A few prefatory words are, however, needed to put this anecdote in a wider hagiographical context. Guthlac (674-715) was born into the royal dynasty of Mercia, and showed early signs of maturity which foreshadowed his later embrace of the monastic life. As a young man he learned of the martial deeds of his forefathers and decided to emulate them, taking up arms and ravaging the lands of the enemies of his house. The chronicler Felix makes sure, however, to tell the reader that although a heathen soldier, Guthlac never showed signs of greed and always returned a third of what his men had captured. At the age of twenty-four, the young soldier reflected further on his forefathers and found that they had all come to violent ends thanks to their violent lives. He then repented his former life and left for the monastery of Repton in order to receive the tonsure. At Repton he showed such diligent abstemiousness towards alcohol that his fellow brethren began to hate him, an episode reminiscent of Benedict of Nursia as described in Gregory the Great’s Dialogi. Shortly afterwards, after having read about the desert fathers, Guthlac leaves for the fens in order to become a hermit of the desert, and on the remote island of Crowland he establishes his cell. Since he arrives at the island on the feast of St Bartholomew (then celebrated at 25th of August), Guthlac commends himself to the saint and is later aided by him as mentioned above. It should be noted that Bartholomew’s gift of the scourge does not appear in Felix’ Vita Guthlaci, but is a product of a later local tradition at Crowland Abbey.
Guthlac receiving the scourge from St Bartholomew
MS Harley Roll Y.6, England, turn of the 12th Century
Courtesy of British Library
Even though Guthlac is brought back from the mouth of Hell, he is still troubled by demons, even in his own hermitage, and in chapter 34 we are told of a trick the demons played on him, pretending to be British marauders:
Now it happened in the days of Cænred King of the Mercians, while the Britons the implacable enemies of the Saxon race, were troubling the English with their attacks, their pillaging, and their devastations of the people, on a certain night about the time of cockcrow, when Guthlac of blessed memory was as usual engaged in vigils and prayers, that he was suddenly overcome by a dream-filled sleep, and it seemed to him that he heard the shouts of a tumultuous crowd. Then, quicker than words, he was aroused from his light sleep and went out of the cell in which he was sitting; standing, with ears alert, he recognized the words that the crowd were saying, and realized that British hosts were approaching his dwelling: for in years gone by he had been an exile among them, so that he was able to understand their sibilant speech. Straightway they strove to approach his dwelling through the marshes, and at almost the same moment he saw all his buildings burning, the flames mounting upwards: indeed they caught him too and began to lift him into the air on the sharp points of their spears. Then at length the man of God, perceiving the thousand-fold forms of this insidious foe and his thousand-fold tricks, sang the first verse of the sixty-seventh psalm as if prophetically, ‘Let God arise’, etc.: when they had heard this, at the same moment, quicker than words, all the hosts of demons vanished like smoke from his presence.
- Felix, Life of Guthlac, translated by Bertram Colgrave (1956: 109-11)
The first two verses of psalm 67 (68 in the modern numbering) are rendered thus in the Vulgate:
[E]xsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius
sicut deficit fumus deficiant sicut tabescit cera a facie ignis pereant impii a facie Dei
In the English translation:
Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate him flee from before his face.
As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
While Felix tells us that Guthlac only sang the first verse, I have included the second verse here because Felix obviously draws on that verse for his comparison with the demons to vanishing smoke.
There are many significant things to comment on here, but my focus now is the martial aspects of the episode, and indeed in the whole text itself. Throughout the work, Felix refers to Guthlac as the soldier of Christ, a sobriquet based on St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where his listeners are asked to put on the armour of God. This title is not merely a play on Guthlac’s military past, it is also a very apt description of how monks were seen in medieval theology: They were soldiers of God whose weapons were prayer and song, and through their asceticism and their mortification of their own flesh, they kept the devil away. In this episode, Guthlac does not physically drive away the demons as he will do in later traditions using the scourge of St Bartholomew. Nor is he here saved by the apostle’s intervention, but through his faithful incantation of the psalm. Through his arms of faith, the weapons of song and prayer, Guthlac overcomes the phantasmal spears of the demonic army and emerges victorious, a miles Christi faithfully resisting against the soldiers of Satan. When we consider this episode, therefore, we get a better understanding of why the daily performance of the office was such an important aspect of medieval religious life: Not only was it a way of strengthening the religious community through a mystic experience, it was also a feat of spiritual arms that kept the devil’s army away from the soul, and which could allow the faithful to withstand the phantasms coaxing it to fear and loss of faith in God’s protection. Guthlac's struggle with the demons, in other words, allows us to grasp the rationale of medieval liturgy as something more than mere music, and we understand that the office is not just an ornament in the church service, it is part of the arsenal which St Paul included in his letter to the Ephesians.