My research explores the experiences of pilgrims who sought out miraculous cures through saint cults in medieval England. A key resource for this topic are the hagiographical sources which include reports of the posthumous miracles (collected together in a subgenre called miracula) worked by various saints through their shrines. However, these formally written-up texts were not produced for all saints’ cults, and even when they were, not all survive. One saint’s cult that we know drew in pilgrims was that of St Robert of Knaresborough (d. 1218). Yet, while some hagiographical evidence survives for the saint, most writings on St Robert are focused towards his vita (life) with only passing mentions of what happened following his death.
How, then, can we find out about the types of experiences that cure-seekers travelling to St Robert’s tomb and shrine were likely to have? This is the challenge that faced me when I was asked to present a paper on St Robert of Knaresborough as part of commemorations of the 800th anniversary of his death last summer. What follows below is an adapted version of the paper I presented for the celebratory conference ‘St Robert in his Time’.
Saints’ cults were an integral part of medieval Christianity. Through their connections to God and their continued presence on Earth (through relics, shrines, and tombs), saints were believed to be capable of crossing the threshold between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. This transitory nature allowed saints to act as intercessors between the faithful and God and thus, through the saints, the miraculous could become manifest.
There was a great variety in the types of saints – from the big, universal saints to those more locally celebrated – and although cult popularity could wax and wane over time, at the heart of all these cults was the connection made (via the saints) between the mundane, earthly world and the divine.
St Robert of Knaresborough was part of this broad pantheon of saintly figures who populated the medieval world and to whom devotional journeys, or pilgrimages, were made. During his life, Robert’s actions marked him out as a particularly pious figure. Robert was a hermit, meaning that while he was a religious man he did not join a large monastic community but instead chose to live in isolation.1
This was a period of great religious interest when the most famous orders of friars were founded, the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Instead of committing to a life of prayer inside a monastery – as more traditional, older orders like the Benedictines and the Cistercians had done – friars devoted themselves to spreading the word of God through preaching and teaching. To do this, they moved away from enclosed monasticism to ensure they were situated within the community.
The Franciscans in particular are notable as an order whose members insisted on living in poverty, and thus away from the relative luxury that might be found within a monastic cloister. Robert’s choice to live a hermetical life placed him in a similar position but, unlike the Franciscans, as a hermit, St Robert made the choice to exclude himself from the community, desiring instead to find solitude for his religious reflection.2 Robert was not alone in this decision, and perhaps one of Robert’s most famous (almost) contemporaries was fellow northerner and hermit Godric of Finchale (d. 1170).3
Robert, like many hermits, chose to live on the edges of a medieval settlement. In Robert’s case he established his hermitage in a cave just outside of Knaresborough. There were many challenges to this way of life, and while hermits accepted these as part of their test of devotion to their religious calling, this was not a life without its hardships.
Through his life, Robert’s actions had shown him to be a deeply pious man who was attracting the interest of locals and, on his death, his piety led to his being recognised as a saint. He became a figure of great importance, particularly to those who resided in or close to Knaresborough; his tomb and hermit’s cave, just outside the town and situated by the River Nidd, became a destination for pilgrims.
However, although we know a little of Robert the hermit of Knaresborough, and his establishment of the hermitage on the outskirts of the town, much less is known about the cult that developed following his death in 1218. This is because, unlike many other posthumous cults, we do not have a detailed miracula for St Robert. If we had such a source, we would have a record of some of the pilgrims who came to his shrine. However, we do know that pilgrims visited this site, and that among those who came to his tomb were some who sought out miraculous healing.
The later, fifteenth-century, work The Metrical Life of St Robert of Knaresborough, written in Middle English prose, provides a reference to the various miraculous cures that the deceased St Robert was believed to have performed for the devoted cure-seekers who sought his aid:
All that was seke [sick] and to hym sought,
Be that thai yode, thaim ayled noght.
Crased and crooked [infirm and disabled], bath deiff and dome [deaf and dumb/mute],
War cured that to hys tombe wald comme.
The halt [haltering/limping] was heled, the lame was lyght,
Blyned and bysen [blind and blind/purblind] hadde thair sight,
Men of menbirs that war mayned [limbs maimed by war]
Was saued full sound when thai wer sayned;
Obcessed off fend [possessed by demons] he gart them flytte,
Wytles and wod [witless and mad] won in thair wytt;
Lunatykes [lunatics] and frenesyse [frenzied]
Thrugh hys might ware mayd full wyse;
Baran [barren] bare hir childe belyffe
And some ware rased fra ded [raised from dead] to lyffe
And, to conclude thaim all in fere,
All that hurtt [all that hurt] hadde any here,
Or any sekenes [any sickness], all were saued
Thayr hele because thai of him craued.
The Metrical Life of St Robert of Knaresborough, lines 971-8.4
The Metrical Life does not give us accounts of individual cure-seeking experiences, but it does record a diverse range of afflictions cured through the deceased hermit’s saintly merits. What we can see from this variety of ailments is that St Robert was not a ‘specialist’; rather he was seen to be able to assist with anything and everything that came his way. Likewise, the Metrical Life emphasised that all levels of society respected and revered St Robert. ‘Mane and wyff of all degree, Pore and rych… [and] men of religyone’ were present at his funeral, and a similar range of people would likely have made a pilgrimage to St Robert’s shrine. These features place this posthumous cult on a par with other high-medieval cult centres in England known for holy healing.
Among the cures recorded for other contemporary saints’ cults, various forms of paralysis, blindness, and sickness tend to be well represented. These three health complaints are not only three of the most impressive healing miracles to be able to perform (due to their life-changing or life-saving nature), but they can be seen as having a clear resemblance to the types of miraculous cure attributed to Christ’s own miracle-working, as recorded within the Gospels. Being ‘Christ-like’ in their abilities, and thus the miracles that they performed, was key to any saint and their posthumous holy healing.
All three of these afflictions would also have greatly impacted upon the individual’s life. In the case of sicknesses, the severity of their illness is often recorded as having brought them close to death. With paralysis and blindness, their impairment (depending on the severity) could leave them dependant on the support of friends and family – and such support might also have been necessary for the cure-seeking pilgrimage. Other near-contemporary sources, including The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, often record the presence of such support, particularly in the case of vulnerable individuals such as children:
Huelina of Rochesburch, whose heels adhered to her back by natural deformity, was brought by her father to the holy martyr’s tomb in a wheeled vehicle of the kind called a litter… On the same day a boy named Baldwin, from the province of Lincoln, was brought by his father to Norwich, also in a litter with wheels: the sinews of his feet and legs from the knees downwards were wasted and deprived him of the power of walking. However, when forced to move himself, he crept along on his knees, leaning on hand-trestles. Both these persons, being brought at the same time to the holy martyr’s tomb, were restored to health by the intervention of his merits.
The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, 7.xvi.5
Both Huelina and Baldwin were severely affected by their paralysis, and it is clear that their parents (represented in both cases by the participation of their fathers) were concerned by this and cared for their children. Among those who visited St Robert’s shrine there were undoubtedly similar incidents of individuals arriving with friends or family for guides and supporters. After all, travel, even over a short distance, could prove difficult for the less mobile, or those whose sight was impaired, so family or friends, or aids such as crutches or trestles (a sort of small, hand held crutch) might be employed to assist them.
In the account of Huelina and Baldwin’s successful cure-seeking, the extent of their afflictions prior to their cure is firmly emphasised. However, other accounts were more attentive to the way in which the cure itself was brought about:
[There was] a certain boy at Norwich, son of Aluric, belonging to the tailor’s shop of the monastery, who was afflicted with a severe and horrible swelling of the throat and jaws, so that he presented a shocking appearance to all beholders. And since the character of his disease altogether excluded the hope of a cure, he came to the glorious martyr’s sepulchre led there by his mother, and we [the author] seeing him in his dreadful malady had compassion upon him, and we gave him to drink the dust scraped from the slab of the sepulchre mixed in holy water. But as the sacred draught gradually descended into his bowels, the power of divine grace followed close upon it. For immediately on taking the draught the sick lad felt a lessening of his pain, and in a short time he got well of his tumour, and no mark whatever of the swelling remained in him anywhere.
The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, 3.xxxii
Aluric’s son was not alone in having benefited from the healing powers of this concoction at St William’s tomb (and some experienced a much more dramatic reaction to drinking this antidote). This practice of ingesting water that had come into contact with a saint’s relic can be seen at other high-medieval shrines. Water that had bathed the relic of the hand of the apostolic St James at Reading Abbey was recorded as a cure for illness, and even aided difficult labour in one account.6
At St Robert’s shrine, we get yet another product of this tangible and transportable nature. The tomb, according to the prolific medieval author Matthew Paris, produced an oil which had medicinal properties.7 These properties, like the waters of St James and St William, were gained through contact with the holy body or tomb of St Robert.
Much like the badges which pilgrims could purchase, the waters, oils, and even dust from the tombs might be taken home by pilgrims and cure-seekers who visited the saints’ shrines for use at a later date. Alternatively, they might be taken away to someone unable to travel themselves due to the severity of their affliction.
In thinking about St Robert’s posthumous cult and the miracles attributed to him, therefore, we must not forget that St Robert, like many of his saintly contemporaries, including St William of Norwich, would have been a beacon of hope for those who were desperate for a return to health (or the return to health of a loved one). Those who came to his tomb and shrine in devotion and with prayers for Robert’s intercession must have hoped that he would hear these prayers and act to ensure their return to good health. For some, their prayers would be answered with holy healing, and they would have returned home telling their story to those they met and passing on the news of the powers of St Robert, perhaps in turn encouraging others to come to his shrine and seek his aid. While we might not have a full miracula for St Robert that records the specific experiences of those who sought out his miraculous aid, we do have enough evidence from the surviving writings on his cult and on other, contemporary, saints’ cults to draw a picture of the types of experiences his cure-seeking pilgrims would have had.
This post was previously published on Dr Ruth Salter’s personal blog.
1. Before making the decision to become a hermit Robert did join a cloistered community when he entered the Cistercian abbey of Newminster, Morpeth. However, to cut a long story short, Robert did not enjoy his time at Newminster and so left the community to take up life at Knaresborough. For a more detailed summary of Robert’s earlier life see the overview on the St Robert of Knaresborough website.
3. St Godric of Finchale (d. 1170) originally came from Walpole, Norfolk, but set up his hermitage at Finchale, County Durham. Following his death Durham Cathedral Priory took on guardianship of his shrine. Although never formally canonised, Godric was recognised as a saint by both the laity and the Church.
5. Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, edited and translated by A. Jessop and M.R. James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896) via Archive.org: the quoted sections can be found on pp. 162-3, 275. St William of Norwich (d. 1144) was only twelve when he was murdered (this led him to be seen as a martyr). There were initially some doubts over his sanctity by members of the Church, even at Norwich Cathedral where he was buried, but the production of miracles proved his saintly merits and his cult enjoyed a good deal of success in the following decades, especially with the local laity.