October 12 – Cosmas the Hymnographer and Edwin of Northumbria

Cosmas the Hymnographer (VIII cent.) lost his parents when he was very young (little kids are always losing things), and was raised as a foster-brother to John of Damascus. The two were schooled by a monk named Cosmas (called “Cosmas the Monk” to distinguish him from the monk Cosmas the Hymnographer), who had been disenslaved from the Saracens by John’s dad. When they were old enough, they entered the St. Sabbas Lavra* in Jerusalem. There they wrote many poems and hymns, as well as treatises against the heresy of iconoclasm. The two also developed (which has to mean “further developed,” as it already existed in primitive form in the sixth century) the system of the eight tones.

Many of Cosmas’ works are still used in the worship of the East, including the canons for the Matins for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, the triodes of Holy Week, the first Canon of the Nativity, and “More honorable than the cherubim.” Cosmas was made bishop of Maiuma, the port city of eighth century Gaza, in 843. He lived a good long time (easily outliving John), after which he died. He is the patron saint of hymnographers.

Edwin of Northumbria (ca. 586–633) was the son of Ælla, King of Deira. When Ælla died, first Æthelric (the Undetailed), then Æthelfrith of Bernicia (Ed’s brother-in-law), succeeded him, the latter uniting the two kingdoms as Northumbria. Edwin fled to East Anglia, becoming a favorite of King Rædwald. Æthelfrith offered to pay Rædwald for Edwin’s head, but when Red refused, Æth came to get it himself. Happily for Edwin, Rædwald killed Æthelfrith, and installed him (Edwin) on his (Æthelfrith’s) throne. Edwin immediately set about annexing neighboring kingdoms, moving his seat of government around his territory to administer justice and be visible. One of his royal cities was Goodmanham, the name of which could almost make a medieval English king turn vegetarian.

Whilst in East Anglia, Edwin had met Paulinus (not yet) of York, and when Paulinus accompanied Æthelburg up to Northumbria and married her to Edwin, he started working on Edwin to convert. Edwin had his court listen to Paulinus’ evangelizing, and asked them what they thought of it. His (pagan) priest, Coifi, said, “Well, I’ve been as good a priest to my gods as you could ask for, and they haven’t done squat for me” (to use the polite term). He asked Edwin for a steed and a spear, and famously (if you read the right books) rode the former up to a pagan temple, and cast the latter into it, profaning the temple and inventing lawn darts at the same time. Another of Edwin’s counselors gave a lovely, extended metaphor about a cozy room in the winter, with a nice fire, but some idiot left the windows open, and a sparrow flew in one window and out the other. This life, he said, is like the room, and the sparrow is like the soul, and, like that. Bede* thought it was lovely.

Edwin was so impressed he promised to convert if God granted him victory over Cwichelm, who had lately tried to poison him (which would make just about anybody upset, I’d think). Cwichelm outlived Edwin by at least three years, and yet Edwin did convert. In his day, Bede says, a woman could walk with her newborn child from one end of Northumbria to the other without fear of harm, which either says something about Edwin or about Bede. Edwin was the most powerful king in England, until he was killed by the pagans Penda (king of Mercia) and Cadwallon (his foster-brother, the dirty, double-crossing rat). After his death his kingdom was divided and reverted to paganism. Even as a saint he was eclipsed by his contemporary Oswald (Aug 5), although the latter doesn’t have a capital city named after him, as Edinburgh is after Edwin. Who, for the record, is the patron saint of hoboes.