The Treasures of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral

The Treasures of St Cuthbert is a sumptuous display of medieval artefacts not to be missed. After a long period away from the public view, Durham Cathedral is making available again – in a much improved setting – many of the pre-Conquest treasures associated with the medieval cult of St Cuthbert. These treasures include not only the saint’s coffin, but also its many varied contents, augmented at various points between 698 and the early twelfth century.

The wooden coffin itself was originally built to contain Cuthbert’s body during the elevation of his relics on Lindisfarne in 698, eleven years after the saint’s death. It is engraved with the twelve apostles on one side (in two tiers), the archangels on the other side, and the Virgin and Child at one end, accompanied by inscriptions in both Roman and runic lettering. Ernst Kitzinger, who reconstructed the fragments of the coffin in the late 1930s, interpreted these engravings as a ‘litany in pictures, invoking the protection of those represented for the relics inside.’

St Cuthbert’s coffin. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

The coffin had a long and eventful history. It was carried around the north of England through the late ninth and tenth centuries by descendents of the Lindisfarne monastery to protect the cult and its precious objects from Viking raids. Twelfth-century historians at Durham, looking back on this peripatetic interlude, supply it with meaning and grandeur by likening it to the exile of the Israelites in the desert carrying the precious Ark of the Covenant.

Two apostles depicted on St Cuthbert’s coffin. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

In line with this perception of the power of the coffin and its contents, it was seen to acquire a kind of agency in its own right. Having survived trips to Whithorn in Galloway, an abortive sea journey to northern Ireland, and a long interim stay in Chester-le-Street, now on the road again it became enormously heavy and impossible to shift on the horseshoe peninsula in the River Wear. This, the medieval Durham historians tell us, is where Cuthbert wished to be laid to rest; this is the spot for a new great church dedicated to his cult – the remarkable early Anglo-Norman structure of Durham Cathedral.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image: Public Domain

The Cuthbert pectoral cross. © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Embedded in the garments close to the saint’s body, and probably placed there in 687 or 698, is a gold and garnet pectoral cross, also on display. An outstanding example of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon jewellery, its design shows close similarities with monastic manuscript illumination, in particular the interwoven decorations that fill the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Another seventh-century artefact, added to the coffin treasures at some stage, is a small portable altar that may have been used by St Cuthbert as he travelled around Northumbria as a monk or, later, a bishop. Originally a plain wooden oblong, engraved with crosses and an inscription (‘In honour of St Peter’), the altar was later covered with foliated silver plate, and, finally, a central silver roundel, sometime in the eighth or ninth century.

The portable altar. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

In the tenth century, Cuthbert became an object of interest and veneration for the Wessex royal dynasty. Kings Athelstan and Edmund visited his shrine, then at Chester-le-Street, in the 930s and ’40s, bringing expensive gifts. These gifts included beautiful ecclesiastic vestments: a stole and maniple embroidered with figures of popes and saints, on display in the exhibition, and a famous silk known as the ‘Nature Goddess’ silk, of Byzantine manufacture. This bears traces of Greek inscriptions and seems originally to have arrived in England as a diplomatic gift.

Maniple end with depiction of John the Baptist. Image © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Further sumptuous silks, some possibly from Islamic Spain, were added at the time of the coffin’s opening in 1104, which took place in order to re-verify its contents in front of Anglo-Norman ecclesiastics, before the coffin’s ceremonial re-translation to an elevated shrine in the feretory of the newly-built cathedral at Durham.

Alongside these beautiful silks and jewels are one or two more intimate items, including St Cuthbert’s comb. Legend has it that this seventh-century, double-toothed comb made from elephant ivory was used by the saint himself to comb his hair before mass after donning his ecclesiastical vestments. One of the singularities of Cuthbert’s cult is that his body is supposed not only to have remained incorrupt, but also flexible, and that his nails, hair, and beard continued to grow within his coffin long after his death.

Reginald of Durham, the twelfth-century hagiographer, described how a devoted eleventh-century sacristan at the shrine used to open the coffin in order to ‘cut the overgrowing hair of [the saint’s] venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb, and to cut the nails of his fingers.’ The hairs removed from the saint’s head during these grooming sessions had immutable powers in their own right, shining like golden wire and proving inflammable when held within a flame. After he had finished, so Reginald tells us, the sacristan replaced the comb in the coffin.

St Cuthbert’s comb. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Cuthbert’s feretory. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

After 1104, the coffin seems not to have been reopened until 1539, when Henry VIII’s church commissioners arrived at the cathedral to destroy all signs of the saint’s cult. On climbing up to the tomb and opening the coffin, however, it is reported in the Rites of Durham that ‘they found [St Cuthbert] lyinge hole vncorrupt wth his faice baire, and his beard as yt had bene a forth netts growthe, & all his vestm[en]t vpo[n] him as he was accustomed to say mess’.

Apparently impressed, they left the coffin and its contents undisturbed, and it was later reinterred under a stone slab in the feretory beneath the site of the original elevated shrine, not to be opened again until the antiquarian investigations of the nineteenth century.

Christiania Whitehead
FNRS research fellow

The Treasures of St Cuthbert will be on display in the Great Kitchen of Durham Cathedral from 29 July 2017. Visitors to the Treasures exhibit can also enjoy access to the other Open Treasure exhibition spaces, including the Monks’ Dormitory and the rolling programme of exhibitions in the Collections Gallery.

Tickets: £2.50-£7.50, available online or from the visitor desk on the day of your visit. Click here for opening times and further information about Open Treasure.

All images © Chapter of Durham Cathedral, unless otherwise stated.

Call for papers: Leeds IMC 2018

CFP for sessions and a roundtable at Leeds IMC 2018 (2-5 July 2018)

Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints

Despite widespread interest in the cults of northern English saints in the early middle ages, there has been comparatively little work done on the nature and development of those Anglo-Saxon and early English saints’ cults (>1200) that survived into the later medieval post-1300 period.

We welcome paper proposals on early northern English saints (loosely defined as saints from Cumbria, Yorkshire, Durham, Northumbria, and the borders, 600-1200), with regard to one or more the following:

  • Their textual presence in Latin, Middle English, and/or Anglo-Norman post 1300 (vitae, miracula, legendaries, offices, liturgical material, kalendars etc.)
  • Their material culture (architecture and shrines, relics and reliquaries, stained glass, panel painting etc.)
  • Their cults in the post-1300 period (provision for pilgrims, economic change, repurposings to meet new regional/national agendas, patronage etc.)

If you would be interested in joining us at Leeds International Medieval Congress 2018 to give a 20-minute paper in a session, or an 8-minute position statement in a roundtable, please send a paper title and a 200-word abstract, by 31 August 2017, to Christiania Whitehead and Hazel Blair:

These sessions are organised by the 3-year, Swiss National Science Foundation-funded team research project Region and Nation in Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints, directed by Professor Denis Renevey, which is investigating the extent to which devotion to early northern English saints persists in late medieval England, and exploring the implications of such devotions for regional and national cultures. If you would like to read more about our project, based at the University of Lausanne, you can find more details on our homepage.




A Tale of Many Heads: Oswald in Vienna

Travelling from Switzerland to Vienna at the end of March to present my recent research on St Oswald of Northumbria, King and Martyr, at the International Medieval Translator conference, I felt that I was bringing a very English, even nationalistic, story of sanctity to Vienna. The seventh-century king is famously credited with effecting the Christian conversion of Northumbria by summoning missionary assistance from St Columba’s monastic community on Iona.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield (near Hexham). Site of Oswald’s initial battle victory over Cadwallon.

Provided with Bishop Aidan, Oswald travels with him around his kingdom, reputedly translating his Irish sermons into Anglo Saxon. By the same token, Aidan lauds Oswald’s charity to beggars and predicts his future saintly incorruption. Bede celebrates Oswald as a Christian warrior-king, a kind of English Constantine, waging battle to vanquish the pagan and bring Christianity to the north. Ambitiously and ambiguously, he describes Oswald’s rule extending over ‘all the peoples and provinces of Britain’ (Historia ecclesiastica, III.6), seeming to see in him an ideal of Christian kingship for England.

I was interested, not only in the story of Oswald as a regal translator into Old English, but also in the translation of his Life into Middle English in the late thirteenth century, in the South English Legendary. Scholars have long detected a nationalistic flavour to this legendary, and it is certainly the case that Oswald becomes more English and more southern leaning within it, his contacts with Irish Christianity and South West Scotland minimised, and his northern head-relic cult expunged in favour of his east midland veneration at Peterborough.

St Cuthbert holding St Oswald’s Head, Hexham Abbey wood panel, 15th century

So, this was a tale of royal English sanctity far removed from both the Swiss cantonal systems of governance, where I began my journey, and the imperial Habsburg grandeur of Vienna, where I got off the plane. Or was it ? Bede and the South English Legendary play up Oswald’s national credentials, but in fact his cult is remarkable for its rapid dissemination into mainland Europe. Willibrord, the Northumbrian missionary known as the ‘apostle to the Frisians’, brought Oswald’s cult (and reputedly his head relic) to Echternach in modern-day Luxemborg by the early eighth century. By the eleventh century, further relics were venerated at the Abbey of St Winnoc in Flanders, and at Weingarten in Bavaria, and by the High Middle Ages his cult was being celebrated all the way from Iceland in the north (where we find a late ‘Osvald’s saga’), through the German-speaking lands of central Europe, into Poland and Hungary.

More particularly, in relation to my own European travels, it turns out that Oswald of Northumbria is also an inhabitant of the Swiss canton and city of Zug. Yet another of St Oswald’s several heads reputedly made its way here, and his iconography retains pride of place in the magnificent late fifteenth-century St Oswald-Kirche.

St Oswald Kirche, Zug, Switzerland

Nor have I left Oswald behind in heading for Vienna. In addition to the prose legend of Oswald’s Northumbrian churchbuilding and eventual martyrdom on the battlefield, cherished in England, there is another continental story about Oswald in which he exports his military zeal abroad, splices it with romantic fervor, and sails to the Middle East to fight a pagan king for the hand of his Christian daughter. All kinds of fantastical elements find their way into this narrative, including a talking raven who carries letters and love tokens between the two lovers. This story exists in several vernacular versions, including the ‘Vienna Oswald’, a substantial fourteenth-century poem in the Silesian dialect, in which Oswald is re-identified as the King of Germany. As well as participating in what is essentially a crusading romance, Oswald and his raven clearly catch the popular Austrian imagination, and the king is venerated in sites across the Tyrol as a patron saint of agricultural plenitude who works together with his raven to ensure favourable weather.

17th-century monastic church, Klosterneuberg, Austria

All this seems a very long way from the Oswald of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. But on my last day at the conference, joining a trip to the spectacular Augustinian monastery of Klosterneuberg, just outside Vienna, we were granted access to a selection of the manuscripts from its medieval library, still the largest private library in Austria. There, staring out at me from an enormous Latin legendary, was Oswald once more, abbreviated but intact – back in the form in which Bede presented him, and intriguingly surrounded by a sprinkling of other Anglo-Saxon saints as well as the normal continental throng. Time is too short to digest this find properly – I’ll have to go back and take another look! What are all these Anglo-Saxon names doing in this central European legendary? How will Bede’s Oswald have been experienced in a milieu apparently more familiar with his repurposing as a crusading suitor ?

Monastic library, Klosterneuberg

Whatever the scholarly answers to these questions, they leave me reflecting on the way in which this apparently most English of royal saints overflows his regional and national boundaries, and bursts joyously onto the continent in new guises and genres, multiplying heads and avian helpmates as he proceeds. There is really no such thing as a straightforwardly regional or national saint; cults show a protean ability to endlessly reconstitute themselves. Despite attempts to commendeer them to nationalism, they have an uncomfortable habit of popping up behind enemy lines. The story of Oswald in Europe demonstrates how one country’s saint becomes another country’s saga hero or crusader, and how vibrantly creative and productive those transformations can be. In our current milieu in which national boundaries are being reasserted around the world (and history often abused in the process), Oswald serves as a timely reminder of a regional and national icon who is also, through many towns and vernaculars, a fully assimilated European!

Christiania Whitehead

Head Reliquary of St Oswald, 1170s, Hildesheim Dommuseum

A literary and historical journey to the North of England

Guest blogger Antoine Willemin reports on the English Department’s trip to northern England in February 2017.

Last February, just before the start of the spring semester, a small group of BA and MA students from the English Department of the University of Lausanne made their way to the North of England for a study trip organised by both linguists and medievalists, the first of its kind at UNIL. From the shores of the Irish Sea to the banks of the River Tyne, this week had us listen, see, explore, and experience many facets of the land, from historical, literary, and linguistic perspectives.

Coming from Manchester, Liverpool, or London, we all met up in Lancaster to start our journey through the North. After a visit to the campus of Lancaster University (a UNIL partner institution), featuring lectures on the poets of the Lake District and discourse analysis, as well as a tour of their linguistics labs, we took the road to the city centre to visit its medieval priory church. There, Clare Egan, lecturer in medieval and early modern literature at Lancaster, introduced us to the wonderful – if not Reformation-proof – sculpted misericords of the choir stalls, and to the wider history of Lancaster and Lancashire through the lens of its representation on several historical maps.

Learning about medieval misericords in Lancaster. Image: Antoine Willemin

The following morning saw us on the road through the Yorkshire Dales, finally arriving in York in time for lunch and a brief trip to King’s Manor, the old seat of Henry VIII’s Council of the North, to listen to a lecture on the history of the city by Professor Sarah Rees Jones from the University of York. After touring the impressive Minster, famous for its preserved – and Reformation-proof, this time – medieval stained glass, we finally made our way into the city’s medieval streets, meeting for dinner in one of their many pubs.

York was perhaps an ideal place to illustrate the historical and linguistic intricacies of Northern England: Norse influence pervades the city, which was called Jorvik by its Scandinavian settlers. To this day, the name of its streets all end in ‘gate’, from Micklegate to Stonegate, a word derived from the old Norse gata – meaning street.

York Minster. Image: Antoine Willemin

The following morning we developed this idea with a lecture by UNIL linguistics specialist Professor Anita Auer on the historical urban vernacular of the city and its many specificities. This was accompanied by a lecture by Professor Denis Renevey on multilingual literary production in medieval Yorkshire, featuring devotional texts in English and Latin, and an introduction, by Dr Christiana Whitehead, to the history of several northern saints, from Saint Aidan and the founding of his monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne to Saint Cuthbert and the transfer of his cult and relics from Lindisfarne to Durham, which we visited the next day.

Dr Christiania Whitehead giving a lecture about northern English saints. Image: Antoine Willemin

First, however, was the bus ride to Newcastle, where we stayed for the rest of the trip. Here we discovered an entirely different North of England, made of bustling cities marked by the industrial revolution. That night, as if to mark the contrast with York and its medieval streets, we attended a performance of Pride and Prejudice at the city’s Theatre Royal, a beautiful neoclassical building built as Newcastle became more prominent in the 19th century.

The next day, however, we returned to the Middle Ages with a day-trip to Durham. This small city would not look out of place in Switzerland: built on a hill in a meander of the River Wear, it bears a striking resemblance to the old towns of Bern or Fribourg. At the top of the hill stands the imposing Norman cathedral, the final resting place of Saint Cuthbert as well as of the Venerable Bede – a logical pilgrimage for English literature and linguistics students!

Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. Image: Denis Renevey

After a tour of the building, which offered a striking contrast to the perpendicular Gothic of York Minster, with its Romanesque arches and massive engraved pillars supporting its stone roof, we headed to Palace Green Library to view a wonderful array of manuscripts from the university and cathedral libraries.

Examining manuscripts in Palace Green Library. Image: Agneta Bakiu

After so much focus on the medieval North of England, our last full day in Newcastle pulled us right back to the present with a visit to Newcastle University, where linguists Dr Adam Mearns and Dr Danielle Turton introduced us to the specificities of the northern English we had been hearing for the past week, and more specifically to the dialects spoken around Northumberland.

Determined to turn us into proper field researchers, they sent us out on the High Street, for a riff on Labov’s famous department store experiment. We spent the afternoon running from Primark to Fenwick, from John Lewis to Waterstones, gathering data to determine which way of saying yes prevailed in the city, and whether it depended on the social status, gender, or simply the age of the speakers. As it turns out, the expected ‘aye’ is becoming less common, but the full ‘yes’ is actually far from the norm: most people, whatever their social characteristics, tend to go for a simple ‘yeah’.

The last day of the trip was perhaps the most packed: after an early check-out, we travelled northwards to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, beating the tide to cross the causeway, where we spent a long morning exploring the site of the Benedictine monastery established by the chapter of Durham Cathedral on the site of Saint Aidan’s original monastery, which had been abandoned after the first Viking raids on the island.

Lindisfarne Priory. Image: Denis Renevey

Coming back down south, we finished our journey at Jarrow Hall, formerly called ‘Bede’s World’, to learn more about the life of the venerable historian. The museum featured exhibits and archaeological finds from Jarrow Monastery (where Bede studied and worked), displays on early-medieval stained glass, as well as a reconstituted Anglo-Saxon farm and village, complete with farm animals of heritage breeds and wattle and daub buildings.

Exhausted but happy, we parted ways at Newcastle Airport as the afternoon ended, some of us boarding our flights back to Switzerland, while others stayed behind to extend their trip in Newcastle and beyond.

Antoine Willemin is an MA student in medieval English literature at the University of Lausanne.

Header image: Detail from the late medieval Gough Map (Bodleian Library, MS. Gough Gen. Top. 16), showing northern England.

Region or nation? The fluid identity of a Scot abroad

Few things have caused me to reflect on the relationship between personal, regional, and national identity so much as my decision to leave the United Kingdom to do my PhD. It was not like going on holiday; I was filled with excitement, but I was also very nervous. The closer I got to my destination, the further I felt from home. What on earth had I let myself in for?

Edward Gibbon (1737-94). By Joshua Reynolds.

I knew I was one of thousands of students across the centuries who had chosen to leave the British Isles in order to study in mainland Europe. I also knew that Lausanne had hosted a wealth of successful British writers and scholars, including Edward Gibbon, with whose Decline and Fall I am familiar. And, more generally, I knew that Scotland had forged strong links with Switzerland during the Reformation.

But while these facts were of interest to me, when I stepped off the train in Lausanne I felt little initial connection to the new space in which I found myself.

I’m pleased to say that things have since changed. Ironically, it is my home country – the far-away geographic area with which I identify the most – that has brought me closer to Lausanne. Almost every new person I meet asks me where I’ve come from and, here in Switzerland at least, my answer is always ‘Scotland’.

If you were to ask me the same question on British soil, I might reply differently – there, my identity as a Glaswegian would almost certainly come to the fore. I do use the adjectives ‘British’ and ‘European’ to refer to myself from time to time, but while abroad it is my identity as a Scot that seeps from every pore.

Album Academiae Lausannensis (1602-1819), Archives cantonales vaudoises, Bdd 106.

So, looking for a more personal link to my strange new home, I decided to see if I could find any Scots in the University of Lausanne’s earliest matriculation register. The majority of early students, it seems, were either Swiss or French, but, scanning each page of the centuries-old manuscript, I spotted a more familiar surname.

Scribbled under the date 1603 were the details of one Jacobus Henrison, a man from Edinburgh who registered at the Academia Lausannensis, as the university was then known, in June of that same year. This makes Henrison one of the institution’s earliest scholars, the university having been founded as a Francophone school of Protestant thinking in 1537.

It might sound strange, but, burying my identity as a Glaswegian, I felt comforted seeing this Edinburgh man’s details inscribed in the pages of an early manuscript produced in the institution with which I had just become affiliated.

Bdd 106, f. 22v.

All of which begs the following questions: am I Scottish, Glaswegian, British, or European? Am I ever all these things at once, or will context always force a lead geographic identity from me?

In Scotland, as in Switzerland and northern England, strong regional traditions sit side-by-side with nationwide celebration and collective national sentiment. And so it is the fluid nature of identity in relation to region and nation that I will bear in mind as I begin work on this project.

Hazel Blair
FNS Doctoral Researcher

The main image shows Album Academiae Lausannensis (1602-1819), Archives cantonales vaudoises, Bdd 106, ff. 22v-23r. Images reproduced with the kind permission of the archive.