On this day: St. Guthlac

On this day we commemorate Guthlac, an Anglo-Saxon saint who lived as a hermit in the fens of East Anglia in the early 8th century.

"Because of the ambiguity of the Old English word beorg, which can mean both "hill" and "tomb," scholars have debated whether or not the beorg which Guthlac inhabits in Guthlac A is a pre-Christian burial site. Whether it is a tomb or simply a hill, Guthlac's fenland beorg bears an interesting likeness to the tombs of Tolkien's barrow-wights in The Fellowship of the Ring. Both are situated in a misty borderland area, and both are occupied by a nebulous demonic presence which is eventually exorcised."

--J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, edited by Michael D. C. Drout, Routledge, 2007, page 262.

From Felix's Life of Guthlac, we know he "won fame at the head of a Mercian warrior band fighting the British on the borders of Wales before entering the monastery at Repton at the age of twenty-four". Page 210.

At "Repton in Derbyshire, a double monastery of monks and nuns, presided over by the Abbess Ælfthryth . . . . he speedily distinguished himself by his extreme piety and asceticism so that at first he gained the dislike of the brethren, especially because of his refusal to touch any intoxicating drinks". Page 4.

After two years at Repton, Guthlac set out for "a solitary life on Crowland, an uninhabited island deep in the wild and desolate fenland separating Mercia and East Anglia, and accessible only by boat. Here he built a shelter cut into the side of a burial-mound in which he lived austerely, skin-clad in the manner of the Desert Fathers, for the rest of his life". Page 210. He fought demons, and he had visions of St. Bartholomew.

After Guthlac's death, Æthelbald, King of Mercia, founded Croyland Abbey in his memory. Click on "The Bells of Croyland" on that page to read about the "first bells to be hung in Britain" and to see the great length of their ropes. Click here to hear "Bellringing at the Abbey Church of St Mary, Bartholomew & Guthlac, Crowland".

In addition to the Life of Guthlac written by the monk, Felix, we know of the saint from two poems about him, known as Guthlac A and B, which are preserved in the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry and riddles. Scroll down halfway for some riddles and their solutions.

Click here to read Guthlac A and B. To hear the Anglo-Saxon poems read aloud, click here. Scroll down halfway for lines 1 - 92. Click here for a translation of A, and here for a translation of B.

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