Fortress of the Free Mind: The Contemplative Nature of Personal Liberty in Early Anglo-Saxon Monasticism—by William Tanner Smoot


Introduction: Spiritual Autonomy

Throughout Anglo-Saxon monastic literature of the seventh and eighth centuries there persists a concept of what may be termed spiritual autonomy, representing an acknowledged personal contemplative inner condition which often accompanied, though hardly depended upon, ascetic expressions of material and social independence. Authors of works of both prose and meter, throughout multiple genres, describe the maintenance of a contemplative inner condition with language suggestive of personal liberation in regard to all forms of worldly constraint and consternation. Achievable through divine contemplation, spiritual autonomy represents a grace within, a transcendent response to the weariness of the external world. The liberating quality of such a contemplative condition frequently applies to internal sentiments, whereby a contemplative monastic maintains a patient and jovial demeanor amongst an otherwise emotionally distressing environment. The condition’s mental predominance imparts a more total and engrossing liberation from worldly distress and distraction; though the ultimate expression of autonomy nevertheless consists in the synthesis of both mental and physical contemplative behaviors. The extent of liberating potential within such a contemplative condition repeatedly contrasts with the constraint innate in active life, whether secular or religious. The perceived full expression of spiritual autonomy, itself a synthesis between a contemplatively driven mind and body, therefore liberates a practicing monastic not only from corporal degradation but also mental affliction, a divinely focused release from worldly, and ultimately ephemeral, concern.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monastic authors, including Aldhelm of Malmesbury and the Venerable Bede, persistently interpret true personal liberty from worldly imperfection and distraction as an amalgamation of an inner contemplative focus upon God and an outward expression of virtue through temperance and corporal purity, whereby contemplative fixation serves as the foundation of all Christian behavior. The interconnection of contemplative behaviors with corporal expressions of religious virtue present within contemporary Anglo-Saxon literature, itself represents one aspect of a much more enduring discussion within the western Church concerning ideal ecclesiastic behavior. Some of the greatest Christian minds of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages wrestled with the question as to what constituted the proper relationship ecclesiastics ought to maintain between their active duties of pastoral care, almsgiving, proselytization, and instruction, and more personal aspirations of divine contemplation and solitary worldly detachment. Beginning during the third century A.D., the ideal of the contemplative and solitary hermit, in the mold of the anchorite St. Antony the Great, arrested the Christian mind.[1] During the fourth century Eastern Christian concepts of the eremitic contemplative life, whereby an isolated individual opens himself entirely to God in search of spiritual purity, dispersed throughout the Latin West in contrast to coenobitic forms of the monastic life centered upon communal fellowship.[2] Writers from Origen and John Cassian, to Augustine and Gregory the Great considered and commented upon the inherent communal and personal value between active and contemplative manners of living, respectively. The discussion depended significantly upon allegorical exegesis, and Giles Constable’s work on the medieval interpretation of Mary and Martha within Luke 10.38-42 illuminates the degree to which differing interpretations of Christ’s words influenced contemporary views of the ideal Christian life.[3] Prior to the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, commentators such as Origen in the third century, and John Cassian in the fifth, tended to view the contemplative life as superior to the active, yet as a successive condition available only after participation in necessary activity pertaining to teaching, charity, and apostolic works.[4] Pope Gregory the Great’s sixth-century conceptualization of the ideal religious life as a balanced synthesis of active and contemplative behaviors[5] came to dominate the popular thought of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics such as Bede, who at least partially understood Anglo-Saxon saints such as Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in essentially Gregorian terms.[6] Gregory’s religious ideal echoes St. Augustine’s, where a life of religious activity prepared a given ecclesiastic for a future life of contemplation.[7] Nevertheless, despite his attempted unification of the two, Gregory retained an appetency for contemplative peace in contrast to the worldly distractions and disturbances his apostolic responsibilities occasioned.[8]

Gregory the Great’s works enjoyed wide influence in the early Anglo-Saxon Church, and monastics of the seventh and eighth centuries often expressed a similar perception of the active life as personally constraining. Nevertheless, contemporary Anglo-Saxon literature demonstrates an alternative response to the personal limitation inherent in worldly interaction, whereby an initial contemplative inner condition colors all subsequent Christian behavior and therefore establishes a spiritual liberty that exists even amid active participation. An individual’s preservation of a contemplative mindset focused upon infinite God and his eternal care thus enervated the finite sufferings of the temporal world. A correspondent understanding of personal contemplative autonomy pervades Anglo-Saxon works of the seventh and eighth centuries largely regardless of a composition’s genre or intended purpose. This study specifically examines Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s didactic treatise on virginity, the prose hagiographies of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and the metric hagiographic tradition of St. Guthlac of Crowland in an attempt to explore the subtleties of contemporary concepts of spiritual autonomy, as well as contextualize monastics’ desires to escape worldly distraction and vice. This work adheres to a loose chronological order, first examining Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s spiritual conceptualization of corporal virginity, while subsequently investigating the contemplative image of St. Cuthbert and St. Guthlac within their respective hagiographic traditions. Finally, this study endeavors to display the contemplative basis for Anglo-Saxon monastic notions of personal liberty, as well as the manner in which contemporary works interpreted this shared perspective. 

Aldhelm of Malmesbury: Contemplative Virginity 

In his seventh-century De Virginitate,[9] Aldhelm of Malmesbury didactically accentuates the importance of harmonizing physical asceticism and virtue with divine contemplation in achieving an exemplary spiritual condition capable of withstanding worldly preoccupation. According to Aldhelm, corporal virtue, though noble in its own right, is altogether less consequential than spiritual righteousness. In his dedication to Abbess Hildelith and the community at Barking, Aldhelm states:

To the most reverend virgins of Christ, (who are) to be venerated with every affection of devoted brotherhood, and to be celebrated not only for the distinction of (their) corporal chastity, which is (the achievement) of many, but also to be glorified on account of (their) spiritual purity, which is (the achievement) of few…[10]

Aldhelm presupposes virginity to entail an inherent, altogether elusive, spiritual element despite the virtue’s superficial corporal nature. Though conscious of the necessary balance between active and contemplative religious expression, Aldhelm patently believed spiritual pursuits to be superior; an opinion shared by almost all of Aldhelm’s contemporaries, including Bede.[11] Aldhelm is less cautious than Bede in his praise and overt desire for contemplative respite; however, both writers essentially agree in recognizing amalgamated active and contemplative expressions as indispensable to sanctity.[12] Corporal abstinence is positively worthy of distinction, but is, as a virtue, naturally subsidiary to the dignity awarded to the simultaneous preservation of spiritual purity alongside carnal chastity, an altogether more difficult condition to achieve. Aldhelm presents corporal virtue in itself as incapable of producing the elevated degree of spiritual autonomy and worldly detachment achievable through a combination of carnal integrity and divine preoccupation. In point of fact, an overemphasis of and concern for corporal refinement frequently conditions the development of sentiments such as pride and self-righteousness, which obstruct spiritual purity through preventing honest repentance.[13] Aldhelm states on the hindering nature of pride:

The former lot [those who rejoice solely in the integrity of the flesh], seeking the condition of the holy life with the life-rafts of their soul all sound, and the ship of their uncontaminated body unbreached, without any risk of rocks, are so much the less eager to devote themselves to moans of lamentation or to seek to wash their faces with floods of tears, inasmuch as they trust themselves to be deformed by no blemishes and stains, and fouled by no blackness of secular slag.[14]   

Pride is “the devourer of the other virtues,”[15] and as a vice “like a fierce queen she is known to usurp for herself the authority of tyrannical power and the sway of government more so than the others.”[16] The development of pride innately interrupts the mind’s heavenly preoccupations and illegitimately seizes a monastic’s thoughts to refocus them upon their own self.

Aldhelm’s understanding of pride insinuates an intensification of worldly reflection, which deprives a monastic from the contemplation of heavenly bodies and their divine companionship and support:

Now if angelic loftiness of heavenly citizens, swelling so greatly with the arrogance of pride, was deprived of the blessed companionship of the other angels and its share in contemplating the godhead, how much the more will the frail weakness of mortals be unhappily defrauded of the wedding-feast of the celestial bride-groom, if it has swelled up like an inflated bladder with the merit of its own attainments.[17]

A monastic must ascetically refocus their spirit towards God through divine contemplation and fearful repentance in order to prevent the subsequent development of pride and similar notions of lofty self-righteousness,[18] a re-emphasis which, in continuity with carnal abstinence, engenders a far worthier rule of life than would that of corporal temperance alone.[19] Aldhelm’s comprehension of the role of repentance in the contemplative process seemingly conforms to that of Gregory the Great, whereby compunction is the means through which the soul develops an intensified longing for God. Therefore, as pride thwarts compunction, the prideful necessarily inhibit the growth of their own divine capacity.[20] Bede draws similar associations between contemplative desire and sorrowful penitence, recalling Cuthbert’s “penitence” in conjunction with “heavenly yearnings,” which ultimately drove the saint to offer “himself to God in contrition of heart.”[21] Bede overtly asserts Cuthbert’s astounding humility, at once working Gregorian influences into Cuthbert’s character,[22] while similarly demonstrating the saint’s mature inner condition in resisting spiritually restricting self-adulation. Bede presents Cuthbert’s subsequent extreme amalgamation of both carnal purity and contemplative preoccupation on Farne as extensively liberating, extricating the hermit from most temporal concerns, be they considerations of corporal well-being, narrow-minded self-righteousness, or emotional consternations. Recalling the spiritual manner of Cuthbert’s life on Farne, the anonymous author correspondingly asserts that:

in all conditions he [Cuthbert] bore himself with unshaken balance, for he kept throughout the same countenance, the same spirit. At all hours he was happy and joyful, neither wearing a sad expression at the remembrance of a sin nor being elated by the loud praises of those who marvelled at his manner of life.[23]

Cuthbert’s detachment from the worldly extends far beyond mere social dependence and corporal interest, with Cuthbert maintaining his spiritual exuberance “in all conditions,” at once abandoning all mental perturbations through the static preservation of a contemplative spirit. Despite differences in genre and expressed purpose, the contemplative condition ascribed to Cuthbert by his hagiographers principally affirms Aldhelm’s own conviction regarding the liberating nature of pure contemplative existence, with literary comparison illuminating shared themes of contemporary orthodox thought.

Since the pontificate of Gregory the Great, Church leaders commonly understood the active and contemplative religious lives as naturally linked, each manner of existence being interactive and successive to the other.[24] Aldhelm’s perception initially parallels that of Gregory, with the contemplative aspects inherent within corporal religious activity providing monastics with a bulwark capable of preserving the “unbreached barriers of their modesty without disparagement of their purity.”[25] In order to achieve a condition of spiritual autonomy, detached from significant introspective concern and sin, a pervasive contemplative awareness must guide a monastic’s subsequent active behaviors. Liberation from corporal sin did not in itself result in a corresponding deliverance from the development of spiritual obstacles, with Aldhelm warning that inflated affection for personal humility may “weave the net of pride or the snare of self-exaltation.”[26] Cuthbert’s hagiographic tradition similarly appears to confirm the significance of a spiritually driven interconnection of active and contemplative behaviors. The contemplative spiritual fixation of Cuthbert conditions virtually every major decision within the saint’s hagiographic narratives, with Cuthbert never pursuing ascetic physical conditions absent underlying longings. Cuthbert’s secret departure from Melrose was occasioned by a desire to flee worldly glory [secularem gloriam];[27] while the saint’s ultimate ascetic physical withdrawal to Farne had its genesis in a deserved aspiration for divine contemplation [diuinae speculationis].[28] Even when coerced into episcopal activity, the anonymous hagiographer yet envisages Cuthbert as harboring a pervading contemplative demeanor, maintaining “the dignity of a bishop without abandoning the ideal of the monk or the virtue of the hermit.”[29] The cultivation of a contemplative nature delivers a monastic beyond the reach of the internal corporal danger and temporal concern, as contemplatively aware religious are “so goaded by the spur of divine love and inflamed by the blazing torch of heavenly ardour, that every day they eagerly long to depart from the prison of the body, transported from the adversity of this world.”[30] Though ascetic expressions of religiosity suggest a degree of self-determination within an active monastic environment, seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon religious literature appears to conform to the implication that true autonomy detached from worldly adversity, that is tribulation inclusive of both material hardship and interior mental and emotional anxiety, is impossible absent a contemplative element underlying all ascetic religious behavior. In conjunction with Aldhelm’s statement concerning pride as the primary cause of the devil’s fall and subsequent loss of angelic companionship,[31] Guthlac additionally declares “for he who is often visited by men cannot be often visited by angels;”[32] pronouncements themselves representative of a perceived prohibitive dichotomy, in which a certain degree of worldly involvement obstructed divine intimacy.

Further expounding upon the degree to which contemplative virtue conditions and grounds corporal expressions of sanctity, Aldhelm in particular accentuates the necessity of contemplation in perpetually revitalizing the ethos through which a monastic may resist temporal distraction. Regardless of the degree to which physical asceticism and chastity may have evoked notions of worldly liberation, corporal purity in itself could not produce a sustained freedom from finite concern and worldly distraction absent a corresponding personal desire for contemplative virtue. Aldhelm understood a presumptuous trust in corporal ascetics as contributing to the development of a self-exulting liberty from common and contemporary temporal behaviors, a liberty proud in its achievement, whose self-satisfaction outgrew the significance of its virtue:   

Whence the same writer [St. Paul] says, ‘I chastise my body and bring it into subjection’, which is to say, so that the flesh does not contumaciously grow insolent with tyrannical power against the spirit and, swelling with the impudent arrogance of liberty, scorn to subject its neck to the yoke of legitimate servitude.[33]

The initial liberty from perceived impurity and secular convention that a monastic attained through corporal integrity, if devoid of an equivalent, contemplative guidance, occasioned a relapse into a condition of impoverished servitude to complacent hubris.[34] Proper and sagacious religious behavior, virginity in Aldhelm’s context, represents not only a corporal expression but a mental exercise which requires a free mind receptive to divine guidance, itself acquired through frequent contemplation:


For every privilege of pure virginity is preserved only in the fortress of the free mind rather than being contained in the restricted confines of the flesh; and it is beneficially safeguarded by the inflexible judgment of the free will, rather than being diminished out of existence by the enforced servitude of the body.[35]

An expression of virginity consigned merely to the corporal body virtually annihilates the privileges of “pure virginity.”

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne: Contemplative Virtue and Episcopal Duty

Despite different authors, the prose hagiographic works pertaining to the life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne similarly portray an ecclesiastic combining a contemplative inner condition with active pastoral and episcopal service. Cuthbert’s monastic life and career inspired the composition of three hagiographic vitae following his death in 687 A.D.:[36] a prose life by an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne between 699-705 A.D., and an initial metrical account preceding an additional prose vita completed around 721 A.D. by Bede.[37] Cuthbert’s hagiographic tradition suffers no want of academic attention, particularly in regard to Cuthbert’s place among Irish or continental saintly traditions, as well as in respect to the inconsistencies between Bede and the anonymous author’s compositions. Clare Stancliffe’s work principally relates Cuthbert’s anonymous vita to contemporary Irish works, wherein pastoral duty exists alongside a profound desire to retreat from the world to a solitary hermitage.[38] In noting the frequency with which contemporary Irish monastics harmoniously amalgamated active instruction and care with contemplative desire,[39] Stancliffe seemingly accords with Sarah Foot in the contention that Anglo-Saxon monastics generally appear to foster environments conducive to a mixture of contemplative and active participation.[40] Similarly, Mary Clayton’s investigation of contemplative practice in early Anglo-Saxon England delineates the influence of the hermitic desert saints of late antiquity on the contemplative consciousness of contemporary Irish and Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastics.[41] Though united in their respective attempts to reveal channels of influence permeating into Anglo-Saxon monastic practice, Clayton differs in her contention that Anglo-Saxons primarily coupled the contemplative life with solitary hermitic retreat.[42] Despite nuanced conclusions, these works go far in both illuminating the broader context surrounding the composition of Cuthbert’s hagiographic works, as well as detailing divergent opinions within Anglo-Saxon monasticism by contrasting the saint’s two prose accounts. While certainly important to understanding the various religious influences and their impact on the contemplative character of the incipient Anglo-Saxon Church, the scope of such studies prevent an earnest investigation of the contemplative messages of Cuthbert’s tradition within a more general Anglo-Saxon context. Interpreting Cuthbert’s tradition alongside near contemporary works concerning contemplative practice better illuminates the subtleties of Anglo-Saxon monastic thought. The force of Mary Clayton’s own suggestion of a general hermitic understanding of contemplative practice in seventh-century England abates when read alongside Aldhelm’s contemplative address to the communal nunnery at Barking. Hermitic solitude undoubtedly retained a certain regional popularity, especially within Irish-influenced Northumbria; nevertheless, Aldhelm’s treatise at the very least posits an alternative view of contemplative virtue independent of solitary retreat. 

Despite Bede’s often conspicuous attempts to downplay Cuthbert’s eremitic character, the saint’s three-time retirement from both communal monastic life and episcopal appointment nevertheless reveals a deep propensity for contemplative solitude. Understanding the manner in which seventh- and eighth-century monastics interpreted contemplative desire remains pivotal, not only to delineating contemporary concepts of spiritual liberty, but also to elucidating the nature of contemplative retreat within Anglo-Saxon religious society. The work of Benedicta Ward concerning the spirituality of St. Cuthbert examines the manner in which the saint’s hagiographers utilized contemporary biblical exegesis to understand Cuthbert’s inner contemplative being,[43] and represents an admirable contribution to the study of Anglo-Saxon religious thought. Ward convincingly maintains that both Bede and the anonymous writer utilized the Bible as a “lens,” through which they interpreted Cuthbert’s Christian behaviors in the light scriptural narrative and teaching.[44] Therefore, as the Scriptures form the basis for all Christian life, their application within hagiographic texts conveys how contemporaries understood Cuthbert’s inner spiritual life.[45] The investigation of Cuthbert’s biblical associations significantly contributes to the understanding of contemporary inner spiritual life, while similar associations within alternative Anglo-Saxon religious literature reveal a common understanding of contemplative liberty. While Cuthbert’s personal impression of the liberating aspects of contemplative solitude remains opaque, interpreting his hagiographic tradition within a broader context of contemplative literature reveals an interpretation of spiritual liberty common to Anglo-Saxon monastic culture.

Cuthbert’s hagiographic tradition highlights the governing influence of a contemplative mentality in regard to the expression of pure religious virtue. Though Cuthbert’s coerced episcopal appointment seemingly ended the saint’s synthesis of mental and physical contemplative expression, both of his hagiographers nevertheless perceive the new bishop as maintaining a contemplative attitude,[46]  with Bede claiming that he “practiced his wonted frugality and, amid the thronging crowds, rejoiced to preserve the rigours of monastic life.”[47] Cuthbert’s hagiographic image is thus the reverse of Aldhelm’s warning, the saint perpetuating a contemplative frame of mind despite occupying an active role within Church administration. Cuthbert’s anonymous hagiographer, more frequently than Bede, comments upon the contemplative character of the saint during his tenure as bishop of Lindisfarne, stating not only Cuthbert’s continued monkish humility, but also applying St. Paul’s list of proper episcopal qualities to Cuthbert, patently emphasizing Cuthbert’s episcopal justice, holiness, temperance, and general lack of self-will.[48] Bede is characteristically more restrained when mentioning contemplative qualities that may detract from necessary pastoral duties, yet nevertheless suggests Cuthbert’s outward miracles revealed the inward virtues of the saint’s mind.[49] Despite a dissimilarity in genre and, though both didactic to some degree, compositional purpose, many of the contemplative themes present within Aldhelm’s De Virginitate find expression within contemporary hagiography, particularly that pertaining to Cuthbert. If Aldhelm’s understanding of necessary contemplative conditioning applies to the hagiographic depictions of Cuthbert, then it appears as though Cuthbert’s perceived contemplative mentality continued to direct the saint’s episcopal attitude by allowing a recurrent blossoming of inner virtue amid active involvement. Cuthbert’s hagiographers imagine a saint already receptive of God’s aid prior to his active episcopal elevation, and although Cuthbert lost the means through which he physically detached himself from his surrounding social world, he yet maintains his acquired contemplative virtues despite transitioning into an environment much more dependent upon outward display. Although contemporary monastic society understood non-contemplative saints such as Wilfrid as yet worthy of veneration, it nevertheless remains plausible that Cuthbert’s contemplative mindset contributed to his perceived mental freedom while presiding as Lindisfarne’s bishop.

Guthlac of Crowland: Contemplative Trust and Temporal Transcendence

Anglo-Saxon poetry, particularly the poems so termed Guthlac A and Guthlac B, contains allusions to the finite and ultimately transitory nature of temporal reality in contrast to a spiritually liberating contemplative condition attained through repositioning a monastic’s focus and mind on the divine and eternal. The significance of Guthlac A in particular extends beyond its inclusion of theological themes common to various genres of Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem illuminates the mentality through which contemporary society envisioned the actions and goals of contemplative anchorites within a broader poetic, and even heroic context, very possibly appealing to an audience not entirely or even primarily monastic. The use of the poem within the present study, in so far as it pertains to eighth-century literary expressions of contemplative eremitism, largely depends upon the accuracy of the traditional composition date ascribed to the two Guthlac poems of the Exeter Book, the veracity of which is not universally agreed upon.[50] Traditional estimations consign the poems to the latter eighth century, positing their composition shortly after both Guthlac’s own death in 714 A.D. and the completion of Felix’s prose vita between 730-749 A.D.[51] English scholars such as Catherine A. M. Clarke have more recently suggested a tenth-century provenance however, thereby proposing the English Benedictine reformation as the poems’ proper compositional context.[52] In support of a tenth-century composition date for the Guthlac poems, Clarke highlights Guthlac’s poetic position within a broader spiritual hierarchy,[53] in addition to the saint’s continued engagement within coenobitic monastic relationship networks by maintaining a role as spiritual counselor to local secular and religious pilgrims.[54] Far from abandoning earthly social interaction in its entirety, Guthlac develops an ascetic seasoned authority with which the saint spiritually intercedes and patronizes those within a broader monastic community;[55] behaviors which, Clarke believes, harmonize with the politics and ideology of the tenth-century English Benedictine reforms.[56] Though detailed and intriguing, Clarke’s arguments in favor of a later tenth-century provenance prove ultimately unconvincing in their entirety and appear to neglect the influence of both continental Latin hagiography and Gregorian tradition on eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monastic culture. While Guthlac A appears less dependent upon Felix’s vita than Guthlac B,[57] the conceptualization of a supposed saint within a spiritual hierarchy, as well as the continuity of social interaction following a hermit’s ascetic retreat, each represent common tropes within both eight-century Anglo-Saxon prose hagiography and continental Latin hagiographic tradition in general. Both of Cuthbert’s hagiographies, each early eighth-century compositions, present the anchorite as existing within a divinely ordered spiritual system, dependent upon Heaven, through which Cuthbert exercises both natural environmental and inner spiritual authority. Similarly, the paradox in which an anchorite’s contemplative social withdrawal occasioned a novel, somewhat pilgrimatic, social engagement, is itself a recurrent trope throughout Latin Western hagiography.[58] A continued, though diminished, social presence need not contradict an anchorite’s desires for contemplative solitude, with Cuthbert seemingly expecting visitors while on Farne, as the monk initially constructed a shoreline guesthouse.[59] Clarke herself admits that the paradox in which an ascetic contemplative yet maintained a social presence and continued spiritual interest in their surrounding religious community may indeed be intentional.[60] Certainly, the representation of such a paradox throughout Christian hagiographic tradition fails to prevent authors, from Athanasius to Aldhelm, from presenting the contemplative life, so often exemplified through eremitic hermits, as sufficiently distinct from coenobitic monasticism, and yet subsequently spiritually liberating in contrast to the ephemeral constraints of the world.

Furthermore, Gregorian concepts advocating the superiority of a mixed life of social religious activity with periods of contemplative repose heavily influenced eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monasticism, particularly in the writings of Bede.[61] Bede is cautious in his hagiography of Cuthbert not to diminish the worthiness of coenobitic monastic living through an overemphasis on contemplative eremitism.[62] Bede in fact appears to guard against any contrary assumptions of ascetic preeminence, relating that:

He [Cuthbert] was also accustomed very frequently to bid the brethren not to wonder at his way of life, as though it were specially exalted, because he despised worldly things and preferred to live alone. ‘But’, said he, ‘the life of monks ought rightly to be admired…’[63]

Bede almost certainly believed the contemplative life as superior in independent contrast with continuous activity, though he does not appear to have overtly approved of total retirement from the temporal world in so far as it prevented certain religious exemplars from assisting in the development of the Church through active instruction.[64] While contemporary concepts of contemplative asceticism yet pervade Bede’s prose hagiography of Cuthbert, his Gregorian reworking nevertheless conveys an eighth-century endorsement of coenobitic monasticism parallel the veneration of a contemplatively oriented monastic. By contrast, Jeffery J. Cohen’s investigation into the Guthlac literature exhibits at least the possibility of interpreting the poems as evidence for an intense perceived individualization of Guthlac, whereby the saint’s identity is abstracted from any support system dependent upon familial and social relationships.[65] Cohen’s interpretation of the Guthlac literature interestingly accentuates the individualistic themes present throughout the saintly inspired poetry, though perhaps overstates their degree. Catherine A. M. Clarke rightfully critiques Cohen for failing to recognize the continued social and spiritual relationships maintained by Guthlac while living in supposed solitude at Crowland.[66] Nevertheless, while Clarke attributes the poetic allusions of continued coenobitic interaction and spiritually organized hierarchy to tenth-century Benedictine influences, it is hardly obvious that such conceptions inherently suggest a tenth-century provenance for the Guthlac poems, as relative themes permeate throughout the corpus of seventh-and-eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monastic literature and continental hagiography.

Though modeled particularly on Evagrius’ vita of St. Anthony,[67] the Old English Guthlac poems of the Exeter Book convey an interpretation of contemplative eremitism approximately comparable to that of Aldhelm and precursory Church leaders such as John Cassian and Gregory the Great. Aldhelm’s conception of mere carnal expressions of virtue as representative of an incomplete personal purity, in so far as such behaviors lack an inner contemplative focus which resist finite self-interest through concentration upon the divine and eternal, find theoretic representation within Guthlac A, though within an expanded context and scope. In contrast to Aldhelm’s declaration of the servile nature of independent corporal sagacity, the anonymous poet of Guthlac A explicitly expounds upon the restricting nature of the physical world in its entirety, as the character of the temporal world itself constitutes a finite limitation upon a monastic’s desire for eternal life. The temporal world exists within a context of perpetual decay, and its ephemerality demonstrates its finitude, which guarantees the futility of seeking ultimate human contentment within its limits.[68] The temporal world innately disappoints those whose highest hopes rest within the confines of physical treasures; however, a contemplative may exchange their involvement in the finite world and all its inadequacies for a share in the eternal, through constant heavenly contemplation in synchronization with earthly deeds directed towards an infinite end. In the words of the anonymous poet:

and therefore they [those concerned more with earthly life than eternal] now deride the courage of those saints who make steadfast their thought upon heaven, who know that the homeland will last eternally for all the multitude who serve the Lord throughout the world and by their works aspire to that precious home. So these worldly treasures will be exchanged for those glorious benefits when those over whose heads impends the fear of God yearn for it.[69] 

The poet characterizes the pious actions of a monastic within an underlying contemplative context wherein earnest thought upon the divine guides and directs temporal participation towards the personal attainment of the eternal. Divine reflection results in temporal expressions of material charity, spiritual generosity, and love of the unfortunate, through which religious “purchase heavenly glory” by serving and pleasing God.[70] The poet’s interconnection of individual heavenly contemplation and appropriate active religious behaviors significantly resembles Aldhelm’s postulation regarding the ultimate necessity of a harmonic virtue between the body and the soul; at the same time, the notion that an exemplary and virtuous religious life ought to entail a certain degree of engagement in both contemplative and active practices pervades throughout the works of continental theologians from John Cassian to Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great.[71] The Guthlac A poet recognizes Guthlac’s actions within the physical world as directly associated with the hermit’s contemplative journey towards the attainment of eternal peace, much in the same way as Pope Gregory the Great envisaged active religious participation as the necessary antecedent to contemplative withdrawal.[72] A contemplative inner condition therefore precedes and influences all subsequent physical action, for a true contemplative, desirous of a more total virtue in proximity to the divine, must not place ultimate hope in the temporary world, but must act through that very world in order to prepare themselves for the eternal life that awaits those who serve the Lord; they “make use of this life and wish for and look forward to the better one hereafter.”[73]

The anonymous poet of Guthlac A ultimately visualizes the ascetic Guthlac within a context of contemplatively conditioned static spiritual liberation that contrasts with the mutable and finite nature of the surrounding temporal world. The abandonment of the ephemeral proved a natural prerequisite for the attainment of the eternal, a process through which Guthlac gained autonomy from the transient conditions of the physical world. Following Guthlac’s withdrawal into the fens of Crowland, the poet confers an angelic justification and therefore heavenly foundation for the exigency of Guthlac’s contemplative retreat from the temporal world.  Perplexed by a dualism of angelic and devilish influences, Guthlac’s angelic guardian:

told him [Guthlac] this whole earth beneath the sky was ephemeral and praised those lasting benefits in the heavens where souls of saints possess the joys of the Lord in triumphant glory; gladly he [God] yields them reward for their deeds, those who are willing gratefully to receive his grace and more utterly to let this world escape them than the life everlasting.[74]

Guthlac’s angelic companion leaves the reward structure relating to worldly deeds and corresponding eternal recompense intact; however, the poet explicitly asserts the value of relinquishing position within the physical world for the sake of attaining an eternal condition. When consequently assailed by spiritual devils that threaten the ascetic with debilitating physical infirmity in the form of starvation, thirst, lack of shelter, and loneliness,[75] the saint nevertheless stands beyond the scope of such deprivations. Guthlac’s response to the devils is one of cavalier reproach, stating:

Cravings therefore affect me little, and anxieties seldom, now that a spiritual guardian looks after me. My hope is with God; I care nothing at all for earthly well-being, nor do I yearn in my heart after much for myself, but every day the Lord provides me with my wants by the hand of man.[76]

Guthlac unwaveringly rejects all temporal concerns in so far as such considerations relate solely to worldly states of being, and differentiates from trust in God. The saint’s devilish tormentors initially evoke hazards exclusively limited to the physical world and thus pertain solely to Guthlac’s corporal being; however, Guthlac’s contemplative trust in the divine for both spiritual and temporal support and sustenance transcends the limited influence of such corporally dependent threats. Armed with the knowledge of God’s patronage, Guthlac’s heart was “neither frightened nor faint” in the presence of the devils, who proved consequently unable to influence the saint’s earthly condition favorably or adversely.[77] Guthlac’s contemplative trust in God inaugurated the saint’s liberation from the temporal world and any corresponding corporal concern, infinite support blunting the edges of finite affliction. Regardless of the degree to which Guthlac secluded himself from monastic social support networks in reality, the poet nevertheless envisions the anchorite’s exile within a sufficiently total context so as to imply that men less stalwart in divine faith would lament over such corporal depreciation, an atrophy Guthlac’s divine dependence precluded.

In his Medieval Identity Machines, Jeffery J. Cohen demonstrates the value of poetic comparison in discerning what elements within the Guthlac poetry represent broader cultural interests of contemporary Anglo-Saxon society. Cohen investigates extant Anglo-Saxon poems such as The Wanderer, The Ruin, and The Lay of the Last Survivor alongside the Guthlac poems to specifically highlight common themes pertaining to communal discontinuation.[78] An interpretation of Guthlac’s poetic works through a complimentary Anglo-Saxon poetic context additionally amplifies the significance of the saint’s divinely founded liberty from mutable physical conditions and general temporal concern; with the context itself consistently emphasizing earthly ephemerality, material loss, and the acceptable corresponding emotional responses to each. Poems such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Fortunes of Men, and Deor, each respectively accentuate themes expressed within Guthlac A, and though the impossibility of precise dating makes any suggestion of the poems’ contemporaneous provenance somewhat speculative, the independent recurrence of analogous themes suggests their utility in comprehending the significance of Guthlac’s temporal escape. Tropes allusive to the inherent ephemerality of worldly existence, with a relative perception of continuous earthly mutability and the necessity of accepting the unpredictability of fate, find frequent representation within Anglo-Saxon wisdom poetry. In similarity to Guthlac’s angelic guardian, the wandering poet expounds upon the transient nature of physical existence and the overall frailty of life:

I cannot think, therefore, why in this world my heart does not grow dark, when I thoroughly contemplate the life of men – how swiftly they, brave warrior-thanes, have yielded up the hall. Just so this middle-earth each and every day declines and decays.[79]

In parallel imagery The Seafarer poet concedes that earthly existence innately concludes through one of three conditions, for either “ill-health or old age or the sword’s hostile violence will crush the life from the doomed man in his heedlessness.”[80] The earthly destiny of man is as mutable as it is inescapable; “such things are not man’s to control.”[81] The Deor poet’s recognition of the impermanency of both joy and pain invokes a similar personal surrender to heavenly discretion; a mitigation founded upon a contention that “throughout this world the wise Lord frequently causes change: to many a man he shows grace and certain success, to some a share of misfortunes.”[82]

The presence of congruent thematic material within Guthlac A is hardly astounding as a considerable degree of Anglo-Saxon poetry reveals a Christian inspiration and compositional purpose.[83] The poems of the Exeter Book therefore share an Anglo-Saxon Christian poetic context, despite divergent dating and the obscurity of the poems’ origins prior to their collection within the codex.[84] Where the non-hagiographic poets lament at the unpredictability and pain of worldly existence, the Guthlac A poet, however, perceives a hero whose spiritual trust in God intrinsically partitions him from all consequence born within the physical world and alleviates his emotional condition from the impositions of mutable fate. Though the Deor poet implies that the effects of fate diminish in relation to an individual’s proximity to God, Guthlac A by contrast presents Guthlac as manifesting an extraordinary degree of propinquity to the divine. The respective poets of The Seafarer and The Wanderer similarly acknowledge the necessity of conclusive reliance on the divine, yet nevertheless initially suffer from temporal anxieties and emotional desolation. The Seafarer poet thus decries:

for there is no one on earth so confident of temperament, nor so generous of his gifts, nor so bold in his youth, nor so courageous in his deeds, nor his lord so gracious to him, that he never worries about his seafaring, as to what the Lord will send him.[85]

The pervasive metaphorical implication that the journey towards definitive resignation to God’s will inherently accompanies temporal concern and anxiety at once appears to escape the poetic character of Guthlac. Guthlac’s self-concern pertains ultimately to his soul, that which is eternal within him. All consequence born of the transitory world is incapable of permanently altering an aspect of being which exists in perpetuity. Guthlac relies on God for the safekeeping of that which is truly valuable for eternity. The saint’s response to the renewed offensive of his fiendish assailants epitomizes his total heavenly relinquishment:

Though you may make assault upon it [the body] with painful afflictions you will not be allowed to touch my soul; rather you will induce it to a nobler state. I will therefore await what my Lord decrees me. For me there is no anxiety over dying. Though my bones and blood moreover both turn to dust, my immortal part will pass into bliss where it will enjoy a beautiful abode.[86]

Guthlac “set his mind on high, on the home in the heavens;”[87] a spiritual preoccupation with the divine which not only tempered the consternation aroused by his adversaries, but conversely humiliated the devils, to whom Guthlac’s presence provoked incessant anxieties.[88] The poet explicitly contrasts Guthlac’s unblemished spiritual condition with the downcast state of the devils who “lament and wish for extinction and yearn for the Lord to concede, through the extinction of death, an end of their miseries.”[89] The loss of influence over an otherwise temporal entity provokes notions of anxiety and humiliation within the devils as the metaphoric personification of worldly mutability, while Guthlac subsequently wrestles possession of Crowland away from the spiritual wretches. Thus, Guthlac’s trust in the divine upended the despondency experienced by supplementary Anglo-Saxon poets through their vulnerability to the forces of change, whereby the devils of mutability are forced to contend with their own incapacity to influence that which the immutable supports.

Guthlac’s characterization as a “blessed warrior”[90] within Guthlac A, “equipping himself with spiritual weapons and vestments,”[91] accentuates the perceived primacy which an individual’s soul naturally commands over the corporal body. The association of contemplative behaviors with notions of spiritual warfare is a concept widely expressed throughout contemporary Anglo-Saxon literature from Aldhelm’s De Virginitate to Bede’s prose hagiography of Cuthbert;[92] expressions themselves based upon the scripture of Ephesians 6.17: et galeam salutis adsumite et gladium Spiritus quod est verbum Dei [and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God].[93] The anonymous poet’s incorporation of Guthlac within the ranks of what Aldhelm termed a “monastic army,”[94] serves both to maintain a heroic context for Guthlac’s anchoritic endeavors and spiritual skirmishes, as well as highlight Guthlac’s contemplative pensiveness and favorably associate the hermit with existing anchoritic traditions of saintliness, all through the use of well-established literary metaphor. While Guthlac and Cuthbert’s literary conceptualization as spiritual warriors share a similar context of contemplative conquest, Guthlac’s poetic representation as a “soldier”[95] is explicitly expatiated within Guthlac A and constitutes a principle aspect of the poetic work. Guthlac’s engagement with the malicious forces of Crowland comprises not a single definitive battle, such as with Cuthbert, but a nearly life-long resistance to corporal threats and temporal temptation. Through corporal assaults, the devils sought to tempt Guthlac’s spirit and bring about his withdrawal from the fens of Crowland.[96] Guthlac responds with a preemptive contemplative defense of his soul; at once contrasting with both the fiends and his own prior thegnly responsibility through his refusal to engage with the devils temporally. Guthlac subsequently responding to the devil’s threats:

I do not intend to carry against you a sword, a weapon of the world, with hand enraged, nor shall this site be colonized for God through the shedding of blood, but I intend to please my Christ with a gift more acceptable.[97]

Guthlac’s detachment from external temporal influences extends beyond the saint’s immediate spiritual well-being to govern the nature of Guthlac’s recourse: the saint’s contemplative liberation from worldly considerations applies to the finite world’s bearing upon Guthlac as well as his reciprocal interactions.

Guthlac’s preeminent spiritual concern essentially resembles Aldhelm’s understanding of virginity, whereby true purity is “preserved only in the fortress of the free mind rather than being contained in the restricted confines of the flesh.”[98] Aldhelm’s quotation of St. Augustine appears dually applicable:

Thus the sanctity of the body is not lost provided the sanctity of the soul remains, even if the body is overcome, just as the sanctity of the body is lost if the purity of the soul is violated, even if the body is intact [ De Civit. I. 18].[99]     

The anonymous poet of Guthlac A expounds accordingly, presenting a hero who acquired a spiritual security that consequently protected the saint’s overall well-being. Though Guthlac’s adversaries launched numerous attacks upon the Mercian anchorite, “they were not permitted to harm Guthlac’s spirit nor with wounding stroke to sever soul from body.”[100] Guthlac maintained spiritual virtue amidst the corporal onslaught of Crowland fiends, as “God was not willing that the soul within his body should suffer pain by this [assault]; however, he allowed that they might lay hold of him with their hands, and that immunity be safeguarded towards his soul.”[101] The hero of Guthlac A is a warrior beyond temporality, with his focus purely upon the eternal, through which all finite suffering lost potency.

Both Felix and the anonymous poet of Guthlac A conceive of a saint whose contemplative trust in the divine, in addition to spiritual protection, occasions a personal angelic companionship that serves to introduce the saint into a novel system of cooperative aid. While Guthlac’s literary transition from a position within secular identity and support networks, into those within a more encompassing spiritual hierarchy, itself hardly suggests a tenth-century Benedictine influence, Catherine A. M. Clarke justifiably accentuates the themes relative to the anchorite’s inauguration into a broader spiritual system of patronage upon his contemplative retreat.[102] Conceptions of personal identity within Guthlac A in particular, even within a spiritual context, are relational and dependent upon an individual’s status within some form of social hierarchy; a framework which Clarke recognizes as a possibly deliberate or natural consequence of the saint’s temporal social abandonment.[103] Guthlac abandons secular relational bonds, with Felix recalling the saint’s renunciation of “his parents, his fatherland, and the comrades of his youth;”[104] an act which freed Guthlac’s individual identity from reliance upon temporal standards of definition. Guthlac’s loss of temporal social relations fails to perturb sufficiently the saint’s being in any fashion comparable to the expressions of less hagiographic poets. Whereby The Wanderer poet dolefully cries, “alas, the majesty of the prince!”[105] Jeffery J. Cohen acknowledges Guthlac’s comparatively cheerful abandonment of the social bonds that once comprised his former being.[106] Regardless of his emotional disposition, Guthlac’s exile from secular society accompanied a contemporary perception whereby the saint’s contemplative retreat represented an introduction into a higher, sturdier, spiritual social environment. Felix explicitly contrasts the spiritual support system to which Guthlac entered into with the temporal social environment the hermit had previously abandoned, subsequently positing a somewhat mutually exclusive social dichotomy wherein temporal abandonment necessarily preceded the saint’s introduction into a spiritual social order. In response to contemporary amazement at his ascetic living, Felix perceives Guthlac stating:

Have you not read how if a man is joined to God in purity of spirit, all things are united to him in God? and he who refuses to be acknowledged by men seeks the recognition of wild beasts and the visitations of angels; for he who is often visited by men cannot be often visited by angels.[107]

Felix perceives Guthlac’s abandonment of secular familial and social relationships as necessary for the saint’s acquisition of heavenly companionship; an association uniquely prepared to assist the contemplative in his impending spiritual trials. Felix recalls the near immediate abuse Guthlac suffers at the hands of “the ancient foe of the human race;”[108] an occurrence which provoked the saint to despair of his chosen anchoritic station. Felix continuously refers to Guthlac as a “soldier of Christ,” yet the spiritual assaults disturbed Guthlac as he reflected upon his past sins, believing forgiveness to be eternally out of reach.[109] The novel spiritual context within which Felix situated Guthlac demonstrates the saint’s fundamental need for transcendent spiritual assistance. Only the apostolic intervention of Bartholomew ultimately alleviates Guthlac’s lamentations:[110]

So when this same man [Guthlac], like a soldier fighting in the serried ranks, had realized the heavenly aid and angelic light had reached him, immediately the clouds of impious thought were dissipated, his troubled heart was enlightened and he sang triumphantly: ‘The Lord is my helper and I shall see my enemies’, etc.”[111]

The angelic support awarded to Guthlac was conditional upon the saint’s anchoritic retreat into the wastes of Crowland; however, though Guthlac’s contemplative asceticism necessitated the abandonment of temporal social relations, Guthlac’s spiritual focus and divine trust inaugurated a novel higher social hierarchy unequivocally more capable and reliable than those of man. The contrast between the corporal and spiritual aspects of an individual’s being, present within the works of Aldhelm and St. Augustine, is suggested through Guthlac’s spiritual conflicts. Though the saint lost temporal aid, representative of the body in temporal existence, the anchorite nevertheless gained the spiritual assistance necessary to alleviate his weathered condition. Temporal support may principally be lost, as the temporal world itself proves ultimately ephemeral and mutable; however, the support accessible through contemplative trust in the divine is by contrast eternal and immutable. Guthlac’s novel social order extended beyond temporality, and constituted a relational support structure itself dependent upon nothing more than the immutable will of God. The saint of Crowland’s subsequent introduction into a novel spiritual hierarchy hardly lessened his liberation from worldly social orders. Devoid of any spiritual support, Guthlac’s ascetic seclusion would hardly have evoked conceptions of liberation, with the saint abandoning one structure of support in return for helpless individualism. The saint’s hagiographic inclusion into a higher spiritual system of social support and order liberated the saint not only from temporal, and therefore fallible, support systems, but occasioned a circumstance in which infallible assistance never exhausted.


Anglo-Saxon monastic authors of the seventh and eighth centuries consistently interpreted and presented true personal liberty from worldly consternations as a condition dependent upon an internal contemplative relationship with God. The cultivation of such an inner contemplative condition both frequently precluded the temporal limitations inherent in active life, as well as functioned as the basis for all future Christian behavior. Though certainly associated with hermitic solitude to a degree, contemporary works suggest a more nuanced conception of personal contemplative virtue as a state of being less dependent upon isolated retreat. Aldhelm’s assertion that only the simultaneous cultivation of divine contemplation alongside corporal expressions of virtue could possibly obviate the development of pride, itself a worldly concern in so far as the self exists as a finite entity within temporal reality, finds further articulation within contemporary hagiographic accounts. The literary traditions of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and St. Guthlac of Crowland similarly represent their respective subjects as beyond the reach of worldly distractions and temporal destitution through an inveterate contemplative trust in the divine, regardless of their active endeavors or physical circumstances. The ephemeral nature of material affluence, in congruence with the precarity of worldly socio-familial relationships, accentuates the insecurity of depending upon conditions within the temporal world as safeguards against accompanying sublunary degradation. Therefore, Anglo-Saxon monastics of the seventh and eighth centuries, such as Aldhelm of Malmesbury and Bede, continually defined and contextualized personal liberty from the corporal anxieties of quotidian existence in spiritual terms. The development and maintenance of a contemplative spirituality proved the only enduring barrier to both world weariness and sanctimony, transporting all concern beyond the reach of temporal affliction.    

William Tanner Smoot, Marshall University

William Smoot is a recent MA graduate in History at Marshall University. His research interests include the history of religion, monasticism, hagiography and Anglo-Saxon England. His Master’s thesis investigated the degree to which monastic practice in early Anglo-Saxon England engendered both secular and spiritual autonomy for individual monastic adherents. He will begin his doctoral studies in Medieval History in the fall of 2018.


[1] Mary Clayton, “Hermits and the Contemplative Life in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and their Contexts, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 147-8.

[2] Ibid., pp. 148-9.

[3] Giles Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha, The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ, The Orders of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3.

[4] Ibid., p. 15-7.

[5] Ibid., p. 19-20.

[6] Clare Stancliffe, “Cuthbert and the Polarity between Pastor and Solitary,” in St. Cuthbert, his Cult and his Community to AD 1200, ed. Gerald Bonner, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1989), p. 28.

[7] Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought, p. 19.

[8] Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Catherine Misrahi (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961), p. 28.

[9] Michael Lapidge, “The Writings of Aldhelm,” Aldhelm: The Prose Works, trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979), p. 15. It is impossible to accurately date Aldhelm’s De Virginitate.

[10] Aldhelm, De Virginitate, Aldhelm: The Prose Works, trans. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979), p. 59.

[11] Alan Thacker, “Bede’s Ideal of Reform,” Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society, ed. Patrick Wormald, Donald Bullough, and Roger Collins (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited, 1983), p. 132.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 10, p. 67.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid. 11, p. 67.

[17] Ibid. 11, pp. 67-8.

[18] Ibid. 12, p. 69. “Let the cruel serpent of gluttony… be driven away by the restraint of frugality; and, last of all, on the other hand, let the ferocious adder of pride… be banished from the hidden recesses of our soul and the secret corners of our hearts (and) be driven far away by the fear of God.”

[19] Ibid. 15, p. 71.

[20] Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 30.

[21] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 16, Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life, trans. Bertram Colgrave (New York: First Greenwood Reprinting, 1969), p. 213.

[22] Thacker, “Bede’s Ideal of Reform,” p. 141. Cuthbert’s expression of humility is itself attached to a statement of approval for the coenobitic life, thereby justifying both the active and contemplative lives.

[23] The Life of St. Cuthbert 3.7, Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, trans. Bertram Colgrave, p. 105-7. “equali quoque ad cuncta ferebatur examine. Nam eodem uultu, eodem animo perseuerabat” [and also in all conditions he bore himself with unshaken balance, for he kept throughout the same countenance, the same spirit].

[24] Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought, p. 20.

[25] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 14, p. 71.

[26] Ibid. 13, p. 70.

[27] The Life of St. Cuthbert 3.1, p. 94.

[28] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 17, p. 214.

[29] The Life of St. Cuthbert 4.1, p. 111.

[30] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 14, p. 71.

[31] Ibid. 11, p. 67.

[32] Felix, The Life of Saint Guthlac, trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 123.

[33] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 16, p. 73.

[34] Ibid. “Therefore the pure steadfastness of uncontaminated virginity is made a servant of God through the tireless constancy of contemplation; and, on the other hand, the freedom of restrained conjugality is made into a servile poverty of complacent spotlessness.”

[35] Ibid. 58, p. 129. This statement of Aldhelm’s from his De Virginitate is directly followed by a quotation of St. Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God, wherein the African bishop asserts the contingency of bodily sanctity upon the condition of the soul. No carnal sagacity can defend against spiritual degradation, while conversely spiritual virtue may reinforce corporal purity.

[36] Bertram Colgrave, “Introduction,” Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life, trans. Bertram Colgrave (New York: First Greenwood Reprinting, 1969), p. 9.

[37] Ibid., p. 16.

[38] Stancliffe, “Cuthbert and the Polarity between Pastor and Solitary,” p. 41.

[39] Ibid., p. 39.

[40] Sarah Foot, Monastic Life in Anglo Saxon England c. 600-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 286.

[41] Clayton, “Hermits and the Contemplative Life in Anglo-Saxon England,” p. 151.

[42] Ibid., p. 153.

[43] Benedicta Ward, “The Spirituality of St. Cuthbert,” in St. Cuthbert, his Cult and his Community to AD 1200, ed. Gerald Bonner, David Rollason, Clare Stancliffe (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1989), pp. 67-8.

[44] Ibid., pp. 68-9.

[45] Ibid., p. 69.

[46] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 26, p. 243; The Life of St. Cuthbert 4.1, pp. 111-3. The anonymous author states that “before everything it was his [Cuthbert’s] special care to take part in fastings, prayers, vigils and reading of the Scriptures.”

[47] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 26, p. 243.

[48] The Life of St. Cuthbert 4.1, p. 111.

[49] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 26, p. 243.

[50] For a more in-depth introduction into the ongoing debate regarding the dating of the two Guthlac poems, see the first chapter of Catherine A. M. Clarke’s book Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England: Texts, Hierarchies, Economies.

[51] S. A. J. Bradley, Introduction to Guthlac A, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley (London: Orion Publishing Group, 1989), pp. 248-9.

[52] Catherine A. M. Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England: Texts, Hierarchies, Economies (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012), p. 20.

[53] Ibid., p. 26.

[54] Ibid., p. 24.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid., pp. 24-5.

[57] Bradley, Introduction to Guthlac A, p. 249.

[58] Athanasius, Life of Antony, in Early Christian Lives, ed. and trans. Caroline White (London: Penguin Book Ltd., 1998), pp. 18-9. The earliest hagiographic texts present anchorites as spiritual confidants to their local populations and religious pilgrims. Athanasius recalls that during Antony’s twenty years in solitude “many came to him in their desire to imitate his commitment to that way of life, together with a large number of those who knew him, and there gathered there a great crowed of people who were suffering.” Nor did Antony’s visitors depart dissatisfied as Athanasius states “then the grace of God, through Antony, freed many people from unclean spirits and from various illnesses.” Cuthbert’s, and indeed Guthlac’s, spiritual guidance conceptually parallels that of Antony.

[59] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 17, p. 217.

[60] Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 23.

[61] Stancliffe, “Cuthbert and the Polarity between Pastor and Solitary,” p. 40.

[62] Thacker, “Bede’s Ideal of Reform,” p. 141.

[63] Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 22, p. 229.

[64] Clayton, “Hermits and the Contemplative Life in Anglo-Saxon England,” p. 155.

[65] Jeffrey J. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 139.

[66] Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 23.

[67] Bradley, “Introduction to Guthlac A,” p. 249.

[68] Guthlac A, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 41-6, p. 251.

[69] Ibid. 64-70, pp. 251-2.

[70] Ibid. 73, p. 252.

[71] Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought, pp. 17-20.

[72] Ibid., p. 20.

[73] Guthlac A 72-3, p. 252.

[74] Ibid. 116-21, p. 253.

[75] Ibid. 272-80, pp. 256-7.

[76] Ibid. 311-6, p. 257.

[77] Ibid. 306-10, p. 257.

[78] Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, p. 136.

[79] The Wanderer, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 58-62, pp. 323-4.

[80] The Seafarer, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 67-9, p. 333.

[81] The Fortunes of Men, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 13-4, p. 341.

[82] Deor, ed. and trans. S. A. J. Bradley in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 31-3, p. 365.

[83] S. A. J. Bradley, “Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” trans. and ed. S. A. J. Bradley (London: Orion Publishing Group, 1982), p. xvii.

[84] Ibid., p. xxii. Indeed, as Bradley suggests, the poems’ collection within the Exeter codex suggests their common utility in serving the specific purposes of the book’s patron.

[85] The Seafarer 37-41, p. 333.

[86] Guthlac A 375-81, p. 259.

[87] Ibid. 96, p. 252.

[88] Ibid. 202-4, p. 255.

[89] Ibid. 222-4, p. 255.

[90] Ibid. 174, p. 254.

[91] Ibid. 175-6.

[92] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 11, p. 68. “Rather, as combatants in the monastic army, boldly offering our foreheads armed with the banner of the Cross among the ranks of our competitors, and carrying tightly the warlike instruments of armament – which the distinguished warrior enumerates, that is to say, the sword of the Holy Word and the impenetrable breast-plate of faith.;” Bede, The Life of St. Cuthbert 17, p. 215. “but when the soldier of Christ [Cuthbert] entered, armed with the ‘helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and the sword of spirit which is the word of God, all the fiery darts of the wicked one’ were quenched.”

[93] Eph. 6.17, The Vulgate Bible: The New Testament, Douay-Rheims Translation, eds. Edgar Swift and Angela M. Kinney (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[94] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 11, p. 68.

[95] Guthlac A 177, p. 254.

[96] Ibid. 184-92.

[97] Ibid. 301-5, p. 257.

[98] Aldhelm, De Virginitate 58, p. 129.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Guthlac A 226-7, p. 255.

[101] Ibid. 406-9, p. 260.

[102] Clarke, Writing Power in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 26.

[103] Ibid., p. 23.

[104] Felix, The Life of Saint Guthlac 19, p. 83.

[105] The Wanderer 95-6, p. 324.

[106] Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, p. 136.

[107] Felix, The Life of Saint Guthlac 39, p. 123.

[108] Ibid. 29, p. 95.

[109] Ibid. 29, p. 97.

[110] Ibid.

[111] Ibid.