Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hild's first religious foundation

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A paper kindly sent to me by Al Newham who heard of Hild via Max Adams
I'm now into Hild II (working title Menewood) and I've started to wonder about the location of Hild's first religious foundation. Aidan, when he recruited Hild to the Church in AD 647, gave her a single hide of land on which to live for a year. Bede tells us only that this land was "ad septentrionalem plagam Viuri fluminis." (1)

This is generally translated as "on the north bank of the Wear" (Rob Latham in his 1968 revision of Leo Shirley-Price's original translation) or "on the north side of the river Wear" (by Roy M Liuzza in 2006). But the other day a reader from South Shields, Al Newham, sent me a paper from the late nineteenth century, "Abbess Hilda's First Religious House," by the Rev. Henry Edwin Savage (2), at the time Vicar of St Hilda's church, South Shields, and later Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, which makes me wonder if it's (just) possible those translations are misguided.

Rev. Savage believed that the original gift of land was where St Hilda's church was (and still is). That is, just a few minutes' walk from Arbeia, the Roman fort that supplied the troops, auxiliary and regular, along Hadrian's Wall. Which is on the south bank of the Tyne. So how do we get from what is usually translated as the north bank of the Wear to a place that's essentially on the south bank of the Tyne? The two rivers, as you see below, are about seven miles apart.
Present-day St Hilda's marked; shaded area shown in greater detail below
Savage asserts, and supports this assertion with what seems to me (mostly) sound reasoning*, that plaga, when Bede uses it in conjunction with fluminis, means a tract or whole district related to a river: a much, much broader swathe of land than a river's bank. (See, for example, "quintus Æduini rex Nordanhymbrorum gentis, id est, eius quæ ad borealem Humbræ fluminis plagam inhabitat." (3)) And that district, he then goes on to explain, could reasonably be expected to cover the tract between two rivers. He, then, would translate Bede's phrase to "the district north of the Wear," and that probably meant, to Bede, everything between the rivers Tyne and Wear.

(As an aside, some of Savage's explanation--the geographical separateness of this area: a chunk of rich land between rivers which could have been built for transport and trade, and bounded on the east by the sea and west by magnesian limestone outcrops--ties in with my difficulty pinning down the boundary between Deira and Bernicia. I know that many people think the boundary line is the R. Tees but, well, I've always wrestled with that. If you think of rivers as barriers, rather than routes of communication then the R. Tyne makes much more sense to me. But that's a big if. Given that I suspect demarcation zones between the two polities moved north and south depending on which was ascendant at the time, a whole area acting as a kind of accepted buffer zone makes sense.)

In addition to raising perfectly reasonable doubts about the traditional interpretation of Bede, Savage brings up the fact that ambitious early Anglo-Saxon kings with eager bishops liked to use the proximity of Roman buildings to imbue their own religious foundations with added authority and meaning, for example the churches Paulinus built in York, Catterick, and Leeds/Camponodum.

Then he points out that, in addition, the Northumbrian church had a fondness for a particular kind of landscape. They liked to semi-isolate their religious foundations with water, but also keep them close to communication routes, and very close to centres of secular power (think of Lindisfarne). If you throw in Romanitas it's difficult to avoid agreeing that South Shields would be a perfect place for Hild to begin.

The mouth of the Tyne, long ago, looked different. With the help of people on Twitter and Facebook** I hunted down old maps and even older descriptions. My best guess is that in Hild's day, South Shields was essentially an island, separated from the rest of the district by a narrow southern channel of the Tyne which in turn was spanned by sturdy Roman bridges.

Here's a guess at how it might have been:
In 7th C, Arbeia was on what was essentially an island
So, for now, that's where I think Hild will go when she leaves East Anglia at the behest of Aidan, right next door to that house she hated when it belonged to Osric: Arbeia. But at this point (AD 647) was the house owned by Oswine or Oswiu? Decisions, decisions...
1. HE IV 23
2. Archaeologica Aeiliana, Vol. XIX, 1896. This paper was, I think, all the rage back in the day. Generally now scholars don't give it much credence but as far as I know there's no physical evidence to disprove Savage's essential thesis.
3. HE II 5. There are many such examples.
*Bear in mind that my Latin is pitiful and, as a novelist, I might look at things just a little differently than professional historians. I only need to know that something can't be disproved. As Newham points out, "The paper was also read early on by Professor Bright of Christ Church Oxford in 1897 and because Rev. Savage conflates two episodes from Bede: the hide of land given to Hild by Bishop Aiden in The Life of Hild Bk IV ch.23 and the monastery referred to his Life of Cuthbert ch's. III and XXXV, Bright argues that it is clear from Bede that Hilda's first 'house' was not a 'double monastery' but a very small nunnery, whereas the 'house' not far from Tynemouth was occupied by 'a distinguished company of monks' some time before St. Aiden's death in 651, and not by nuns until afterwards, the identification proposed appears chronologically untenable." [Personal email] But one mistake doesn't invalidate the entire argument. And if this is possible, it's fair game.
** Many thanks to, among others, @Glossaria, @AlexJCraven and @chickdastardly.

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  1. Since Hild entered the church during Oswine's reign and AIdan was close to Oswine, it would make sense for her to be given land at a convenient travel location between Lindifarne and Oswine's territory and in a buffer area. It may also be to Hild's area that Oswine is eventually buried. HIld's convent and a male house -- not necessarily a double house but maybe two separate houses -- on land given to Aidan from Oswine's family holdings.

  2. Glad to hear you're working on the second book, because I just finished Hild and I have severe post-book depression!

  3. Not directly related, for which apologies--it seems that this write-up and the landscape project it describes may be of some interest.

  4. Larry, sorry for the depression! But, yes, working as fast as I can...

  5. Sharon, many thanks. I'll enjoy scrumming through this.

  6. Hello Nicola - It is after midnight here in Ireland and I just bumped into your blog. I wanted to email you but I do not use Outlook and that seems to be the only way to email you. I am working on a 7th century novel myself, but there is little to no overlap with Hild. Would be glad to have some contact with you. Moire


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