A Path to Holiness: Hagiographic Transformation and the Conversion of St. Guthlac
A survey of saints’ Lives reveals a basic division among these texts: whereas some figures are born saintly, others only attain sanctity after progressing through a number of stages. In the former category is St. Martin of Tours, of whom his biographer says: “from almost the earliest years of his hallowed childhood, this remarkable boy aspired to the service of God.”1 Conversely, figures in the latter group undergo a conversion experience that severs their previous existence from their saintly career. An especially vivid example is St. Mary of Egypt, who lived as a prostitute for seventeen years until being transformed by a vision of the Blessed Virgin at the age of twenty-nine.2 The inclusion of a conversion episode in a hagiographical context carries the potential for drawing an audience psychically closer to the subject of the Life, as the latter type of figure is not born into an unreachable sphere of sanctity, but is a former denizen of the non-saintly sphere where the audience resides.
Guthlac, an early Anglo-Saxon hermit-saint, belongs to the latter group. His earliest biographer describes how, at the age of twenty-four, he suddenly turned away from a thriving career as the leader of a marauding war band to enter the religious life of a monastery. From there, he embarked on a career as a religious solitary in the eastern fenland of England. Throughout the English Middle Ages, the Guthlac legend was retold in a variety of texts, including prose and verse Lives in Latin, Old English, and Middle English, as well as in art. Together, these texts and images, though drawing on a common body of legendary material, represent substantially different understandings of conversion. In them, conversion is alternately presented as an event or process, a sudden illumination or intense struggle, a relatable or ineffable experience.
In this study, I examine representations of Guthlac’s conversion within their cultural and historical contexts in order to suggest that these versions were shaped by the interests of differently-situated communities in medieval England. By presenting a dynamic portrait of a figure who progresses from the non-saintly to the saintly sphere, the episode of Guthlac’s conversion -- like other such episodes found in hagiographic writing and art -- enhances the exemplary function of the saint’s Life. Although the audience is not necessarily encouraged to imagine itself attaining sainthood, such an episode strongly suggests the possibility of an analogous movement toward the holy. As Thomas Heffernan points out, saints’ Lives are “designed to promote social cohesion” and “to inform and provoke approved behavior from their audiences … .”3 In the case of the Guthlac legend, the saint’s transformation into a holy man is intended to inspire a corresponding spiritual transformation in those witnessing an account of his career.
Over the course of seven hundred years, from the eighth to the fifteenth century, the episode of Guthlac’s conversion was modified in relation to the cultural work it was intended to perform.4 This diversity is reflected in the texts and images I examine here, including the oldest Latin Vita of the saint (ca. 730), an Old English poem (copied ca. 975), a series of narrative drawings known as the Guthlac Roll (ca. 1200), and a Middle English Life (ca. 1400).5 In all but one of these versions of the Guthlac legend, the conversion of the hagiographic subject is presented as a model for an analogous spiritual transformation in the audience. As I discuss in the following pages, the exemplary element is absent in the Guthlac Roll, in which the subject is deliberately isolated in a saintly sphere. Ultimately, in the Middle English versions of the legend, the episode of Guthlac’s conversion is transformed by a passage that places the saint’s spiritual progress in a late medieval discourse of penitence.
Guthlac’s was not a conversion in the contemporary, popular sense, as it did not involve the rejection of one belief system in favor of another: his earliest biographer, an East Anglian monk named Felix, states that he received Christian baptism eight days after his birth.6 Instead, his was a conversion in the broader, medieval sense of conversio. As James Muldoon explains, “the Christian who moves from one level of Christian life to another is a convert, as when a layman enters a monastery or when a monk or nun seeks a higher level of spiritual development.”7 After entering the monastic life, Guthlac followed Antony (251-356 C.E.), the famous hermit-saint who served as his model, by journeying alone into the wilderness to face a varied series of demonic challenges. There, he ultimately attained sainthood and its associated powers of thaumaturgy, clairvoyance, and prophecy.8
Despite its being only one stage in his subject’s conversion, Guthlac’s transition from the military to the religious life receives special emphasis from Felix. This emphasis might be explained by the interests of Felix’s audience, which was likely composed, at least in part, of members of the lay aristocracy. Certain features of the text point to such a conclusion. It is, first of all, dedicated to a layman: the East Anglian King Ælfwald. Unlike its hagiographic peers, it includes a description of its subject’s noble line of descent.9 Furthermore, it evinces a relative lack of interest in monastic affairs and favors fast-paced narrative action over didactic material (such as the long sermon by the saint to a group of monks that is part of the Vita Antonii).10 Felix, moreover, appears to have the needs and interests of a lay aristocracy in mind as he presents his careful and sympathetic depiction of Guthlac’s entrance into and departure from the warrior sphere. By vividly describing both Guthlac’s enthusiasm for the warrior life and the inner turmoil he experiences prior to his entrance into the religious life, he invites members of the warrior aristocracy to imagine themselves following at least this part of the saint’s path.11
Guthlac’s entrance into a military career was not, like that of St. Martin of Tours, an unwilling one. In his Vita Martini, Sulpicius Severus describes how the young Martin only enlisted in the Roman ranks under duress, and finally enraged his commander by refusing to fight the barbarians, thus making himself into an early conscientious objector.12 By contrast, in his Vita sancti Guthlaci, Felix tells how a “noble desire for command” burned in the breast of Guthlac, whose reputation as a warrior attracted followers from distant regions and tribes of Britain. The youthful saint embraced the ethos of the Germanic comitatus with gusto. When he set about to write his Vita Guthlaci, a generation after the saint’s death, Felix consequently faced the task of describing how a young marauder who amassed a tremendous amount of booty “through fire and sword” (igne ferroque) ultimately became a holy man.
He could draw on several models for depicting the saint’s conversion to a religious life. The Venerable Bede apparently viewed conversion as a necessary, or at least an important, element of a saint’s Life. In a departure from his primary source (an earlier, anonymous prose Vita), Bede transforms two consecutive miracle stories into occasions for his subject Cuthbert’s conversion. In Bede’s text, the young saint’s vision of a saintly soul rising to heaven moves him “to subject himself to the grace of spiritual discipline” (gratiam spiritualis exercitii). A second event, involving the miraculous appearance of food in a deserted shepherds’ hut, was brought about through heavenly grace, says Bede, “to confirm his spirit more resolutely ... .”13 Although Felix used Bede’s Vita Cuthberti as a model for substantial portions of his own text (most notably the saint’s death), he did not imitate Bede’s subtle account of Cuthbert’s conversion. For his portrayal of Guthlac’s conversion, Felix also could have turned to his primary literary model, the Vita Antonii, which includes an early episode in which Antony is converted to a holy life by hearing two Gospel passages read aloud in a church. Felix only gestures toward this model of conversion, however.14
Nevertheless, the Vita Guthlaci explores the phenomenon of conversion more intensively than do any of its hagiographic models. In an early chapter, Felix first presents what might be called a kind of anti-conversion, as his subject is unable to resist the tug of his warrior heritage despite the tokens of saintliness that accompany his youth.15 This initial transformation is presented as an inevitable “awakening,” as a desire for military command suddenly “burned” (fervescerat) in his breast. The young Guthlac is compelled to transform himself into a warrior (sese in arma convertit) not by thoughts of future glory, but by the remembered deeds of past heroes. These deeds (facta), presumably preserved in oral tradition, likely involved Guthlac’s noble ancestors. His relationship to the military sphere is thus fundamentally different from St. Martin’s. Whereas the latter enters into a highly organized legion as an alienated conscript, Guthlac is both rooted in and surrounded by a tradition that personally beckons him to participate in the comitatus.
Felix offers neither excuse nor apology for Guthlac’s military action, which includes the devastation of “towns and residences, villages and fortresses.”16 The tone of this section of the Vita suggests an acceptance of the heroic ethos as an integral component of society. Guthlac’s burning desire for command is egregius (“excellent,” “extraordinary”); the deeds of old that he seeks to emulate are valida (“strong,” “powerful”). At this moment, in particular, the Vita Guthlaci seems to speak from within what Patrick Wormald has called the “vast zone of silence” separating the writings of Bede from Beowulf.17 Although he is writing in a literary system of Latin prose hagiography, Felix is also clearly attuned to the concerns of the warrior aristocracy of which his subject was a part. This concern also is reflected in his account of Guthlac’s transition from the military to the religious sphere.
The decision to set aside the sword and embrace the religious life takes place during a lull in hostilities, when Guthlac has exhausted his adversaries and is encamped in the field with his retainers. At this point, says Felix, he is “tossed (iactaretur) amid the uncertain events of passing years, amid the gloomy clouds of life’s darkness, and amid the whirling waves of the world.”18 During the night, a spiritual flame (spiritalis flamma) invades his breast in a manner strongly reminiscent of the desire for command that burned in his breast just two chapters earlier. This moment of grace then triggers a series of internal revelations, as Guthlac suddenly perceives the “wretched deaths and the shameful ends of the ancient kings of his race,” the “fleeting riches” and “contemptible glory of this temporal life,” and his own imagined death should he continue on his current path.19 The past that had previously fired his desire for command is now a source of spiritual struggle, and his noble descent here returns to haunt him. In its vivid depiction of an individual’s inner turmoil as he turns his back on a deeply engrained heroic ethos, the Vita Guthlaci stands out from contemporary Anglo-Latin hagiography. This type of interiority and contemplation of the past does not appear in Bede’s historical and hagiographical writings, which instead generally describe converts to Christianity and the religious life as looking forward to the rewards of Christian virtue.20
Although Guthlac does not adopt a new belief system, he is forced at this point to sever his connections to a shared heroic past and to the outstanding figures of his lineage (stirpis suae). In view of the fact that the conversion of Mercia did not commence until 653,21 a mere generation before the birth of Guthlac, the resultant wounds from such a separation with the past likely lingered for much of Felix’s audience, and this passage in the Vita Guthlaci points to what must have been a very real struggle for members of the warrior class.
Felix’s audience nevertheless must have been familiar with the ideal of trading the life of a warrior for that of a monk. According to Bede, there was a notable amount of traffic from the warrior aristocracy to the religious life during this period, as a series of kings put aside crown and sword to accept the baptismal robe and tonsure. In Guthlac’s own Mercia, King Æthelred “became a monk and left his kingdom to Cenred” in 704, who in turn left for Rome after ruling for five years.22 Felix’s careful description of an individual conversion from a warrior ethos to the religious life therefore might have been directed not only at members of the warrior aristocracy, but also at the Vita’s dedicatee, King Ælfwald of East Anglia, as well as Æthelbald, the contemporary king of Mercia. Historical sources suggest that Æthelbald, who appears in the latter chapters of Felix’s text as a young exile and visitor to the hermit-saint prior to his accession, might have prompted such a message, as he was rumored to have engaged in various forms of iniquity during his rule.23
Although Guthlac’s journey to sainthood properly begins with his nocturnal conversion to the religious life, this is only a first step. Following the model of Antony, he must then progress to the eremitic life and overcome a series of demonic struggles before attaining sanctity. These further steps in his spiritual development move Guthlac beyond the range of experience of Felix’s audience. Felix, however, is able to familiarize these experiences for his audience by drawing parallels between Guthlac’s entrance into the life of a miles Christi and his earlier transformation into a warrior. After briefly describing how Guthlac is immersed in the monastic life over the course of two years, Felix then tells how:
cum enim priscorum monachorum solitariam vitam legebat, tum inluminatio cordis gremio avida cupidine heremum quaerere fervebat.
[When he read about the solitary life of monks of former days, then his heart was enlightened and burned with an eager desire to make his way to the desert.] 24
Even after the saint sunders himself from his own immediate history and that of his ancestors, the past continues to play a central role in his Vita. This time, however, it is an alternate heroic past, preserved in Christian hagiography, which draws him. In order to fashion himself after the ancient, ascetic Christian heroes of a former age, Guthlac resolves to seek the desert.
The parallels with his entrance into the warrior life are striking. In both cases, the remembered acts of historical figures function as catalysts for personal change. Taking the place of the valiant deeds of bygone heroes, passed down through oral tradition, are the solitary lives of past monks, celebrated in the monastic manuscript. Guthlac’s internal response to these historical models is described using nearly identical verbs of burning or boiling: in the first passage, a desire for military command fervescerat in his young breast; in the second, his heart fervebat to seek the solitude of the desert. The central scene of the overnight conversion to the religious life is, then, bracketed within the Vita Guthlaci by connected acts of self-fashioning, as Guthlac adopts heroic models from a native past and then a Christian Latin one.
Felix gave shape to the Guthlac legend within the literary system of Latin prose hagiography, and subsequent versions of the legend drew from his account. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the saint’s life also was treated in the native idiom of alliterative verse. Two pre-conquest poems on Guthlac have survived, preserved consecutively in the Exeter Book, an Old English poetic miscellany copied in the latter part of the tenth century.25 The second of the poems, called Guthlac B by modern editors, tells of the saint’s death, and does not touch on the subject of his conversion. Its companion piece, Guthlac A, focuses on the saint’s confrontations with his demonic adversaries. Prior to its narration of these encounters, Guthlac A describes the saint’s conversion to the religious life in a manner strikingly different from Felix’s text.26
In Guthlac A, the separate scenes of conversion to the monastic and then to the solitary life found in the Vita are collapsed into a single event. The poet’s only concern in this section of the poem is to describe how his subject came to establish his dwelling-place in the wilderness (on westennum).27 No mention is made in the poem of Guthlac’s abbreviated monastic career, and the historical and geographical context of the Vita is almost entirely absent. However, a few lines are enough to suggest that, within the Guthlac A poet’s milieu, the saint’s martial youth was a salient component of his legend: “Hwæt we hyrdon oft þæt se halga wer / in þa ærestan ældu gelufade / frecnessa fela” (“Indeed, we have often heard that the holy man loved many perilous things in the earliest period of his life”) (11.108-10). This brief allusion, it seems, is sufficient to evoke the entire episode of Guthlac’s military career for the poem’s audience.
In the very next lines, the poet uses an adversative clause to introduce the subject of the saint’s conversion:
fyrst wæs swa þeana
in Godes dome hwonne Guðlace
on his ondgietan engel sealde
þæt him sweðraden synna lustas.
[The time was, nevertheless, in God's decree, when he would put an angel in Guthlac’s mind so that desires for sinful things subsided for him.] (11. 110-13)
The poet then explains that the conversion only came about after a struggle between Guthlac’s good and bad angels (engel dryhtnes 7 se atela gæst) (1. 116). His conversion to the religious life, imagined in the Vita as the outcome of a moment of enlightenment regarding human history, is here described as a spiritual battle. On the one hand, the angel of the Lord advises Guthlac to spurn the things of this world and to look to the heavenly reward. On the other, the evil spirit urges him to join a gang of criminals (sceaðena gemot) (1. 127). This passage draws on the belief, promulgated from the early Christian period, that each person is accompanied by a good and bad angel who battle over the individual’s soul.28 This depiction of the saint’s conversion clearly illustrates Richard Fletcher’s observation that conversion narratives “offer an open door to colonization by formulaic topoi.”29 The result in this instance is that the saint’s spiritual transformation is portrayed not as a continuous struggle but as a battle with a definite end that is conversion. Consequently, time is presented throughout the passage as a crucial ally of conversion. The period (fyrst) of the guardian angel’s victory, says the poet, was in God’s control (1. 110). The event itself is then accompanied by an announcement that the moment was at hand (Tid wæs toweard) (1. 114).
What is depicted as a process of individual enlightenment in the Vita becomes, in Guthlac A, a struggle in which personal agency seemingly plays no part. Instead, the conversion unfolds entirely as part of God’s plan (in Godes dome). While a divine plan (divino numine) is an important element in the Vita conversion, Felix also depicts Guthlac mulling over (cogitabat, cogitante) his options before choosing the religious life.30 In Guthlac A, by contrast, the conversion is brought about exclusively through God’s will: the two spirits battled over the saint, says the poet, until “the Lord of hosts decreed the end in judgment of the angel” (weoroda dryhten / on þæs engles dom ende gereahte) (11. 135-36). Whereas, in the Vita, Guthlac is at least a participant in his own conversion, in the poem he is portrayed as the passive object of divine will.
Despite the dramatic differences between this portrayal of the saint’s conversion and Felix’s text, I would suggest that it, like the episode in the Vita Guthlaci, served an exemplary function for the poem’s audience. Because of the uncertainty regarding the date of the poem’s composition (an uncertainty shared by most of the Old English poetic corpus), the only audience that might be posited with any confidence is that related to the tenth-century manuscript context. Like the other major Old English poetic codices, the Exeter Book was presumably copied in a monastic setting. Its date indicates that it was written during the period of the Benedictine reform movement, at the heart of which was a desire to spread the strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict and to cleanse the monasteries of practices inconsistent with that rule.31 One might expect a special interest in broadly conceived notions of conversion during this period, as the line between institutional and personal reform was not always clear.
In Guthlac A, the saint’s conversion appears to serve as a model for a primarily monastic audience. Unlike Felix’s Vita, Guthlac A evinces a deep concern with monastic matters, and the episode of the saint’s conversion is echoed in a subsequent scene dealing with monastic life.32 In a departure from Felix’s text, Guthlac A describes how a pack of demons carries the saint aloft and endows him with superhuman powers of sight so that he is able to peer down into monasteries and observe the misbehavior of certain young monks within (11. 412-20). After the demons have returned him to his hermitage, Guthlac responds defiantly to them and to their proffered spectacle:
Ic eow soð wiþ þon secgan wille:
God scop geoguðe 7 gumena dream;
ne magun þa æfteryld in þam ærestan
blæde geberan ac hy blissiað
worulde wynnum oððæt wintra rim
gegæð in þa geoguðe þæt se gæst lufað
onsyn 7 ætwist yldran hades
ðe gemete monige geond middangeard
þeowiað in þeawum; þeodum ywaþ
wisdom weras, wlencu forleosað,
siððan geoguðe geað gæst aflihð.
[I will tell you a truth against that: God created youth and human joy. In their first age, they cannot bring forth maturity and fruit, but rejoice in worldly joys until a number of years passes away in youth, so that the spirit comes to love the appearance and form of a more mature order which many throughout the world follow. As men they display wisdom to the people and forsake pride, after the spirit flees the folly of youth.] (II. 494-504)
In this humane assessment, the saint avers that time (expressed as wintra rim, a number of years), the crucial element in his own conversion, will ultimately transform the young monks he has observed as well. Guthlac’s conversion to the holy life is not depicted as the idiosyncratic experience of a member of the warrior class, but as the outcome of a battle between the competing spirits that accompany every Christian soul. His conversion is thus transformed to serve the needs of a monastic audience -- particularly, it would seem, the younger members of that audience.
The Guthlac legend retained its popularity in England in the centuries following the Norman Conquest, during which several Latin recensions of Felix’s Vita, in verse and prose, were produced.33 One of the more impressive examples of Guthlaciana from this period is British Museum Harleian Roll Y.6, generally known as the Guthlac Roll.34 The Roll, produced about 1200 C.E., is a pictorial narrative composed of a series of tinted drawings representing scenes from the saint’s life. Its purpose is unclear; attempts have been made to explain its drawings as “cartoons for glass, as shrine decorations, altar decorations, spandrils of arches in chapels or sculptured reliefs over imposing doorways.”35 Whatever its intended function, the Roll appears likely to have been a model for some type of public display, suggesting a relatively broad audience that would have included a lay element.
Compared with the texts discussed above, the Roll provides a much less elaborate portrayal of Guthlac’s conversion from the military to the religious life. Although this difference is no doubt due in part to the limitations of pictorial narrative,36 it is also the result of a shift in emphasis from Guthlac’s initial conversion to later events leading up to sainthood. The Roll, in other words, moves the focus from Guthlac’s initial conversion to what one might call (once again using the broader definition of the word) the later stages of his conversion. This shift in perspective appears to be the result, in turn, of a larger shift in purpose relative to the other texts discussed in this study. In the Roll, the exemplary aspect of the saint’s legend is diminished in relation to another goal, which is to inspire awe and devotion in the audience for the purpose of promoting the saint’s cult.
Guthlac’s conversion to the religious life is depicted in the first drawing of the extant Roll (Fig. 5). An initial section of indeterminate length has been cut away from the Roll, including half of this conversion scene. Enough of the roundel remains, however, to give a clear impression of the overall drawing. The artist follows Felix’s account by portraying Guthlac asleep among his comrades during this event.37 Since the surviving portion of this initial drawing includes the oblique form Guthlaci in its caption, the missing area presumably contained a nominative such as conversio or cogitatio, thus forming a short, descriptive tag of the kind found in the other drawings of the Roll.38 Even if it were accompanied by a relatively full descriptive tag, though, the drawing nevertheless occludes the saint’s conversion more completely than do the texts discussed up to this point. In the drawing, the viewer is privy neither to Guthlac’s reflections on human futility and earthly transience (as in the Vita) nor to the arguments of the contending angels (as in Guthlac A). Instead, the viewer is only able to observe Guthlac’s inscrutable visage as he sleeps. The process of conversion is thus removed from examination. Only the consequences of conversion are made visible, as in the next drawing, in which Guthlac departs from his comrades, dismissing their protests with the back of his hand. In the Roll’s initial drawing, then, conversion becomes an inaccessible event, hidden in mystery.
Fig. 5. Guthlac Roll: Guthlac leaves his warband
The spiritual challenges Guthlac subsequently encounters on the way to sainthood are the subject of a series of three following drawings. In them, he is portrayed in scenarios that are increasingly removed from the experiences of the audience. This separation is dramatized in the Roll by the figure of Beccel, Guthlac’s attendant (who also appears in Felix’s Vita) at Crowland Abbey, which had grown up on the site of the saint’s former hermitage. As the only figure within this group of drawings who is neither angel, nor demon, nor saint, Beccel functions as a representative of the Roll’s audience. He first appears in a scene in which Guthlac converses with an angel and St. Bartholomew (Fig. 6). Although his appearance in this particular scene seems to suggest that he acts as a witness to Guthlac’s process of sanctification, several details in the drawing suggest otherwise. He is pictured, slightly hunched over, on the furthest edge of the roundel, opposite the saint, with most of his body outside of the frame. In addition, he is separated from the saint and his heavenly companions (who have their backs turned to him) by a pillar. While visibly present in this roundel, then, Guthlac’s attendant is also clearly excluded from the process of the saint’s spiritual development. This isolation is magnified in the next drawing (Fig. 7), in which Beccel remains in his master’s chapel, gazing at a chalice in apparent meditation on the mystery of the Eucharist, as Guthlac is borne aloft and scourged by a group of demons. He is then entirely absent in the next drawing after this, set at the mouth of hell (Fig. 8), in which Guthlac finally attains sainthood (indicated graphically by the addition of a nimbus). While the audience observes the events leading up to Guthlac’s entrance into a state of sanctity in the Harley Roll, the figure of Beccel serves to convey the idea that this process is, in a fundamental sense, inaccessible to the understanding of the non-saintly individual.
Fig. 6. Guthlac Roll: Guthlac with St. Bartholomew and Angel
Fig. 7. Guthlac Roll: Guthlac borne aloft and scourged
By suggesting that the process of Guthlac’s spiritual development is finally beyond the ken of the Roll’s audience, the artist also encourages that audience to view him from a certain perspective. Instead of identifying to some degree with the saint and his conversion, the audience is prompted to venerate him. This perspective is fully realized in the Roll’s final drawing (Fig. 9), in which a group of benefactors presses toward Guthlac’s tomb, gazing heavenward and holding banners that announce their gifts to Crowland Abbey. The primary purpose of the Roll is to generate support for this foundation, and in order to do so, the artist removes Guthlac from the sphere of human experience and places him in a sacred realm from which he is able to lend his saintly power.
Fig. 8. Guthlac Roll: Guthlac achieves sainthood
In stark contrast to the perspective suggested by the Guthlac Roll, the barrier between saint and audience is removed in the final group of texts to be discussed in this study. Related versions of the Guthlac legend can be found in three manuscripts of the South English Legendary, a diverse collection of saints’ Lives written in Middle English verse. All three versions of the Middle English Life of Guthlac appear in later manuscripts of the Legendary, dating from approximately the last quarter of the fourteenth to the first quarter of the fifteenth century.39 Despite some substantial differences between them, these retellings of the Guthlac legend clearly descend from a common textual ancestor. The Middle English Life of Guthlac, like the Vita Guthlaci produced approximately seven centuries before it, appears to have been written to appeal to a wide audience.40 But whereas Felix’s text participates in an elevated literary system of Latin prose hagiography, the Middle English Guthlac texts are, like the other Lives in the Legendary, written in a style that has been described as “basically light and childlike.”41
Fig. 9. Guthlac Roll: At St. Guthlac's tomb
The most dramatic difference between the Guthlac texts in the Legendary and the texts discussed above is the complete omission of the saint’s youthful career as a warrior and subsequent conversion to the religious life. Instead, the poet simply states that, following a virtuous youth, Guthlac went to the monastery of Ripon where he took “þe abit of clerc.”42 Missing, as well, is the Vita episode in which Guthlac reads of the ancient hermits whose model he would follow. The Middle English poet states, without further explanation, that Guthlac “desireþe wildernesse. 3if he mi3te hit ise.”43 Although the episode of the saint’s conversion holds the potential to connect his experience with that of the audience, the omission of this same episode has precisely the same effect in the Middle English Life of Guthlac. In the Life, the saint never belongs to a warrior class that is removed from the experience of the audience members, nor is he explicitly transformed and differentiated from the audience through an idiosyncratic conversion experience. Instead, Guthlac sought out Crowland, says the poet, “his lif forto amende.”44 In this version of the legend, the saint is conveyed into the fenland, not by his desire to follow the model of ancient monks, but by a penitential impulse that is ideally shared by every Christian and that had received widespread attention in the years following the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 C.E.)45 The Middle English Life of Guthlac thus participates in a penitential discourse echoed in contemporary late medieval texts, including The Canterbury Tales. In language almost identical to the above passage, Chaucer’s Parson stresses to each of his fellow pilgrims that he must be diligent “for to amenden hym of his lyf.”46
The Middle English Guthlac poet nevertheless acknowledges that the Anglo-Saxon saint’s particular method of “amending” his life is beyond that which might be realistically expected from members of his audience. After describing the saint’s solitary withdrawal to the fenland, one version of the Life inserts the comment:
Vewe men hit wolde now do . ri3t soþ vor to telle
Hy habbeþ leuere jn toune . to hure an idel tale
Oþer sitte at þe tauerne . to drynke wyn and ale
So ne dede nou3t synt Guthlac ... .
[To tell the truth, few people now would do so.
They would rather hear an idle tale
In town or sit at the tavern drinking wine and ale.
Saint Guthlac did not do so.] (223.50-53)
As is the case with similar passages in the South English Legendary, the tone here is one of gentle chastisement rather than strident sermonizing.47 Even as he seems implicitly to distance his audience members from the saint, the poet also connects them to him by suggesting that everyone can follow in Guthlac’s footsteps, if only they “hit wolde now do.” Guthlac’s eremitic existence is held up as an ideal, which the audience members are encouraged, if not to emulate, at least to approximate as they “amend” their own lives.
The surviving texts and images associated with the Guthlac legend illustrate some of the ways in which hagiographic material could be manipulated to meet the needs of widely different audiences. The depiction of the saint’s conversion, in particular, was repeatedly transformed to encourage a desired response in a given audience. The Middle English Life of Guthlac ultimately makes the experience of the eremitic saint accessible to a broad audience by displacing a discourse of conversion with one of penitence. In this version of the legend, the course of Guthlac’s life is not transformed by a flash of divine enlightenment, as it is in Felix’s Vita, nor is it changed by the outcome of a struggle between spiritual beings, as in Guthlac A. Instead, Guthlac begins his ascent to sainthood through a personal and imitable desire to “amend” himself. In the case of the Harley Roll, the audience is encouraged to admire the saint’s spiritual progress from an awed distance. In the other instances discussed above, the audience is directed to follow the saint’s path -- as far as they are able.
Sulpicius Severus, The Life of Saint Martin, trans. F. R. Hoare, in Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (University Park, 1995), 6.
Mary of Egypt was a popular figure throughout the European Middle Ages. Ælfric included a version of her legend in his Lives of the Saints. D. H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1992), 330-31.
Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (New York, 1988), 18, 30.
A number of recent studies examine the cultural work of hagiography in the Middle Ages. In a recent article, Theresa Coletti states: “[n]ew understandings of the role of the saints in the Middle Ages ... have stressed the ways in which hagiographic narrative and cultic practice, far from simply representing a stable, transhistorical realm of Christian values, participated in crucial ways in the production of social and political power.” “Paupertas est donum Dei: Hagiography, Lay Religion, and the Economics of Salvation in the Digby Mary Magdalene,” Speculum 76 (2001): 339.
This study is selective rather than comprehensive, and therefore does not examine every text and image related to the saint. For a full list of extant Guthlaciana, see Jane Roberts, “An Inventory of Early Guthlac Materials,” Mediaeval Studies 32 (1970): 193-233.
Bertram Colgrave, ed., Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac (Cambridge, 1956), 76. All quotations from and translations of Felix’s Vita Guthlaci are from this edition. Commenting on this passage in Felix, Richard Fletcher notes that “[f] or the vast majority of early medieval Christians ... infant baptism was the norm.” The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Berkeley, 1997), 276.
James Muldoon, ed., Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages (Gainesville, 1997), 1. Carole M. Cusack notes that the Latin term conversio has the meaning of “turning from carelessness to true piety.” Conversion among the Germanic Peoples (London, 1998), 5.
On Felix’s extensive borrowing from the Vita Antonii, from the structural to the verbal level, see Benjamin P. Kurtz, “From St. Antony to St. Guthlac: A Study in Biography,” University of California Publications in Modern Philology 12 (1926): 103-46. Both Felix and his subject presumably used this well-known text as a model -- in the former case, as a textual model; in the latter, as a model for hagiographic self-fashioning.
Bede, by contrast, is silent regarding Cuthbert’s lineage, despite the fact that certain incidental details suggest he was a member of the nobility (e.g., when he arrives at the monastery of Melrose to take up the monastic discipline, he is mounted and carries a spear). Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (New York, 1969), 172-73.
Charles W. Jones, Saints' Lives and Chronicles in Early England (Ithaca, 1947), 86.
Felix’s Latin text, which sometimes uses the obscure diction characteristic of the Aldhelmian style, might have been translated extemporaneously for a lay audience. One copy of a full Old English prose translation of Felix’s Vita, copied in the eleventh century, survives. A fragment of the same Old English Life of Guthlac also appears at the end of the late tenth-century Vercelli Book. See Das angelsächsische Prosa-Leben des hl. Guthlac, ed. Paul Gonser (Heidelberg, 1909). Michael Swanton asserts that “no doubt simple vernacular prose versions soon followed” Felix’s Vita. Anglo-Saxon Prose (London, 1993), xvi.
Life of Saint Martin, 5-8.
Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, 164-71.
In an apparent echo of the Vita Antonii, Felix’s Vita XVIII. 82 describes how Guthlac’s conversion is punctuated by his recollection of a passage from Matthew 24:20. The Gospel passage is only one, relatively minor, element in Guthlac’s conversion, however.
In spite of the personal transformations Guthlac undergoes, his ultimate attainment of saintly status is never in doubt. Predestination plays a central role in the first part of Felix’s text, beginning with a manus Dei descending from heaven to mark the door of the house in which Guthlac is born (V-VII.74-77). His name (translated into Latin as belli munus, or “the reward of war”) is interpreted by Felix as a further token of his eventual sainthood (X.76-79). It is within this framework of predestined sanctity that Felix presents three scenes in which his subject successively turns to the life of the warrior, the monk, and the hermit.
This apparent approbation, or at least tolerance, might be related to the identity of Guthlac’s adversaries. It is probable that he would have fought Britons along Mercia’s western border during his military career, as Welsh annals indicate that these borderlands were the scene of almost constant hostility during this period. Patrick Wormald, “The Age of Offa and Alcuin,” in The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell (Harmondsworth, 1991), 119. The unapologetic tone in Felix’s Vita is not surprising if Guthlac’s martial activity were, in fact, directed against the Britons, toward whom hostility no doubt existed in contemporary Mercia.
Patrick Wormald, “Bede, ‘Beowulf,’ and the Conversion of the AngloSaxon Aristocracy,” in Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Robert T. Farrell, British Archaeological Reports 46 (London, 1978): 36.
Vita Guthlaci XVIII.80-81.
Vita Guthlaci XVIII.80-83.
Of King Credwalla of Wessex, for example, Bede says that he “gave up his throne for the sake of the Lord and to win an everlasting kingdom ... for he had learned that by the way of baptism alone can the human race attain entrance to the heavenly life.” Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), 468-71. Bede’s elaborate account of the conversion of King Edwin includes several scenes in which Edwin broods over his decision, but does not portray the convert’s inner dimension in the manner of the Vita Guthlaci (Ecclesiastical History II.12: 180-81).
With its strong emphasis on the theme of earthly instability, its preoccupation with the past and the ultimate consequences of the warrior life, and its depiction of an individual’s inner turmoil, this particular scene in the Vita Guthlaci is strongly reminiscent of some of the poems and poetic passages labeled “Old English elegy” by modern scholars. Within this scene in Felix’s text, then, elements drawn from a native poetic tradition seem to impinge on the prose Latin Vita, thereby familiarizing his account of the saint’s conversion. Alexandra Hennessey Olsen discusses this phenomenon in “Old English Poetry and Latin Prose: The Reverse Context,” Classica et Mediaevalia 34 (1983): 278.
Missionaries from Northumbria were allowed to begin their work there in spite of the fact that Penda, the Mercian king at the time, remained pagan. Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1971), 120.
Bede Ecclesiastical History 7:470-73.
Boniface, along with seven other bishops, wrote a letter to the king ca. 746-747 imploring him to reform. Specifically, the bishop accuses the ruler of fornicating with nuns, stealing revenues from churches and monasteries, and violently oppressing monks and priests through his ealdormen. English Historical Documents, Vol. 1, ed. Dorothy Whitelock (London, 1955), 751-56.
Vita Guthlaci XXIV.86-87.
Exeter, Cathedral 3501.
The same can be said of the entire poem in relation to the Vita Guthlaci -- a fact that has given rise to a long-running dispute over the possible relationship of Guthlac A to the Vita. While some scholars have concluded that the Guthlac A poet must have known the Vita Guthlaci, others have argued that the poem was produced independently of Felix’s text. For a summary of the arguments on both sides, see Jane Roberts’ introduction to her edition of the Guthlac poems: The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book (Oxford, 1979), 19-29.
Roberts, Guthlac Poems, 85. All quotations from Guthlac A are from this edition, with line numbers given in the main text. Translations are my own.
This doctrine can be traced back to Hermas (ca. 200 C.E.), who states that “there are two angels with a man -- one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity.” Origen (ca. 255 C.E.) expands on Hermas slightly, explaining that “[w]henever good thoughts arise in our hearts, they are suggested by the good angel. But when those of a contrary kind arise, they are the instigation of the evil angel.” A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody, MA, 1998), 17. See also Roberts, Guthlac Poems, 131 n.
Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 12.
Vita Guthlaci XVIII.82-83.
Dom David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1963), 31-82.
Christopher A. Jones refers to the poem’s “‘cenobitizing’ tendencies.” “Envisioning the Cenobium in the Old English Guthlac A,” Mediaeval Studies 57 (1995): 260.
See W. F. Bolton, “The Latin Revisions of Felix’s ‘Vita Sancti Guthlaci’,” Mediaeval Studies 21 (1959): 36-52.
The Roll is reproduced, with commentary, in Sir George Warner, The Guthlac Roll (Oxford, 1928).
Roberts, “Inventory,” 208.
On such limitations, see Lawrence G. Duggan, “Was Art Really the ‘Book of the Illiterate’?” Word & Image 5 (1989): 227-51.
Interestingly, however, the drawing also departs from the Vita, in which Guthlac is the leader of his war band, by including a different, unidentified individual as the main figure in the group. Perhaps the artist was reluctant to depict the young saint at the center of a warband, despite the authority of Felix’s text. The main figure in the drawing could be, as George Henderson suggests, “Prince Æthelbald, anachronistically already present in the story.” “The Imagery of St. Guthlac of Crowland,” in England in the Thirteenth Century, ed. W. M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, 1986), 84.
Gonser, ed., Das angelsächsische Prosa-leben, 189-90.
W. F. Bolton, “The Middle English and Latin Poems of Saint Guthlac” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1954), 170. The South English Legendary survives in forty-five manuscripts, the earliest of which dates from the mid to late thirteenth century. All quotations from the Guthlac texts in the Legendary are from Bolton’s edition.
The style of the Legendary strongly indicates that it was intended for a lay audience. Precisely what type of lay audience remains uncertain, however. Annie Samson argues that it was not written for the masses, but was “a work written initially for regional gentry and perhaps secular clergy, and designed either for individual reading or reading in chamber, rather than as entertainment of the hall or public instruction in church.” “The South English Legendary: Constructing a Context,” Thirteenth Century England 1 (1986): 194.
Gregory M. Sadlek, “Three Basic Questions in Literary Studies of the South English Legendary” (Ph.D. diss., Northern Illinois University, 1983), 221.
Life of Guthlac 185.26
Life of Guthlac 185.30
Life of Guthlac 185.43
See Mary Flowers Braswell, The Medieval Sinner: Characterization and Confession in the Literature of the English Middle Ages (East Brunswick, 1983).
The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston, 1987), 296.
Klaus P. Janofsky states that “the legends in the South English Legendary are not sermons.” The narrator, he goes on to say, “humanizes the saints, bringing them close to the audience’s empathetic understanding.” “Personalized Didacticism: The Interplay of Narrator and Subject Matter in the South English Legendary,” Texas A&I University Studies 10 (1977): 74.