The Well of Saint Augustine

Previously, on The Rural Voice . . .

The year is A.D. 600. Saint Augustine of Canterbury and his companions have arrived at a village in Dorset but the people have refused to hear their message and ridiculed the evangelists. “But the messenger of God, according to the Lord’s command and the example of the apostles, shook off the dust of his feet against them and threw back at the hideous people a sentence worthy of their merits, so that the due penalty confounded the despisers of the saints, both themselves and all their posterity, who had rejected the commandments of life. There is a rumour that those accursed people attached the lengthy tails of sea fish to the saints; and they procured to themselves everlasting glory – yea, a perennial ignominy rebounded on them, so that this disgrace may be imputed to a degenerate race, not to an innocent and gentlemanly country.”

Last week’s blog told the oft-repeated story of how Saint Augustine of Canterbury, preaching to the heathen Anglo-Saxons of the West Country, received a distinctly discourteous reception. The earliest record of the story is from Goscelin of Saint-Bertin’s Life of Saint Augustine, from which most of the preceding paragraph was translated. It was repeated by William of Malmesbury, Wace, Layamon and a succession of other historians (or storytellers), to the point that one can draw a scientific diagram of the legend’s evolution from a banal tale of an unsuccessful mission to yokels in Dorset into a pseudo-zoological explanation for why people born in Kent (but not Dorset, for some strange reason) have tails.

Goscelin himself is not specific about the nature of Augustine’s curse but his implication was developed explicitly by the later tradition, which used the legend to explain the European racial slur about the enhanced posteriors of the English. Goscelin’s complaint about the imputation of the disgrace to “an innocent and gentlemanly country” implies that the stereotype was already common in his own day.

Goscelin’s dislike of the insult is interesting, since he was not an Englishman himself but was from modern Belgium and came to England around 1058 as secretary to the Bishop of Sherborne. He worked for the Bishop for the next twenty years, during which time he also pursued a doomed love affair with a nun at Wilton but the Bishop’s death in 1078 and the nun’s decision to estrange herself from Goscelin for the good of their souls plunged him into a mid-life crisis. He became itinerant, wandering from one monastery to another, writing hagiographies as a coping strategy. In 1091, he moved to Canterbury and it was there that he wrote his Life of Saint Augustine but his tale of the tails may have derived from his previous career in Dorset, since it also serves the purpose of providing an ingenious (albeit completely wrong) etymology for a Dorset place-name.

After their fishy encounter with the heathen villagers, Augustine and his companions retreated to an arid place five miles away to feel sorry for themselves. Jesus appeared to Augustine and told him a comforting speech, whereupon a stream gushed forth where the archbishop had stuck his staff. The stream caused that barren and uninhabited location to become fertile and populous and Augustine named it Cernel, from “Cerno El”, I have seen God. A monastery was later built on the site and the spring, which was still known by Saint Augustine’s name in Goscelin’s own time, not only provided drinking water but also healed the sick.

This is a typical saint-and-spring story, the like of which is found in scores across Christendom. What is more interesting is Goscelin’s attempt to derive the name of Cerne from a combination of Latin (“cerno”) and Hebrew (“El”). Needless to say, this is etymological rubbish. Cerne actually comes from the Brittonic word “carn”, meaning a rock. Furthermore, Goscelin was proceeding not from the vernacular name but from its Latin adjectival form “Cerneliensis”, which only scholars used. Such an excessively intellectual approach suggests a monastic origin for the theory and one strongly suspects that, rather than the incident naming the location, the reverse was true, with a false etymology suggested by a monk turning into a story about the origin of Saint Augustine’s Well.

The legend may also owe something to an episode in the Book of Genesis (XXXV.9–15), in which God appears to Jacob at Mount Padanaram and promises him the land that He had given to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob sets up a commemorative pillar, consecrates it and names the place Bethel, “the House of God”.

Goscelin’s desire to put an end to the perpetuation of the anti-English jibe may explain why he avoided specifying the villagers’ punishment. Thirty years later, William of Malmesbury, who included the episode in his own account of Saint Augustine, went further, editing out any reference to the punishment at all and conflating it with the legend of Saint Augustine’s Well.

According to William’s Deeds of the Bishops, Augustine was preaching with some success in Dorset, when the Devil inspired the local yokels to abuse him and tie rays’ tails to his garments. The despondent missionaries retreated but Augustine reassured his companions “Cerno Deum, qui et nobis retribuit gratiam et furentibus illis emendationem infundet animam.” (I see God, Who will both restore grace to us and pour correction on those madmen.) His prediction came true, as the villagers sought out Saint Augustine, apparently spontaneously and without any mention of divine punishment, to express their penance and to ask to be baptized. There being no water in the place, Augustine ordered a spring to gush forth from the earth and named the spot Cernel, from the opening words of his prophecy. Again, William reported that the spring still existed in his own time and was known as Saint Augustine’s Well.

William also provides (what Goscelin does not) the early history of Cerne Abbey. In 869, Eadwald, brother of Saint Edmund, the King of East Anglia murdered by the Danes, fled to Dorset, compelled by a vision of Saint Augustine’s Well, where he set up a hermitage for himself. The monastery was built on the site of his hermitage a hundred years later (in 987, according to Cerne Abbey’s forged foundation charter).

These dates mean that, assuming (for the reasons already given) it was the monks of the abbey who contrived the legend of the stream, the story cannot have long pre-dated Goscelin’s arrival in England. Furthermore, the monastery included a chapel of Saint Augustine, built over the well. It is likely that Saint Augustine was originally chosen as the dedicatee simply because of his importance to the English. Only later was the dedication misconstrued as implying that he was associated with the well historically.

Although Goscelin did not directly connect the legend of the well to the legend of the fishtails, the latter, which is so dependent on Saint Augustine’s presence in local lore, is unlikely to have developed until the former had become established. If this hypothesis hangs together, then the invention of, first, the legend of the well and, secondly, the legend of the fishtails can be dated to between the foundation of Cerne Abbey in 987 and Goscelin’s arrival in the Diocese of Sherborne in 1058. Given how murky the origin of folktales usually is, this is a pleasingly neat answer.

Fancy that. We have got through a whole blog on Cerne Abbas without once mentioning that whacking great enormous p-

Photo credits: Saint Augustine’s Well – Cerne Abbas (Sarah Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Saint Augustine’s Well – detail (Sarah Smith) / CC BY-SA 2.0