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Reviewed by:
  • Byrhtferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine
  • Barbara Yorke
Byrhtferth of Ramsey: The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine. Edited and translated by Michael Lapidge. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009. Pp. civ + 323. $170.

This excellent edition of the Lives of St. Oswald and St. Ecgwine by Byrhtferth is a welcome addition to Michael Lapidge’s corpus of Anglo-Latin texts and to the invaluable Oxford Medieval Texts series. To those less skilled than Michael Lapidge in the editing and translation of such texts (which is pretty well everyone) this volume will be particularly welcome because of the complexity of Byrhtferth’s style and the obscurity of his vocabulary. Following the normal format of the Oxford Medieval Texts series, the Latin texts are printed with a translation on the opposite page. Exceptionally full and helpful footnotes reveal the sources of Byrhtferth’s phraseology and explain the historical context and significance of the material. An introduction provides an overview of Byrhtferth’s career, writings, and Latin style as well as a short overview of the context and historical interest of the Lives of the two saints. Editing was simplified by the fact that the two works are both known only from one manuscript, London, British Library, Cotton Nero E.i, part I, part of a substantial two-volume legendary that was probably copied at Worcester in the third quarter of the eleventh century. Unfortunately the scribe of this manuscript seems to have been extremely careless, and as part of the editorial process Lapidge has suggested corrections in an attempt to reinstate Byrhtferth’s original text. As Byrhtferth’s own Latin could be at fault, this is a hazardous process, but Lapidge marks clearly what he has done and supplies reasons. Obviously the reader will need to take note of such passages and reach his or her decisions on their viability. There are appendices containing glosses to Byrhtferth’s Vitae from the same manuscript and acrostic verses by Byrhtferth’s master Abbo of Fleury from which Byrhtferth has quoted at length in Vita Oswaldi v.8.

Byrhtferth is one of the leading scholars produced by the English tenth-century reform movement, and his reputation owes a good deal to Lapidge’s identification and explication of his varied corpus of writings. Byrhtferth was educated and spent most of his life at Ramsey abbey, which had been founded by Oswald, bishop of Worcester (961–92). Byrhtferth’s Vita of his patron was produced within a decade of his death to promote his cult and protect Ramsey’s interests. Lapidge plausibly argues that Byrhtferth withdrew from Ramsey to Evesham in a troubled period for the former community after the accession of Cnut (1016–35), and while there produced his Life of its founder, who had been bishop of Worcester in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Saints’ Lives are rarely straightforward accounts of their subject’s actual lives, but there is a major contrast in the potential historicity of the two works. The Vita Oswaldi was written from a personal knowledge of its subject and of the often tumultuous period in which he lived, but neither Byrhtferth nor anyone else seems to have known anything of significance about Ecgwine. The Vita Ecgwini is a textbook example of how a saint’s Life could be composed following established hagiographical conventions when virtually nothing was known about its subject. Evesham was within Oswald’s diocese as [End Page 241] bishop of Worcester, and its abbot, at the time Byrhtferth was associated with the monastery, was a former monk of Ramsey. The Benedictine ideals of Ramsey and other monastic communities of the reform period are projected back to the time of Ecgwine so that, for example, the obsequies said to have been performed at the time of Ecgwine’s death (iv.6) are those laid down in the Regularis concordia of ca. 973.

Certain passages of Byrhtferth’s Vita Oswaldi are relatively well-known and have often been cited for the light that they can throw on events in the tenth century. However, Lapidge cautions that the passages often valued most highly by historians are among those which...


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