Cuthbert: A not so benevolent saint (Public lecture, 24th August)

Fenwick Lawson's sculpture The Journey, which depicts the bringing of St Cuthbert's relics to Durham.
Fenwick Lawson’s sculpture The Journey, which depicts the bringing of St Cuthbert’s relics to Durham.

St Cuthbert inspired the building of the great Durham Cathedral, but the Cathedral’s patron saint has a darker side to his story. In our second Late Summer Lecture, Abigail Steed will cast new light on the legend of Saint Cuthbert, showing how his legacy was also used to protect the power of the Cathedral’s growing community by being associated with miracles of vengeance against those who threatened it. Abigail’s free public lecture will start at 17.30 on 24th August in Alington House, Durham. Free refreshments will be available from 17.15.

From the time that St Cuthbert’s relics were translated into the newly built cathedral in 1104, the monastic community sought to construct a narrative which established the holy Cuthbert as vengeful protector of the community’s interests. Examples of saints wreaking miracles of vengeance on those who insulted their authority, doubted their power, or threatened the interests of the community to which they were attached, are fairly commonplace in medieval texts. Symeon of Durham’s history of the church of Durham, however, is interesting for the number and harshness of miracles wrought against women who dared to approach Cuthbert’s tomb in the early twelfth century, women to all intents posed no overt threat to the interests of Cuthbert or his community, who admired, loved and wished to honour the saint. The reasoning Symeon gives for women being barred from Cuthbert’s tomb is that centuries earlier, when the monks and nuns of Cuthbert’s community lived together in a double community, the nuns led the monks astray into immoral behaviour, and ever since, no woman had been permitted to approach the saint’s relics.

In this lecture Abigail seeks to explore the deeper significance of these vengeance miracles described by Symeon, which to a modern reader seem entirely gratuitous, by setting them in the context of the moral ideology and purpose of the author, and the need to establish the legitimacy of the new cathedral community, in which the old Anglo-Saxon members had largely been replaced by Norman newcomers. Abigail will also show how the character of a saint and particular aspects of a cult could be exploited to promote certain discourses in different times and contexts.

Late Summer Lectures 2016Future lectures in the Late Summer Lectures series will cover themes such as breathing in science fiction, the quest for the Holy Grail, and folk tales of the Lambton Worm. Join the conversation on twitter via #LateSummerLectures.


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