Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Medieval saint of the week

May 19th is the commemoration of St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 10th century. Noted for his "devotion to learning and his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship," Dunstan had an enormous influence on both the English church and on the secular state. Ending years of clerical corruption and widespread simony, he built new monasteries and enforced higher standards of churchmanship for parish priests. As the English monarchy was rather unstable during this period - particularly under the rule of the teenaged King Eadwig, a notoriously incompetent and morally dissolute ruler - Dunstan can also be held responsible for the improved law and order in this period, establishing a trained military to defend the country against invaders. Dunstan also devised the coronation for King Edgar the Peaceful, creating a format for English coronations which is still used in modern times.

Dunstan was the most popular English saint during the Anglo-Saxon period, and his relics were given a prominent place in Canterbury Cathedral by the Norman archbishop Lanfranc (himself a pretty cool dude). By the thirteenth century, however, he had been replaced in the affections of the English people by that young upstart, St. Thomas Becket. His tomb was destroyed by the Puritans during the Reformation.

Among his many other talents, Dunstan is one of the patron saints of musicians, perhaps because his activities were said to include the construction of "bells and organs." This fascinating tidbit provides rare evidence of the presence of organs in medieval England in the 980s or earlier. This saint also shares a name with one of the most famous hagiographers in all of fiction; I speak, of course, of Dunstan Ramsay, the title character in Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business. One of the legends surrounding St. Dunstan has him getting the better of the Devil by seizing his nose with a pair of red-hot pliers; readers of Fifth Business will recall the unexpected way in which the fictional Ramsay reenacts this legend.

I feel a strong attraction to St. Dunstan; a perpetually overlooked saint, ignored by musicians in favour of Cecilia and by the English in favour of Thomas Becket. Plus, his first biographer was named Osbern - a difference of only one letter!

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