The Life of St Osith: Introduction

Article excerpt

The foundresses of Britain, as constructed by that country's post-Conquest inhabitants, are becoming better known than they used to be. The most important secular story for the Angevins and Plantagenets and their successors has long been acknowledged to be the eponymous foundation of Britain by Brutus. Variant versions of the Brutus story are extant in verse and prose in hundreds of manuscripts. The Brut's position as the framing narrative of post-Conquest Britain is well-illustrated in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Arthurian narrative is re-set within the Brutus story of Britain (to which Arthurian narratives in any case ultimately owe their own popularity). Recent scholarship, however, has begun elucidating a scandalous female prequel to Brutus in the story of Albina, first occupant of a country she names Albion after herself. This story first appears in Anglo-Norman before 1330 and becomes rapidly attached as a prelude to many of the French, Latin, and English versions of the Brut (Johnson 1995; Marvin 2001).

Alongside intensified recognition of the post-colonial Brutus and of Albina have come intensified perceptions of the importance of post-Conquest monastic lives and foundations. As Jane Zatta writes,

It could be said that Anglo-Norman lives of English saints trojanized Anglo-Saxon Christianity by portraying the Norman succession to the government of English religious houses as a kind of translatio ecclesiae in much the same way as the royal historians had portrayed the Norman Conquest of England as an ongoing project of political perfection progressing from pagan Troy to transitional Rome to Christian Europe. Norman lives of Anglo-Saxon saints highlight their role as the founders of English Christianity, the transition point between the Danish pagan past and the Christian future destined to culminate in the supercession of the Normans. (Zatta, 2003, 1)

The figure of the Anglo-Saxon virgin princess saint is an important template in this endeavour, used alike by monastic houses with and without well-founded historical claims to such patronesses. The Life of St Osith, extant in four Latin vitae and one Anglo-Norman version, is one of the most fascinating of such post-Conquest re-inventions of Anglo-Saxon sanctity. Uniting seventh, ninth, and eleventh century sources, Osith is a powerfully syncretic figure, one who metamorphoses yet again in the later Middle Ages to assimilate St Zita, a household servant saint, whose cult is a late medieval importation from Lucca (Bethell 1970a; Sutcliffe 1993). Osith's re-inventions most directly served the Bishops of London at St Paul's and the twelfth-century house of canons regular at Chich in Essex, but traces of her cult at Aylesbury, Bicester, and Hereford suggest her wider resonance (Hohler 1966; Bethell 1970b; Barrow 1987; Hagerty 1987; Bailey 1989). Her birthplace at Quarrendon in Buckinghamshire is said in the Anglo-Norman Vie seinte Osith to be marked by a bare mound (vv. 183-94) not fruitful in this world, but an important sign of the next. This is part of the prologue's extended play on giving up earth to gain territory in heaven. Since Anglo-Norman women could inherit in the absence of sons and since Anglo-Norman widows with some control of their dowers were major ecclesiastical and monastic patrons, the prologue's claim that not only men but women give up their land and lives to God is well-advised (vv. 47-8). The virgin intactness so often a homologue for land rights and property in post-Conquest sources has socio-economic resonances as well as other cultural powers: like Christina of Markyate, Osith's private vowing of her virginity to Christ sooner or later involves the interest of many other people and cannot remain hidden. But, as Zatta further points out, within the post-Conquest socio-saintly economy,

Anglo-Saxon virgin saints had a particular role because their divinely conceded exemption from a woman's normal social subordination provided another precedent for justifying the rebellion of a monastic house against political coercion. …

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