Saturday, February 07, 2009

Encountering the Miracle Collection of St. Frideswide

Another topic that I'm delving into for an essay takes us back to medieval times, specifically to the end of the 12th century. Here the focus of attention is a figure who actually lived in Anglo-Saxon times: St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, but there's not much known about her: the academic literature indicates that there's no contemporary account; the earliest manuscripts concerning her life were written several hundred years later. (See e.g. a brief summary).

Statue of St. Frideswide

However, in 1180 there was a great ceremony to translate her purported bones to a new shrine, carried out under the direction of Prior Philip of the Augustinian Monastery of St. Frideswide. He left us with a record of miracles in a series of narratives, a little over 100 in total. They're written in Latin and apparently, unlike her life stories, there's no English translation available of the miracle collection apart from the odd passage and a few quotes.

At least the collection is available conveniently in printed form in the Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the Saints), which is a compendium of documents detailing the lives of saints, organised according to each saint's feast day. They were published by the Société des Bollandistes from 1643 till 1940 and are accessible online from various sites, I think. I made use of the Chadwyck-Healey database available on subscription. Frideswide's Feast Day is October 19th and the miracles are contained in an appendix. Hence the reference is: Acta Sanctorum. Oct. VIII (Main volume text) Dies Decimanona. De Sancta Frideswida Virgine, Patrona Oxoniensi in Anglia. Appendix ad Acta S. Frideswidae.

Prof. Henry Mayr-Harting and Dr. Simon Yarrow have explored this collection in book chapters ('Functions of a Twelfth Century Shrine' in 'Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis' and in 'Saints and their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-century England' respectively), revealing some fascinating insights, especially in social and economic history. Yet, I think they may have only scratched the surface as a print-out of the collection runs to dozens of pages! It could be studied a great deal more, for further exploration into medieval life regarding the Church's relation to wider society - religious, social, economic etc.

So as a small contribution I am pleased to offer a translation of one of the narratives, aided especially by Whitaker's Words and a windows front-end called Latin Assistant. Many thanks to Joerg Friedrichs for looking over the translation and correcting a few things, but any remaining errors, awkwardness etc should be regarded as mine (I am only an amateur at this)! I'll reproduce the Latin and then present the translation underneath.

The Miracle Narrative

[9][Alteri puellulæ lumen oculorum restituitur.] Erat in eodem pago juvencula quædam Adelitia nomine, extra muros ejusdem pagi habitans h, quæ aliquanto tempore ante beatæ Virginis Translationem, tali correpta fuerat incommodo, quod ciliis oculorum nimio tumore depressis, præ nimia ciliorum gravedine nec oculos aperire, nec quicquam videre poterat. Mater itaque ejus filiæ, materna pietate compatiens, pro salute filiæ medicos consulit, frustra id modicum quod habebat in medicos expendens, languore jugiter ingravescente, et incommodo de die in diem in deterius vergente. Convolat demum mater ad divinæ miserationis asilum, per dies multos ad beatæ Virginis ecclesiam filiam ducens, et pro ejus salute devotissime supplicans. Nec tædium parit dilatio, spes diffidentiam relegat, perseverat impetendo fides, ut humani defectum auxilii divina suppleret potentia. Nec repulsum passa est devotio, desiderantem rei desideratæ consolatur effectus. Quippe feria quinta in Cœna Domini, antequam Missarum agerentur sollempnia, cum in oratione super beatæ Virginis sepulcrum juvencula prostrata persisteret, subito tota ciliorum gravedine tamquam manu scalpente detersa, tumor paulisper resedit, videndique perfecte recepit officium. Profluebat autem diutius ex oculis sanies, et non multo post interjecto tempore, sic divinæ manus beneficio curata est, ut in ea nulla prorsus ægritudinis pristinæ remanerent vestigia.

English Translation

There was in that municipality a certain young woman whose name was Adelitia, living beyond the walls of that municipality, who for some time before the Translation of the blessed Virgin, had been struck by such inconvenience with her eyelids shut from excessive swelling, and because of very great catarrh of the eyelids she couldn't open her eyes and hence she could not see anything. And so the daughter's mother, compassionate with maternal devotion, for the sake of her daughter's health consulted a doctor, spending that small amount she had in vain, as the feebleness was constantly growing more serious and the inconvenience was getting worse day by day, going downhill.

Finally, the mother had recourse to the asylum1 of divine mercy, for many days taking her daughter to the church of the blessed Virgin, and praying most devoutly for her health. And the delay did not bring weariness, [for] hope eased the doubts, faith persisted by intense petitioning, so that divine power could make up for the inadequacy of human help. And her devotion was unyielding2, as her longing for the [anticipated] outcome of her yearning had a consoling effect.

In fact, on Maundy Thursday, before the solemnities of the Mass were carried out, while the young girl lay prostrate in prayer over the tomb of the blessed Virgin, suddenly just as if all the catarrh of her eyelids was surgically removed by hand, the swelling shortly subsided, and she was re-installed into the capacity of seeing perfectly. Moreover, pus was continually flowing out of the eyes, and not much later, she was cured by the kindness of the divine hand, in such a way that there remained in her absolutely no vestiges of the original sickness.


  • For asilum read asylum since a gad-fly doesn't make sense! (It was explained to me that the use of 'y' is uncommon and this was originally a Greek word).

Perhaps a community wiki would be a good way to enable much more of this collection to be translated?