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15 - Saintly lives: friendship, kinship, gender and sexuality

from II - EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2013

Clare A. Lees
Affiliation:
King's College London
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Summary

Even after the withdrawal of (Christian) Roman imperial control, Britain – or at least Celtic Britain – continued to play its part in the definition of sanctity in the late antique world. The story of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, however, is more complicated. To say that Christianity disappeared completely during and after the Anglo-Saxon Settlement period may be too simplistic: the later turf battles between Augustine’s missionaries to Kent and the British and Frankish Church leaders already resident in England suggest otherwise. But it is fair to say that Christianity lost its hold on the royal dynasties of the nascent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms until Augustine’s mission introduced Roman Christianity to Kent, to Northumbria and eventually to the rest of England. That restoration, fostering the veneration first of universal saints and then of new Anglo-Saxon saints, made the cult of the saints fundamental to life in early medieval England.

Having (re)gained a foothold in England, Christianity and the cult of the saints began to shape the most basic aspects of economic and social as well as ritual life. Remnants of pre-Christian belief in the sacral power of royal dynasties, as much as the cures and miracles, visions and prophecies, elevated many a founder of a royal monastic foundation to veneration as a saint. The relationship between patron saint and devotee was often one of friendship or kinship: as members of various Anglo-Saxon dynasties became saints, members of elite groups became related to saints. Even where the link was to a non-local saint – to an Apostle or Roman martyr – the bonds of patronage could be defined in traditional terms of kinship and lordship: within Anglo-Saxon elite groups the two relationships blurred. St Gregory the Great, for instance, despite never having himself set foot in England, nevertheless acquired the reputation of being apostle to the English. In Anglo-Saxon legend his interest in England (more specifically Northumbria) was prompted by his encounter with Anglian slaves in a Roman market. Gregory is thus an example of a saint both universal and local to England.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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