Cuthbert: A Not So Benevolent Saint

Over a millennium since his death St Cuthbert is venerated by the thousands of visitors, both men and women, who attend his shrine in Durham Cathedral each year. In the early years of the Cathedral, though, in the midst of a monastic power struggle, women were not so welcome in this great building. In this podcast, Abigail Steed retells some of the stories and legends that sprung up around Cuthbert, who allegedly enacted miracles of vengeance and suffering on any woman who dared to approach his tomb.

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.

This podcast explores 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the need to establish the legitimacy of the new cathedral community, in which the old Anglo-Saxon members had largely been replaced by Norman newcomers. It shows how the character of a saint and particular aspects of a cult could be exploited to promote certain discourses in different times and contexts.

Listen to other lectures from Late Summer Lectures 2016, on topics ranging from science fiction apocalypse, to the hunt for the philosopher’s stone.

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