The Vie Seinte Osith: Hagiography and Politics in Anglo-Norman England

Article excerpt

The Vie Seinte Osith is a little-known Anglo-Norman verse life of an early English virgin martyr. The saint commemorated in this life is a pseudo-historical composite made up of three Anglo-Saxon holy women connected to the seventh and tenth centuries. (1) Little is known about the pre-Conquest history of this saint's cult, (2) but a church dedicated to Osyth, dependent on the See of London and served by a small community of chaplains, existed at Chich in Essex at the time of the Conquest. The cult of St. Osyth rose to prominence under the Norman encouragement of Anglo-Saxon saints. In 1076, her relics were translated by Bishop Hugh, and again in 1186 by Maurice, but the real promotion of Osyth came under Bishop Richard Belmeis I of London, who founded a house of black canons there whom he endowed with the manor of Chich and other churches. The canons who settled at Chich came from the house of the Holy Trinity Aldgate in London, which had been founded about 1107 by Queen Matilda on the advice of St. Anselm. (3) The house, richly gifted by Bishop Richard, an intimate of Henry I, as well as by the king himself and the Archbishop of Canterbury, early achieved a reputation as a center of learning in the social and intellectual milieu of the Anglo-Norman royalty. William of Malmesbury mentions its reputation for letters in his Gesta Pontificum: "There were and there are there clerks distinguished in letters, so that it may be said that the countryside blossoms with their happy example." (4) At least four lives of Osyth were composed in the twelfth century. One of these, now lost, was written by William de Vere, who grew up in the court of Henry I and his second wife, Adelaide of Louvain, and who was the patron of Walter Map, Gerald of Wales, and Robert Grosseteste. (5) In the reign of Henry II, John of Salisbury was an ardent advocate of the house, defending its rights against the attempts to expropriate certain of its churches by Richard II of Belmeis, Bishop of London (1152-62). The prominence of the cult of St. Osyth at the heart of the intellectual circles close to the Norman and Angevin kings makes her Anglo-Norman life, by far the longest and most complete of the extant lives, especially important to a study of the development of vernacular literature in the twelfth century.

On both the secular and the ecclesiastical level, Anglo-Norman England was marked by a struggle between an institutional hierarchy and a subject population that was struggling for independence and self-determination, a struggle inscribed in secular and ecclesiastical writings alike. Political and ecclesiastical interests expressed through well-recognized genres such as history, law, and hagiography created expectations that could be manipulated by authors, sometimes transgressively. In the context of a complex network of colliding interests, authors with different institutional allegiances and social purposes exploited genre conventions to present their audiences with different constructions of the role institutional authority played in the realization of individuals' goals. (6) Official histories written for Norman and Angevin monarchs in the first two generations after the Conquest promote the belief that submission and obedience to an idealized monarch result in a transfer of his qualities--noble origins, natural superiority, and divinely favored success--from the ruler to the subject almost in the same way that hereditary traits are passed from father to son. (7) They offer obedient subjects a subsumed participation in the national authority from which they would otherwise be excluded. (8) Likewise, from the twelfth century, but especially from the thirteenth, competition with an increasingly hegemonic and centralized monarchy led the church to encourage the reorientation of devotional practices away from the direct and personal spirituality advocated by an Anselm or a Bernard, and towards a piety contained within the liturgy. The religious didactic literature that promotes a sacramental program of salvation, in which the church plays an indispensable role in mediating the relationship between God and individual, views the relationship between institution and individual in much the same way as the official histories: these works teach patience and obedient submission to the institutional church, of which the submission and obedience the individual owes to secular authority is an analogue. …