he felt he had to strike out on his own – establishing himself as a religious hermit on the outskirts of the old West Riding town of Knaresborough. Robert lived there as an ascetic, abstaining from worldly pleasure and inflicting pain on himself in order to express his devotion to God. He eventually moved into a cave on the northern bank of the River Nidd, to which his brother attached a small private chapel to aid him in his devotions.

Robert gained a reputation for helping poor folk, offering them food and shelter. He was also a noted miracle worker who healed broken bones and exerted supernatural control over the deer who ravaged his crops. He even vanquished a series of demons who were determined to torment him, and his holy reputation was such that he caught the attention of King John, who sought him out and granted him land and alms to be distributed among the needy.

St Robert’s Cave (and foundations of the attached chapel). Image: Hazel Blair

Robert foresaw his own death and warned that Cistercian monks from the nearby abbey of Fountains would try to steal his corpse to inter it in their monastery. He told his followers that these monks should be resisted, and so, when the time came, the Cistercians were met by an armed force of men from Knaresborough Castle. The monks left empty-handed, and Robert was buried in the chapel by his cave, his funeral attended by men and women from all strata of society. As a talented miracle-worker, he effected a wide range of posthumous healings at his tomb: the blind were restored their sight, lepers were cured, and some people were even resurrected.

In addition to the fleeting references to Robert that may be found in the chronicles cited above, this hermit’s life story is preserved in much greater detail in BL Harley MS 3775. This late medieval manuscript, likely compiled at the Benedictine abbey of St Albans, contains an earlier Latin prose account of Robert’s life, attributed to someone called Richard Stodley. The text, which may be Cistercian in origin, focuses on Robert’s virtues as an ascetic hermit.

Prologue to Vita Sancti Roberti Heremiti [The Life of St Robert the Hermit]. Image: © British Library Board, Harley MS 3775, f. 74r.

Unfortunately the second part of the text is missing and the narrative cuts off half way through. Three complete versions of Robert’s life story, however, may be found in BL Egerton MS 3143, which is by far the largest collection of medieval texts celebrating Robert’s sanctity. This 15th-century bilingual manuscript is home to Latin prose, Latin verse, and Middle English verse versions of his legend. The latter text displays literary features more commonly associated with the medieval genre of romance and favourably contrasts Robert with mythic literary figures such as ‘Arthure, Ector, and Achilles’, whom the author deems vain by comparison.

Prologue to the Middle English version of Robert’s legend. Image: © British Library Board, Egerton MS 3143, f. 39v.

This manuscript links its lives of Robert to two verse histories narrating the foundation of the Order of the Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives. The Trinitarians were founded in France in 1198 to ransom Christians held captive during the Crusades, and their network of houses included a priory dedicated to St Robert in Knaresborough, established c. 1252. The Knaresborough Trinitarians managed Robert’s shrine from the mid-13th to 15th centuries, and the combination of literary material in Egerton 3143 suggests the manuscript was compiled at their priory towards the end of the medieval period.

The histories and hagiographies in Egerton 3143 were edited by Joyce Bazire for the Early English Text Society in 1953, but the manuscript also contains a collection of unedited prayers directed towards St Robert that are currently accessible only in manuscript form. This unedited material is explored more fully in my PhD thesis and deserves far more attention than I can give it in a single blog post. So let me finish by highlighting the most eye-catching of these forgotten prayer texts, a Latin prayer with a distinctive alliterative pattern:

Unedited alliterative prayer dedicated to St Robert. Image: © British Library Board, Egerton MS 3143, f. 14r (cropped).

Down the left-hand side, you might notice that the first letters of each stanza (almost) spell out ‘Robert’. I say ‘almost’, because although Robert’s name is cryptically embedded within this prayer, it is not your average acrostic. Rather, the first paragraph of the prayer uses lots of R-words, the second lots of O-words, and so on, so that each stanza’s internal alliteration directs attention towards each of the letters in ‘Robert’. In effect, it asks readers and listeners to pause and meditate on Robert’s name and everything holy that it was deemed to represent.

BL Egerton MS 3143, with its intertwined and closely interlinked historical, hagiographic, and liturgical texts in Latin and Middle English, is a rare survival from the medieval period. Not only does it serve as evidence for the medieval cult of St Robert and its development into the later middle ages, but it also offers a unique window onto the history of the English Trinitarians.

Hazel Blair
Doctoral Researcher

The contents and contexts of the manuscripts cited here (and BL Egerton MS 3143, in particular) are the subject of Hazel Blair’s PhD thesis, which is being supervised at the University of Lausanne by Professor Denis Renevey and Professor Christiania Whitehead. The thesis, due for completion in 2020, is titled ‘The Cult of St Robert of Knaresborough and the Trinitarian Order in Medieval England’. It is being funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the research project ‘Region and Nation in Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints’. Hazel holds an MA (Hons) in Medieval History from the University of St Andrews and an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from University College London. Tweet her at @MediaevalScribe (that’s ‘mediaeval’ with an ‘a’!).

The Language of the Medieval North of England

Guest blogger and UNIL doctoral researcher Tino Oudesluijs discusses northern English language in the pre-modern period.

The north of England is not only known for its high number of celebrated Anglo-Saxon saints such as Cuthbert, Oswald, and Wilfrid of York – to whom devotional practices persisted in later medieval England – but also for its distinct language varieties compared to other parts of England throughout history. To this day, ‘northern’ speech in England is heavily marked, most notably due to the presence of various well-known distinct dialects and accents such as Geordie in Newcastle, Scouse in Liverpool, Mackem in Sunderland, and Mancunian in Manchester. This is much less the case for writing, however, seeing as everyone is nowadays schooled in using the standard variety (social media can a notable present-day exception to this).

The Angel of the North speaks to northern England’s continued existence as one constituent ‘part’ of England, something that is also reflected in the region’s various distinctively ‘northern’ dialects.

Before the widespread diffusion and implementation of what would eventually become written Standard English (i.e. during the medieval and early modern period), however, northern English dialects comprised many differences from other varieties in writing as well, most notably on the levels of orthography, morphology, and syntax. Such differences attested in writing in turn give us some indication as to how people in the north of England spoke.

Moreover, when considering comments by various well-known writers on how people from the north sounded different from southerners, it becomes clear that people from the north of England have, throughout history, used the English language differently from those living elsewhere (most notably in the south). For example, Chaucer imitated northern speech for comedic effect in The Reeve’s Tale, and John of Trevisa, in his translation and ‘elaboration’ of Ranulph Higden of Chester’s Latin Polychronicon, wrote:

Alle the langages of the northumbres & specially at york is so sharp slitting frotyng & vnshappe/ that we sothern men may vnneth vnderstande that langage/ I suppose the cause be that they be nygh to the aliens that speke strangely/ And also by cause that the kyngis of englond abyde and duelle more in the south contrey than in ye north contre/ is by cause that ther is better corn londe more peple/ moo noble Citees/ & moo prouffytable hauenes in the south contrey than in the north.

William Caxton even consciously translated the Aeneid (Eynedos) into the local London-based variety of English, since “this booke is not for euery rude and vnconnynge man to see / but to clerkys and very gentylmen that vnderstande gentylnes and science.”

A bit of historical context

Map of England and its regions c. 878. Image: Hel-Hama/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The reasons for many of the linguistic differences between the north and south of England throughout history predominantly lie in England’s complex social and political history, most notably in the contact with Old Norse during the time of the Danelaw (c. 865-950 AD). After Danish assaults on the East coast of Britain had started around 800 AD, the Scandinavian raiders started to settle more permanently around 865 in what is now most of east and north England. Over the course of the following decades, the Danish settlers had gained control over some of the largest kingdoms in Britain, including East Anglia and a large part of Northumbria (including York), leaving Wessex and Mercia as the most prominent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with whom various peace treaties were both brokered and broken in the decades following the 860s.

The arrival of the Scandinavians in the east and north of England had come after a time in which the north of Britain had flourished, both politically and culturally. After the Romans had left Britain in the 5th century AD, Irish monks such as St. Columba and St. Aidan travelled to the north of England and founded many monasteries, in this case the abbey of Iona in 563 AD and the monastery of Lindisfarne in 634 AD, respectively. This development not only established the north of England as an important religious centre in the early medieval period, it also meant that it became an important region for the production of written texts. The oldest surviving Old English text, Caedmon’s Hymn (most likely from between 658-680 AD), is indicative of this.

As such, in the Old English period the north provided England not only with poets such as Caedmon, but also with historians such as St. Bede (673-735 AD), and later also scholars such as Alcuin of York (735-804 AD). Moreover, Northumbria had become a powerful and independent kingdom during the 8th century. After the Danish raids and the establishment of the Danelaw area, however, the socio-political landscape in the north had changed dramatically, and after the descendants of King Alfred of Wessex defeated most of the Danish armies in the first half of the 10th century, Wessex had become the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Northern Middle English

Socio-historical events such as the arrival of the Scandinavian settlers had a considerable effect on the English/Scandinavian population living in most of the north of England, as the people living there were now descendants of both Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian people. As such, this also had a significant effect on the language. By 1300, northern Middle English had developed and changed rapidly in comparison to southern varieties, having for example reduced its inflectional and conjugational systems for nouns and verbs.

The word ‘kyrke’, meaning ‘church’, from a late medieval text preserved in a 15th-century Yorkshire manuscript.

Many of the northern Middle English features visible in medieval manuscripts are nowadays no longer used, as throughout the history of the English language many distinct varieties across the country have slowly levelled their regional dialects, a process in which strictly local features are reduced and replaced by forms that had a wider regional currency. As such, typical northern English spellings such as kirk for ‘church’, bath for ‘both’, and quylk for ‘which’ are now no longer used, and the northern English inflection for the second person singular present tense, –es (thou comes), never diffused beyond the north, since elsewhere –est (thou comest) was preferred before the inflection was eventually dropped and replaced with a zero morpheme (you come).

Northern features in Standard English

There are however also some features of medieval northern English that ended up in the Standard English written variety and are thus still used to this day. Two of the most well-known examples of this are the third person singular present tense inflection –s (she comes), as opposed to –th (she cometh), and the use of they, their, and them as opposed to he, here, and hem. I must point out here that whereas the latter has traditionally been regarded as a clear example of Scandinavian influence on the English language, new research (most notably by Marcelle Cole) suggests that this development may have been native to English. This does not change the fact that the majority of attested th- spellings are indeed still from the north, but it does point out that not all variant features in the north have to be attributed to language contact with Old Norse alone.

Regardless, such developments of northern features ending up in the standard written variety have been attested for in written medieval texts. As such, they reflect written conventions, although these examples may also reflect how people would have spoken. Further changes in spoken English that have been accounted for in writing and that appear to have started in the north of England include the lengthening of vowels in open syllables, and the lowering of /e/ to /a/ (think of the way ‘Derbyshire’ is pronounced).

Tino is a member of the ‘Emerging Standards‘ Project, led by UNIL’s Anita Auer, and based at the universities of Utrecht and Lausanne.

Over the past few decades, research into the development of written Standard English during the Middle English and Early Modern English periods has slowly shifted its focus from the south (predominantly London) to others regions of England as well, most notably in projects such as the The Middle English Scribal Texts Programme (MEST), a project based in Stavanger that comprises the Corpus of Middle English Local Documents (MELD) and the Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C), and the Emerging Standards Project (EMST) in Utrecht and Lausanne, in which texts are considered from the largest urban centres after London in the period 1400-1700 (i.e. York, Bristol, Coventry, and Norwich).

As an increasing number of texts from all over England are being transcribed and made available, more is being discovered about Northern Middle English features and how they might have diffused to other parts of England (or not), and from this we can learn more on how and why people in the north of England spoke and wrote the way they did.

References and suggested further reading:

    • Anderson, Peter, A Structural Atlas of the English Dialects (Routledge, 2015).
    • Beal, Joan C., Lourdes Burbano-Elizondo & Carmen Llamas, Dialects of English. Urban North-Eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Edinburgh University Press 2012).
    • Alexander & Laurel Brinton (eds.), English Historical Linguistics – An International Handbook (2 Vols.) (Mouton de Gruyter 2012).
    • Cole, Marcelle, ‘A native origin for Present-Day English they, their, them’, Diachronica 35:2 (2018), pp. 165–209.
    • Hickey, Raymond, The North of England and Northern English, in Hickey (ed.), Researching Northern English (John Benjamins 2015), pp. 1–24.
    • Horobin, Simon & Jeremy Smith, An Introduction to Middle English (Oxford University Press, 2002).
    • Jackson, Kenneth, Language and History in Early Britain (Edinburgh University Press 1953)
    • McIntosh, Angus, M.L. Samuels & Michael Benskin, A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (Aberdeen University Press, 1986).
    • Skeat, Walter William, English Dialects From the Eighth Century to the Present Day (Tredition GmbH, 2012).
    • Smith, Jeremy, An Historical Study of English: Function, Form and Change (Routledge, 1996)
    • The Cambridge History of the English Language (6 Vols.) (Cambridge University Press, 1992-2001).
    • Wales, Katie, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History (Cambridge University Press 2006).
    • Wright, Laura (ed.), The Development of Standard English, 1300-1800 (Cambridge University Press 2000).


Going Public with Medieval History

This year, 2018, marks 800 years since the death of St Robert of Knaresborough. Hazel Blair blogs about her latest trip to the town the hermit made his home, where she delivered a public talk as part of a year-long programme of commemorative celebrations.

I delivered a talk about stories – medieval stories about saints, and about St Robert of Knaresborough, in particular. Hoping to draw in and engage a wide range of people, my combined presentation and workshop assumed no prior knowledge of the history of the medieval period.

Most medievalists won’t have heard of him, but St Robert is a local celebrity. My aim was to get the Knaresborough-based audience to engage with the historical source materials relating to Robert’s life. I wanted them to see Robert not just as a hermit-saint and long-ago figure, but also as the central character in several interesting and entertaining medieval narratives. I titled my talk (part of St Robert in His Time, organised by Peter Lacey) ‘Celebrating Saints in the Middle Ages: St Robert of Knaresborough in Medieval Manuscripts’.

‘Celebrating Saints in the Middle Ages: St Robert of Knaresborough in Medieval Manuscripts’, 14 July 2018, Gracious Street Methodist Church, Knaresborough. Image: Hazel Blair

Everyone introduced themselves briefly before things kicked off, and among the 30-or-so attendees were members of the local historical society, amateur historians, a dentist, a number of self-declared ‘Knaresborough residents’ – and even a couple of academics. This made for a good mix of questions at the end of the day, but it also made for interesting discussions during the group-work phase of the session, with people coming from all walks of life to approach the source materials relating to St Robert in their own individual ways.

Seeing that this was Knaresborough, and seeing that Robert is a well-known local historical figure, I began by asking the audience to shout out any facts they already knew about their local holy hermit, writing their answers up on a flip-chart. This was both to warm up the room and to get some of the main facts about Robert out there in the open, but it was also for me to gauge which aspects of Robert’s sanctity are considered most prominent in Knaresborough today.

I think this opening tactic also quickly established that the voices of the non-historians in the room were just as important as those with more particular knowledge of Robert and his historical context, and I was glad to see some of the ‘Knaresborough residents’ getting involved immediately to help paint a working picture of St Robert for us to refer back to over the course of the afternoon.

Flower of York

Together, we established that Robert Flower was as a holy man born in York who moved to Knaresborough to live in a cave and show devotion to God through prayer and by living chastely. His care for the poor and miraculous abilities over animals were mentioned, and I expanded on this to highlight that he also performed healing miracles and had the ability to vanquish demons.

Working picture established, I then moved on to provide a lightning history of the Middle Ages, from the fall of Rome to the reign of Henry VIII, pointing out that Robert lived during ‘the High Middle Ages’, between c. 1160 and 1218. While for several attendees this would not necessarily have been new information, I thought it was important to historically orientate the room – there’s no point in getting interested non-medievalists over the threshold only to alienate them early doors!

Timeline. Image: Hazel Blair

Of course, it’s not easy for anyone to absorb lots of information on a new topic in a short space of time, and no-one can be expected to learn ‘the Middle Ages’ in less than a minute (!), but I hope the timeline on my handout and the historical groundwork I laid at the beginning of the talk did its job by bringing into the fold those non-historians whose interest we had piqued when marketing the event. I think visualising time in relation to your subject, either with an on-screen timeline, or – preferably – on a handout, is a sure-fire way to ensure everyone in your audience is on an even footing.

Saints and saints’ stories

Doing my best to avoid the word ‘hagiography’, I then went on to talk more specifically about medieval saints. To anchor the topic, I read (a slight abridgement of) this paragraph from Robert Bartlett’s Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? (Princeton, 2013) – an inexpensive and authoritative book that’s packed full of information yet very accessible:

Of all religions, Christianity is the one most concerned with dead bodies. Many religions have the idea of a holy man or woman – a living human being with extraordinary powers derived from special contact with the divine. Medieval Christianity developed to an extreme degree a distinctive form of this concept: the idea that the dead bodies of these holy people should be cherished as enduring sources of supernatural power. There were thousands of shrines in medieval Europe, containing the dust, bones, and undecayed bodies of the holy dead. Men and women came to these places, revered those whose mortal remains lay there, asked them for favours, and, were cured of their ills. The ecclesiastics who guarded these shrines wrote of the lives of those whose bodies they tended, recorded the wonders they performed after death, and gave the solemn liturgical commemoration in the churches that often bore their names. These were the saints.

St Polycarp’s persecution

I introduced St Polycarp, an early martyr, using dramatic re-imagined images of his persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers in the second century AD. I then moved on to introduce St Anthony, an early ascetic whose way of life mirrored the tortures that Polycarp, and Christ, felt in death. And I discussed the circulation of these early saints’ stories, as well as that of Northumbrian saint St Cuthbert, noting the similarities between the lifestyles of these early figures and Robert’s own way of living in holy discomfort and away from society.

I then gave a short introduction to the manuscripts in which these saints’ stories have come down to us, using this as an opportunity to showcase some of the most impressive manuscripts from the Middle Ages. At every stage, though, I tried to link back to St Robert and to Knaresborough. So after showing some flashy bestiaries and medical texts, I inserted an image from an illustrated life of St Thomas Becket. Picking the scene in which he is martyred, I rounded things back to Knaresborough again, noting that the four murdering knights pictured on screen were said to have fled to the Knaresborough Castle after killing the archbishop.

The many lives of St Robert

Keeping focused on saints’ stories, the hagiographies rather than the individuals on whom they were based, I then introduced three hagiographic texts about St Robert from the middle ages that survive in medieval manuscripts. I emphasised that these were reports, and that while they were well-researched, they were written after the saint’s death by individuals who had not met Robert personally.

One of the manuscripts containing medieval texts about St Robert. This manuscript, BL Egerton 3143, is at the heart of my PhD. Image: Hazel Blair

Each of the three medieval narratives I introduced told the story of Robert’s life. My aim was to have the audience appreciate that, despite key similarities between the different versions of Robert’s life story as it has survived in medieval manuscripts, each text was authored by a different hagiographer writing in his own historical context with his own preoccupations and priorities.

I wanted the audience to notice the differences for themselves, and to acknowledge that while hagiographies may provide us with a degree of historical access to Robert, they also act as filters and obscure him to some extent, showing us Robert only as the hagiographers chose to depict him. The silver lining, of course, from a historical perspective, is that these same texts can function as windows on to the medieval periods in which they were produced, offering up information about those who remained devoted to Robert long after his death in 1218.

I also wanted the audience to come to see these texts not as obscure medieval texts in dusty old books, but as the beautiful, creative literary responses to Robert’s sanctity that they are – testament not only to his holiness, but also to his ability to inspire Christian devotion and literary expression in those less perfect than himself. So we spent the middle part of the session reading (roughly) translated excerpts from three versions of Robert’s life. I split the room into three groups, A, B, and C, and assigned each group a bundle of individually cut-out excerpts from one of the following texts:

    • Text A was the Vita Sancti Roberti Heremiti, likely composed in the 13th century and thought to be the earliest extant source for Robert’s life. As Tom Licence has discussed, this text is probably Cistercian and may well hail from Fountains Abbey. I excerpted those parts of the text that emphasised Robert’s asceticism and his retreat to ‘an area of horror and vast solitude’. Seeing that the manuscript of this text is partially destroyed, I provided some supplementary Cistercian texts that used the ‘in loco horroris…‘ phrase, hoping Group A would spot the connection.
    • Text B was the Trinitarian Latin life of Robert, the Vita Sancti Roberti iuxta Knaresburgum, also composed in the 13th century. This text, as Joshua Easterling has emphasised, was critical in successfully establishing Robert as patron saint of Knaresborough Priory. I picked those parts of the narrative that emphasised Robert’s devotion to the Trinity, and those parts where the hagiographer referred to him as ‘our patron’.
    • Text C was the Middle English verse life of St Robert, written in rhyming couplets. I spoke about how this text relates to the romance genre at the 2018 Medieval Insular Romance Conference in Cardiff, so I excerpted those portions of the narrative that reflected this best. I picked sections that showed Robert being favourably compared with the likes of Arthur and figuratively constructed as a chivalrous knight.

Making history tangible

Each set of excerpts was wrapped in an image of a page from the manuscript in which the original text survives. I did this so that participants could look at and feel closer to the actual medieval manuscripts containing Robert’s legend, but also to encourage them to further register the clear differences between the three narratives. The way in which the texts are laid out on the page betray these differences: texts A and B are written in continuous lines of Latin prose, but text C stands out visually since it is written in single columns as rhyming verse, each couplet delicately joined with ribbons of red ink.

I let the groups discuss the excerpts they had been assigned (my thanks to Laura Slater, Lindy Grant, and Ruth Salter for checking in on the groups as their discussions progressed!), before asking them to feed back to the room about what had struck them most . I asked them who they thought the author may have been, and about the language used to describe Robert’s life and saintly personality.

We noted down key points from each text, and I wrote these up on a flip chart divided into three sections so we could compare each text’s main features. Everyone was very enthusiastic, and I noticed that among those raising their hands to contribute to the discussion were several more ‘Knaresborough residents’ who – going by their introductions, at least – hadn’t previously had all that much formal interaction with medieval history as a discipline.

And people wanted to know why there were these differences between the texts, and they especially wanted to know why one of the texts referred to their beloved hometown of Knaresborough as ‘a place of horror and vast solitude’! Discussing the phrase as a ‘Cistercian slogan’, I was able to drive home that these words was probably used by the hagiographer not just to underscore Robert’s eremitic retreat from the world, but also to imply some spiritual connection between the saint and the Cistercian Order.

It was great to be able to discuss the different literary levels of the texts, not just as repositories for information about St Robert himself, but also as products of their own individual eras and authorial circumstances. Drawing discussions to a close, I quickly recapped on the main features of the texts in their historical contexts, briefly introducing the Cistercian Order, the Trinitarians, and mentioning the popular genre of medieval Romance as a context for understanding the particular poetical construction of the Middle English version of Robert’s story.

More audience interaction and questions

After mentioning that I had plenty more work to do to bring my thesis on the English Trinitarians and their links to Robert’s cult to fruition, I brought the session to a close with a reading of a Middle English Trinitarian prayer-poem dedicated to St Robert that I had (again, roughly) translated into modern English and printed on the reverse of the timeline handout. Most of the audience joined in in what, I suppose, was the first communal reading of this prayer in more than 500 years.

We then moved to the coffee break, which was followed by a second stimulating session of three talks. Ruth Salter presented on posthumous healing miracles in the high medieval period, Laura Slater delivered a talk linked to her article on connections between the Holy Land and St Robert’s cave, and, finally, Lindy Grant finished by talking about St Robert in context, as one of several saintly and charismatic figures attracting attention around the 12th and 13th centuries.

Academic pilgrim souvenirs from the site of St Robert’s cave. Image: Hazel Blair

As a group, we then responded to audience questions about canonisation, miraculous healing, and pilgrimage, before a couple of us headed down to visit Robert’s cave site on the northern bank of the River Nidd. There we found some flyers for the event we had just participated in, pinching a couple to take home as souvenirs – academic pilgrims, indeed!

Hazel Blair
FNS Doctoral Researcher

For more about St Robert in His Time visit the 800th anniversary website, where Hazel, Lindy, Laura, and Ruth have written about the talks they delivered on July 14th 2018 at Gracious Street Methodist Church in Knaresborough. Many thanks to Peter Lacey, James Wright, Gracious Street Methodist Church, and others for ensuring smooth running of the event.

Further reading

Bartlett, Robert, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? (Princeton, 2013)
Bottomley, Frank (trans.), St Robert of Knaresborough (Ilkley, 1993)
Bazire, Joyce, The Metrical Life of St Robert of Knaresborough (EETS, 1953)
Easterling, Joshua, ‘A Norbert for England: Holy Trinity and the Invention of Robert of Knaresborough’, Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies, vol. 2, pp. 75-107.
Licence, Tom, Hermits and Recluses in English Society, 950-1200 (Oxford, 2011)


Richard Rolle in Japan

Project leader Professor Denis Renevey reflects on his recent trip to Japan, where he presented on the life and writings of Yorkshire hermit Richard Rolle.

Richard Rolle with a Dominican friar. Image: Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 528, fol. 2v. Reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford [2018].

The invitation from my colleagues Naoe Kukita-Yoshikawa and Takami Matsuda to offer a lecture on Richard Rolle at Keio University, Tokyo, in September 2017 was irresistible. I had been to Japan in 2007 and was really looking forward both to presenting Richard Rolle to graduate students from Keio University and immersing myself in Japanese culture once again.

Richard Rolle was born in c.1300 in Thornton, near Pickering, North Yorkshire. After studying in Oxford for a few years, he returned home without a university degree and began a life as a hermit. Rolle wrote a large number of treatises in Latin and English and became the most popular English author of the fifteenth century. Today, he hardly receives any notice in university classrooms in the West, so it is always a challenge for me to present aspects of his writings and spirituality to students at the University of Lausanne, my home university. I really wondered how I was going to be able to succeed doing so with students from a completely different background.

A bullet train in Tokyo. Image: Denis Renevey

My knowledge of Rolle’s circumstances and writings became the lens through which I began to explore the many facets of Japanese culture. Following our arrival we immediately boarded a bullet train to Shizuoka where the first part of my academic visit was taking place. Once comfortably seated, I had leisure to look out at the densely populated stretch of coastal land between Tokyo and Shizuoka, on Honshu Island – the largest and most densely populated of the 3,000 islands that make the Japanese archipelago.


Richard Rolle, as depicted in BL MS Additional 37049, fol. 52v. Image: courtesy of the British Library

Thinking of the solitary life of Rolle in the North of England, I thought there could not be a more drastic contrast, spatially speaking, between his life conditions and the often hectic life that Japanese citizens lead in many of the country’s megalopolises. Rolle lived a solitary life away from the bustle and turbulence of medieval urban centres, and I wondered how one could possibly understand today, in very densely populated Japan, his passion for solitude as the best condition for the spiritual life.

My journey brought me to Nara and Kyoto, both of them former capitals of Japan, but also major centres of zen Buddhism. If I was impressed by the magnificence of the buddhist temples of Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji in Nara, and Nanzen-ji and Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, my search for meditative space found its fulfilment in slightly less frequently visited temples and gardens in the suburbs of Kyoto.

The Tenryu-ji Zen Temple and its garden, as well as the Jojakko-Ji Temple, offer an environment that naturally leads one to sit and meditate. As I did so, I remembered the sitting posture that Rolle recommends for meditation, which is unusual in the West but the favoured position (called zazen) in zen Buddhism. Rolle recommends the sitting posture in several of his treatises. He even turns the advice into poetic form in the lyric called Cantus amoris, which is part of his epistle Ego dormio: ‘I sytt and syng of luf langyng that in in my breste es bredde.’¹

Jojakko-ji Temple. Image: Denis Renevey

The more I thought about what is considered a rather idiosyncratic form of mysticism on the part of Rolle, the more I realised that there are interesting similarities between Western and Eastern practices. I reflected then on the way in which our northern hermit gives prominence to the repetition of the name of Jesus as a meditative practice, which can be compared with the repetition of one-word mantras in Buddhist meditation.

The Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple. Image: Denis Renevey

Of course the repetition of the Name of Jesus, name above all other names, creates a different set of experiences and images from the use of ‘aum’, the mantra of mantras. Also, I pondered the differences between meditating on the fully awakened state as represented in the figure of the Buddha, and meditating on the concept of sacrifice and salvation that the representation of the suffering Jesus on the cross offers to Christians. These were fascinating moments in the dialogic exchange between Christian and Buddhist practices that was taking place in my mind.

My lecture on Rolle and northern English eremitism took place in the later stage of my Japanese visit. The time spent in Japan, although far too brief, nevertheless gave me some insights about how to bring Rolle to the attention of Japanese students unfamiliar with his writings. Despite the differences as well as similarities between the cultures and their respective spiritual practices, it was nevertheless possible to engage in a dialogue that turned to be very enriching for all of us.

Denis Renevey with students and staff at Shizuoka University. Image: Denis Renevey

And when at times students remained silent following some of my questions, I remembered both Rolle’s search for silence and the characteristic polite and humble reserve of Japanese people. Sharing the life and works of a northern English medieval hermit with my Japanese audience turned out to be a fascinating exercise in cultural and human discovery.

Denis Renevey
Professor of Medieval English Language and Literature
University of Lausanne

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

[1] Hope Emily Allen (ed.), English Writings of Richard Rolle, Hermit of Hampole (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, repr. 1988), p. 71.

Saintly Sisters at Durham Cathedral

Following the success of the Cuthbert’s Treasures exhibition back in the summer at Durham Cathedral, the end of the November sees the opening of another important new exhibition: Saintly Sisters (28 November 2017-3 February 2018). Exploring saintly women from the north of England, this exhibition is largely, though not exclusively, focused on Anglo-Saxon holy women, revisiting well-known figures such as Hilda of Whitby, and restoring other more obscure early saints to visibility.

Saint Æthelthryth of Ely as depicted in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (London, British Library, Additional MS 49598). Image: Public Domain

One of the most renowned Anglo-Saxon female saints, Etheldreda of Ely (c. 630-79), has early associations with Northumbria which this exhibition brings back into relief. Born into a royal household in East Anglia, her second marriage to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria brought Etheldreda to the north where her saintly inclinations began to reveal themselves in her insistence upon a chaste marriage. Eventually granted permission by her husband to live as a nun, she was professed at Coldingham (now in Berwickshire) at the double monastery founded by St Aebbe. She later returned south, founding a monastery at Ely. After her death, her body was found to be incorrupt and reputedly miracle-working, and her shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. The exhibition describes ‘St Etheldreda’s chains’: coloured necklaces of silk which could be purchased at her cathedral fair annually in memory of the neck tumour which caused her early death.

Despite her friendship with St Cuthbert and mentoring of Etheldreda, St Aebbe (615-83) is a more problematic figure, not least because, soon after her death, Bede relates how her monastery at Coldingham was burnt to the ground as a sign of God’s displeasure with the sexual misdemeanours of the monks and nuns there. Nonetheless, after Coldingham was refounded as a Benedictine priory in the late eleventh century, and colonised with monks from Durham Cathedral priory, there was a need for a local cult. Consequently, Aebbe’s coffin was fortuitously unearthed by shepherds, and taken to the priory where it began to work miracles. Not long afterwards, Aebbe appeared in a vision to a local layman and instructed him to build an oratory in her honour on St Abb’s Head.

St Abb’s Head as seen from the village of St Abbs. Image: Public Domain

Initially, the reluctant visionary did nothing about it, and Aebbe retaliated by rendering the land infertile. After he complied, she began a posthumous healing ministry and seems to have specialised in healing women: she is particularly known for restoring the voices of women stricken with dumbness. The exhibition shows us a Latin legend of Aebbe in the early sixteenth-century nationalistic legendary known as the Nova Legenda Anglie, and charters issued by Coldingham Priory.

Victorian relief of St Hilda in Whitby. Image: Public Domain

Cuthbert found further female friends amongst the nuns and abbesses of Whitby monastery. The most famous of these, Hilda (c. 614-80), plays a prominent part in the exhibition. Her textual legacy is represented by a late medieval copy of Bede’s Historica ecclesiastica, which relates most of the near contemporary information that we have about the saint – her founding of a series of monasteries, most famously Streoneshalh (Whitby), her presence at the Synod of Whitby, and her patronage of the lay brother Caedmon, the legendary father of Old English religious poetry. An extract from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion (1808), affords us a glimpse of later legends that grew up about Hilda. Reputedly, her nuns at Whitby were terrorised by a plague of poisonous snakes and didn’t dare leave their cells. Hilda boldly prayed to God to rid them of this pestilence, and the snakes immediately turned tail to the sea shore, coiled themselves into spirals and turned to stone. This story, which was certainly known by the fourteenth century and probably much earlier, is an imaginative myth of origin for the ammonite fossils that can still be found on that coastline. The exhibition includes some of these fossils from Whitby, creatively named Hildoceras in honour of Hilda and her legend.

The 19th-century Vision of St Bega by Josefina de Vasconcellos at St Bees Priory. Image: Dougsim/CC BY-SA 4.0

Another little-known saint from the north is described in her thirteenth-century Vita as a close friend of Hilda. St Bega, a somewhat mythical seventh-century Irish princess, evaded an arranged marriage in Ireland with the aid of a magic bracelet, then sailed across the Irish sea in a coracle and lived in religious reclusion in Copeland, Cumbria. Subsequently summoned by St Aidan to be professed as ‘the first nun in Northumbria’, she travelled east, leaving her bracelet which later became a wonder-working device in its own right. She founded a monastery at Hartlepool, and this was later passed on to Hilda. Shortly after, she re-emerged (possibly a conflation with another Begu) as a nun at Hackness, the daughter house of Whitby. Here, one night, she heard a bell ringing and was granted a vision of St Hilda’s soul being carried up to heaven by angels (Hilda had died that night, many miles away in Whitby). Although Bega’s cult never really took off on the north-east coast, she was venerated enthusiastically in the north-west, at Holme Cultram and St Bees, where her bracelet continued to defend the interests of the priory until late in the Middle Ages.

St Cuthbert’s Tomb at Durham Cathedral. Image: Public Domain

Despite the presence of these enterprising seventh-century abbesses and female hermits, and St Cuthbert’s friendships with several of them (the exhibition also mentions other abbesses of Whitby), events took a more misogynist turn at Durham Cathedral in the late eleventh century. After a new cohort of Benedictine monks were brought in to tend Cuthbert’s shrine there, monastic historians began to circulate stories about Cuthbert’s antipathy to women – partly, it is supposed, to protect the purity of the monks. New miracle stories graphically portrayed what happened to women who strayed onto Cuthbert’s cemeteries or into his churches – very few lived to tell the tale. A strange blue line of marble inset into the floor of the cathedral near the west end, and still there at the beginning of the sixteenth century, seems to have acted as a kind of boundary marker, prohibiting women from advancing any further into the cathedral.

Since female pilgrims were a lucrative source of income, it made no sense for them to be discouraged from coming to the north altogether. St Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century hermit whose cult was controlled by the Durham monks, may have been deliberately developed in a way which countered that difficulty. Skilled at transiting female souls from purgatory to heaven, and receptive to visions of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, Godric’s shrine seems to have specialised in healing services for women, and to have attracted unusually high numbers of female pilgrims for a male saint.

Wynkyn de Worde’s Vitas patrum (1495).

Despite the misogyny of the medieval cathedral, some of the most intriguing displays of the exhibition concern the female groups who emerged from it and were supported by it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Society of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin (SCBMV, founded 1884) was a body of volunteer nurses, later ordained as deaconesses, who ran almshouses and mission houses in the county for more than sixty years. Labelled ‘daughters of St Cuthbert’, these women seem to have lived a quasi-monastic life, wearing Cuthbert’s pectoral cross around their neck, following a daily routine of prayer and abjuring marriage. The exhibition unearths documents, artefacts and atmospheric photographs associated with these forgotten ‘daughters’.

Durham cathedral may have regulated and restrained the desires of female pilgrims for several centuries before the Reformation, but this exhibition offers a powerful northern counter-narrative by bringing to light multiple Anglo-Saxon and modern stories of saintly founding abbesses, wonder-working female hermits, and charitable deaconesses, who continue to inspire and challenge viewers into the present day.

Christiania Whitehead
FNS Senior Researcher

Saintly Sisters will run from 28 November 2017 to 3 February 2018. Tickets range from £2.50-£7.50 and are available from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral, the Open Treasure Welcome Desk, and in advance on the Cathedral website.

Report: Research Day in Medieval English Studies 2017

Doctoral researcher Hazel Blair reports on this year’s international research day at the University of Lausanne.

This year, six researchers from across Europe (at various stages in their careers), met at the University of Lausanne and presented work in progress for discussion. The annual international event was organised by Professor Tamás Karáth (Pázmány Péter Catholic University), Professor Alessandra Petrina (Università degli Studi di Padova), Professor Denis Renevey (University of Lausanne), and Professor Christiania Whitehead (Universities of Warwick and Lausanne), and this year we were joined by respondent Diane Watt, Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Surrey.

The format of the research day was friendly and collegial, and those presenting benefited not only from the input of the respondent, event organisers, and other senior colleagues, but also from each other and a select number of MA students interested in medieval English literature.

The morning session focused on the lives of late medieval figures commonly sidelined in late medieval society. Dr Diana Denissen (UNIL) began by introducing her new project on the unique interconnections between the Middle English Book of Margery Kempe and Alijt Bake’s Middle Dutch Boecxken van mijn beghin ende voortganck, emphasising the need for the study of medieval literature, and women’s spirituality in particular, across linguistic boundaries.

Then Silvia Demo (Padova) spoke about her research into the social and educational lives of surgeons in late medieval London, arguing that the line that divided learned and unlearned healers was not as impermeable as one might initially assume. Both presentations prompted lots of discussion, and interesting reflections on the quagmire of questions surrounding academic ownership.

After lunch at UNIL’s Restaurant de Doringy, we returned to a fascinating presentation by Dr Ágnes Kiricsi (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest) on Matthew Paris and halos in the medieval sky, which highlighted the great (and largely untapped) opportunities afforded to modern medieval scholarship by 21st-century science.

I then presented my own interdisciplinary research on the cult of St Robert of Knaresborough and the Order of the Holy Trinity in medieval England, introducing colleagues to the contents of BL MS Egerton 3143. Ágnes and I both received valuable feedback from the room, and several pockets of further discussion opened up during the coffee break.

St Bridget of Sweden

Louise Campion (Warwick) opened the final session by presenting her research on the Middle English version of Bridget of Sweden’s Liber Celestis, a lengthy and notoriously difficult text that she introduced with clarity via her discussion of the relationship between Bridget’s voice and textual images of domestic space.

Finally, Dr Andrea Nagy (Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church) spoke about her project to revise her doctoral thesis for publication as a book. Her interest in the representations of female characters in Old English poetry sparked a great deal of discussion on the way we interpret women in medieval texts more generally, and prompted the room to reflect on the authority of many of the dictionaries and word-lists that we rely on for our day-to-day research.

Concluding the day, Diane Watt examined the topic of voice in medieval English literature, and spoke about the fruits and challenges of interdisciplinary and transnational approaches to medieval English – themes that appeared in many guises throughout the day.

In closing, she addressed the insidious problem of androcentrism in medieval English studies, particularly in the fields of editing and translation. She asked us to think about the extent to which this might be hampering our research, and in so doing raised the question of the need for widespread reassessment of edited and translated texts frequently taken as gospel.

Once again, the event drove home the fact that, no matter where we are in our academic careers, our work will always benefit from the input of both junior and senior colleagues. With this in mind, we look forward to catching up and discussing one another’s progress in Budapest next year.

Hazel Blair
FNS Doctoral Researcher

The Research Day in Medieval English Studies is an annual international event organised by researchers from L’Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy), Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest (Hungary), the University of Warwick (England), and the University of Lausanne (Switzerland).

St Robert: the celebrity hermit of Knaresborough

Last month, while visiting family in the UK, I decided to spend a few days in northern England investigating local celebrity and medieval hermit St Robert of Knaresborough (c. 1160-1218). St Robert’s cult is the subject of my PhD thesis, which is part of a wider project on northern English saints funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. While much of the material relating to St Robert exists in literary form, a surprising amount of information about his life can be gleaned from artistic, archaeological, and architectural sources.

A medieval hermit’s cave

My first stop was the cave in which St Robert lived, located on the northern bank of the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Cut into the side of a limestone cliff, under a canopy of trees, this little hermit’s hideaway can be accessed via a narrow set of stairs leading down from nearby Abbey Road.

Entrance to the cave (Photo: Hazel Blair)

Robert led a solitary existence in this cave, and according to the Middle English metrical version of his life, he spent his time here ‘in contemplacion nyght and day.’ Concerned about Robert’s well-being, however, his brother Walter sent workmen to renovate the saint’s home, building him a chapel with living quarters attached to cave’s entrance sometime around the turn of the thirteenth century. The foundations of this chapel are still clearly visible, and more detailed information about the site’s archaeological make-up is available on a nearby interpretation board.

Interpretation board near the cave. (Photo: Hazel Blair)

The outline of Robert’s former tomb. (Photo: Hazel Blair)

One of the areas highlighted at the site is the oblong grave which would have been set before the chapel’s high altar. This is where Robert was buried, so both the cave and chapel remained intimately connected with him long after his death. The complex attracted throngs of pilgrims during the Middle Ages, and would once have been filled with colourful images and devotional offerings to the saint. Robert’s body was later removed and re-interred at the nearby Trinitarian priory. Today, all that is left of the chapel burial site is a stony grey outline of the former tomb, though, rather strikingly, some bright green flora has sprouted (or has perhaps been planted) at the eastern end of the grave.

Stained-glass windows

Crossing the River Nidd and venturing south into Derbyshire, my next stop was St Matthew’s Church in Morley, where I was greeted by church historian and archivist Sheila Randall. Over a cup of tea, Sheila and I talked about the scenes in one of the church’s northern windows, where episodes from Robert’s life are detailed across seven late-medieval stained-glass panels.

Stained-glass window depicting scenes from Robert’s life. From top left: (1) Robert shoots the deer eating his crops (2) Forest keepers report him to King John (3) Robert complains about the deer to the king (4) Robert captures the deer (5) The forest keepers tell the king (6) King John gifts the deer to Robert (7) Robert ploughs with the deer (Photo: Hazel Blair)

Close-up of the panel depicting Robert catching the deer. (Photo: Hazel Blair)

The window tells the story of St Robert and the deer. Sick of them ruining his crops, Robert petitioned the local lord to sort the problem and the lord gave Robert permission to enclose the deer in a barn. Exerting miraculous power over the wild animals, the saint rounded them up with ease, so impressing the the lord that he allowed Robert to keep them. Demonstrating further mastery over the animals, Robert harnessed them to his plough and used them to work the land.

The panels are not original to St Matthew’s church; they came from nearby Dale Abbey with a variety of other medieval treasures. And as H M Colvin notes, the window was restored in the 19th-century, the result being that, alongside most of the inscriptions, panels 1, 4, and 7 are modern (and not entirely accurate) representations of the original medieval glass. Sheila took care to point out where the glass had been cut to fit its new home, and the panels now sit directly above a mosaic of medieval floor tiles probably also from Dale.

Four floor tiles in St Matthew’s Church in Morley, Derbyshire. These tiles may once have covered the floor of Dale Abbey, the St Robert window’s original home. (Photo: Hazel Blair)

Dale Abbey ruins. (Photo: Hazel Blair)

The origins of the abbey are closely linked with the tale of another medieval hermit, a baker from Derby, whose own cave was situated on a hillside not far from where Dale was founded. The abbey’s connection with the story of St Robert remains obscure, though Brian Golding suggested that the canons there may have been interested in the legend of the Knaresborough saint on account of its parallels with the story of their own hermit-founder, who, like Robert, ran into problems with local landowners.

Dale Abbey fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, though the magnificent remains of its east window arch attest to the medieval building’s previous grandeur.

A modern celebrity

St Robert captured the attention of medieval writers and artists alike, and his legacy is closely intertwined with modern Knaresborough’s civic identity. Alongside the cave linked to early-modern soothsayer Mother Shipton, and the remains of Knaresborough Castle, St Robert’s cave is one of the town’s top tourist attractions. Further information about the saint can be found in a flyer available in the castle gift shop, and this booklet includes instructions on how to reach his cave on foot.

On the final day of my tour, I ventured into York itself – the city in which Robert was born. No trip to York is complete without a visit to Bettys tearooms, and it was here, while I sat reflecting on my visit, that I learned of another exciting connection between Yorkshire and Switzerland besides our SNSF project. Bettys – that famous local Yorkshire institution – was founded nearly a century ago by Frederick Belmont, a Swiss confectioner!

Hazel Blair
Doctoral Researcher

The images featured in this piece are copyright of the author, who is indebted to Sheila Randall of St Matthew’s Church in Morley (Derbyshire) for access to the St Robert window and permission to photograph it.