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  • The Old English Durham, the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, and the Unreformed in Late Anglo-Saxon Literature
  • Thomas O’Donnell

The Old English Durham poem, a metrical description of the town of Durham and its relics, has assumed an iconic status as the “latest” representative of a self-conscious Anglo-Saxon literary tradition. This reputation depends on the view, proposed by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, that the poem was written after 1104, when the monks of Durham Priory transferred Saint Cuthbert’s remains to the present Cathedral from an earlier church on the Durham promontory.1 This article challenges the traditional position, arguing instead that a date of composition between 1050 and 1083 much better reflects the evidence of the poem’s transmission. The original context of the Old English Durham would thus have been the community of married, Anglo-Scandinavian priests who possessed Durham from 995 to 1083 and not the mixed French and English Benedictine priory that carried out the 1104 translation.

Recent, thought-provoking articles by Heather Blurton and Joseph Grossi have clarified the poem’s appeal to monastic readership in the twelfth century and later, particularly as a spiritual rebuke of Norman ecclesiastical politics, and (rightly, I think) they have challenged interpretations that consider the poem, within its late manuscript context, as a piece of Anglo-Saxon “nostalgia.”2 Yet reassigning Durham to a social and historical context before 1104 opens up new possibilities for the poem’s significance for its [End Page 131] first readers (as opposed to its later preservers). Furthermore, transferring the authorship of even just this single short poem from a monastic to a secular community would add significantly to the corpus of religious vernacular poetry known to have been produced independently of the West-Saxon court and the network of reformed Benedictine monasteries under royal sponsorship in the eleventh century. The second half of this paper, therefore, puts Durham in dialogue with Latin writings from eleventh-century Durham, especially the Historia de sancto Cuthberto, in order to consider how the secular priests of Durham saw themselves and their relationship to contemporary English writing on the eve of their suppression by the allied forces of Norman power and monastic reform.

I. The Date of the Old English Durham

Entitled “De situ Dunelmi et de sanctorum reliquiis quae ibidem continentur carmen compositum,” Durham survives in a late twelfth-century collection of Durham histories now known as Cambridge, University Library MS Ff. i.27.3 Christopher Norton has shown that, although the book soon moved to Sawley Abbey, it was almost certainly produced at Durham Cathedral Priory.4 The poem catalogues the material wealth of the “famous” ecclesiastical stronghold of Durham, moving from the rocks on which the city was built to a litany of the relics housed there, whose many miracles other writings can attest:5

      Is ðeos burch breome        geond Breotenrice,      steppa gestaðolad,        stanas ymbutan      wundrum gewæxen.        Weor ymbeornad,      ea yðum stronge,        and ðer inne wunað[5]   feola fisca kyn        on floda gemonge.      And ðær gewexen is        wudafæstern micel;      wuniad in ðem wycum        wilda deor monige,      in deope dalum        deora ungerim.      Is in ðere byri eac        bearnum gecyðed [End Page 132] [10]  ðe arfesta        eadig Cudberch      and ðes clene        cyninges heafud,      Osuualdes, Engle leo,        and Aidan biscop,      Eadberch and Eadfrið,        æðele geferes.      Is ðer inne midd heom        Æðelwold biscop[15]  and breoma bocera Beda,        and Boisil abbot,      ðe clene Cudberte        on gecheðe      lerde lustum,        and he his lara wel genom.      Eardiæð æt ðem eadige        in in ðem minstre      unarimeda        reliquia,[20]  ðær monia wundrum gewurðað,        ðes ðe writ seggeð,      midd ðene drihnes        wer domes bideð.

      (The city is famous throughout the kingdom of Britain,      built on high, the rocks around it      wondrously grown up. The Wear runs round it,      a stream strong in waves, and within it dwell[5]   many kinds of fish in the thronging of the waters.      And there has grown up a great woodland-enclosure;      dwelling in the place are many wild beasts,      in the deep dales, beasts without number.      There is also in the city, well-known to men,[10]  the gracious, blessed Cuthbert      and...


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