Wild Foreheads, Scabby Thighs

04 11 saint guthlacToday is the feast day of Saint Guthlac of Crowland. He’s not a very well known saint these days, but he was once important enough to have two very long poems written about him in Anglo Saxon. He also had his life story recorded by a monk named Felix who, unusually, wrote it within living memory of Guthlac’s death. He was born in 673, in the English kingdom of Mercia which covered an area we now describe as the Midlands. As a very young man, he was a soldier who fought in the army of King Aethelred (not the one who was ‘unready’, a different Aethelred). At the age of twenty-four, he became a monk at Repton in Derbyshire.  Two years later he began to seek the solitary life of a hermit.

There were, around the third century, a lot of Christians who chose to live an ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. Guthlac was looking for something similar, but there were no deserts in Mercia, so he chose the boggy fen lands of Lincolnshire. He arrived at a place called Croyland (now Crowland) in the Fens which was, at that time, an island. There, he found an ancient burial mound that had been broken open (most likely by grave robbers hoping for treasure) and inside he found what is described by his biographer as a cistern. This is where he decided to live. He refused to dress in anything but animal skins and survived on a diet of barley bread and muddy water, which he would only take after sunset. He is said to have suffered from ague, which means fever, and marsh fever, which means malaria. Everyone thought he was very holy indeed and he had lots of visitors seeking spiritual guidance. Among his visitors was a man called Aethelbald, who was fleeing from his cousin. Guthlac prophesied that Aethelbald would one day be king. Aethelbald promised, if that were true, he would build and dedicate an abbey to Guthlac.

Unsurprisingly, considering his chosen lifestyle and state of health, he was visited by demons. They were British demons and he was able to speak with them because he understood their language. Here is Felix’s description of them…

They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.

Awful. Luckily, just as the demons were about to drag Guthlac down to Hell with them, Saint Bartholomew (who had died over six hundred years previously) appeared and gave him a scourge to beat them with. This is what you can see happening in the picture above.

When he died on 11th April 714, it is reported that his breath smelled like sweet nectar as his soul departed his body. While this was seen as a sure sign of his holiness, I can’t help thinking that is might have been a symptom of his prolonged fasting. He had foreseen his death and sent for his sister, Pega, to come and bury him. She inherited his psalter and the scourge which she later gave to the abbey that was built in his honour by King Aethelbald. The first abbey was attacked by Danes on Christmas Eve in the year 869. The Abbot and some of the monks were killed. Some escaped. Perhaps they took the abbey’s treasures with them, perhaps they buried it, perhaps it has never been found. The second abbey was accidentally burned down by a plumber in 1091. It caught fire again in 1143 and was eventually destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539, though one of the transepts is still used as a church.