Friday, April 11, 2014

Haunted by Demons

Want to own a speaker that plugs into your laptop
and depicts the ordination of Guthlac? You can!
Today is the feast day of an English saint, Guthlac of Crowland (673 - 714). Like many saints of his time, he was born into a noble family and chose a religious life either out of piety or because he was a younger son who was not in line to inherit much (and he needed some means of support that did not involve starting his own farm). His sister, Pega, is also considered a saint.

Although he fought under Æthelred of Mercia, by the age of 24 he was a monk at Repton Monastery in Derbyshire. By the age of 26, he had decided to become a hermit and went to live on an island called Croyland, which is now no longer an island and is called Crowland. The Vita Sancti Guthlaci ["Life of Saint Guthlac"] written by Felix in the 8th century tells us:
Now there was in the said island a mound built of clods of earth which greedy comers to the waste had dug open, in the hope of finding treasure there; in the side of this there seemed to be a sort of cistern, and in this Guthlac the man of blessed memory began to dwell, after building a hut over it. From the time when he first inhabited this hermitage this was his unalterable rule of life: namely to wear neither wool nor linen garments nor any other sort of soft material, but he spent the whole of his solitary life wearing garments made of skins. So great indeed was the abstinence of his daily life that from the time when he began to inhabit the desert he ate no food of any kind except that after sunset he took a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water.
 Life was not that simple, however, because his time there was spent being assailed by demons:
They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses' teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.
Interestingly, Guthlac (Felix tells us) could actually understand the demonic speech, described as strimulentes loquelas ["sibilant speech"].* The reason he was able to understand it? Because of his time spent among the British-speaking natives of the island of Britain who had been displaced by the incoming Anglo-Saxons. (One wonders if the wind whistling through his rough-constructed living space made noises that imagination told him were words of temptation.)

Guthlac was a very popular figure in British history. The oldest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book, contains two poems, called Guthlac A and Guthlac B; B is based on the Vita, but A comes from some other source. A collection of illustrations of events in Guthlac's life was created after the Norman Conquest and put into the Orderic Vitalis. Today, a Guthlac Fellowship unites the several churches and parishes dedicated to Guthlac.

*Reminds me of Parseltongue from the works of J.K.Rowling.

1 comment:

  1. We were at Crowland abbey recently, and the guides told us the story of Guthlac. They put forward the theory that his visions may have bee due to a bout of malaria or similar. All fascinating stuff! I enjoyed reading your blog on the subject. Have put a link on my own blogpost - the blog is mainly about walking rather than history, but I include the odd snippet that grabs me.