SNSF Project: Region and Nation

This project explores the extent to which devotion to northern early English saints (pre 1200) persists in late medieval England, and investigates the implications of such devotions for regional and national culture. It will publish its output in the form of a monograph and an edited collection of essays, and will also create a database mapping northern shrines and cults extant in the late middle ages. The project comprises a project leader, Professor Denis Renevey, a research associate, Dr Christiania Whitehead, and a doctoral student, whose position is now advertised.

The role of religion in shaping the boundaries and character of local and national communities remains vitally important in many parts of the world today. In the Middle Ages this was often carried out via devotion toward a local holy man or woman who was used to embody the homogeneity and best interests of the region in question. The late Middle Ages in England witnessed an upsurge of interest in the lives of the holy men and women of the Anglo-Saxon era (Cuthbert, John of Beverley, Hilda, Aebbe etc.), together with 12th-century holy English bishops, abbots and hermits (William of York, Robert of Newminster, Godric of Finchale etc.), themselves often modelled on pre-conquest examples. Initially composed in Latin, the ‘lives’ of these early English holy men and women were translated into Anglo-Norman and Middle English and added to vernacular legendaries (collections of lives of the Christian saints) from the late 13th century onwards. In addition, from the early 14th century, they were deliberately and selectively gathered together to form a new kind of Latin legendary: one wholly dedicated to showcasing English holy lives.

Using these textual hagiographical resources together with evidence from material culture (stained glass and statuary, relics, church dedications etc.), this project studies the contending pulls of region and nation in the late middle ages, and questions whether regionalism outweighed nationalism within the six northern counties (Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, and the Isle of Man). These counties were particularly associated with distance from the political centre, with strong traditions of local independence inherited from the Anglo-Saxon era, and with a complex response to the Scottish border, which itself remained a very unstable boundary late into the medieval period. As far as regionalism is concerned, northern Anglo-Saxon saints whose cults continued into the late middle ages were invariably associated with a distinct locale, and often viewed as the spiritual embodiment of the county or cathedral city in question. Thus St Cuthbert stands for Durham diocese; St William is closely identified with the city of York. As such, their vitae and miracle stories are frequently fashioned to demonstrate the saint defending local interests against external ecclesial or secular exploitation. Yet, as we have seen, these northern saints’ lives are also shepherded into national and broader pan-European legendaries, where they are collectively meant to convey an idea of ‘Englishness’, idealised as exemplary living, and to contribute to various formulations of spiritual nationalism, often linked with the promotion of the English vernacular. How do these two, seemingly oppositional, functionalities play out in the late 14th and 15th centuries, and in what directions are they resolved?

Drawing upon a fund of little-studied, primary source material, much of it still only extant in manuscript form, this project will redress the scholarly imbalance which has thus far favoured southern legendaries, and saints’ cults centred in East Anglia, London and the south (Thomas of Canterbury, Edmund of Bury, Edward the Confessor, Alban etc.), by focusing on the north of England and the Scottish borders, in its search for constructions of strong regionality refracted through hagiographical devotion. The project makes the theoretical proposition that the textual and material output of local saints’ cults offer a previously overlooked, archive for assessing the character and strength of regional autonomy and resistance to national political authority, in late medieval Europe. The insights gained from this case study of the North of England will be used to formulate a more general theoretical model regarding the strengths and limitations of local hagiographical materials as indicators for the strength of regionalism, which can then be applied to other regions with strong traditions of local autonomy grounded upon ancient stories of local holy men/women, such as Cornwall, Wales and East Anglia, within the United Kingdom; and Languedoc, Normandy, Alsace, the Savoy etc. further afield.