The Eccentric Hermit-Bishop:Bede, Cuthbert, and Farne Island
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 16 (1999)
Cuthbert, the renowned saint of early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, enjoyed a multifaceted career. After submitting to monastic discipline as a young man, he became successively a prior, a hermit, and a bishop. Modern historians have struggled to explain how, in one lifetime, this seventh-century saint managed to be an energetic evangelist in the Northumbrian countryside, an effective administrator both inside and outside the monastery, and a religious solitary on a small, rocky island in the North Sea. How, to use Clare Stancliffe’s phrase, did he negotiate the “polarity between pastor and solitary”? A related question involves the depiction of these separate roles by the saint’s famous biographer, the Venerable Bede. Recent studies of Bede’s prose Vita Cuthberti, written c. 721, uniformly suggest that he crafted his text in such a way as to highlight the pastoral elements of the saint’s career at the expense of the eremitic elements. One commentator, for example, flatly asserts that Bede’s Cuthbert “subordinated the solitary life to the demands of the church.” The present article challenges such readings by arguing that although Bede clearly emphasizes Cuthbert’s missionary and pastoral activities in his prose Vita Cuthberti, he does not diminish the eremitic aspect of the saint’s life in order to do so. Instead, Bede’s portrait of Cuthbert suggests that the saint, while connected to the ecclesiastical organization of pre-Viking Northumbria, ultimately resides outside the church leadership’s machinery. Put in slightly different terms, in his prose Vita Cuthberti Bede ultimately insists on the saint’s liminality.