39. FELGILD of FARNE:|
After St. Cuthbert died in 687 his hermitage on the Inner Fame Island was occupied by two hermits in succession. The first was Aethelwald (see last month). He died after 12 years as a hermit and was followed by Felgild.
Aethelwald had had to put up with a very draughty hermitage but when Felgild indicated that he wished to go there the bishop of the time, Eadfrith (the same man who wrote and painted the Lindisfarne Gospels) decided that the hermitage should be restored since, as Bede said, 'it was falling to pieces through age. So Felgild, now in his windproof oratory, had no use for the calfskin that his predecessor had used for creating a wind- proof corner. Enter the relic-hunters, asking for some relic of either Cuthbert or Aethelwald. Felgild decided to divide the calfskin among them, but first he tried an experiment. It seems that he suffered from some kind of rash and swelling of the face,which had got worse since he had taken up the solitary life. So he put part of the calfskin into water and washed his face with it. All the disfigurement disappeared. Bede had this story from a devout priest in his own monastery, who had seen Felgild's face both before and after!
Felgild afterwards lived as a hermit there for many years, in complete freedom from this affliction, but nothing more is known of him.
We have no further information about hermits on the Inner Fame until after the Norman Conquest (1066). It may simply be that Bede died in 735, and no narrator of similar skill followed him.
We can be very sceptical about the miracles of this period, and many modem people are. But I have been struck by the number of times miracles are claimed through objects that have had some connection with a saint. For example, the wood of St. Oswald' cross worked miracles, as did the earth from the place where he died. The water in which St. Cuthbert's body was washed gave miraculous properties to the earth where it was poured away. We can't understand the early Middle Ages unless we can sympathise with people who really believed these things.
It was a different view of reality... and sometimes it worked!
Gildas was a Briton (not English), born about the year 500 in the northern kingdom of Strathclyde, but educated at a monastery in South Wales. For modern historians he is mainly important for a book he wrote when he was 43 years old called The Ruin of Britain. Although intended as a denunciation of the corruption of the supposedly Christian British rulers the book is prefaced by the only contemporary account we have of those confused years when parts of Britain, through the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, were being turned into England. Though very inaccurate the book is full of picturesque phrases e.g. he speaks of 'the foul hordes of the Scots and the Picts, like dark throngs of worms that wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock when the sun is high and the weather grows warm'. As we might now say, they came out of the woodwork.
But in his own day Gildas was important not as a historian but as a monastic founder and reformer. Perhaps his book gave the impetus to many to seek an alternative society in the monasteries. Certainly it was just at this time that monasticism as it were exploded in the Celtic countries. Gildas appears to have been a leader among the British monks in Wales and also a very respected figure in Ireland. Irish monks became his disciples, and he both visited many Irish monasteries and wrote letters to them. There are also several dedications to 'Gildas' in Brittany, but it is not completely certain that this is not a different saint of the same name.
With us in Northumbria Gildas has a two-fold if rather remote connection. First, his work was read by and absorbed by our own historian Bede, whose thinking in part was shaped by it. Secondly, his encouragement in the early growth of Irish monasticism was to bear
fruit for us eventually in the mission of St. Aidan.
Gildas died in about 570. So he did not live to see the final ruin of Britain and the English conquest.