Thursday, November 1, 2007

Saint Hilda and the Ammonites

November 1st is All Saints Day, so I figured I'd write a post about a cool saint (plus, continuing from yesterday's topic, zombies... saints... they're sort of similar). Moreover, this post combines history with sea creatures.

Saint Hilda (614-680) was the grand-niece of St. Edwin (585-633), the King of Northumbria. When King Edwin married his second wife, Ethelburga, who was the sister of the Christian King Eadbald of Kent, she was accompanied to Northumbria by the missionary St. Paulinus of York (584-644). St. Paulinus converted Edwin to the Christian faith, and in 627 the king and his entire clan -- including 13-year-old Hilda -- were baptized.

Hilda lived the first half of her life as a secular noblewoman, but then, at the age of 33, she donned a nun's habit. She travelled to East Anglia intending to sail to France and join the Abbey at Chelles, but she was called back to Northumbria by St. Aidan, the Bishop of Lindisfarne. She spent some time in a small nunnery by the River Wear before Bishop Aidan, recognizing her gift for leadership, put her in charge of the monastery in Hartlepool which was said to have been founded by St. Bee. Then, in 657, she was tapped to become the founding abbess of the monastery that King Oswy (c612-670) commissioned at Streaneshalch (the Danes would later give it the more easily pronounceable name "Whitby").

Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. She established a well-ordered administration, and Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning. Indeed, no less than five of the monks in her charge would rise to the rank of bishop, including St. John of Beverly and St. Wilfrid of York. It is also said that commoners, holymen and princes would all travel from far and wide in order to ask for the advice of the wise Abbess Hilda.

In 664, an important synod was convened at Whitby in order to decide (among other things) whether the date of Easter should be calculated according to the Celtic reckoning or according to the established Roman system. St. Wilfrid eventually convinced King Oswy and the majority of the assembled clerics that they should follow the Roman system. Hilda supposedly favored the Celtic tradition, but when the decision was reached she accepted it, thus setting an example for other dissenters and helping to reconcile the two sides.

Hilda was stricken with fever for the last seven years of her life, but she never wavered in her devotion to God nor did she let her illness keep her from her duties. It is said that when St. Hilda died, the bells spontaneously sounded at the Hackness monastery some 13 miles away and that a nun had a vision of Hilda being carried off to heaven by a host of angels.

Our primary source of information for the life of Saint Hilda is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation written by the Venerable Bede (c672-735) (see Book IV Chapter XXIII). If you took Brit Lit I in college you probably had to read the most famous passage of Bede's History (the next chapter actually) which is commonly referred to as "Caedmon's Hymn" (you can read it here). According to Bede, Caedmon was a peasant who was wholly ignorant of the art of song. Whenever the countryfolk got a little tipsy and decided it was karaoke time, Caedom would slip out the back. Then one night, a vision came to Caedmon in a dream and commanded him to compose a verse about the Creation of the Universe. Sure enough, when Caedmon awoke, he miraculously composed a beautiful verse. He presented his work at Whitby Abby and the gathered monks were greatly impressed. Hilda then convinced Caedmon to don a cassock and devote the rest of his life to God. She had Caedmon taught the scriptures, and he converted everything he learned into beautiful verse, thus going down in history as England's first recorded poet. This episode, too, shows Hilda's kindness and her gift for recognizing talent in others. Incidentally, in a note before the text, the Norton Anthology offers up an explanation to debunk the miracle: suggesting that perhaps Caedmon was hesitant to tell the chaste brothers and sisters of Whitby about all the bawdy secular songs he may have sung before he found religion and that this might be why he demurred and claimed that he was ignorant of all verse before that day.

Whitby Abbey was abandoned after a Viking attack in 867 (vikings... zombies...). It was rededicated in 1078 only to be destroyed once and for all by Henry VIII in 1540. Today it stands in picturesque ruin.

A great number of fossils have also been found in the vicinity of Whitby including pterodactyls and ammonites. The ammonite is an extinct sea creature which had a shell like a chambered nautilus and a body like a squid. Ammonites lived from the Late Silurian/Early Devonian era(circa 400 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (circa 65 million years ago) when they went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. Ammonite remains are sometimes used as an index fossil to date the rock layer in which they are embedded. While Ammonite shells from the lower and middle Jurassic are usually smaller than 9 inches, later ammonite fossils have been found which measure 5 feet or more.

Medieval Europeans mistook fossilized ammonite shells for petrified serpents that had been turned to stone by the prayers of saints such as Hilda. Thus they were sometimes called "snakestones."

Sir Walter Scott's 1808 epic poem Marmion (which gave us the lines "Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive") speaks about all this. To give credit where credit is due, I first encountered these verses in A.S. Byatt's awesome novel, The Virgin in the Garden.

They told, how in their convent-cell
A Saxon princess once did dwell,
The lovely Edelfled.
And how, of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When holy Hilda pray'd;
Themselves, within their holy bound,
Their stony folds had often found.
They told, how sea-fowls' pinions fail,
As over Whitby's towers they sail,
And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
They do their homage to the saint.

Image of St. Hilda is from a stain glass window in the nave of St. Augustine Church in North London and can be found on the church's website. Photo of Whitby Abbey taken by Neil Gray who has released it into the public domain. Ammonite photo taken by Johnathan Dempsey ( was released into the public domain.

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