The Life of St. Cuthbert: Hagiography or Hero-ography? Part 1
by The Reverend Dr. Adam Embry
Today, the term hagiography conjures up more than an idealized impression about the lives of Christian saints. Hagiography is often used as a pejorative term that uncritically reveres a Christian figure whose life is accompanied with signs and wonders, often pressing the bounds of our spiritual imagination. Our modern sensibilities, even religious ones, can disapprove of excessive displays of the miraculous. Such was not always the case. In the 7th century and beyond, the most significantBritish saint within hagiographic literature was the monk and bishop Cuthbert of Lindesfarne.
St. Cuthbert’s life (c. 634-687), as recorded by an anonymous writer and Venerable Bede (c. 673-735), had a significant impact on English culture, history, politics, and church. According to one scholar, “The lives of Cuthbert stand at the start of English hagiography. Indeed, until Bede put his pen at the service of Saint Cuthbert, England had no saint to compete with European saints of the stature of Italy’s Benedict or Gaul’s Martin …” What religious purpose did the life of St. Cuthbert have during his time and ours? This is a significant question for the Jurisdiction, because we have a religious order named and modeled after St. Cuthbert’s life and ministry. Every chaplain entering the Jurisdiction will read about aspects of his life for their Anglican formation. Is Bede’s material on the monk and bishop merely a hagiographic record of unrepeatable miraculous actions and unobtainable religious fervor, or does Bede reveal something more significant about Cuthbert for his time period and ours today?
In his ecclesiastical history, Bede references something he previously wrote on Cuthbert’s “life and virtues both in heroic verse and prose.” This reference to Cuthbert’s life and virtue, described in heroic words, is significant for our understanding of the saint. And though not an uncommon description at the time, heroic virtue is an overlooked aspect of Cuthbert’s life that is instructive for us today. Bede’s life of St. Cuthbert is a heroic spiritual tale, equal to the valiant heroism of British kings such as Aethelfrith, Edwin, Oswald, and others. To explain what I will call Cuthbert’s hero-ography, I will explore the connection between virtue and morality in heroic narratives, and then describe the theological descriptions of virtue in Cuthbert’s life. A second article will apply specific aspects of Cuthbert’s heroic virtue to our lives.
Virtue and Morality in Heroic Narratives
In his seminal work on the recovery of virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre helps us understand the importance of heroism and its connection to virtue. His analysis is applicable for how we should understand Bede’s remark about capturing St. Cuthbert’s life and virtue in a heroic narrative. MacIntyre noted that what is said “of Homeric society is equally true of other forms of heroic society in Iceland or in Ireland. Every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined and highly determinate system of roles and statues … it is not just that there is for each status a prescribed set of duties and privileges. There is also a clear understanding of what actions are required … A man in heroic society is what he does … To judge a man therefore is to judge his actions.” Judgment about character is based on virtue, which is defined by the society, so that “morality and social structure are in fact one and the same in heroic society.” Morality, as MacIntyre explains, is tied to local and particular people, and the virtues exhibited are inherited as part of that society’s tradition which was passed down through stories and narratives. In this way, Bede’s life and prose about St. Cuthbert contain heroic descriptions of the monk’s virtue inscribed in the English catholic tradition which is passed down to us today.
Using MacIntyre as a cultural reference point, Anglican theologian Hans Boersma draws attention to how the early church fathers placed emphasis on virtue in their writings and sermons. “The church fathers typically understood a virtuous person as someone who, through habitual actions, had attained moral ‘excellence’ as a skill with regard to his moral outlook and life, so that such a person had come to participate in God’s own moral excellence (or virtue).” Since St. Cuthbert lived during the patristic era (during the time of the seven ecumenical councils), he would have understood virtue as the pursuit of habitual moral excellence in order to participate in the life of God.
Historically, St. Cuthbert’s heroic virtue was lived out within the medieval British context of war and war stories. It was within this history that the battles “between invaders and native tribes emerged the pure poetry of war.” In fact, St. Cuthbert is described as a warrior. As a boy, he had bold maturity, and instead of playing childish games, he stood “triumphantly in the playground as though he were in the [Roman] arena.” Most significantly, immediately after Bede references his “life and virtue” written in “heroic verse and prose,” he offers an example of spiritual warfare. Bede retells how the Saint, “a soldier of Christ,” armed with spiritual armor from Ephesians 6, “expelled evil hostile forces” before settling into a life of solitude, a “place of combat.” He was known for exorcisms, and once while teaching in a village, he warned against a Satanic attack, and then a fire broke out. The villagers were unable to put out the fire, but the fire ceased after he prayed. St. Cuthbert’s spiritual warfare falls in line with the examples of significant saints and bishops that held spiritual authority over Satan. As medieval Britain engaged in local and national warfare, religious men such as St. Cuthbert exhibited virtue by warring against the spiritual forces of evil. One medieval scholar noted that the Saint’s career from youth, monk, and hermit to Bishop was an accretion rather than development, or as Bede put it, his virtue because his trophies. A life of virtue was his heroic tale.
Theological Descriptions of Virtue
The key to understanding St. Cuthbert’s heroic virtue is theologically described by his “angelic” appearance. In what might seem like a passing comment, both his Anonymous Life and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History described St. Cuthbert as having, “a light in his angelic face.” There is one other reference to angelic faces in Bede’s history: the first time Gregory the Great saw the British in Rome. Noting their fair complexions, Gregory said the British had “angelic faces.” From Gregory’s statement, it could be assumed that Bede merely highlights the S fair-skinned appearance as an Anglo, which is no more than a play on the word angel.
However, in St. Cuthbert’s Anonymous Life, there is another important angelic description. Before he predicts King Ecgfrith’s death, a nun appeals to him with a hierarchy of authorities, beginning with Christ, “the nine orders of angels,” and the saints. The nine orders of angels were Isidor of Seville’s early medieval theological framework for understanding the biblical categories and authorities of angels. Isidor’s work, Etymologies, was an encyclopedia of philosophical and theological documents, and it was one of Bede’s sources for his Ecclesiastical History. The middle order of angels, the fifth, were called Virtues. Isidor wrote, “Holy Scripture witnesses moreover that there are nine orders of angels, that is, Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers, Cherubim, and Seraphim.” Specifically, “Angelic Virtues are named as the specific ministries through which signs and miracles are made in the world, and because of this they are called Virtues.” Labeling an order of angels as “Virtues” seems strange to us, but the medieval church read the Latin Vulgate, which mentions angels in Psalm 102:20: “Benedicite Domino, omnes angeli ejus, potentes virtute …” The Latin word for strength is virtus. There is an order of angels characterized by their strength. And so, by highlighting virtue in St. Cuthbert’s life, Bede’s comment about an “angelic appearance” comes into focus: St. Cuthbert’s virtuous life is evidenced by supernatural, divine, “angelic” strength. Or, as Bede put it elsewhere, “As his virtues grew so also grew [in] heavenly grace.” As one medieval scholar noted, Bede believed the Saint’s miraculous powers were viewed as ‘trophies’ earned by his virtues.” St. Cuthbert’s virtue was his heroic power helped him ascend heavenward.
A final, important point needs to be made about virtue. The power of the Saint’s outward ministry of “signs and miracles whereby he shone outwardly gave witness to the inward virtues of his mind.” His mind was spiritually trained in Benedictine disciplines of contemplation, and most notably, growth in humility. St. Benedict’s twelfth and final step in humility ends in delight in virtue: “When the monk has climbed up all these steps of humility, he will reach ‘the perfect love of God which casts out all fear’ (1 John 4:18). As a result, all the things he did out of fear he will begin to perform without effort, out of habit and naturally, no longer out of fear of hell but as a good habit out of the love of Christ and delight in virtue.” The Saint’s heavenly ascent in humility was the heroic culmination of virtuous living.
Morality and social structure were one in the same in ancient heroic societies such as the ones that St. Cuthbert lived and ministered. As chaplains, our social structures are layered by our country, organizations (i.e., military, front-line chaplaincy, religious orders, etc.), and ultimately, our Jurisdiction. By strengthening our morality, we strengthen our social structure, our Jurisdiction. In as much as we ascend to a life of virtue like St. Cuthbert, our Jurisdiction becomes a heroic society.
The Rev. Dr. Adam Embry serves in the United States Air Force Reserves and is currently on active duty orders. He is also an assisting priest at Emmaus Anglican Church in Castle Rock, CO. He and his wife, Charlotte, have six children.
 Bertram Colgrave, ed. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life of by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).  Carole E. Newlands, “Bede and Images of Saint Cuthbert,” in Traditio, Vol. 52 (1997): 78.  Newlands believes Bede’s writings on St. Cuthbert presented him as an emblem of political unity between Gaelic and Roman Christianity. See page 77.  J.R.H. Moorman, A HIstory of the Church In England (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1980), 21-27.  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 258. Unfortunately, I am not able to obtain a copy of this.  Interestingly, the preface of the 2019 BCP uses heroic language about St. Cuthbert: “Early heroes and heroines leading such [monastic] communities bore names that are still remembered and celebrated, names like … Cuthbert.”  Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 122.  Ibid., 123.  Ibid., 126-27.  Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 260.  Peter Ackroyd, Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011), 52.  Colgrave, Two Lives, 65.  Colgrave, Two Lives, 215, 229; Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 258.  Colgrave, Two Lives, 205-11.  Ibid., 199.  With the reference to demonic expulsion, St. Cuthbert followed in the footsteps of Bishop Germanus, who encountered “the hostile power of devils” while sailing to Britain to counter Pelagian heresy which spread (Bede, 65). St. Cuthbert’s authority over the demonic echoes Pope Gregory’s letter to Augustine of Canterbury, advising him that “the devils are subject unto us, through thy [Christ’s] name” (Ibid., 93). Similar to St. Cuthbert, Bishop Boniface cast out a “company of devils” for the Church and advised King Edwin that Christians are delivered from “the damnable crafts and devices and … the evil power of the Devil” (Ibid., 109, 122).  Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 257; Colgrave, Two Lives, 77.  Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 103.  Colgrave, Two Lives, 103.  Similarly, Pseudo-Dionysius’s Celestial Hierarchies and St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa lists nine orders of angels. For an accessible overview on the orders of angels from an Anglican perspective, see John A. Porter, Anglican Dogmatics: Francis J. Hall’s Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 1 (Nashotah, WI: Nashotah House Press, 2021), 573-85.  For Bede’s reliance on Isidor, see Reed Morgan, “Bede and Isidore: A Relationship Revisited,” M.Phil thesis., Cambridge University, 2018. Interestingly, Isidor and Bede are listed together, each as one of Dante’s twelve spirits in his vision of heaven. See Paradiso, Canto X.  Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, eds. The Etymologies of Isidor of Seville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 160. Based on Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16, “Thrones and Dominations [e.g., Dominions] and Principalities and Powers and Virtues are understood to be orders and ranks of angels, in which orders the apostle Paul includes the whole heavenly company.”  Ibid., 161.  The English translation of Psalm 103:20 reads, “Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength …” (KJV).  Colgrave, Two Lives, 179.  Newlands, “Bede and Images of Saint Cuthbert,” 84.  Ibid., 243.  Benedict, The Rule of Benedict, trans. Carolinne White (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 26.  MacIntyre, After Virtue, 123.