bowel miracle of Saint Edith exposed thief

You who exist unchangingly
as the origin of things,
favor our
pious undertakings,
and the lyre of our soul
rule, we pray, ruler of rulers.

God the Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit,
we praise you
with mouth and heart
set in the frailty
of our life.

O all-powerful
ruler of the world,
end of all
creation,
make every end
of ours be ended
in you alone.

{ Qui principium
constas rerum,
fave nostris
piis ceptis
atque mentis plectrum
rege, precamur, rex regum.

Pater, nate,
spiritus sancte,
te laudamus
ore, corde
in huius vite
siti fragilitate.

O cunctipotens
mundum regens,
finis rerum
creatarum,
omnem finem nostrum
fac finiri
in te solum. }[1]

Late in the thirteenth century, nuns living in the Anglo-Saxon royal Wilton Abbey directed the learned monk Goscelin of Saint-Bertin to write the life and deeds of Edith. She was a Wilton Abby nun who died in 986 at a young age, yet already with a reputation for saintliness. Goscelin recounted how Edith worked miracles concerning bowel movements. These miracle didn’t associate Saint Edith with a foul smell. Medieval Christian holiness embraced all of bodily life.

Edith of Wilton Abbey

According to Goscelin, Saint Edith exposed a thief through an irrepressible bowel movement. This miracle was associated with the sacred fabric of Edith’s tomb:

On Saint Edith’s candle-lit tomb was a radiantly white votive linen cloth made into a scarf the width of the palm of a hand. A little woman, left there alone and in her solitude becoming inclined to theft, took it and removed the spoil wrapped around her shin.

{ Tumbam eius luciferam uotiuum candidabat linteum, pallio ad mensuram palme circumsutum. Hoc muliercula, sola ibi relicta et ex solitudine furto contigua, excerpit, tibieque inuolutum spolium abducit. }[2]

Saint Edith from Heaven acted to prevent this theft:

Suddenly a divine fetter bound the young woman as she attempted to flee. It utterly fastened her little thieving foot to the spot. The sacred threshold didn’t allow the thief to escape with her sacrilegious booty. Long she struggled at the doorstep. Then defecation overcame her, and it compelled her to exit. But the guilty woman remained standing there, unable to extricate herself. With pallor, trembling, and groaning, she revealed her crime.

{ Mox diuina compes fugientem constrinxit et furtigerulum pedem radicitus fixit, nec sacrum limen cum sacrilegio excedere licuit. Diu luctanti in tali cippo, editua superuenit, exire compellit; sed rea inextricabilis resistit; pallore, tremore, gemitu crimen prodit. }

Perhaps the thief soiled herself. In any case, she unwrapped the stolen cloth from her shin and returned it. Then she was able to leave and go to the bathroom to clean herself or relieve herself.

Saint Edith’s tomb had a righteous relation to bowel functioning. Goscelin recorded another of her miracles:

A sister, who is still alive under the nursing of the younger nuns, was in danger of death because of continuous and untreatable dysentery. As she lay at Saint Edith’s wonder-working tomb, the unrestrained filthy discharge soon stopped and her health was restored.

{ Soror quoque, superstes adhuc inter iuniorum nutrimenta, iugi et inmedicabili ad mortem periclitabatur dissenteria. Cui, acumbenti ad eiusdem opifere tumulum, mox effrenis illuuies refrenata et salus est redintegrata. }[3]

Saint Edith’s tomb wasn’t unique in its bowel miracles. At another monastery in England, a religious brother became demon-possessed. The community brought him to the tomb of Saint Æthelthryth and prayed for him. He subsequently made a prodigious, extremely foul-smelling bowel movement that exorcised him. Medieval piety wasn’t squeamish about the bodily realities of life.

Saint Edith of Wilton

Jesus, known as a good physician, healed the sick in earthly, corporal ways. Despite the risk of a horrible stench, Jesus called forth Lazarus after he had lain dead for four days. Medieval Christians celebrated Easter with laughter. Those of us who aren’t medieval Christians might prefer to suppress distressing and humbling realities of bodily life. But the frailties of life are of its essence.

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Notes:

[1] Cambridge Songs {Carmina cantabrigiensia} 7, “You the origin {Qui principium},” stanzas 1a, 6.1-7, Latin text (consonantal u written as v for ease in recognizing sounds) and English translation (modified slightly) from Ziolkowski (1994). Verse 1.11 includes the conjectural text “in huius” of Jaffé (1869) p. 457, as reported in Ziolkowski (1994) p. 183. Id. provides other conjectures.

“Qui principium,” which survives only in Carmina cantabrigiensia, commemorates the life of Heribert, Archbishop of Cologne from 999 to 1021. Heribert also served from 994 as Chancellor for the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Heribert died in 1021. This poem apparently was composed shortly thereafter, most likely in Cologne or Deutz. Id. pp. 183-4. Above are only the first stanza and the last stanza, excluding the concluding identical pendant versicle “Pater, nate …”. Ziolkowski notes the “nicely chiastic balance” in the beginning and ending of this long poem. Id. p. 186.

[2] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Life of Edith {Vita Edithe} / About Saint Edith, virgin and abbess {De sancta Editha virgine et abbatissa} 27, Latin text from Wilmart (1938) pp. 100-1, English translation (modified slightly) from Wright & Loncar (2004) p. 62. The subsequent quote above is sourced similarly.

Goscelin completed about 1080 his account of the life and translation of Saint Edith. The two most important surviving manuscripts are Cardiff, Public Library, MS I. 381, folios 81-120 (written early in the twelfth century) and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson C 938, folios 1-29 (written in the thirteenth century). On differences between these manuscripts, Wright & Loncar (2004) pp. 17-8.

[3] Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, Translation of Edith {Translatio Edithe} 10, Latin text from Wilmart (1938) p. 277, English translation (modified slightly) from Wright & Loncar (2004) pp. 76-7.

[images] (1) Portrait of Saint Edith. Painted c. 1300-1340. From folio 3r of British Library, Royal MS 14 B VI, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Saint Edith. Painted fourth quarter of the thirteenth century. From folio 3r of British Library, Royal MS 14 B V, via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Jaffé, Philipp. 1869. “Die Cambridger lieder.” Zeitschrift Für Deutsches Alterthum. 14: 449-495, 560.

Wilmart, André. 1938. “La légende de Ste Édith en prose et vers par le moine Goscelin.” Analecta Bollandiana. 56: 5-101, 265-307.

Wright, Michael, and Kathleen Loncar, trans. 2004. “Goscelin’s Legend of Edith.” Part I (pp. 17-93) in Hollis, Stephanie, ed. Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius. Turnhout: Brepols.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 1994. The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia). New York: Garland. Introduction.

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