St Hilda of Whitby Reconsidered

Medievalists may have turned to this post expecting a close analysis of Bede’s text and hoping for some amazing new insights into the person of St Hilda (as it happens, yes, I do think she was formerly married, did try to join a monastery in Gaul, etc, etc, but I have no new material to offer); others may be hoping for some polemical contrasts between ‘the Celtic Church’ and ‘the Roman Church’ (sorry, no, I don’t think Hilda was an Anglican avant la lettre, that is seriously to misunderstand how the Church was perceived by her contemporaries); some may even be looking for some feisty feminism, which would make Hilda not merely abbess of Whitby but the most important person of her time (St Wilfrid would have disputed that, along with several kings). No, as I was thinking about St Hilda this morning I was struck once again by her loneliness, the loneliness of someone whose position set her apart from others to do what no one else could.

We have a tendency to see historical figures in a vaccuum. They appear for a brief moment, like the sparrow flitting through the mead hall, and we see only what we deem to be of importance, the little bit of their lives that history has deigned to record as significant. So with Hilda. We know that she was abbess of a great double-monastery, renowned for its learning and cultural eminence, but we probably think more of Caedmon, plucked from the cowshed to be a sweet singer of songs, than we do of the daily round of administration that headship of so large an undertaking must have involved. Hilda worrying about cheeses for the table, new footwear for the brethren at Easter, or disputes between community members that she alone could resolve: these we do not think about so much. Bede allows us to glimpse Hilda listening intently to the arguments about how the date of Easter should be calculated and finally laying aside her own opinion in favour of that advanced by Wilfrid. Do you think everyone in her community agreed all at once? Do you think there were no mutterings, no covert acts of minor rebellion, futile acts of petty vengeance? If you do, you have both a more sanguine view of human nature and slightly less experience of the cloister than I do!

I think Hilda’s loneliness probably increased rather than diminished after the Synod of Whitby. Once the painful decision had been taken, it had to be worked out in the detail of liturgical observance; and the detail of liturgical observance absorbs a huge amount of the time and energy of any community. Add to that the changes in routine, the old monks and nuns finding the changes difficult to remember and getting muddled, the younger ones wanting to press on faster than the rest, and you have a piquant situation.

What sustained Hilda? I don’t know, but I think it must have been love of truth, which ultimately is Truth himself. For his sake she was prepared to abandon everything, the comfortable traditions of her past, the security of the familiar. She was indeed a nun who lived up to her vocation; an abbess worthy of the name. May she pray for us all.