Page 6, 18th September 1992

18th September 1992
Page 6
Page 6, 18th September 1992 — An eccentric saint of 'noble' birth

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Locations: Canterbury


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An eccentric saint of 'noble' birth

St Dunstan: His Life, Times and Cult edited by Nigel Ramsay, Margaret Sparks and Tim Tattoo-Brown (The Boydell Press, £65) Michael Walsh THERE is an authorised and a revised version of the life of St Dunstan. Dr David Farmer, in his excellent Oxford Dictionary of Saints, dates Dunstan's birth firmly in 909.

Dr Nicholas Brooks, in the first article in the book under review, points out the problems of accepting this date. He hesitates, but would prefer to place Dunstan's birth, as his biographer said it was, in the reign of King Athelstan in other words, shortly after 924.

Farmer adds, as have all other authorities, that the saint was of noble birth. Not proven, argues Brooks. Much depends on how one reads the life of Dunstan

composed shortly after his death by a priest (not a monk), who signs himself only as "B" and who had known him up to the time he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dr Michael Lapidge thinks he can identify the author. He was, proposes Lapidge, probably one Byrhthelm, formerly of the saint's retinue, but at the time of writing the Life a scholar in Liege. He wanted to come back to his own people: a biography of his onetime patron was a means to win favour with the new powers in England. If that was his intention he does not seem to have been successful.

B is virtually silent about Dunstan's career as archbishop, of which he had in any case no firsthand knowledge. But much of what B wrote about the earlier years must also be treated with caution. He was composing, he had no doubt, the life of a saint. There were conventions. Among them was the practice of exalting a saint's nobility, in order to demonstrate how much was given up when he adopted the life of a monk. There is little independent evidence that Dunstan's parents were of particularly high rank, and such evidence as there is suggests that they were not particularly so.

Dr Farmer remarks that Dunstan's cult sprang up spontaneously, and spread rapidly. The revised version is distinctly more cautious. Certainly he had the unusual distinction of being canonised by royal decree (King Cnut instructed that his feast he observed throughout England), but his own community at Canterbury was remarkably reticent in popularising its saint's cult, partly perhaps because he was himself not notably interested in devotion to the saints, and partly because they were uneasy with the monastic reforms with which Dunstan was closely associated.

Dunstan's was a forceful personality. One contributor to this collection describes him as eccentric. His biographer throws almost more light upon what tenth-century churchmen required of their saints than upon the archbishop's own life.

They were less interested in the virtues of humility, patience, charity, and more concerned about the ability to get along with kings. and to exercise authority over the Church. And in those virtues, Dunstan excelled.

There is very much more in this volume than there has been space to touch upon. The price is high, but one receives in exchange not just a revised version of the life of St Dunstan, but sixteen exemplary essays in the varied techniques of contemporary research.

Michael Walsh is librarian of Hevthrop College in London.

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