- The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness. Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics
Little is known of the life of Jocelin of Furness. He was a priest-monk of the Cistercian abbey of Furness is what is now Cumbria, and his writings indicate that he was active from about 1174 to 1214 (when he probably died). Efforts to identify him with two other Jocelins—one the abbot of Furness, the other the abbot of Rushen (a daughter-house of Furness)—remain unconvincing. Jocelin's literary endeavors compose the four saints' lives that are the subject of Helen Birkett's detailed study, and (according to Thomas Tanner) a work De Britonum episcopis, which, if it was indeed a product of Jocelin's pen, has not survived.
The four saints' lives are those of Patrick who, as everyone knows, expelled the snakes from Ireland (Jocelin is the earliest source for this tale); Helena, the mother of Constantine; Kentigern († c. 612), the Scottish missionary who was bishop of Strathclyde; and the more obscure but attractive figure of Waltheof or Waldef (c. 1100-59), an Austin canon who transferred to the Cistercians and became abbot of Melrose. Birkett's admirable study of these four vitae reveals the contexts in which they were composed, the audiences for which they were intended, how they reflect the complex political and ecclesiastical situation of the times, and how the author adapted the material to satisfy the interests of his patrons. Who were these patrons?
The Life of Patrick was commissioned by Tomaltach, archbishop of Armagh; Malachy, bishop of Down; and John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman ruler of what are now the counties of Down and Antrim, and the work attests to "the close alliance of the reformed church and the new Anglo-Norman regime in the north of Ireland" (p. 170). De Courcy was the founder of the Cisterian abbey of Inch in County Down, and Inch was a daughter-house of Furness. The vita is a decidedly political document, in which Jocelin clearly reveals his talent for adapting older narratives to the current concerns of his patrons. His life of Kentigern is similar. This was commissioned by Jocelin's namesake, Bishop Jocelin of Glasgow (formerly prior of Melrose), who died in 1199, and was intended to show that the diocese deserved an ecclesiastical status independent of the English church. Jocelin, who was always happy to moralize, also shows what, in his view, are the duties and responsibilities of a true bishop.
The Lives of Helena and Waltheof are rather different. Birkett shows that the former was probably commissioned by the nuns of either Elstow in Bedfordshire or St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, in London, and the work should be understood "as both a window onto the Helena legend and a mirror of contemporary failings—both an idealized biographical study and a religio-political commentary on the early thirteenth century" (p. 256). As to the life of [End Page 776] Waltheof, this, certainly, was intended to promote the cause of the abbot's canonization, although it did not succeed in its purpose. Waltheof was never formally canonized, although he was the object of a popular cult until the Reformation. Unlike the other vitae, Jocelin here includes eyewitness accounts of undoubted historical importance.
Birkett's excellent volume, rich in detail and with comprehensive footnotes, presents a wholly convincing reason for re-evaluating Jocelin and his works. He is, she says, a writer "who has been undervalued for too long" (p. 285), and the book may be recommended unreservedly to any student of hagiography and its purposes. [End Page 777]