Authorship and Authority:

Barking Abbey and Its Texts

Martin E. Segal Theater

CUNY Graduate Center, September 11, 2009


“The Saint-Maker and the Saint: Hildilith creates Ethelburga”

Lisa Weston, California State University, Fresno

Except for one charter—the so-called Hodilred Charter, which though extant in a later copy is arguably dateable to the lifetime of the historical Hedilburga, better known as Ethelburga—the earliest legal, historical and legendary accounts of the life of Barking’s foundress date from the period of Hildilith, her successor as Abbess.  Hildilith’s career is documented by charters and, more notably, by her inclusion in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede credits her with a first translation of Ethelburga’s body (along with the remains of others of the abbey’s first generation) to the Church of Saint Mary, a patroness with whom the monastic house would be linked until the Dissolution. It was likely in conjunction with that event that Hildilith created (or had created) the libellus of Ethelburga’s life and miracles from which Bede drew his narrative. Her fostering of her predecessor ‘s cult through implicit and explicit narratives of sanctity went hand in hand with the re-establishment and re-definition of the Barking community as something more stable than a “family monastery” likely to disappear back into secular control upon the deaths of its founder and initial benefactors. Such efforts may be further contextualized by what can be determined about Hildilith’s cultural and literary interests from evidence of her associations with Aldhelm and Boniface. This paper thus undertakes to explore Hildilith’s construction of the Ethelburga who would come down to future generations both inside and outside the Abbey at Barking. It will seek to tease out, too, some of the implicit engagements of Hildilith’s hagiographical efforts with contemporary issues especially related to gender and sexuality, and to the role of the seventh and eighth century Anglo-Saxon noble woman in a newly Christianized political and social environment.

Last modified: May 6, 2009
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