Scholars examine life and writings of Jocelin of Furness


Jocelin of Furness was one of the most significant writers to emerge from England’s north-west during the Middle Ages, but historians have tended to overlook his work. Now a team of researchers are trying to increase awareness of his importance and what his writings tell us about life at the turn of the 13th century.

A conference about one of the most significant, but shadowy figures in Cumbria’s medieval past will take place next week, as part of a wider project to uncover more about his life and works.

Jocelin of Furness was a monk who lived at the turn of the 13th century, and spent most of his life at Furness Abbey in Cumbria, as his name suggests. He was a hagiographer – a writer of Saints lives – and produced four great works including a life of Ireland’s patron Saint, Patrick.

For historians, Jocelin’s life and writings promise a tantalising insight into what life was like during the turbulent years when Richard I and King John ruled the land. Cumbria was at the very fringes of their Anglo-Norman kingdom, and while Jocelin belonged to an Abbey rooted in Norman tradition, his writings looked beyond its borders, to the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland.

This raises questions not just about him, but about Cumbria itself – its politics, its connections, and how far people saw themselves as English, Norman, Celtic, or something distinctive from all three?

In spite of this significance, however, Jocelin remains little-studied and poorly understood. No published edition of his Life of Patrick, arguably his most important work, even exists.

Now a new project, led by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Liverpool, is trying to resolve that. By the summer of 2012, the team of Dr Clare Downham, Dr Ingrid Sperber (both Liverpool) and Dr Fiona Edmonds (Cambridge) hope to have produced new editions of two of Jocelin’s “Lives”, explain more about the Cumbrian context in which he worked, and improve general awareness of how he contributed to the cultural history and identity of England’s north-west.

The conference, which is open to anyone with an interest in local history, will take place near the Abbey itself in Barrow-in-Furness, on July 8th. Entitled “Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts”, it will bring together some of the latest research on Jocelin’s life and literature, the Abbey, its connections, its enemies and more. There will also be a chance to visit the ruined Abbey itself, which lies a short distance from Barrow.

Dr Edmonds, a co-investigator on the project from the University of Cambridge’s Department for Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, said: “We hope to provide a broad introduction to one of the most important, but under-studied figures to emerge from this part of England during the Middle Ages.”

“Furness itself was a culturally and linguistically diverse area. The peninsula protrudes into the Irish Sea which meant that people had strong trading and cultural links with Ireland and the Isle of Man, and for a time Furness was under Scottish rule.”

“Furness Abbey was emblematic of the region’s incorporation into the Anglo-Norman realm, but it also had daughter houses in Ireland and on Man. The situation in which Jocelin lived was culturally complex. That makes it interesting to wonder why he devoted so much of his career to writing about Scottish and Irish saints – or why he was asked to.”

Jocelin was alive between 1175 and 1214. Most of what is known about him comes from the Vitae, or Lives, he produced. Many earlier historians, however, wrote these off as flawed attempts to rework earlier renditions of Saints’ lives.

Only recently, especially in a book by Dr Helen Birkett, have researchers started to consider these in another way; as products of their time. Saints’ Lives were, after all, supposed to provide the reader or listener with examples of how to behave – and they were commissioned by patrons or religious communities partly in the hope that they would benefit from the reflected glow of the exemplary life of the Saint in question.

Jocelin wrote four – all with a heavy Celtic bent. As well as a Life of Patrick, he composed Lives of Kentigern (the North British Saint and patron of Glasgow); Waltheof (abbot of Melrose in the Scottish borders) and Helena (mother of Constantine the Great – Jocelin stressed her Brittonic origins).

The Liverpool-Cambridge project, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is entitled Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics, and will bring forth the first published edition of his Life of Patrick, as well as an edition of his Life of Helena.

The conference, “Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts” is open to all and will take place at the Abbey Hotel, Barrow-in-Furness, on July 8th from 9am to 6pm. The event is open to all but places must be registered for in advance by E-mailing downham@liverpool.ac.uk. The cost is £25, which covers lunch and refreshments.

Click here to read more information about the conference, including its programme

Click here to see Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics project website

Source: University of Cambridge

Sharan Newman