Following in the Footsteps of Christ: Text and Context in the Vita Mildrethae

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Following in the Footsteps of Christ: Text and Context in the Vita Mildrethae


The Vita Deo dilectae uirginis Mildrethae (BHL 5960) was written by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin during his residency at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, in the final decade of the eleventh century. (1) Goscelin was the most celebrated hagiographer of his generation, whose prolificacy in writing the 'lives of countless saints' would later render him, in William of Malmesbury's estimation, as 'second to none since Bede'. (2) Very little is known about Goscelin's life and what is known has been pieced together from tantalizing snippets found in his hagiographical works. (3) He was a Flemish emigre who left the monastery at Saint-Bertin and moved to England while still a young man in the early 1060s. His move may well have been at the encouragement of Bishop Herman of Ramsbury and Sherborne, since Goscelin appears to have joined the Benedictine community at Sherborne. While in the south-west, he may have served as chaplain to the nuns at Wilton and it is possible that he may also have served Bishop Herman as a secretary-cum-companion. Certainly his service in the bishop's household would explain his sudden departure from the locality following Herman's death in 1078. Goscelin appears to have quarrelled with Herman's successor, Osmund, who, by 'serpent envy and a step-father's barbarity ... compelled [Goscelin] to wander a long way away'. (4) Nursing feelings of exile, Goscelin appears to have led an itinerant existence before settling at St Augustine's in the early 1090s. This peripatetic period, however, proved his most productive, and a great many of the works attributed to him, some thirty in total, were written during these years. (5) Judging from his hagiographical commissions, Goscelin appears to have spent time at Peterborough, Barking, Ely, and Ramsey before being recruited to Canterbury to commemorate the grand translation of the abbey's entire relic collection in 1091, a colossal project which occupied him for the rest of the decade. (6)

Goscelin's purposes in undertaking hagiographical commissions were complex. His decision to dedicate three of his Lives to prominent Norman bishops suggests he was motivated by both personal and political concerns. He dedicated his Life of Wulfsige to Bishop Osmund, his Life of Edith to Archbishop Lanfranc, and his Barking texts (the Lives of AEthelburh, Hildelith, and Wulfhild) to Bishop Maurice of London. (7) His prologues which precede the Vitae communicate his thinly veiled hopes of securing employment (and a home) while, at the same time, they advance the interests of the religious communities by commending their Anglo-Saxon saints to the new Norman ecclesiastical elites. (8) But for Goscelin it was about much more than simply recording the Lives of neglected saints. He saw hagiography as an opportunity to impart spiritual instruction. His personal interest in spiritual improvement was heralded in 1080 when he wrote a devotional manual for Eve, a young novice whom he had befriended at Wilton, known as the Liber confortatorius (a 'book of encouragement'). (9) Here Goscelin's concern for the instructional and contemplative functions of his text is manifestly apparent, but the same concerns also surfaced in his hagiographical works.

While his modern editors have often identified the strands of thought that fed into Goscelin's texts, the precise ways in which allusion and intertextuality gave his works their depth and didactic power have seldom been explored in detail. One particularly rich passage in the Vita Mildrethae concerning a local healing cult allows us to see clearly the strategies Goscelin employed to impart his message. An understanding of the various textual, liturgical, visual, and architectural contexts, as well as contemporary social practice, allows us to explore Goscelin's account of this Kentish saint. Thus it is only through a very close reading of this passage within a historically holistic framework that we can begin to unravel the broad range of patristic, Christological, and liturgical textual traditions that Goscelin drew upon to frame his narrative and elicit spiritual understanding. …

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