The forgetful frater, or, an eighth-century reminder to make good notes

Here’s a little late-night blast from the library, not because I have something urgent I want to get off my chest but because it concerns something I came across earlier which chimed with me because of the nature of my current workload (as per my previous post).

One of the texts I’ve had to check for early occurrences of place-names in tūn is the so-called Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, generally believed to have been written at Whitby by a monk whose name is not known to us. Dated to the years between 704 and 714, it’s one of the first extant English vitae and, without established models to emulate, one of the most idiosyncratic. As is the case with many of the key hagiographical texts of the early English church, it was edited for publication by Bertram Colgrave (his final one it seems, to judge from publication dates at least).

The front cover of the paperback version of Colgrave's edition of The Earliest Life... (with my shadow looming in the reflection from the lamination)

The front cover of the paperback version of Colgrave’s edition of The Earliest Life… (with my shadow looming in the reflection from the lamination)

The chapters pertaining to the Augustinian mission and subsequent conversion have been of primary interest to me, a seam of English place-name-bearing prose (but, alas, not one in tūn) sandwiched between lengthy sections referring to Gregory’s papal activities (notably, in chapter 9, the oft-quoted story of his mistaking fair-skinned, curly haired Anglian boys for ‘Angeli Dei‘). It is in this middle section – chapter 18 to be precise – that the rather wonderful vignette I would like to share with you is to be found.

Our story starts with a man named Trimma ‘who exercised the office of priest’ (presbiterii functus officio) in a monastery described as being Sudranglorum, which Colgrave translates as ‘of the South English’ and later explains as meaning anywhere south of the Humber (Colgrave 1968, 102-103, 150 note 69). One day (or perhaps night), things took a turn for the strange for Trimma when ‘A certain man’ (vir quidam) appeared to him in a dream and demanded that he go to a place in regione illa que dicitur Hedfled – understood to mean Hatfield Chase in what is now Yorkshire – to remove the bones of the fallen Northumbrian king Edwin and take them to Streoneshealh (Whitby, though I known there isn’t universal acceptance of the equation of the two place-names). Quite understandably given the circumstances of this request, Trimma’s response is decidedly pointed: ‘I do not know the place. How can I go to a place I do not know?’ It is what follows – or rather, how the author recounts the next part of the story – that I find priceless, given the time I’m spending getting name spellings and geographical locations correct, and is why I quote it in full.

‘”Go to such and such a village in Lindsey” (our brother who told me the story and who was a kinsman of the priest could not remember its name) “and ask for a certain ceorl named Teoful. Ask him for about the place and he can show you where it is.”‘

(“Vade… ad vicum illum in Lindissi” (cuius nomen frater noster, illius presbiteri cognatus, qui hanc mihi exposuit ystoriam non recolebat) “et quere in eo maritum quendam nomine Teoful. Interroga illum de loco; ipse potest tibi monstrare ubi est.” Colgrave 1968, 102-103)

Two things strike me about this passage. First, the honesty of the writer in reporting his informant’s lapse of memory – early medieval hagiography is not exactly famed for its commitment to pure fact and a concomitant aversion to embellishment, especially when it comes to reported speech. Second is Colgrave’s translation of vicum illum as ‘such and such a village’; it’s brilliantly matter-of-fact and a triumphant example of more colloquial textual translation. Since encountering it, I’ve certainly redoubled my efforts to ensure all the names and references are entered in full in my essay draft and not left as ??? as I’m wont to do.

(So as not to leave any readers hanging without knowing the end to Trimma’s tale, chapter 19 goes on to recount how the man returned to the priest in his dreams twice more, finally cajoling him into action by whipping him violently. Trimma duly made his way to the recommended destination in Lindsey, found Teoful and was shown the place where he ought to find Edwin’s remains buried. His first round of digging proved fruitless, but he found them at the second time of asking (‘as often happens’, ut sepe fieri solet – an indirect reference to early grave plundering, or to the difficulties of translating saintly remains? – Colgrave 1968, 104-105). Trimma removed the ‘holy bones’ (sancta ossa) to Streoneshealh, where they were ‘honourably buried’ (honorifice…conduntur) in the church dedicated to St Peter, and afterwards lived at the original grave site for a period, during which time he often saw ‘the spirits of four of the slain, who were undoubtedly baptized people, coming in splendid array to visit their own bodies.’ (spiritus interfectorum iiii, per nimirum baptizatorum, splendide venientes sua corpora). His hope to build a monastery there, however, came to naught. This last bit has a whole host of tantalising possible implications about how Christian martyr cults and cult-centres developed (or not, in this case), and is something I’m going to bear in mind for reconsideration at another, more commodious time and place to this.)


The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, trans. and ed. by Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968)


About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
This entry was posted in Anglo-Saxon, Books, Church, Excuses, Hagiography, History, Latin, Monasteries, Northumbria, Religion, Ritual and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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