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Britain’s Medieval identity Crisis

Clare Downham

BBC History Magazine, March (2012)

At first, the dramatic ruins of Furness Abbey may seem most notable for their setting in theintriguingly named ‘Vale of the Nightshade’. Today, its location seems peripheral, at the base of a peninsula stretching south from the Cumbrian fells. But in the Middle Ages, it was a hub of communication between the emerging nations of the British Isles – Furnesswas a medieval frontier zone, with a central strategic position in the Irish Sea, and close to the borders. It was here that the varied regional identities of medieval Britain came face to face. And it was here that a thirteenth century monk, Jocelin of Furness, produced writingswhich show that identity in the past could be just as complex an issue as it is in today’s multicultural world.

Four substantial works composed by Jocelin have survived through the centuries. This marks him out as a prolific medieval author. Nevertheless, until recently, Jocelin’s writings have been largely overlooked by historians. A statement in the Victoria County History of Lancashire (1908) is illustrative: ‘Furness … left no great monument of learning or piety,and trained no great men’. This prejudice may have arisen because all of Jocelin’s writingswere Saints’ Lives. These holy biographies are rarely regarded as accurate records. Theyabound in wonders and miracles – Jocelin’s tales include a corpse revived by a demon’which, swarming with worms, struck horror and stench into those who saw it’, and a royal ring miraculously recovered from the guts of a fish which saved the life of an adulterousqueen. Other bizarre occurrences reveal God’s power over his creatures, including theyoking of a stag and a wolf to plough a field, and a poisonous spider which drops into achalice of wine before mass, but causes no ill effects (the spider later emerges unharmed from the finger of a priest). These events are not historical. Nevertheless recent scholarshiprecognises the value of Saints’ Lives for what they tell about the times they were written,rather than as fantastic tales of long dead holy people.

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