The Vie Seinte Osith: Hagiography and Politics in Anglo-Norman England
Zatta, Jane Dick, Papers on Language & Literature
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. (9)
At the same time, emerging classes sought literary forms that would legitimize their own aspirations. The Anglo-Norman Brut translations of Geoffrey of Monmouth's famous chronicle, in vogue during the twelfth century, translate down the social scale the authorizing value of the Latin histories, but in adapting Geoffrey's grandiose and imperializing vision of British destiny to promote the interests of the lesser nobility, they shift the emphasis from the obedience owed by subjects to the gratitude owed by rulers. (10) Romances of English heroes, which began to appear towards the end of the twelfth century, appropriate the authorizing strategies of the histories, but they do so to subvert, not to legitimize, the absolute power of monarchy. As Susan Crane has shown, the romances of English heroes reflect the aspirations of the tenurial class for a social order in which access to land and power is based on justice, law, and merit rather than rank. (11) They challenge the devaluation of the individual that characterizes the court histories and promote an ideal of personal merit as the quality on which the legitimacy of lordship depends. A genre that is potentially remarkably similar to romance in its hostility to institutional authority and in the radical claims it makes for the legitimacy of individual actions--even when these threaten the hierarchical ordering of society--is the virgin martyr story. (12) It is not hard to see in these stories, which pit a spotless virgin against a comic-book tyrant, the subtext of an ecclesiastical polemic against secular government. But stories in which an obtuse, brutal, and ignorant secular ruler is successfully challenged by a young girl question not only the authority of the secular ruler; potentially, they question all hierarchical social ordering, even that of the church. (13) The Vie Seinte Osith is a particularly striking example of a saint's life that employs the authorizing conventions of the virgin martyr story to offer a strong criticism of the abuse of power by the episcopal hierarchy and give voice to the aspirations of the ecclesiastical menus gents for self-determination and autonomy. (14)
English religious houses faced a variety of threats to their lands and wealth after the Norman Conquest: despoliation of church treasures by the Conqueror, the imposition of punitive gelds and taxes, the requirement of knight service, and lay magnates' seizure of the estates belonging to churches if they were strong enough to do so. An additional danger to the wealth and independence of monasteries came from episcopal encroachments, since bishops could significantly augment their own finances by annexing a wealthy monastic house. The establishment of an episcopal see in an abbey threatened not only the wealth of the community, which had to be divided to provide for the bishop and his familia, but also the independence and the status of its head, and it is not surprising that communities so threatened resisted vigorously. (15) Tension between religious houses and bishops is a dominant theme in post-Conquest ecclesiastical histories. By the early twelfth century, the number of monastic cathedrals had more than doubled, increasing from the pre-Conquest number of four to nine out of a total of seventeen. (16) It is important to realize that the struggle for the survival of the English churches cannot be reduced to a Norman-English conflict or even to a church-state conflict. Norman abbots energetically fought off the encroachments from Norman lay and ecclesiastical lords alike on the wealth and patrimony of the houses on which the abbots' own fates depended. (17)
The first line of defense for an abbey whose wealth and independence were threatened by lay magnates or by episcopal usurpation lay in the production--often the forgery--of documents, especially royal charters, attesting to the ancient privileges and exemptions the house enjoyed. In seeking the king's protection on the basis of supposedly Anglo-Saxon royal charters, the Norman abbots were exploiting the Norman myth of continuity with the English past. (18) In addition to forged charters, religious houses promoted their political interests by seeking to increase the prestige of the abbey's founding saint through elaborately staged ceremonies celebrating the translations of his or her relics and the production of written lives. Religious biographies of Anglo-Saxon saints not only continued, but increased under Norman rule. (19) Saints' lives of English founding saints written to vindicate the independence of the houses on which their cults centered stressed the antiquity of the cults, the personal nature of the associations between the religious houses and the founding saints, and their establishment by royal or sometimes papal dispensation.
The Vie Seinte Osith, an Anglo-Norman re-writing of a Latin original, is one of these lives. Osyth was the patron saint of the house of Augustinian canons at Chich in Essex, and the life was written most probably in response to a series of crises in the mid-twelfth century when several of the churches belonging to St. Osyth's came under attack by the See of London. In the late eleventh century, Bishop Maurice of London split up the property of the small college of priests at St. Osyth's into prebends, constituting for each "the necessities of life, 60 acres of land, as well as tithes and altar offerings." (20) His successor, Richard I, who was Bishop of London from 1109 to 1127, seized the lands at Chich for inclusion in his hunting park at Clactonon-Sea, but he repented after suffering a stroke in 1118 or 1119 and founded a house of canons regular at St. Osyth's in 1121. According to notes taken by the sixteenth-century antiquarian John Leland from a now-lost late twelfth-century life of St. Osyth, Richard gave St. Osyth's the vill of Chich, twenty pounds a year from the farm at Clacton, the churches of Southminster and Althore, the churches of Clacton (St. James and St. Nicholas), and the churches of Pelham, Aldbury, and "the other Pelham" (i.e., Pelham Furneaux and Brent Pelham). (21) But in the years between 1141 and 1151, Bishop Robert of London made a grant of the churches of Southminster, Aldbury, and both Pelhams to the treasureship of St. Paul's. In the years between 1154 and 1159, Bishop Richard II attempted to confirm the grant and distressed Abel, prior of St. Osyth's, for the disputed churches (all of which in Domesday were on the demesne lands …
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Publication information: Article title: The Vie Seinte Osith: Hagiography and Politics in Anglo-Norman England. Contributors: Zatta, Jane Dick - Author. Journal title: Papers on Language & Literature. Volume: 41. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2005. Page number: 306. © 1999 Southern Illinois University. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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