17 July 2009

S Edburga

On Saturday July 18, we celebrate S Edburga of Bicester, who was Abbess of Aylesbury; whose relics were translated to Bicester. Whether they were, in the early sixteenth century, translated to the Flanders seems doubtful. The shrine certainly remained in the priory at Bicester until the dissolution when some its masonry was moved to the church at Stanton Harcourt, where it remains to this day. Whether this S Edburga was the daughter of the pagan early Anglo-Saxon king Penda or lived 300 years later is also unclear. Oral hagiographical tradition is very insecure; saints with the same name were confused; there was a temptation to assimilate the lives of different saints by making them relatives, or disciples, of each other (try, for example, sorting out S Osyth - was she a midland lass or an Essex Girl martyred at Chich, and was she martyred by Viking marauders or three hundred years earlier ... indeed, was she martyred?).

In 1946, that great Pontiff, Kenneth Kirk, bishop of Oxford back in the good old days when the diocese was under orthodox and Catholic management, and Provost of the Society of our Lady and S Nicolas at Lancing, had laryngitis. While bedridden, he wrote a jolly little book called Church Dedications in the Oxford Diocese. It showed a large number of Assumption dedications in the diocese; and also traced some Pilgrim Ways to various shrines. It is tremendous fun, but probably flawed in several respects. It took as reliable data accounts of church dedications which we now know to be disastrously unreliable. Nicholas Orme (English Church Dedications) has shown that (except in multichurched towns where dedications were remembered because they distinguished one church from another, and where, in the countryside two villages had the same name - Snodbury S Peter needed to be distinguishable from Snodbury S Paul), medieval dedications were pretty well totally forgotten after the Reformation (another blow to our sentimental respect for oral tradition). Georgian antiquaries and Victorian high churchmen then invented or guessed on the basis of inadequate evidence. Historically reliable evidence now depends on combing through medieval episcopal registers and wills; a chore Orme discharged for Devon and Cornwall but which still waits to be done for the rest of England. Of the seven churches I had in Devon, the real dedications of only two were known: and one of those had been forgotten after the Reformation and replaced by an erroneous guess! Frankly, the discontinuities of the Reformation period were very much greater than even rather ordinary middle-of-the-road churchpeople imagine.

Another flaw in Bishop Kirk's book was his assumption that church dedications enabled one to trace Pilgrim Ways. This may be no more true than the Victorian assumption that in the 'Celtic' fringe, you could use church dedications to trace the travellings of the early 'Celtic' saints. This sort of evidence may relate instead to early land-ownership patterns.

We celebrate saints not - as the old Anglican superstition had it - because we know all about them and therefore can imitate them, but because they are our concives, our fellow citizens, our glorified fellow-members of Christ's Body, given to us by God as intercessors.

Sancta Edburga, ora pro nobis.

4 comments:

Pastor in Valle said...

Didn't they attempt to divine many of the dedications by observing the day that the sun rose directly through the East Window? Might as well have stuck a pin in the calendar! And, I suppose, this also contributed to an awful lot of summer dedications, and few winter.
You, Fr H, will of course remember the little church of St Botolph at Botolphs. Somehow the name of Botolph was attached to the church, a backformation from the name of the village I suppose. Old records speak of it as being St Peter, de vetere ponte, (i.e. over the Adur). It would be interesting to know whether the nearby church of St Peter at Upper Beeding (now in the same parish) has its original dedication, which, I suppose, is unlikely in view of what you write.

Fr John Hunwicke SSC, said...

They very often used the date of a village fair as an indication of the patronal festival. Village fairs could be on the festival of the Titularis, but were by no means always so. I don't know about Upper Beeding. When I was around, I often wondered why the Dedication of Coombes church had been lost. I now realise that the question really is ... why nobody supplied a guess!

I quite often said Mass in Coombes church. One of the pleasures that compensate for the ... er ... inconveniences of being in the C of E.

Fr John Hunwicke SSC, said...

They very often used the date of a village fair as an indication of the patronal festival. Village fairs could be on the festival of the Titularis, but were by no means always so. I don't know about Upper Beeding. When I was around, I often wondered why the Dedication of Coombes church had been lost. I now realise that the question really is ... why nobody supplied a guess!

I quite often said Mass in Coombes church. One of the pleasures that compensate for the ... er ... inconveniences of being in the C of E.

Chris said...

One which has long intrigued me is the Norfolk village of Burgh St. Peter, with its church of St. Mary. Presumably there must have been some fairly strong evidence to override the name of the village.

In some cases the antiquarians seem not to have distinguished between the feasts of title and of dedication. I leafed through Orme's book once, and recall that Cullompton, Devon, is now identified as St. Andrew, while its mediƦval dedication was to Our Lady - but its feast of dedication was November 29.