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Images of Sanctity in Eddius Stephanus' Life of Bishop Wilfrid, An Early English Saint's Life.

This study is an attempt to uncover Stephanus' agenda and aims in his Life of Wilfrid and to reconcile them with what can be inferred of the saint's own set of goals and ideals. It is thus a parallel investigation of internal and external history, to use the author's terms. Foley is pleased to present his readers with a close match between the two, thereby at least partially exculpating Wilfrid from modern historians' charges of careerism and irresponsibility. Wilfrid's difficulties with secular and ecclesiastical authorities in his home country are to be imputed to the clash between the ideals of Celtic and Roman sainthood and episcopal authority rather than to a basic flaw in Wilfrid's character. Foley's concluding words deserve to be quoted in full:

Like the medieval followers of Cuthbert's cult, moderns too are tempted to venerate only those saints whose sanctity manifests itself in popular, conventional, and undisturbing ways. Against that temptation stands Stephen's offensive and sometimes haunting depiction of sanctity. For modern readers of Stephen's Life, that depiction ever tries to subvert a conventional sense of sanctity and to inspire, through a saint who scandalizes, a radical faith of obedience that patiently hopes for future glory amidst present tribulations. (131)

The first three chapters of Foley's study deal with Stephanus' Life in juxtaposition to other seventh- and eighth-century English hagiographical writings, particularly the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert. Foley searches for the 'convictions that Stephen's work presupposes and that inform every page' and concludes that the author consciously sets out to expound a set of religious and ecclesiastical ideals that are at odds with (or at least present an alternative to) the Celtic-Northumbrian emphasis on the monastic life, ascetic spirituality, and teaching more by example than precept - ideals represented by Cuthbert. For inspiration Stephen reaches back to the pre-monastic history of the church, the age of persecution. Wilfrid emerges as the type of the bishop who risks his life in defence of orthodox teaching. He is above all an apostle, prophet, and confessor in the truest sense (even if in the end he does not suffer death). Like Paul he is glorified through persecution. Foley is good on scriptural theology. He shows in particular how Stephen expounds a Matthean theology emphasizing teaching and good works. (Foley might have done more on the Pauline parallels, especially as Wilfrid and Paul experienced crises with religious as well as secular authority.)

Chapter 4 deals suggestively with Wilfrid's experiences in Rome and Lyons. Of particular interest is the hypothesis that Wilfrid was actually present in Rome when Pope Martin was arrested by the exarchate of Ravenna and Abbot Maximus taken off for torture. Thus Wilfrid was a witness to the persecution of leading ecclesiastics suffered on account of the orthodox faith (here, particularly, right belief in the matter of the eastern doctrine of monothelitism). This, coupled with his own near martyrdom in Gaul and the impressions made on him by continental bishops, formed a type of Christian commitment that was radically different from the one in which he was raised. Wilfrid was imbued with the Roman ideal of episcopal auctoritas; he became the pius pater, ever concerned with promoting the faith, right teaching, and the ideal of obedience to established ecclesiastical authority. (In this context Foley might have done more with the contrast between Roman/Gaulish notion of episcopal authority and the Hiberno-Saxon concept vis-a-vis the place of monastic structures in an episcopally organized church.) In his final chapter he returns to the theme of the debate over sanctity and the two types of Christlike discipleship: asceticism and martyrdom.

This is a fine short study, well argued (if sometimes over-argued), insightful, and provocative. If it is not the final word on Wilfrid, it certainly introduces a new dimension to the study of his career and personality. Foley might have included a comparison with the life of Wilfrid that is scattered throughout the pages of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica; Bede's remarks receive scant attention. He might also have made more use of Aldhelm, not only the letter to Wilfrid's familia, but also the Carmina ecclesiastica and the prose De virginitate. These works teach us a great deal about the implantation of Roman ecclesiastical ideals in contemporary Wessex. Oddly, Foley does not seem to be aware of the Lapidge-Herren and Lapidge-Rosier translations of Aldhelm's writings. Some other weaknesses are to be noted. I should like to have seen more reliance on the original Latin texts, less on translated ones. A number of the editions cited from the Patrologia Latina have been replaced by more modern ones, e.g. Cummian. On the whole, however, Foley has achieved his stated goals. His book deserves to be read by all who are interested in the history of early medieval spirituality.

MICHAEL HERREN University of Toronto/York University
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Author:Herren, Michael
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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