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"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Religious Icons'
Dr Elaine Treharne
University of Leicester
May, 2001

Madonna Louise Veronica CicconeA recent email drew my attention to a fact that, as a thirty-six year old, I found staggering: current young undergraduates in universities across the globe have never known a world without Madonna (see the appropriately named ICON: The Official Madonna Fan Club). This forty-something cultural and pop icon, whose personal and professional business dominates the tabloids, first made her mark in the early eighties with catchy tunes that few could imagine would lead to her international fame and popularity through the succeeding decades. Her conical bra, her first marriage to the actor Sean Penn, her million-selling albums, her anti-establishment videos, her children, and her marriage most recently to Guy Ritchie, have fuelled and encouraged the public’s interest in her and her activities. Brought up a Catholic, and having named her daughter Lourdes, the site of Christian pilgrimage and famed for numerous miracles, Madonna bridges the divide between the secular and the religious in this, arguably, post-religious society. The significance of this pop star is emphasised by the name with which she was christened and promotes herself. While today’s society, particularly its younger generations, might be said to worship and adore the chameleon Queen of Pop, putting posters of her face on bedroom walls, blasting out the music she creates from CD players and car radios, this same audience would, unlike predecessors in past centuries, declare itself free from the constraints of an oppressive, institutionalised religion.

A thousand years ago, it was another Madonna, less-chameleon like, the Mother of Jesus, who was increasingly adored by the societies in Western Europe that lived a Christian life under the beady eye of the church. The church, led by its divinely ordained pope, had an influence at every level of society. The literature that survives from Anglo-Saxon England illustrates the permeation of Christianity, a religion brought to the Anglo-Saxons by Augustine on a mission from Pope Gregory in 597. Monks and clerics formed the major body of literate people in this period, responsible not only for the production of writings in Latin and Old English, but also chiefly responsible for education and scholarship. The wide range of written materials that remain to us demonstrate with conviction the predominance of religion in this society, particularly in the later period from c. 890-1150. Prose sermons and saints’ lives are numerous, but the monks and other ecclesiastics were also the compilers of manuscripts containing law-codes, penitentials (guidebooks for confessors to assist them in formulating a penance suitable for a particular sin), poetry, and historical writings. This body of literature is a window to another culture, one where religion seems pervasive, and one that is often, perhaps wrongly, regarded as ideologically dissimilar to our own twenty-first century way of living.

At first glance, students reading Old English at universities today declare themselves quite out of touch with the religious literature produced by monks and scribes in monasteries throughout England. The sermons and saints’ lives appear to belong to a long-gone era of inexplicable religiosity; the story of the crucifixion is no longer one of the most repeated reference points for living; the saint’s relic no longer has pulling power sufficient to necessitate a seventy mile walk; and the idea of confessing for over-indulgence is not one that motivates many to head off to the local church. Whether or not the average Anglo-Saxon (whoever that might be) would have believed the miraculous, dwelled on the crucifixion, stared at the relic, or rushed to confession is a somewhat moot point: the literature suggests this is what the Christian nation undertook with greater or lesser degrees of regularity. This literature, and the iconography that reinforces it in manuscripts, carvings, and other artistic media, is, then, predominantly Christian, by virtue of its mediation by those who were literate. Many of the numerous Old English and Latin homilies that survive outline in no uncertain terms the rewards for those who live a good life, and the absolutely sure damnation for those who choose the easy path of the sinful. Poems, such as 'The Dream of the Rood', or 'Elene', take as their central theme the wonder of the crucifixion and the hope of salvation offered by the cross on which Christ died. The cross itself forms a focal point for a multitude of manuscript and carved images that bring to the eyes of the believer a vivid visual recreation of the sacrifice of Christ, and the need to follow his example to attain the heavenly life. The Ruthwell Cross, for example, an early eighth-century standing cross in Dumfriesshire in Scotland, shows Christ in Majesty carved on one of its panels.

Depiction of Christ Ruthwell College This crucial image is reflected in the larger shape of the standing cross itself, a beacon to all those who came to the cross to worship, or to hear a sermon being delivered. The cross as icon of salvation retains its symbolic value today, of course, though to a much less significant extent. Recently, it has become a fashion accessory, bejewelled and encased in gold, the Cartier hanging round the neck of the wealthy socialite, its value measured in carats and weight. To St Cuthbert, a Northumbrian monk who lived in solitude during the seventh century, his garnet and gold pectoral cross was a reminder of his spiritual devotion, the upper arm of the cross being worn away, perhaps as he held it during his prayers. This cross was discovered in the coffin of St Cuthbert himself, and is on display at Durham Cathedral, where it is visited by large numbers of tourists and pilgrims as a direct witness to the life of one of England’s greatest saints.

Modern pilgrims, rather like medieval ones, make their way to the shrines of deceased saints to venerate them and to pray for their intercession. This phenomenon of pilgrimage became particularly popular in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and with it the cults of saints expanded and spread throughout Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. Saints were of inestimable import to the Anglo-Saxons and their later medieval counterparts, and numerous literary lives, physical relics, church dedications and prayers testify to their popularity throughout the centuries. Saints were those whose total commitment to Christ resulted in their emulation of his suffering, even in their death for their belief, or in a life devoted to his worship and contemplation. Most saints were endowed with the grace of God that enabled them, through that power, to initiate miraculous acts: healing the sick, making barren land flourish, exorcising demons, converting non-Christians; and, after death, magically appearing to the living, or punishing the non-believer who attempted to desecrate their tomb. While the miracles attributed to saints may seem nowadays to be unbelievable, funny even, and representative only of the naïve superstition of the many who did possess faith, this is to underestimate the reduplicative nature of humanity, and the similarity of cultures across time. One of the best known Old English saints’ lives is that of Edmund, king of East Anglia in the ninth century, murdered by the (non-Christian) Danes in 869. His life was composed first in Latin by Abbo, a monk of Fleury, and then in English in the late tenth century by Ælfric, one of the major authors in the later Anglo-Saxon period. Edmund, prior to his murder, refused to submit to the ravaging Vikings, who were infuriated by his declamations of faith in Christ. They tortured him, beating him, and piercing him with missiles (so that, as Ælfric tells us, he looked like a hedgehog), before decapitating him. On their return to their ships, the Vikings hid the head of Edmund, but Edmund’s people discovered it in the woods, and they were able to bury him whole. If the story were as straightforward as this, it would be eminently believable. The power of God, though, working through the saint, was demonstrated by the miracle of the talking head. Edmund’s people were only able to find the head because it replied to them, though without its body, as they called out to one another. Here, for the modern reader, we enter the realms of the fantastic, the text’s religious message demanding a belief that centuries of scientific revelation render impossible for the majority today. It is all to easy to ascribe to the Anglo-Saxon believer a lack of sophistication, a lack of intellectual enquiry, perhaps, and to see that society as suffused with superstition and ignorance. Yet, we still do not walk under ladders, regarding it as bad luck; we still frown when remembering it is Friday 13th; and we yet read our horoscopes as if knowing the ‘future’ as written by Mystic Meg will have some lasting impact on our actions. It is a short a-religious hop from believing in the God-given power of the saint to the superstition of contemporary life.

And so it is with other religious relics and icons of the Anglo-Saxon period, and those we can claim for ourselves in modern society. To the Anglo-Saxons, the icon or image of a saint in a manuscript or carved into ivory or stone was a representation of one whose power and humanity was so much greater than one’s own. This image was to be meditated upon, venerated, beseeched, and honoured. Numerous images of the evangelists survive from Anglo-Saxon England, for example, probably the most famous being those from the Lindisfarne Gospels. They act as dramatic visual reminders of the word of God, sitting as scribes or holding an open scroll as does St John. Similarly, relics of the saint, kept within the tomb or in smaller reliquaries, were tangible manifestations of holiness and piety to be adored and visited for the benefits that could accrue to the pilgrim. At Winchester, for instance, the body of St Swithun, a ninth-century bishop, was translated into the cathedral in the tenth century to be housed within a shrine fitting for such a holy man. Ælfric, in his life of the saint, writes extensively about the miracles that occurred around the shrine of Swithun: one of these alone includes the healings of the sick such that within ten days of the shrine’s completion, two hundred men were healed. A cynic might suggest that all publicity is good publicity, and that Ælfric was the arch-propagandist, as well as a fine author. At Exeter in the tenth century, a lengthy list of relics was compiled to demonstrate the holdings of the minster. Whole bodies and body parts (the finger of Mary Magdalene, or the head of St Bartholemew, for example) formed part of the catalogue of saint’s relics. The monks at Peterborough had managed to obtain the arm of St Oswald for their collection, but lost it again (despite the monks’ watchtower in the chapel) to a relic thief. Relics represented big business for their institutional owners as pilgrims visited and donated generously to monasteries and cathedrals, and once again, a cynic might raise doubts about the authenticity of a good many holy objects and body parts circulating in the later Anglo-Saxon period. The economic motivation for collecting and trading in relics did, no doubt, play a role, but the spiritual benefits of accruing relics and encouraging their veneration would have provided a key impetus.

This seemingly bizarre movement across counties, countries, and continents of images, fingers, heads, and little slivers of wood taken from the Cross on its discovery in the fourth century and widely distributed, may strike the modern reader of Old English literary texts and histories as a reflection of the control and manipulation of the church and its domination in society. It may seem once again representative of the naivete of the Christian worshippers believing in the efficacy of artefacts, corporeal or man-made. But things are not so different in many aspects of modern life. Autographs, images, and memorabilia of film-stars and royalty fetch astounding prices at auction and are much collected, especially those belonging to the deceased star whose trading value appreciates the earlier the death. Similarly, tennis players throw their sweaty towels to those in the crowd who adore them; academics clamour to touch rare manuscripts, their relics of the past; and photographs in frames become personal shrines for the bereaved. Moreover, there are pilgrimages to shrines of the famous, some adored in a way previously reserved for saints. Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, in Memphis, Tennessee, is kept as it was in its owner’s lifetime, attracting millions of visitors every year. Sports grounds, with their ‘hallowed’ turf, attract vast numbers of sporting pilgrims worshipping their teams. And heaven and earth are moved by some to obtain tickets for concerts, like that of Madonna at the Brixton Academy in London in 2000. And still, as ever, religious and archaeological sites yield high revenues from those who seek to put their faith in the saints of their ancestors, or simply visit because of the historical value in so doing.

Perhaps the most memorable and moving secular recreation of the entire panoply of worship and adoration, closely resonant of the veneration of the saint in the medieval period, were the scenes in Britain surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the late summer of 1997 (a phenomenon that had a world-wide effect - see CNN's Death of a Princess). Martyr to her fame, and to public and paparazzi popularity, this woman’s death resulted in an outpouring of grief, explicit media-led sanctification, and pilgrimage unseen on British and international soil for centuries. As the grief-stricken made their way to Kensington Palace to light candles, hold vigils, leave silver-framed pictures, flowers and personal remembrances, or lined the route of the funeral cortege through the counties of England, the scene provoked extensive comparison of Diana with the female martyr saint. Disturbing, dramatic, ritualistic, and yet oddly appropriate, this event, perhaps more than any other in recent years, illustrates most vividly the close connection society still has, though would usually deny, with the far-removed Anglo-Saxon religious culture of a millennium ago.

Elaine Treharne


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors