Two further accounts exist of the life of St Frideswide which have been transcribed and analysed by Prof John Blair in his article ‘Frideswide Reconsidered’ in Oxoniensia 1987 He called them Life A and Life B.
Life B survives in three manuscripts. The earliest is a Pershore collection of the Lives of the Saints written 1160-1180, and John Blair in his article ‘Frideswide Reconsidered’ in Oxoniensia 1987 p73 says, ‘Life B is essentially a more stylish and literary re-working’ of Life A. He continues ‘The text is padded out to twice its original length, though many phrases (especially from Frideswide’s direct speech) are repeated verbatim. Life B is therefore the favoured source and nearly all the late medieval abridgements in Latin and English derive from it,’ (of which he notes there are quite a few).
Blair suggests, on p101 of the article, that Life B was probably written by Master Robert of Cricklade c. 1140-1170, second Prior of Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide founded in 1122.
Here is a section of the translation of Life B by David Bowker, edited by Ruth Buckley
’After 5 years of careful upbringing, she was entrusted to a matron, called Algiva, well versed in religious discipline, to learn her letters, that it would become obvious to all that the Holy Spirit had fore-chosen her mind as its dwelling place. Who would not marvel at this five-year old maiden who learnt the 150 psalms of David in about 5 months? Nor was any envy shown to her by her peers, but through the Divine Spirit with which she had been filled, she was abundant in grace and showed love to all. She was excelling in such humility and compassion that she seemed more like a slave-girl of such age than a prince and she showed respect and compassion to everyone.’
‘She was plainly no mere listener to the Divine word, forgetful of deeds, but she practised it. Whatever she heard from the scriptures, she stored in the sacred treasury of her heart, giving it her full attention, as money lent to her to bring back to the Lord. Because of this she spent her days and nights constantly in holy rivers of tears and also in signs and groans, making a sacrifice in her heart as a worthy offering to the Lord, praying that she might be allowed to dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of her life, and behold his face.’
‘She had not yet reached marriageable age when her mother died, and also the virgin, lacking any other consolation, was left to her father’s protection. She exhorted him as far as she could with very firm warnings to look to the welfare of his soul. But he, to alleviate his grief over the recent loss of his wife, and urged by the assiduous prayers of his beloved daughter, built a church within the boundary of the city, and dedicated it in honour of the Holy and Eternal Trinity, the Virgin Mary Mother of God and All Saints, giving it to his daughter as she had asked.’
‘She entered the church and devoted herself to the works of God, committing her chastity to the Lord through diligent prayers, and showing the true nature of her piety to those who asked, and giving generously with her own hand to the needy who begged, it is said that, in this way she put aside the glories of this world, and so set her sights on the heavenly kingdom that she was seen in a similar manner to lay down the burden of the flesh and don the clothing of immortality. For she did not nourish her body with wholesome food, but instead gave nurture to her soul. She was not dressed in fine clothing, but the most rough and coarse garments when awake, and she was scratched by no softer when she was asleep, if indeed she did sleep at times. What next I say about her holy bed, when this was nought save the bare earth? It was on this that she would repose, overcome by sleep, naturally removing the debt she owed it as she went down on it fervently on her knees whenever she outpoured her prayers to the Lord. How remarkable was this princess, brought up to royal banquets, who would overcome the wontoness of greed by eating simple vegetables with plain food and simple barley-bread and who would assuage her burning thirst with the merest draught. I need say no more.’
‘In following the narrow and hard path, she approached her life in such a way that nothing more (could be asked of her). Oh, unhappy men of the present age, who make gods of their bellies and rejoice in their disorder, and have appetite only for earthly things, and who make a pretence of religion in their dress but deny it in their way of life. Their plain clothes attract people’s attention, but the excesses of rich food upset their stomachs. If ever they do fast, they will seek everywhere by land or sea to make up for the loss of the fast. But this is not the sort of fasting which the Lord ordains. All England was agog, everyone marvelled, seeing the frail sex surpass masculine strength at such a tender age. Her father indeed was exceeding glad, in that he saw his only daughter, whom he thought would be heir to his earthly possessions, now pertaining to matters heavenly.’
(The translation of Life B is still being completed, and it is hope that a full translation will be available in due course.)
The difference in style to Life A is marked and says much about the author. It is verbose and typical of hagiography, which over-emphasises the virtues of the saint, with the intention to persuade the unbeliever to believe, and to encourage the faithful to greater devotion.
We can assume, from the erudite manner, that the author was a highly educated cleric who writes with authority. He is very likely to be an abbot or prior in charge of a religious establishment and used to teaching and encouraging his monks, as well as general believers. The florid style of the narrative gives us some insight into the way that 12th century clerics thought saints, faith and holy works should be described.
He was most probably the 12th century equivalent of today’s Bishop of Oxford, or Dean of Christ Church, so the suggestion by John Blair that he was the Prior of St Frideswide’s monastery is highly likely. Unfortunately, Life B describes Frideswide as having been born in 727AD, which contradicts Life A, which states this as the year she died.
This is a very long Life, several times longer than life A, and we can speculate about how it was recorded and used.
Q: Did the Prior write the initial manuscript with his own hand?
A: Probably not. It is more likely to have been written down by a scribe at the monastery from the dictation of the Prior. With its length and rhetorical tone, is may possibly have been recorded from a series of sermons preached by the Prior over time.
Q: So why should the Prior of the recently founded St Frideswide’s write such a comprehensive life of the Patron Saint of his establishment?
A: He obviously wanted to increase the prestige of his local saint.
He very likely wanted to use her story for outreach, spreading the word of her miracles and encouraging people to come for healing.
Undoubtedly, he wanted to expand his establishment and needed revenue from the many pilgrims who would come.
Perhaps he also genuinely believed in healing, as the writings of Robert of Cricklade record that he himself was healed at the grave of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, possibly in the early 1170s, of a problem with his leg contracted on a visit to Sicily.
Q: Where did he get his information for Life B from?
A: Life B follows the pattern of Life A and appears to be an expanded version of it. Blair claims (in his Saint Frideswide Reconsidered, Oxononesia 1987, p73) that Life B is ‘essentially a more stylish and literary re-working’ of Life A. But Blair notes, the author claims in his prologue that he has assembled ‘information from chronicles, volumes of authentic histories, and catalogues of English Saints’. In this the author assures us that he had done some research, and that his account was not completely made up. It may be that he had acess to further material that is now lost to us.
Q: How accurate is his account?
A: There is no way of knowing how accurate a representation of the Life of St Frideswide Life B actually is, but the author has studied Life A and found it ‘further from error than critics of his simple style have claimed’. In other words, the author believed Life A to be a reasonable account of her life and has based his Life on this, using the acceptable information and styles prevalent in England at the time.
Q: How was this Life to be used?
A: Although the style is exaggerated and unfamiliar to modern readers it must be typical of the sort of preaching undertaken by religious leaders of the 12th century. It is immediate, as though the author is speaking to us directly. Its style suggests this manuscript must have been written with the intention that is was to be read aloud to people, whether monks of the community or the faithful of the local population. No original manuscripts exist, so there is no way of knowing if it was marked to be read daily, weekly or only at festivals.