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St. Dunstan and His Companions (AD 924-992)

by Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1910)

Image of Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane.
Sr. Augusta Theodosia Drane, O.P. (1823-1894)

If there be any spot in England consecrated alike by sacred and poetic traditions, it is surely the “thrice famous isle” of Glastonbury, where, according to common belief, the faith was first planted in Britain by St. Joseph of Arimathea, and which was regarded by the inhabitants of this island with a veneration which induced a vast number of the British saints who flourished before the Saxon conquest to retire before their death to the Glassy Isle, that their dust might mingle with its sacred soil. Still surrounded by the marshy waters which once formed a glassy lake around it; still made beautiful in spring by the apple blossoms to which it owes its poetic name of Avallon; still preserving that mysterious hawthorn-tree which, like the roses of Pœstum, “boasts its double bloom,” and marks the spot where our first apostle struck his staff into the ground; and still covered with the ruins of that noble abbey which kings vied with one another in beautifying and enriching as “the fountain and origin of all religion in the realm of Britain,”–Glastonbury might well claim, even in its present desolation, to draw pilgrims to its ruined shrines. The poet wanders there to weave new Idylls over the grave of Arthur, whilst the devout client of our native saints kneels to kiss the soil which was the cradle of St. Dunstan. And some may even recall the thought of days long since fled away into the haze of the past, when those two names, so rich in legendary lore, were first cast like golden grains into the storehouse of their memory, as they stood rapt in childish wonder amid those venerable walls, and there taking root, gave birth in their souls to a new idea, so that they passed out of the ruins of Glastonbury, believers, for the first happy moment of their lives, in the possibility of an heroic life.

Glastonbury was at once the birthplace of St. Dunstan and the nursery of his greatness in riper years. There as an infant he was offered by his parents at the altar of Our Lady, and so soon as he could prattle, was given over by them to the care of some Irish monks who had settled in the deserted abbey, and earned a scanty subsistence by educating the children of the neighbourhood. His extraordinary genius soon displayed itself, not merely by a rapid acquisition of grammar, but by the excellence he attained in music, poetry, and the arts. Having been introduced to the notice of the king by his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, his superior talents excited the jealousy of the courtiers, who accused him of magic, a charge which they chiefly grounded on his musical skill, by which they declared that he bewitched the king, and his familiarity with the old bardic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. Obliged to withdraw from court, he returned to Glastonbury, and for some time led an eremitical life in a small cell adjoining the church. We need neither the testimony of the old legend, nor the suggestions of romance, to understand how it was that a mind like Dunstan’s had to pass through much tribulation ere it could utterly resign itself to the guidance of grace. The noblest natures have the hardest combats to undergo, and are not crowned till they have striven and overcome. So it was in the midst of many trials that Dunstan spent his solitary noviciate, chasing away the tempter now with prayer, and now with manual labour. He did not lay aside his artistic tastes, but toiled away at his smith’s forge, producing those exquisite works in gold and other metals long preserved with reverence in many English churches, or carving in wood, or painting, engraving, and moulding in wax and clay. He used his musical skill, too, to soothe his weary spirit, by reminding himself of the heavenly harmonies, and once, having hung his harp against the wall, the wind, it is said, swept over the strings, and brought out from them a plaintive strain in which he recognised one of the antiphons sung in the Common of Martyrs, Gaudent in cælis animæ sanctorum qui Christi vestigia secuti sunt. At last King Edmund, the brother and successor of Athelstan, recalled him to court, made him his chief councillor, and bestowed on him the territory of Glastonbury, that he might restore the abbey to its former splendour. Dunstan therefore collected a community, to whom he gave the rule of St. Benedict, and according to many writers he is to be regarded as the first real founder of the Benedictine order in this country. Even if this be an historical error, and the early Anglo-Saxon monks may likewise be claimed as Benedictines (a warmly controverted point on which it is needless here to enter), St. Dunstan’s work as the restorer of the order is of no less importance than if we consider him the first English founder, for the firm establishment of the monastic rule in England at this particular juncture was the means by which, under God, the Church itself was preserved in this land.

The corruption of the secular clergy had become so general that the total decay of religion must soon have been the inevitable result, had not sacred letters and ecclesiastical discipline been revived by the monks. Happily, St. Dunstan was not alone; he found a band of great souls, able and willing to second him in his efforts, and among these were the three saints, Odo, Oswald, and Ethelwold. Odo was the son of Danish and heathen parents, who, disgusted at their son’s interest in everything connected with the Christian worship, turned him adrift, while still a child, to shift for himself. Athelm, one of King Alfred’s thanes, took compassion on him, and sent him to be educated at the court school, where, we are told, he acquired so thorough a knowledge both of Greek and Latin as to be able to write in both languages with great facility. Being promoted to the priesthood, Athelm chose him for his confessor, and, according to the custom of the more pious laity of early times, recited the divine Office with him daily. After that he became chaplain to the good king Athelstan, in which capacity he was present at the great battle of Brunanburgh. Athelstan procured his election to the see of Sherburne, whence, in 942, he was translated to the archbishopric of Canterbury. He hesitated to accept the primacy, however, on the ground that he was not a monk, as all those had been who had preceded him in that see. But the king overruled the objection by sending to the abbot of Fleury, who himself brought over the monastic cowl with which he invested the archbishop elect. Odo at once addressed himself to the Augean task of reform, and appointed his nephew, Oswald, to the deanery of Winchester, hoping thereby to introduce more regular discipline among the canons of that cathedral. But Oswald found his efforts so utterly fruitless that he withdrew to Fleury, whence, however, he was compelled to return at the command of his uncle, who could ill spare labourers from the English vineyard. The archbishop’s canons, together with the pastoral letter which accompanied them, bear evidence alike of his zeal and his learning. But something more than a paper reform was required to heal the terrible wounds of the English Church. The only real hope of remedy lay in the formation of an entirely new body of clergy, who should from their youth have been trained in sacred letters, holy living, and ecclesiastical discipline. Church seminaries were needed; and where could these be established save in the newly-founded abbeys now springing up under the government of St. Dunstan?

The destruction of the monastic schools had been one chief cause of the existing evils, and in their restoration Odo saw the only hope of remedy. And, marvellous to say, they were being restored. At Glastonbury St. Dunstan had already founded the first regular monastic school which had been seen in England since the destruction of her old seminaries; and here some of the most famous ecclesiastics who flourished during the tenth century received their education. Dunstan allowed the reading of the Latin poets, because, as he said, it polished the mind and improved the style; he also encouraged the study of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it would seem with a view of rendering his clergy eloquent in the vernacular tongue, and more powerful preachers. Neither was science forgotten; and the study of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music were carefully cultivated by his pupils, many of whom likewise excelled in those artistic pursuits in which their master was an adept. Nor was Glastonbury the only scene of this revived intellectual activity. The combined influence of great genius and great sanctity was effecting that reaction in favour of monasticism which Alfred had vainly attempted to bring about, and to which he also had looked as the only means of establishing a real reform. In his time monks had sunk so low in the estimation of the Anglo-Saxon people, that none but churls could be found willing to wear the cowl. But St. Dunstan’s example had turned the tide, and Glastonbury was soon able to send out colonies and found other houses, whose abbots were supplied from the ranks of the saint’s chosen disciples.

Among these, by far the most distinguished was St. Ethelwold, who, after for some years filling the office of dean in the monastery of Glastonbury, formed the design of passing over to Fleury in order to perfect himself more thoroughly in religious discipline and sacred science. King Edred, who was then reigning during the minority of his two nephews, heard of his purpose and forbade him to leave the kingdom, but, to sweeten his disappointment, offered him the old ruined abbey of Abingdon, that he might restore the monastic rule within its walls. He was right in thinking that such an offer was likely to reconcile Ethelwold to his detention on the English soil, and the saint at once applied himself to his labour of love. He began by sending over to Corby for some monks well-skilled in monastic discipline, whom he desired to have as foundation stones of his community; and, not content with this, he despatched one of his brethren from Glastonbury to study all the ways and fashions of that celebrated seminary of learning. Ethelwold had nothing more at heart than the restoration of sacred studies, and was resolved that his monastic school should be the best of its kind. Wolstan, his biographer, tells us that he had been the companion of St. Dunstan in his studies, and not only distinguished himself by his proficiency in grammar, poetry, and the mechanical arts, but had also spent several years in the work of teaching others. “He taught the art of grammar with great skill,” says his disciple, “and that of poetical metre with most mellifluous sweetness; and like the prudent bee which is used to seek for pleasant scents flying about among the trees and flowers, and agreeably loading itself with the odoriferous juices, even so did he pluck the blossoms of the sacred volumes, and studiously apply himself to the study of the Catholic Fathers.” He was, moreover, like his master Dunstan, an enthusiastic lover of science, and a great adept in architecture and bell-founding; and thus the restoration of the old abbey was one of those undertakings in which his piety and his taste were able to work in concert. The new abbey church was adorned with four large bells, two cast by the hand of its abbot, and two yet larger ones, the handiwork of St. Dunstan. Nor was Ethelwold less renowned as a musician and mathematician, and one of his mathematical treatises, addressed to the celebrated Gerbert, is still preserved in the Bodleian Library. He had, moreover, that yet more excellent gift, the power of engaging the affections of those whom he taught. The young were irresistibly attracted to him, and this was one cause of the influx of youths who soon filled the schools of Abingdon. The account has been preserved of the death of one of his scholars, an innocent boy named Ædmer, who was greatly loved both by the abbot and his schoolfellows, on account of his holy simplicity and angelic virtue. Whilst still in the happy state of baptismal grace he was attacked by mortal sickness. As his death drew on he was rapt in ecstasy, and beheld the Blessed Virgin seated on a glorious throne surrounded by many saints. With a kind and loving countenance, she asked him whether he would prefer remaining amid that heavenly company, or continuing in his mortal life. And he, seeing no sadness among those on whom he gazed, said he would far rather abide there with them; whereupon Our Lady promised that he should have his wish. And so, returning to himself, he made known to the abbot what he had seen and heard; and presently his happy soul departed to its rest.

In the reign of the dissolute Edwy, a storm arose which for a time threatened to overthrow the new foundations, and put a stop to the good work so happily begun. The courageous reproof administered to that prince by the abbot of Glastonbury having exposed him to the royal displeasure, he was obliged to withdraw to Flanders, and the two abbeys of Glastonbury and Abingdon were dissolved by the king’s command, and the monks dispersed through the country. The vices of Edwy, however, brought their own punishment with them: the provinces north of the Thames threw off his authority, and chose for their king his brother Edgar, who at once recalled St. Dunstan, and promoted him to the same post of confidence he had filled under Edmund and Edred. The see of Worcester falling vacant, Edgar, who by the death of Edwy was now king of all England, insisted on his accepting the episcopal charge, and he was accordingly consecrated by St. Odo, in 957. Two years later, on the death of the primate, Dunstan was chosen his successor, and going to Rome to receive the Pall, was sent back to England invested with the authority of Apostolic Legate.

He was now in a position effectually to carry out those great measures of reform for which he had so long been preparing the instruments. He found himself surrounded by a band of faithful and carefully-trained ecclesiastics, animated with his own devoted spirit; and his first step was to procure the election of Oswald, the nephew of Odo, to the see of Worcester. Ten years later, St. Oswald became Archbishop of York, being allowed, by extraordinary dispensation, to hold both sees together; Dunstan being unwilling that the good discipline he had established at Worcester should suffer by his removal. Ethelwold was placed over the see of Winchester, and, with the help of these two holy coadjutors, the archbishop entered on the task of enforcing the observance of the sacred canons. The royal sanction to his plan was formally granted at a great council, for Edgar entered heart and soul into all the plans of his primate. “I hold the sword of Constantine,” he said, “and you that of St. Peter; together we will purify the sanctuary.” The choice was everywhere offered to the secular clergy of promising obedience to the laws of the Church, or resigning their benefices. In some places the secular canons accepted the reform, but where they refused to do so they were summarily ejected. St. Oswald was fortunate enough to succeed in winning his Worcester canons, not merely to promise a regular life, but to embrace the monastic rule; and, under his wise and gentle government, they in time became excellent religious. St. Ethelwold was less happy; and finding it impossible to convert his canons from their life of lawless indulgence, he replaced them with a body of Benedictine monks.

At the same time that many cathedrals and collegiate churches were receiving these monastic colonies, new foundations were everywhere springing up. Ely, Peterborough, Malmsbury and Thorney abbeys rose once more out of their ruins; and such was the eagerness of the king and his nobles to promote the ecclesiastical reform, that more than forty abbeys were founded or restored during the primacy of St. Dunstan. With these events, however, so important in the Church history of England, we are only concerned in so far as they affected the restoration of learning; and, in fact, the revival of the monastic institute was one and the same thing with the revival of the English schools. From this time, in spite of many corruptions and abuses, which resisted even the efforts of Dunstan to remove them, the Dark Age, par excellence, of English history began to disappear. A new race of scholars sprang up in the restored cloisters, some of whom were not unworthy to be ranked with the disciples of Alcuin and Bede. St. Dunstan himself, during the remainder of his primacy, was occupied with measures rather of practical, than of educational reform; nevertheless, we find from his canons that his solicitude was directed in a very special way to providing for the religious instruction of the common people. He revived the old parochial schools, and obliged his parish priests to preach every Sunday to their flocks, requiring them also in their schools to teach the children of their parishioners grammar, the church-chant, and some useful handicraft trade.

It was St. Ethelwold, however, who exhibited the greatest zeal for the restoration of sacred studies. He loved the work of teaching for its own sake, and had no sooner got possession of his own cathedral, and banished the canons who had so long disgraced it, than he applied all his care to collect and educate a staff of young clergy, who, he trusted, would prove worthy to fill the vacant benefices. “It was ever sweet to him,” says his charming biographer Wolstan, “to teach youths and little ones, to explain their Latin books to them in English, to instruct them in the rules of grammar and prosody, and allure them by cheerful words to study and improvement. And so it came to pass that many of his disciples became priests and abbots, some also bishops and archbishops, in the realm of England.” Among these was St. Elphege, who afterwards became Archbishop of Canterbury, and was martyred by the Danes, and Cynewulf, abbot of Peterborough, an apt and gentle teacher, whose monastic school was so celebrated that, as Hugo Candidus says, scholars flocked to it from all countries as to the court of a second Solomon. He wrote some Anglo-Saxon poems, still preserved; their authorship being detected by the curious insertion here and there of a Runic letter, which, when put together, spell the writer’s name.

It will be observed that the new race of scholars did not exclusively cultivate Latin literature. The labours of Alfred had given a powerful stimulus to the study of English, and this was yet further encouraged both by St. Dunstan and St. Ethelwold, who desired nothing more than to facilitate the instruction of the common people in their own tongue. Ethelwold translated the rule of St. Benedict into Anglo-Saxon for the use of his monks, and a copy of this work may still be seen in the Cottonian Library, the Latin text being accompanied with an interlinear Anglo-Saxon version. Elfric, one of Ethelwold’s scholars, devoted himself with particular energy to the cultivation of English literature. Besides translating a considerable number of the books of Scripture, at the request of his friend, the ealderman Ethelward, he composed a Latin and English grammar, and other school books, such as a Latin and English glossary, and his well-known “Colloquies,” written in both languages, for the use of beginners. The grammar has a Latin and English preface, in which he tells us that he undertook the work for the promotion of sacred studies, specially among the young, for, he observes, “it is the duty of ecclesiastics to guard against such a want of learning in our day as was to be found in England but a very few years ago, when not a priest could be found to translate a Latin epistle, till Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Ethelwold encouraged learning in their monasteries.”

His most celebrated work was his collection of Homilies for the use of parish priests. None are original compositions; they are selections and translations from the early Latin Fathers, as well as from Bede and a few other French and German homilists. The Anglo-Saxon into which they are rendered is considered the fairest specimen that can be cited of our ancient national tongue, and raises a regret that so noble a language should ever have been allowed to corrupt into our modern hybrid English. The compiler subscribes his name to the work as, “Ælfric, the scholar of Ethelwold,” a title he evidently regarded as no small honour. I may add, that many of his writings are addressed to his friend Ethelward and another English thane, Sigwerd of East Heolen, and seems to intimate that the laity as well as the clergy were now beginning to cultivate letters.

Ethelwold’s zeal for the restoration of the monastic institute moved him to petition King Edgar for a grant of all the minsters that had been laid waste in old time by the “heathen men.” It would be too long to notice all the restoration effected by “the father of monks” as he was called, or the many works of active benevolence which earned for him, from his grateful people, his other beautiful title of “the well-willing bishop.” He exercised his engineering talents in supplying his cathedral city with water, and in time of dearth broke up his altar plate to feed the multitudes. He rebuilt his cathedral church with great splendour, as we learn from the poem in which Wolstan has dwelt with loving minuteness on every detail from the crypt to the tower, which last was surmounted by a gilded weathercock, which says the poet, “stands proudly superior to the whole population of Winton, and brazen as he is, rules all the other cocks of the city.” There was likewise an organ of marvellous construction, and a certain wheel full of bells, called “the golden wheel,” only brought out on solemn occasions, both of these being the workmanship of the bishop.

Meanwhile, St. Oswald was pursuing much the same course in his northern dioceses. He restored the abbeys of Pershore, Winchecombe, and St. Alban’s, and founded several others, particularly that of Ramsey, which long maintained the reputation of being the most learned of the English monasteries. The history of its foundation is given at length by the monk of Ramsey. A certain ealderman, named Aylwin, having offered to devote his wealth to some work of piety, St. Oswald asked him if he had any lands suited for the building of a monastery. He replied that he had some land, surrounded with marshes, and free from resort of men, and there was a forest near it full of various kinds of trees, and having several spots of good turf and fine grass for pasturage. They went together to view the spot, which was so solitary and yet possessed of so many conveniences for subsistence and secluded devotion, that the bishop decided on accepting it. Artificers of all kinds were at once collected, and the neighbours willingly offered their services. Twelve monks from another cloister came to form the new foundation; their cells and a temporary chapel were first raised, and by the next winter they had provided iron and timber enough for a handsome church. In the spring a firm foundation was made in the fenny soil, the workmen labouring as much from devotion as for profit. Some brought the stones, others made the cement, and others worked the wheel-machinery that raised the stones to their places, and so in a short time the sacred edifice, with two fair towers, appeared in what had before been a desolate wilderness.

The monks mentioned in this account as having been brought from “another cloister,” were a colony from Fleury, and among them was the celebrated Abbo of Fleury, of whom there will be occasion to speak in another chapter. He remained two years at Ramsey, and thoroughly established its school. His most distinguished pupil was Bridferth, originally a monk of Thorney, who migrated to Ramsey soon after its foundation, and was probably one of the first scientific scholars of his time. He had received his early education from St. Dunstan, and imbibed all his tastes. In his Commentary on Bede he incidentally notices a scientific observation which he had made when a student at Thionville in France, whence it appears that he had enlarged his stock of knowledge by visits to foreign academies. His Commentaries on the treatises De Rerum Natura and De Tempore, consist of notes of lectures delivered in the Ramsey schools. Whilst explaining his author he frequently introduces original illustrations, sometimes supporting Bede’s statements by numerical calculations of his own, sometimes amplifying the text and clearing up doubtful expressions. He quotes St. Clement, St. Augustine, Eusebius, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Isidore, also Pliny, Macrobius, Priscian, and Martian Capella, and continually refers to the Latin poets as familiar to his hearers. He was also the author of a treatise “De Principiis Mathematicis,” and a life of his old master. St. Dunstan, the last of which he dedicated to Ælfric, and extols him in his preface for the “enormity of his well-known learning.”

The later annals of Ramsey abbey are full of interest, and how that the school thus brilliantly founded was not suffered to fall into decay. Some of these will reappear in a later portion of our narrative; but, before bidding adieu to the old Saxon abbey, I must notice one little narrative which shows that all the scholars there educated were not destined for the ecclesiastical state. Four little boys named Oswald, Etheric, Ædnoth, and Athelstan had been placed in the school by St. Oswald, all being sons of powerful Saxon thanes. They were received before they were seven years old, and were of innocent manners and beautiful countenances. At certain times they were suffered by their master to go and play outside the cloister walls. One day, being thus sent out by themselves, they ran to the great west tower, and laying hold of the bell rope, rang with all their might, but so unskilfully that one of the bells was cracked by the unequal motion. The mischief becoming known, the culprits were threatened with a sound flogging; a threat which occasioned abundance of tears. At last remembering the sentence they had so often heard read from the rule of St. Benedict, “If any one shall lose or break anything, let him hasten without delay to accuse himself of it,” they ran to the abbot and, weeping bitterly, told him all that had happened. The good abbot pitied their distress, and calling the brethren together who were disposed to treat the matter rather severely, he said to them, “These innocents have committed a fault, but with no evil intention; they ought, therefore, to be spared, and when they grow up to be men it will be easy for them to make good the damage they have done.” Then, dismissing the monks, he secretly admonished the boys, how to disarm their anger, and they, following his directions, entered the church with bare feet, and there made their vow; and when they grew up to manhood and were raised to wealth and honour they remembered what they had promised, and bestowed great benefits on the church.

Not the least benefit conferred by the monks on their countrymen by the foundation of these abbeys was the improvement of the lands which they drained and cultivated. This, indeed, does not properly enter into our present subject; but the graphic pictures which monkish historians have left of the spots which they thus tamed and beautified, must be referred to as showing that their minds and tastes were no less richly cultivated. It is thus that William of Malmsbury speaks of Thorney abbey after its restoration by St. Ethelwold, who took great pains in planting it with forest and fruit trees: “Thorney,” says the historian, “is indeed a picture of paradise, and for pleasantness may be compared to heaven itself, bearing trees even in the very fens, which tower with their lofty tops to the clouds; while below, the smooth surface of the water attracts the eye and reflects the verdant scene. Not the smallest spot is here unimproved–all is covered with fruit trees or vines, which creep along the ground, and in some places are supported on poles.”

But it remains for us to speak of the death of those great men, whose successful labours had effected so much for the real civilisation of their country. Ethelwold was the first to depart; and four years later, in 988, St. Dunstan terminated his grand career, rapt, as it would seem, in an ecstasy of love; for, after receiving the Holy Viaticum, he poured out a sublime prayer, and expired with its accents on his lips. St. Oswald survived his two friends until the February of 992; and among all the beautiful narrations of the deaths of the saints, “precious in the sight of the Lord,” few can be found more touching than that which describes his end. On the day previously, coming out of his oratory into the open air, he stood for a while gazing up into the sky, as though fixedly contemplating some glorious sight. Being asked what he saw, he only smiled, and said he was looking at the place whither he was going. He then returned to his oratory and desired them to give him the Holy Unction and the last Viaticum, although, indeed, he had no appearance of illness. That evening he assisted at the night office in his cathedral, and when morning came, according to his custom, he washed the feet of twelve poor men, reciting as he did so the Gradual Psalms. At their close, still kneeling, he pronounced the Gloria Patri, and then, bending gently forward, expired at the feet of the poor. When his holy body was carried to the grave, a milk-white dove, with wings extended, hovered over the bier all the way. He had been granted the satisfaction of witnessing the completion of his favourite abbey of Ramsey, which he consecrated just three months before his death.

The English restoration of letters, inaugurated by St. Dunstan and his companions, took place at a critical period, when fresh tides of barbarism were overwhelming the continental territories, and reducing the monastic institute in France to its very lowest ebb. This tenth century was, in fact, the famous “Age of Iron,” which, in spite of its celebrity as the very midnight of the Dark Ages, fills, strange to say, a very important place in the history of monastic literature. It will, therefore, be necessary to consider its various bearings at some length; and we will begin with the ungracious task of painting it in its blackest aspect.

Source:  Augusta Theodosia Drane, Christian Schools and Scholars (1910) .