Felix’s Life of Guthlac (Latin: Vita Sancti Guthlaci Auctore Felice) has to be one of my favourite sources for the Anglo-Saxon period. Written by an East Anglian priest Felix for King Ælfwald sometime in the early eighth century, it recounts the deeds of the Mercian saint, Guthlac. There is an excellent translation of the Life of Guthlac from Latin in modern English by Bertram Colgrave, which provides the Latin original with a facing-page English translation.
The events that take place in Guthlac’s life make for fantastic reading simply because they are so dramatic. His Life bears many similarities to the hagiographies of the desert fathers of early Christianity, such as the Life of Anthony, placing the saint at the very front-lines of the raging spiritual battle between God and the devil. Like the early desert fathers, Guthlac is said to have deliberately established himself in the wilderness so as to encounter, and overcome, the wiles of the devil. Crowland, a remote island in the marshy bog of the Fenland, becomes the site of Guthlac’s many trials and temptations – which, it goes without saying, he passes with flying colours. In one chapter he dispels the poison of despair sent by the devil to torment him; in the next, demons carry him through the skies to the gates of hell and threaten to throw him in until St. Bartholomew appears to rescue him; in still another, he is commanding the birds of the air to do his bidding.
Of course, the prevalence of the supernatural throughout the narrative calls into question the veracity of the events recorded within. But the Life of Guthlac is nevertheless a precious historical resource because it offers us an insight into a form of sanctity that is less commonly found during the Anglo-Saxon period. Hagiographies contemporaneous with Guthlac’s Life tend to emphasise the monastic and ecclesiastical rigour of their saintly subjects, such as Stephen’s Life of Wilfrid and (to a lesser extent) Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. Where these hagiographies tend to focus on the preaching and teaching of their saints, Felix provides us with the most comprehensive description of a saint whose appeal to the masses lay not in his episcopal authority, but in his ability to work fantastic(al) miracles. After all, Guthlac is believed to have been one of the most popular saint’s cults among the Anglo-Saxon laity well into the eleventh century, and it is believed that the testimony of his miraculous powers played a considerable role in engendering piety to his cult.
There are other interesting historical insights that can be gleaned from Guthlac’s Life. The age at which he decides to abandon the military life for a monastic one early on in the life contribute to the wider discussion on the role of age thresholds in Anglo-Saxon culture. Equally intriguing is the fact that Guthlac, a Mercian saint, was nevertheless chronicled after his death by an East Anglian scribe for an East Anglian king. This raises questions of political machinations at work in the attempt by one Anglo-Saxon kingdom to claim a popular saint from another. These are just two of the many avenues for discussion drawing upon the rich historical material to be found Guthlac’s Life.
Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.