Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ruins of Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, England

A Legend of Female Monasticism

Hild of Streonshalh

Hilda of Whitby

614-680 CE

A friend and scholar whom I greatly admire recently set me to the task of writing a biographical piece about a figure of renown in the history of the English church. If there was a Hall of Fame for Contemplative Nuns, Hild would be among the first elected to it. Quite little is known about the woman in question except for an entire chapter devoted to her by Venerable Bede (doctor of the Church and father of English history) in his Ecclesiastical History of England. Since I was totally ingnorant of the period had to do quite a bit of research to situate this woman in historical context. Here's the story in a nut shell. The Celtic church rooted in its experience of the Roman Empire's presence in Britain had fled to the northern regions, first pushed back by the local pagans and then by the Anglo-Saxon invasions. At the beginning of the 7th century, Rome sought to regain a foothold in in Britain through the missionary efforts of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Hild of Streonshalh, baptised as a child, related to various royal families and familiar with all the local intrigue of territorial wars, murders, and poisonings, decided to enter a French monastery in her middle age. On the eve of her departure she was called back by St. Aidan, then a bishop, to form her own monastic community. Seems that monasteries of both men and woman were common at the time so she became the Abbess of a double monastery and eventually began another community at Streonshalh. The location was not called Whitby until the invading Danes (aka Vikings) renamed it many years after Hild's death. Hild cultivated the vocations of young men and women and in so doing nurtured five future bishops in her monastery school and also developed the poetic talent of the herdsman Caedmon, the first known British poet.

As the Christian scene developed and rivals continued to maneuver around each other, it was decided that a Synod should be held to decided whether the Celtic or the Roman brand of Christianity would prevail. The location was Hild's monastery. At the least she participated in the debate and there is some probability that she presided over the meeting, so much was she respected and admire for her organizational skills, wisdom and faithfulness to the Gospel. In spite of the fact that Hild's loyalties lay in the Celtic tradition, the Roman brand won the day.

Double monasteries led by influential and powerful abbesses continued into the 8th century in England and France but were eventually surpressed by the Council of Nice late in the 8th century.

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