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  • Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints
  • David Rollason
Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints. Translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, edited with an introduction and notes by Marsha L. Dutton. [Cistercian Fathers Series, 71.] (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications. 2006. Pp. xiv, 144. $24.95 paperback.)

The title of this very useful and interesting book is a little misleading. It in fact contains translations of three texts: the life of St Ninian, bishop of Whithorn, apparently written by Aelred for a bishop of the re-established see of Whithorn at some unknown date in the middle years of the twelfth century; [End Page 333] what appears to be a sermon on the relics and miracles of the early bishops of Hexham, which may have been written for the translation of the relics at Hexham in 1155 (attribution to Aelred, the grandson of the man who had reestablished the church of Hexham in the late eleventh century, is uncertain but is for the editor "too appealing to resist"); and a very remarkable account of the miraculous removal of a pregnancy from a nun in the Gilbertine community of Watton in Yorkshire. No translation of any of these texts has been previously available, and it is excellent to have the texts made available in a clear and scholarly way to those with no command of Latin. The volume is equipped with full indexes, a reasonable level of footnoting, and a thoughtful and authoritative introduction by the distinguished specialist on Aelred, Marsha L. Dutton. That introduction deals with Aelred's approach to spirituality as revealed in the texts, especially his belief that no sin is incapable of amendment, which is especially evident in some of the miracles of St. Ninian and in the very striking account of the miraculous cancellation of the Gilbertine nun's pregnancy, despite the clarity with which her sin of entering into a sexual relationship with a lay brother is presented. Interesting as Dutton's emphasis on Aelred's writing as a "mirror" for behavior is, there are also other notable areas of interest in these three writings. No one reading the miracle of the removal of the pregnancy can fail to be struck by the remarkably vivid account it gives of the appalling cruelty inflicted by the nuns on the pregnant girl and her lover, whom they have captured by the trick of having a lay brother dress as the girl to lure him into their clutches. The incident of making the girl castrate her lover and flinging the severed genitals in her face is the most shocking incident, although imprisoning her in a "cavern" and chaining her while she was waiting to give birth runs it a close second. The almost demented cruelty of the nuns is an aspect of medieval monasticism rarely encountered so vividly, and it is striking that Aelred praises "not the deed but the zeal."The Hexham sermon for the 1155 translation is of great interest in another way, for the practices involved in the cult of relics in the mid-twelfth century, for example the use of lead plaques to confirm the identity of the relics that were in most cases found with parchment labels explaining whose they were. The Ninian life and miracles are less immediately interesting, but the text is clearly an important one in understanding the re-establishment of the see of Whithorn in the twelfth century and the new church's view of its history. [End Page 334]

David Rollason
Durham University


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