The Lives of Others


If Bede fashioned a history for England, he also populated it with characters; as well as an historian he was a biographer who helped to create a form that has exercised a peculiar fascination over the English imagination ever since. There had been earlier “lives of the saints.” There were lives of Cuthbert and of Columba, of Wilfrid and of Guthlac, all of them related to the same essential hagiographic pattern, beginning with a miraculous birth and ending with a calm or visionary death. It has been estimated that, before 900, some six hundred different lives were being read throughout the country.

The popularity of English biography can be dated quite accurately, therefore, particularly in the lives of saints associated with a specific locality or region. St. Cuthbert dwelled upon Farne Island, a desolate spot close to Lindisfarne, while St. Guthlac withdrew to Crowland in the Lincolnshire fens; here by prayer and miracle they were able to control their environment, as if their attachment to a certain area lent them special powers. It was another way of asserting the spirit of place.

These first English lives borrow themes and techniques from the secular poetry of their period, suggesting once more that the concept of form is a fluid one. Biography is as much an aspect of literature as epic verse. The landscape of the Guthlac biographies (there are two separate texts) is that of a “wide wilderness” populated by fantastic demons and is not dissimilar to that of Beowulf; Guthlac himself is “steadfast in truth” just like the hero of the epic poem, and is deemed to be a warrior for Christ of the same heroic temper as those who fight in secular verse. This mingling of biography and fiction seems to spring naturally from English writing; a survey of sixteenth-century literature, for example, has recently concluded that a “notable feature of later English experiments with form” is “the blurring of the boundaries between legend and history.”1

Once more we may see the hand of Bede behind a formative development in English letters. He composed a life of St. Cuthbert in Latin hexameter verse before he completed one in prose, once more emphasising that there is no necessary disparity between the two genres. He was the first English writer to give historical substantiality to the accounts of the martyrs of the early Church, and began the tradition of what might be called secular as opposed to saintly biography with his Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. These lives are as short as those written by Johnson or Strachey, and they manifest what has become the customary English interest in character and circumstance; they dwell upon the practical details of living, too, albeit succinctly described.

Another life might be ventured in this context, since it is the first example of “travel literature” in English and as such represents one of the true origins of the English imagination. The Voyage of St. Brendan has been described as one of the great mythological narratives of the Christian West, but it has also been interpreted as an actual account of a sea journey to Newfoundland or Iceland; the Elizabethan magus John Dee included the text in his argument that England held original dominion over America itself. It has also been described as “one of the most famous and enduring stories of Western Christendom.”2

Brendan and fourteen brethren set out to sea in a coracle of wood and tanned oxhide; after forty days they land upon a rocky island where a great hall and miraculous feast appear to comfort them; yet here the devil, in the shape of “a little Ethiopian boy holding out a silver necklace and juggling with it,”3 comes to tempt them. On another island they discover herds of giant sheep, and afterwards build their camp upon the back of a great whale; in another place they encounter flocks of speaking birds who explain to Brendan that they are fallen angels. At the time of Vespers, the birds sing a hymn in praise of God and beat their wings against their sides “as sweet and moving as a plaintive song of lament.”4 On a yet more distant island they visit an enchanted monastery and on another they converse with a man, crouching upon a rock, who announces himself as Judas Iscariot. It is a delightful story, which can be seen as the harbinger of Utopia, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels; it contains the close detail of a journey, complete with leather water-bottles and preservative salt, combined with the most extraordinary allegorical intent. It may have been the work of a British or Irish, rather than a Saxon, monk but it introduces that line of fanciful or fantastic travel-writing which has become so much part of the English genius.

There is one other enduring contribution which the now forgotten genre of saints’ lives may be said to establish. Their stories spilled over into drama, and by the early twelfth century saints’ plays were a recognised element of the “miracle plays” and had become a popular form of theatre. The appetite for biography, especially of the more sensational kind, was satisfied with plays upon St. Katherine, St. George, St. Thomas the martyr, St. Swithin, St. Andrew and many others. The drama was elicited by the confrontation between pagan and Christian, these spirited dialogues complemented by details of torture or martyrdom and by the manifestations of signs and wonders. There was comedy as well as tragedy, with Jews or pagan rulers as stock comic characters, but more significantly it has been suggested that “the Elizabethan history plays . . . seem most likely to be descended” from these saints’ plays “in terms of character, structure and thematic development.”5 Just as the Tudor drama derived in part from Anglo-Saxon scholastic debate, so the sequence of Shakespeare’s history plays owes many of its themes and much of its symbolism to this genre of Anglo-Saxon prose. The noble origins of St. Guthlac, a man whose eminence sprang out of a wayward youth, bear some relation to Shakespeare’s Henry V; the saint’s musings upon the death of kings, and the transitory nature of all human power, provide the context for Richard II.

It has been suggested that the first English tragedy was not Gorboduc, as the text-books insist, but a play entitled Life of St. Thomas à Becket otherwise known as St. Thomas of London. It was performed as early as 1182, twelve years after Becket’s death, and was still being dramatised as late as 1539. The extant prose lives of the saint emphasise the historical context of his career and the specific circumstances of his death as ordered by Henry II; the theme is one of conscience, of spiritual determination, and murder for the sake of them both. It is difficult to believe that the dramatic versions differed very greatly in content or intent, so there is a distinct possibility that “we have a tradition of English tragedy existing over a period of 360 years and to within fifteen years of the first recorded tragedy in 1554 . . . a continuously developing form from the twelfth century all the way through the Renaissance.” 6

Nothing can come out of nothing; King Lear has its roots in mummers’ plays, which are themselves derived from Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives. T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a verse drama on the death of Thomas Becket, is a manifest sign of continuities stretching back a thousand years. They may occur in specific, as well as general, contexts. One collection of lives, Sawles Warde, contains the words “the derne beoth ant deopre then ani sea dingle”; they are co-opted by W. H. Auden in his opening line, “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.”

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