My back-to-back visits to Holy Island and the University of Leeds Medieval Congress in some ways illustrate well the dual life of Anglo-Saxon clergy like Aldred: the quiet retreat of monastic routine and the busy schedule of secular affairs. Saint Cuthbert longed to retreat from the busyness but was drawn in by demands for his service as a leader. Ironically, what made him an attractive abbot and bishop was his preference for the quiet life over the power and prestige of clerical position, but he knew he needed the self-effacement of retreat in order to not get sucked into the politics of it all. Perhaps all of our leaders should do the same…but that is a different post.
Half way through my week on Holy Island, I realized what made my retreat so pleasurable: I could simply receive what was offered to me. All food was provided at Marygate House, so I did not need to find a restaurant and choose from a menu, but simply eat the delicious meals lovingly served to us retreatants. Similarly with the religious services, I went to St. Mary’s Parish Church morning prayers at 7:30, communion at 8, and evening prayers at 5:30, as well as Marygate prayers mid-morning, making no effort to create my own spiritual disciplines but accept what I was fed. That passivity on my part contributed to receptivity and gratefulness. It also left my mind free to wander as I wandered around the island between times, and wrote down ideas to incorporate into Aldred’s story.
On the other hand, the Leeds Congress was highly enjoyable, filled as it was with thoughtful paper sessions, stimulating conversations with fellow medievalists, and chance meetings that turned out to be very helpful. But it was non-stop interactions from breakfast to bedtime. I gathered a very different set of notes to use in Aldred’s story as well as other research. I was also able to promote ISAS 2017 in Honolulu: the call for papers is now up and the website under development.
So what can I say about this contrasting experiences? I enjoy both and need a bit of both. I like being alone for periods of time, thinking, reading, and writing.
But I also enjoy the intellectual stimulation of conversation with other researchers. I suspect Aldred was similar, or at least I intend to build that duality into my fictional recreation of his life. On the one hand, he loved books, both reading and writing in them. But I don’t think he did so in complete isolation. The colophons he wrote in both the Lindisfarne Gospels and Durham A.IV.19, and his glosses to both, suggest that he was involved in scholarly dialogue with members of his community in ways that enriched and informed what he wrote. What is hard to recreate is the dialogue taking place with others while he glossed in his native Old English the Latin texts he and they used for meditation and prayer.