Monastic Saints – Saint Æthelwold of Winchester – 1 August

Monastic Saints – Saint Æthelwold of Winchester – 1 August

[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family ( monks and nuns, generally, as distinct from other charisms—such as canons regular, mendicants, and clerks regular—that developed from the late Middle Ages on).  There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November.  But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory.  This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]

[ Image: Saints Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Dunstan, bishop of Canterbury, flanking King Edgar – from an 11th-century manuscript of the 10th-century _Regularis Concordia_ – British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A iii. ]

St. Æethelwold of Winchester – Born: between 904 and 909, Winchester, England – Died 1 August 984, Beddington, Surrey, England. 

(Not to be confused with St. Æethelwold, monk of Ripon and anchorite at Lindisfarne, who died circa 720, or with St. Æethelwold, abbot of Melrose and bishop of Lindisfarne, who died circa 740.)

It is easy to think of English history from 865 to 1066 as a period of constant conquest by waves of Viking invaders, with nothing much happening other than Anglo-Saxons fending off horned-helmeted invaders, leaving little time or energy for anything other than sheer survival.  But St. Æethelwold, bishop of Winchester, along with St. Dunstan, archbishop of canterbury, and Oswald, archbishop of York, accomplished much during the tenth century in the way of ecclesiastical reforms.  Æthelwold also fostered important contributions to England’s literary activity in this period, largely through one of his pupils, Ælfric, a monk of Cerne and later abbot of Eynsham.

Æthelwold, whose feast day is celebrated today, 1 August, was born in Winchester “of good parentage” in the early years of the tenth century.  He and Dunstan were both ordained to the priesthood at Winchester by Alphege (or Ælfheah), bishop of that see.  Dunstan became abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Æthelwold dean.  In 955, Æthelwold became abbot of Abingdon.  If Viking invasions did not bring English religious and cultural life to a complete standstill, they did have an effect on, among other things, monastic observance.  Monastic reforms in England had begun around 940, enthusiastically supported by King Edgar.  In furtherance of this project, Edgar made Dunstan archbishop of Canterbury, Oswald bishop of Worcester and then York, and Æthelwold bishop of Winchester.  Æthelwold’s consecration occurred in 963.  “All three reformers founded new houses, including the great monasteries in the Fenlands, where older houses had perished in the Danish invasion.”  To continue from Encyclopedia Britannica’s “History” section of its “United Kingdom” entry “The reformers, [concerned with more than monasticism,] paid great attention to other needs of their dioceses; the scholars Abbot Aelfric and Archbishop Wulfstan, trained by the reformers, directed much of their writings to improving the education and morals of the parish clergy and, through them, of the people.

“The monastic revival resulted,” states the same Encyclopedia Britannica entry, “in a great revival of both vernacular and Latin literature, of manuscript production and illumination, and of other forms of art. It reached its zenith in the troubled years of King Ethelred II (reigned 978–1016), after a brief, though violent, reaction to monasticism following Edgar’s death. In the 11th century monasteries continued to be productive and new houses were founded; there was also a movement to impose a communal life on bodies of secular priests and to found houses of secular canons.”

As St. Benoît d’Aniane had played an important role in establishing the Rule of St. Benedict as the standard monastic rule in 9th-century Carolingian France, St. Æthelwold assured a similar development in 10th-century England.  It is likely Æthelwold who translated the Rule into English, which has become the only surviving prose translation of the Rule into a European vernacular in the early Middle Ages.  Æthelwold also had the Rule incorporated into the _Regularis Concordia_, the most important document of this reform movement and sanctioned by the Council of Winchester around 973.

A key difference in the English reform of monasticism compared with the continental reforms was this preference for monastic, as opposed to secular, cathedral chapters.  Dunstan and Oswald were less zealous in this regard than Æthelwold, and historians have pointed out that the “lurid stigmatizations of [secular clergy] as foul, lazy, and lascivious come mainly from [Æthelwold‘s] circle.”  Also, active pastoral work beyond the monastic enclosure is not supported by the Benedictine Rule and would have been better served by an organization of the canons regular or the creation of new charisms more specifically active than contemplative.  But these kinds of reforms and developments were largely in the future.  It can be argued that Æthelwold worked within the limitations of the situation he inherited.  In any case, this characteristic of the English monastic reform reaffirmed English spirituality’s uniquely monastic outlook.

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


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