This manuscript is a copy of the Life of Guthlac by the East Anglian monk, Felix. Falling within the genre of hagiography (the writing of the lives of saints), it is the primary source of information about the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint.
Guthlac (674–715 CE) was a saint from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. He was a warrior in the Mercian border lands who, after nine years of fighting, had a religious conversion and became a hermit in Crowland, in Lincolnshire, where he lived in solitude on an island in the middle of a marsh.
Guthlac’s cult was enormously popular. Two Old English poems about him survive in the Exeter Book, as well as an Old English translation of Felix’s Life; he is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Even after the Anglo-Saxon period, and long after his death, his cult still had widespread appeal. Guthlac is the subject of a beautiful illustrated manuscript roll dated to the late 12th or early 13th century, and he also inspired a poem in the South English Legendary.
Felix tells us that Guthlac was born roughly one year later than Bede, around 674, and died in 715. He came from a tribe named the Guthlacingas. Having given up his life as a soldier, he became a monk at the abbey of Repton for two years, where he was disliked by his fellow monks on account of his abstinence from alcohol. Feeling that he needed isolation in order to better contemplate God, Guthlac retreated to the Fens and took up residence in an ancient burial mound which had been partially excavated by treasure hunters. He was visited in his cell by various people seeking his advice, including the Mercian king, Æthelbald.
Felix’s text was written in around 740 and is full of exciting battles with demons which are vividly described. The demons are:
ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeon breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries.
In another episode, devils torment Guthlac, taking the shape of horrible beasts:
Suddenly he heard a noise as of a herd of beasts rushing together and approaching his dwelling with a mighty shaking of the earth. Straightway he saw manifold shapes of various monsters bursting into his house from all sides. Thus a roaring lion fiercely threatened to tear him with its bloody teeth: then a bellowing bull dug up the earth with its hoofs and drove its gory horn into the ground; or a bear, gnashing its teeth and striking violently with either paw alternately, threatened him with blows … the hissing of the serpent, the lowing of the ox, the croaking of the raven, made harsh and horrible noises to trouble the true soldier of the true God.
In the opening of the Life, Felix dedicates his work to King Ælfwald of the East Angles, who reigned from around 713 to 749. Although the work was written in this period, the manuscript you can see here is of a much later date. It was copied by two scribes in the third quarter of the 10th century. In the 11th century someone made annotations to it, while in the 16th century it belonged to John Dee (1527–1609), the mathematician, astrologer and antiquary. (He wrote on the first folio – the first image you can see here.) This continuous use of the text over 800 years is a testament to the enduring appeal of Guthlac – a saint who is today almost completely forgotten.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.