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Saints Edith and Æthelthryth

Princesses, Miracle Workers and their Late Medieval Audience

The Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St Æthelthryth


Edited by Mary Dockray-Miller


Turnhout / Tournai: Brepols, 2009

Hardback. ix+ 475pp. ISBN: 9782503528366. £80


Reviewed by Barbara Yorke

University of Winchester



These two Middle English poems concerning the Anglo-Saxon royal saints Edith and Æthelthryth are found only in one composite volume, British Library Cotton Faustina BIII, that was probably assembled by Robert Cotton himself. Folios 194-275, which contain the poems, were written c.1420, probably at the nunnery of Wilton where the poems are believed to have been composed not long before. The Wilton Chronicle opens with a history of the house up to the reign of King Edgar (957-975), and continues, after some missing folios, with an account of the nunnery’s most significant saint, Edith, the daughter of King Edgar, and of her mother Abbess Wulfthryth. A rather shorter poem, with the same distinctive linguistic features, recounts the Life of the well-known seventh-century saint, Æthelthryth of Ely. Neither text has been edited since the nineteenth century so one must welcome (albeit, as will become apparent, with some reservations) Mary Dockray-Miller’s edition that makes them more readily available. The text is printed in a largely diplomatic edition that preserves the orthographic idiosyncrasies of the original, with a briefer rendition into modern English on the facing page that eliminates, in the words of the editor, ‘empty phrases that serve the rhyme scheme rather than the narrative’. An appendix edited and translated by Stephen Harris includes additional material from the manuscript that lists the founders and benefactors of Wilton, and sources used. A glossary and index of proper names complete the edition.

The poems draw heavily on Goscelin’s Life of St Edith and on the Liber Eliensis for the accounts of the two saints, but with additions from a number of other works. Although they may have nothing of historical value to add for the lifetimes of the saints, the poems, in addition to their interest as literary compositions, can contribute to a number of different areas of current research. They illuminate the question of learning and literacy in later medieval nunneries, and in this respect the booklist included in the appendix may give some insight into the content of Wilton’s library in the fifteenth century. They are also of considerable interest for the engagement of later medieval religious communities with the pre-conquest period when both Wilton and Ely were founded. On the other hand, the account of the foundation of Wilton does contain information about its early medieval past that is only otherwise recorded by John Leland, who may have used independently some of the same sources. A major issue for Anglo-Saxon historians is whether any of these traditions are genuine.

According to the Wilton poem the nunnery was founded in 830 by King Ecgbert of Wessex for his sister, the widow of Ealdorman ‘Walston’ of Wiltshire, a tradition that might carry more weight if it was not so clearly dependent on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 802 concerning the activities of Ealdorman Weohstan. A further section records the burial at Wilton in the reign of King Alfred (871-899) of an infant daughter of his son, the future King Edward the Elder. Although these events cannot have taken place in the Viking wars of the 870s as the poem suggests, it is conceivable that an infant granddaughter could have been buried at Wilton in the 890s when Alfred was also engaged in major battles with Viking forces. However, major anachronisms in the Wilton Chronicle account do not inspire much confidence in this attempt to record the origins of the community.

Some of these issues are briefly touched on in the introduction, but much of the discussion here is disappointing and does not engage sufficiently with either the secondary literature or issues of interpretation. Insufficient use is made of the work by Virginia Blanton on the medieval development of the cult of St Æthelthryth, and that by Stephanie Hollis on Goscelin’s Vita of Edith of Wilton (which is published in the same Brepols series). The editor assumes that the author of the poems consulted Bede’s Ecclesiastical History independently for the account of Æthelthryth, but it seems more likely that Bede’s text was known chiefly through the interpretation of it in the Liber Eliensis (which the Wilton version seems to resemble). The manner in which these earlier texts were mined and adapted by the fifteenth-century author deserved much greater exploration.

On the issue of who that author might have been, there is inconsistency in the introduction. On page 2 it is asserted that the Wilton poems are unlikely to have been written by a woman, and on page 8 the view that they were composed by a chaplain of Wilton appears to be supported. However, on page 9 we are told that the author’s gender is ‘completely unsure’, and the case for or against female authorship by one of the nuns of Wilton is never explored, though this is obviously an area of great potential interest. There are also a number of errors in the notes to the text and in the rather unsatisfactory index of personal names that reveals the editor’s unfamiliarity with the Anglo-Saxon period and Old English orthography. For instance, it is not appreciated that ‘Ethelston’ described as ‘Christian name of a Viking king converted by Alfred’ was the baptismal name of Guthrum (who has his own entry) and that it is the same name-form as that of Alfred’s grandson who became King Athelstan. The baptism of Guthrum/Athelstan did not take place in 871, as stated in this edition, but in 878. ‘Byryn’ who is identified as a ‘religious figure credited with the conversion of Cynewulf’ must be Bishop Birinus who converted King Cynegils of the West Saxons in c.635 and established the first West Saxon see at Dorchester-on-Thames. One could go on, but the point has been made that, welcome though the edition is, in several respects it falls short of the standards that one might expect in a volume from a scholarly press at a not inconsiderable price.






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