Underwhelming Miracles of the Middle Ages – Chris Rouse

Chris Rouse is a graduate with an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of York. He is a keen writer and loves to bore people about various historical topics. He is the founder of Voces Historiae. This essay by Chris also appears in the inaugural print issue of Porridge which is available for purchase here.

Image: St Cuthbert and otters, from a 12th Century manuscript of Bede’s Vita Cuthberti. British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 24r.

Underwhelming Miracles of the Middle Ages

When we hear the word ‘miracle’ it is common, natural, to assume it refers to something, well, ‘miraculous’: magical, spectacular, awe-inspiring. And to be sure, medieval narrative sources are littered with such vignettes, episodes where a saintly figure calls on God and displays remarkable power. St Columba banished the Loch Ness Monster; saints had incredible prophetic powers, breaking through the boundaries of time; springs frequently burst forth at the touch of a saint; people were healed, even resurrected (Wilfrid, for instance, brought a baby back to life; his holy credentials were perhaps strained, however, when he had the child abducted seven years later after the boy’s mother broke her earlier promise to send him to Wilfrid). These are likely what we expect when we consider the medieval miracle.

There is, however, a rich undercurrent in medieval hagiography and histories, a counterpoint to the high power of divinely channelled might. There are a number of words which could be used to describe this seam of miracles – grounded, maybe, or prosaic. Even, at times, underwhelming.

A reading list for a seminar during my MA included some literature on St. William (d. 1154), who emerged (perhaps surprisingly) as the patron saint of York. William became heavily embroiled in political disputes, including with Bernard of Clairvaux (a figure implicated in the disastrous Second Crusade) and his career was dogged with accusations of simony, forgery, murder, arson, and unchaste living. He also has the dubious honour of being the only person twice elected to the archiepiscopate of York after he was deposed in 1148 and reinstated in April 1154.

On top of this sterling record is what is relevant here; what Christopher Norton described as ‘surely one of the least remarkable miracles in the annals of hagiography.’ The Ouse bridge collapsed, and no-one died. This event was quickly interpreted as a miracle of William’s, which helped manoeuvre him into sainthood: he was venerated from the late 1170s and formally canonised in 1226. Unremarkable as a miracle, perhaps, but demonstrative of a cult following who needed to secure and prove some sign of divine favour for their patron. Sainthood and veneration were dynamic processes, and the readiness to interpret a health and safety incident as a miracle to establish William as a saint demonstrates the often fraught nature of sanctity.

This is one way in which these unremarkable miracles can be an interesting and rewarding. Despite their apparent triviality, they offer important insights into medieval theology, Church politics, and ideology. There are several other examples, interesting anecdotes in their own right (interesting, perhaps paradoxically, because of their mundanity), which help unpick the medieval conceptualisation of the saint. For convenience, the following are drawn from Britain and Ireland c.550-800; there are doubtless many other good examples!

Cuthbert (an overrated saint, in my opinion, who pales in comparison to Wilfrid, even with his child-abducting tendencies – but that’s another article) is one of the more well documented figures of the early Church period in early medieval England. He comes to us today primarily from four early medieval sources (there are later Lives) which are, to an extent, all variations of each other.

The Anonymous Life of Cuthbert came first, followed by Bede’s trio: a metrical Life, a prose Life, and his Ecclesiastical History. These share a similar stock of miracles, which Bede generally embellishes, along with the content and style of the Life as a whole. No amount of rhetorical flourish, however, can raise a few episodes from the distinctly ‘ho-hum’. That the following are included is even more interesting when it is considered that Chapter 7 of the Anonymous Life’s Book 1 concerns “miracles which have been omitted”. Using the rhetorical technique of apophasis, the author states he will not write about ‘how when dwelling in camp with the army’ he ‘lived abundantly all the time and was strengthened by divine aid… And I omit as well how he saw the soul of a reeve carried up to the sky on his death. I also refrain from telling how wonderfully he put demons to flight’. Instead of these possibly fascinating nuggets, we get episodes like the following:

That Time an Angel Came to Tea

Shortly after Cuthbert first received his tonsure, he met a man along the road. Cuthbert, after washing the man’s hands and feet, invited the person (secretly an angel) to wait inside with him. Cuthbert, having ‘in his humility rubbed his guest’s feet with his own hands to warm them on account of the cold’, searched for food; there wasn’t any. After a prolonged search, he returned to the man to find three loaves of bread. Three. That is, slightly more than sufficient and not enough to be bounteous; rather, one each, with an awkward leftover loaf. At this miraculous provision of slightly too much food, Cuthbert realised his guest was an angel.

That Time Cuthbert Used Otters as Towels

Cuthbert was a renowned animal lover, to the extent that a breed of waterbird (the Cuddy Duck) is named after him. This love even extended to the functionality of animals. After a meditative paddle in the North Sea, Cuthbert’s feet were dried and warmed by the fur and breath of otters. A man saw this occur, and was subsequently rebuked and sworn to secrecy by (the possibly slightly embarrassed?) Cuthbert.

As one of the figures credited with converting the Picts, St Columba was known to be a powerful and important figure. His earliest hagiographer, Adomnan, stated that ‘what proofs of his powers the venerable man displayed must briefly be shown in the beginning of this book’: a roll-call of miracles was needed to prove Columba was a saint. This included appearing to King Oswald in a vision shortly before a successful battle which helped secure Christianity in Northumbria (echoing Constantine), blessing a herd of cows to miraculously multiply in size,  and being visited by the Holy Spirit. It also included:

Those Times Columba Had Some Banal Predictions

After predicting – with no explicit moralising – that a false penitent would eat stolen mare’s meat with thieves, Columba turned his hand to some domestic prophecy. He predicted that a psalter would miss a single letter ‘I’ (Jennifer O’Reilly notes the deep numerological and theological symbolism in this: ‘I’, iota, was the smallest letter, amplifying Columba’s powers, and Christ cited iota in the Sermon on the Mount); that someone would spill an inkhorn; and that someone would drop a psalter into water. The latter two have the whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy about them – if a holy man foretold you were to drop or spill something, there’s a fair chance your nerves would be on edge and clumsiness would follow. Naturally, all these events came to pass.

As I argued above, these miracles – underwhelming as they may seem – are nevertheless steeped in historical and ideological significance. At a basic level, beyond showing that a bit of slapstick has a long pedigree, they give us snapshots of the past – the wildlife off the Northumbrian coast, for instance, or the nature of book production.

They also reveal deep contemporary concerns over what was considered important. Columba’s miracles, for instance, often relate to books and their wellbeing. That the accuracy and durability of books is included as integral to the life of the saint demonstrates their centrality to medieval Christian thought. Books were vessels of the word of God, and therefore had to be perfect; their association with a saint would reaffirm this importance. For Cuthbert, the message is clear: put faith in God, and the result would be sustenance and comfort. It is the very quotidian nature of these miracles that ensures their potency. To the medieval audience, God permeated every facet of existence, providing nourishment, warmth and succour. The importance of obedience was also affirmed.

Finally, the road towards sainthood was frequently a fraught and contested protest. There were, for instance, shades of criticism from Bede towards the community of Iona and Columba’s legacy (not least due to their obstinacy over using the Roman method of calculating Easter). Historians see differing levels of hostility between the cults of Wilfrid and Cuthbert. To become a saint was a matter of communal memory and consensus; a formal, papal-driven canonisation process existed only from the 12th Century, and prior to this the case for a saint had to be popularly made. Veracity must have been a central part of this – it is difficult to make up an event and convince people it happened if there are no witnesses. Conversely, in a world where divine agency was a powerful and active force, it would have been much easier to take a relatively mundane event and integrate it into a saintly narrative. People would remember and know of an inkhorn being spilled, for instance; the next logical step was to attribute causality to the sacred person in the room.

Ordinary events were made extraordinary, therefore, in their reinterpretation through a divine prism. These ‘underwhelming’ miracles are, then, anything but that. They reveal intimate facets of medieval life, including what was held most important and the fascinating process through which history was continuously made, considered and recast.

Select Bibliography

Adomnán. Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Translated by Alan Anderson and Marjorie Anderson. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1961.

Bede. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Colgrave, Bertram, trans. and ed. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

Eddius Stephanus. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Higham, N. J. (Re-)Reading Bede: The Ecclesiastical History in Context. London: Routledge 2006.

Norton, Christopher. St William of York. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2006.

O’Reilly, Jennifer. “The wisdom of the scribe and the fear of the Lord in the Life of Columba.” In Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots: Saint Columba, Iona and Scotland, edited by Dauvit Broun and Thomas Owen Clancy, 159-211. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999.

Ramirez, Janina. The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England. London: WH Allen, 2016.

Rollason, David. Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1989.

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