November 17 – Hilda of Whitby; Gregory of Tours

Hilda of Whitby (614–680) (aka “Hild”) was the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria, and was brought up in Edwin’s court (tennis, not basketball) after her father’s murder. When she was thirteen, she and all Edwin’s court were baptized by Paulinus, one of the missionaries sent to England with (St.) Augustine of Canterbury (May 27) by Pope Gregory the Great (Sep 3). Bede* refers to Paulinus as awe-inspiring, and as having a hooked nose. The past is a foreign country.

At the age of 33, Hild answered (St.) Aidan (Aug 31)’s call to a monastery somewhere in Northumbria, where she learned, and this is important and will be on the test, the Celtic monasticism of Aidan and the Ionans. After a year she was made abbess of Hartlepool Abbey, which has since gone missing, although its churchyard was rediscovered in 1833.

After nine years she founded Whitby Abbey, a double monastery (twice as many green stamps), which she made into a center of learning and sanctity, as well as a source of bucketsful of saints and bishops. Hild was a keen administrator, a font of boundless energy, and a repository of great wisdom—kings, princes, earls, and similar riff-raff came to her for advice and counseling. She also had time for the lowly, and was directly responsible for lifting Caedmon (Feb 11) out of the (literal) cowshed and into history as England’s first (known) poet. Bede says all who knew her called her “mother” and honored her for her grace and devotion.

Hild is also famous for hosting the famous Synod of Whitby™, called by King Oswieu to solve a vexing problem that threatened the peace and good order of his kingdom: how should we calculate the date of Easter? The Ionans and the monasteries and churches they founded clung to the ancient method based on the Jewish calendar. The rest of the island, and the big Irish one to the west, used the newer and far more complicated method involving solstices, full moons, and goat entrails. (Okay maybe not goat entrails.) Bishops came from most of England, and argued until they were blue in the face, though few were Picts. After hearing their arguments, the King decided in favor of the Roman method, and that was that. Hilda, despite her formation, moved the monasteries under her care to the new practice. Aidan (Aug 31) and His Island Band rejected it, and returned to Ireland by way of Iona, one result of which was the relocation of the northern see from Lindisfarne to York.

We end with a story. Snakes were plaguing the countryside, and the locals called on Hild to save them. She drove them to the seashore (the snakes, not the locals), prayed their heads off, then turned them into stone where they lay. And on those beaches there still lie ammonite fossils, like little coiled, headless snakes. These are made into souvenirs by local crafters, who carve heads on them and sell them to tourists. A genus of the long-extinct mollusk, Hildoceras, is named after the great abbess.

Gregory of Tours (c. 538–c. 596) was born into the purple of medieval Gall, and had many saints and bishops and such in the immediate branches of his family tree. After the usual youthful stuff of losing your father, moving with your mom to Burgundy, and being educated under your uncle (Saint) Gallus, he received miraculous healing from Martin of Tours (Nov 11) (not unsolicited), and remained devoted to Martin all his days, even writing an extensive hagiography of him, which after becoming Bishop of Tours he used to consolidate the power of the see of Tours. We are assured it was nothing personal, just looking out for the good order of the church. We shall not argue.

He dickered a great deal with the local petty kings, getting to know them well enough to write the best history of Merovingian period that we have. He also wrote many other hagiographies, and an admirable creed that tosses in a good deal of anti-Arian polemic and interesting prophecies about the Antichrist.

My sources are schtum about his death and burial.