Books interview with Janina Ramirez: The private lives of the saints

Janina Ramirez talks to Matt Elton about her new book exploring the lives and legacies of 10 Anglo-Saxon saints – who, as she explains, were often more earthly than heavenly

Janina Ramirez. (Photo by Fran Monks for BBC History Magazine)

This interview was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In context

The litany of saints in the Anglo-Saxon period, often regarded as running from 600 to 1066, features some of the era’s most famous names. Many, such as Bede, Hilda and Cuthbert (all of whom lived in the seventh century) were monks or religious figures; others were members of royal families. These saints came to occupy a huge role in the public imagination, with shrines being set up in their honour and stories told about their actions.


What role would the saints have played in Anglo-Saxon England?

One of the inspirations for writing this book was flicking through The Sun and seeing famous people who are part of the zeitgeist – arguably celebrities are more recognisable than politicians – and thinking that, if there had been such a thing as an Anglo-Saxon tabloid newspaper, it would have featured people such as Saint Cuthbert or Saint Hilda. The stories would have been about the latest martyr or strange hermit who had taken themselves off to the Fens and had been seen battling demons in the middle of the night. These would be the people that the populus wanted to know about.

It’s important to remember that the Anglo-Saxon period was a time of great religious and imaginative transition. The pagan world had been inhabited by local deities, gods of the river or glen, and household deities that people thought about inside their houses. The saints took over both of those roles, and people would pray to little icons or statues of them instead. So saints became the intermediary between the earthly and the divine, but they were also part of the environment. People would wake up and think about them.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘saints’ in this context?

Our modern conception is that saints have to prove themselves by going through a long period of canonisation, decided by a particular branch of the Vatican. But that wasn’t the case in the Anglo-Saxon period: what made you a saint was notoriety and celebrity. If your stories were well known you could become a saint – individuals sometimes started work on building a cult around themselves before they died – or you could be crafted into one after your death.

The murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, may be somewhat later than other examples I write about in my book, but it’s still a very good example of the benefits for particular locations of someone becoming a saint. Canterbury Cathedral got completely rebuilt and became a tourist hub – the Disneyland of the medieval period. People flocked there: Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales about this constant stream of tourists going to be near Becket’s relics in the hope of miracles.

On a more local level, if a monastery had been corrupt, or a royal family wanted to prop up a new monastic estate, attaching a saint’s identity to it could help them do so. That would then mean that they could invest in beautiful manuscripts, wonderful reliquaries and all the trappings of sanctity to support the cult of that particular saint.

Anglo-Saxon saints were often very different from the pious image of selflessness and helping others that we have today. None of that was required: in fact, some saints were selfish, bloodthirsty and tyrannical. They show all the shades of human failings as well as human achievement.

So they weren’t the heavenly figures we sometimes think of them as being?

Absolutely not. I want to get over the idea of the one-dimensional mass of the blessed, the hundreds of interchangeable homogenous-looking saints of painted friezes. That’s not what the Anglo-Saxon saints are about: each one is unique and has their own story. We’re particularly fortunate with the Northumbrian saints, because we have the writings of the monk Bede – the Alastair Campbell of his time – that give us a very clear insight into their lives and identities.

Yet researching the saints does require a lot of detective work, because you have to selectively piece together what little evidence there is – and have a good understanding of the broader historical period. Sometimes I may have got it wrong, and I may have missed some things, but I want to start a dialogue, and for others to start looking at these people afresh.

How did the saints get their power?

There’s a mixture of those who were less powerful and had a subtle, spiritual role, and the big names who were incredibly powerful. Wilfrid was one such saint: a power-hungry man who built up a group of monks that was almost like a standing army. He had a lot of power within the church and was made bishop of York, and he negotiated on an international level. He even had the ear of the pope, and his influence and power meant that he was a threat to the king.

Saints seem to have transcended a lot of other hierarchies because the church had such a presence among the people. This meant that they could assume huge amounts of power.

What did these saints desire?

We tend to wear rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to looking to the past. We like to think about fancy costumes and wooden huts and everything being frightfully alien and different. But going back into the past would not be that different to going to another part of the world that you don’t know about. In terms of shared human concerns, people from ‘the past’ were exactly the same as us, and had exactly the same concerns: they wanted wealth, power, security, and to look after their families.

Some of the power-hungry saints wanted authority – to be listened to – as well as wealth and comfort. Other saints, such as Bede, wanted to grow intellectually, and to have access to the finest research available. Others still, such as the seventh-century Northumbrian saint Cuthbert, seemed to want to inhabit both worlds: the spiritual realm and the real one. What makes saints fascinating is that no two are the same.

Their desires come through very strongly when you start to think about them as real three-dimensional human beings.

Some powerful saints were women, which we wouldn’t perhaps expect in this period. Do any stand out for you?

The seventh-century saint Hilda of Whitby is a heroine of mine. There’s this window in history, around the time that Christianity was established among the Anglo-Saxons in approximately 600 or 700 AD, in which women had a power that they then don’t have again for centuries. Hilda is a great example of that: she spent half her life as a princess in the Northumbrian kingdom, and then acquired a plot of land up on the cliff at Whitby and built a huge double monastery. She was made abbess of a dual community: a group of monks and a group of nuns, and she ruled over all of them.

She also had other monastic communities elsewhere, like the CEO of a multinational business, but she still maintained her links to a powerful royal family and had the ears of all the leaders of the church. It’s extraordinary to see that kind of influence.

Saints seem to have been pioneers who shaped the world by force of their personality. How did this change?

As the Viking army came to England in the 800s onwards, Anglo-Saxon identity was under threat. Their world was almost entirely subsumed beneath the Viking one. The process was halted somewhat by Alfred the Great, but with Alfred there started to be a sense that sanctity could be harnessed to the political needs of ‘the nation’.

In the face of pagan Vikings, the Anglo-Saxon royal family became holier than thou: they pumped funds into the church and sponsored education on a spiritual level. So there was an investment in the church and in saints that the Anglo-Saxons came to regard as a way of setting themselves apart.

The change was even greater than that, though. One of the claims that I make in the book is that we should be thinking about the end of the Anglo-Saxon period not coming in 1066 but earlier, in 1016. I really feel that the changes brought about by the Norman Conquest were the evolution of change that was well and truly underway by the turn of the millennium. In 1016 a Danish king, Cnut, was king of England and of Denmark. There was no longer an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; Anglo-Saxon England and its saints had been subsumed beneath Viking and Danish culture. The Norman Conquest was the ultimate climax to centuries of being pressed in by the Viking world.

Are there any modern figures who you think would have been saints?

I feel that, had Princess Diana been born a thousand years earlier, in the Anglo-Saxon period, there is no doubt that she would have been made a saint and a cult would have grown up around her. She was the mother of kings; she was a celebrity; she was notorious; she did good things in her life and achieved a lot. And, as with all of the saints in this book, she was a complex mix of virtue and vice.

She was also strongly associated with a particular location. When she died in 1997 we saw a mass outpouring of grief – people turning up to Kensington Palace and laying out those flowers. They were drawing towards a cult centre, being pulled together, and what would have happened in the Anglo-Saxon period is that a church would have gone up there and the flow of tourists would have been perpetuated. Diana would have been hijacked for the purposes of that locale and would have been made a saint, without doubt.

I think that Princess Diana embodies the complexity of the Anglo-Saxon saints. If we can think of them as being as complex as she was, then we’ll start to get closer to who these people really were. They weren’t cutout figures, icons with no depth. They are full of depth.

Following degrees at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford and the Centre for Medieval Studies in York, Ramirez is now a course director in the history of art at Oxford. She has presented BBC TV series on subjects including Vikings and medieval kings, and will be speaking in York and Malmesbury for this year’s BBC History Magazine History Weekend. See historyweekend.com for details

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Further reading
The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England by Janina Ramirez (WH Allen, 352 pages, £20)