Of Blood, Books, and Holy Men


  • Tomas Zahora Wichita State University


early Middle Ages, Lindisfarne monasteries, Lindisfarne Gospels, Viking invasion


"The intimacy of your love used to rejoice me greatly when I was with you," the monk, teacher, scholar, and poet Alcuin wrote to the monks of Lindisfarne after the monastery had been sacked on June 8, 793, "but conversely, the calamity of your tribulation saddens me greatly every day, though I am absent. Alcuin wrote from the court of Charlemagne, where he had heard the terrible news of the first of a number of Viking raids that would eventually devastate the monasteries of Northumbria in the ninth century. Himself a native of those northern lands, he received word of the barbaric acts of devastation with great pain, and sought to offer reasons for such an improbable conclusion to the history of a venerable religious institution which began with Aidan in the seventh century:

... the pagans desecrated the sanctuaries of God, and poured out the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope, trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street. . . . Either this is the beginning of greater tribulation, or else the sins of the inhabitants have called it upon them. Truly it has not happened by chance, but is a sign that it was well merited by someone. But now, you who are left, stand manfully, fight bravely, defend the camp of God. . . . If anything ought to be corrected in your Grace's habits, correct it quickly. . . . Do not glory in the vanity of raiment; this is not a glory to the priests and servants of God, but a disgrace. Do not in drunkenness blot out the words of your prayers. Do not go out after luxuries of the flesh and worldly avarice, but continue steadfastly in the service of God and in the discipline of the regular life, that the most holy fathers, who begot you, may not cease to be your protectors.1

It could not have happened by chance, because nothing in the Christian world of the early Middle Ages happened by chance alone, but was "a sign that it was well merited by someone." Alcuin interprets the attack as God's punishment for the laxity of His people - the suggested remedy is order and true monastic discipline, so that the saints-protectors who stood so firm during the early years of the establishment would not cease to shield the servants of God from danger.