Goscelin of Canterbury : a critical study of his life, works and accomplishments

Hamilton, Thomas J. , Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Stocker, Arthur J., Department of Classics, University of Virginia
Colker, Marvin L., Department of Classics, University of Virginia

Two factors suggest that a reappraisal of the accomplishments of Goscelin of Canterbury is needed. The first is the existence of numerous discrepancies in the evaluations of his works which have been formulated in the last seven centuries. Dom Wilmart and other historians of mediaeval literature have lavished considerable praise on Goscelin's writings. Conversely, T. D. Hardy and a few other scholars have criticized them quite thoroughly. In recent years Frank Barlow and H. P. R. Finberg have suggested that a truer estimate of Goscelin's accomplishments lies somewhere between these two sets of divergent opinions. The need to settle these conflicting opinions about the value of Goscelin's accomplishments is, therefore, one reason for reappraising them. The second is the fact that most of these opinions about the worth of Goscelin's works have been based on insufficient evidence. Even the most recent critical appraisals of the value of Goscelin's works ·were formulated before many ·of his hagiographies, particularly his lives of Wulfilda, Hildelitha, Ethelburga and Wulfsin, were published. Consequently, most of these opinions 'tvere devised 'tvi thout references to these biographies. However, these works are among the most original of Goscelin's writings. Since most appraisals of Goscelin's accomplishments were made without taking these recently published works into consideration, these estimates must be reassessed in order to determine their accuracy. Furthermore, if they are inaccurate, these appraisals should be corrected.

Before any reassessment of Goscelin's accomplishments can be undertaken, considerable effort must be expended to establish a canon of his authentic works. In order to be exact, any re-evaluation of Goscelin's attainments must be based solely on an examination of works which are unquestionably his. At present, no exact canon of Goscelin's writings exists. Every list of his works yet to appear either includes works that he assuredly did not produce or omits some of those he did write. The solution to this difficulty is twofold. First of all, a list ·of all writings which have been attributed to Goscelin over the last seven centuries must be established and all works on it which he assuredly did not write must be excluded from it. Secondly, all other hagiographic works which were compiled in England during the time Goscelin was there, that is, the last three decades of the eleventh century, must be examined to determine whether or not he might have written them. If cross-references or stylistic evidence indicate that any of these works were written by Goscelin, they should be included in the canon of his Writings. The results of this lengthy process have been embodied in the second chapter of this monograph. These results indicate that at present it is possible to establish a canon of twenty-five works which are unquestionably authentic productions of Goscelin's pen and to list about twenty-one others which he might well have written. This reassessment of his accomplishments is based solely on the twenty-five works which are assuredly Goscelin's.

The reassessment of Goscelin's accomplishments contained in this dissertation proceeds through three distinct stages. First of all, an attempt has been made to determine the actual historical Value of Goscelin's writings. Secondly, his style has been reappraised according to autotelic principles. Finally, an attempt has been made to calculate the degree of erudition which he embodied in his writings.

An examination of Goscelin's works reveals that they possess intrinsic historical value. The historical value of a hagiographer's works depends on the extent to which they can aid modern historians in reconstructing the past. Because of the unusual objectivity and accuracy with which he wrote, Goscelin's works are of considerable use to historians. For example, his writings can be employed to document the early history of a number of English monasteries, to ascertain the intellectual outlook of the average religious of the late Old English period, to provide insight into the nature of late eleventh century spirituality and to enable scholars to make accurate comparisons between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman spirituality. The fact that Goscelin's works can be shown to be of considerable. value to historians does much to discredit the criticism levied against them by nineteenth century scholars and corroborates the judgment of twentieth century scholars who have acclaimed them as valuable source materials for the cultural, social and intellectual history of late eleventh century England.

Goscelin's style was suited to the purpose for which he wrote. Goscelin's aim in compiling hagiographies of the Anglo-Saxon saints was to convince the Normans that these saints were worthy of veneration. To accomplish this objective, he had to write these. works in a style the Normans would deem appropriate. Analyses of the hagiographies which were esteemed by the Normans of the eleventh century reveal that they believed that a highly rhetorical style was most suited to hagiography. Goscelin seems to have made a conscious effort to write in this way in order to interest the Normans in his works. Since his style was suited to his aims in writing, some of its excesses may well be overlooked, and Goscelin can be regarded as a competent stylist. This evaluation of his style likewise offsets many of the criticisms which have been leveled against Goscelin in the past.

Goscelin's writings contain numerous unobtrusive manifestations of his erudition. For example, he frequently quotes from the works of poets of the Classical era of Latin literature and occasionally writes in metres perfected by them. Goscelin also included materials drawn from patristic and early mediaeval sources into his writings. Such manifestations of learning contribute greatly to a heightened appreciation of his abilities. More importantly, however, these traces of his erudition enable scholars to assess more accurately the degree of learning which prevailed at Saint Bertin's in the eleventh century and to trace the process by which continental learning was transmitted to England in the late eleventh century.

The conclusions which follow from a careful re-evaluation of Goscelin's works are three-fold. First of all, this reassessment shows that Goscelin's writings possess considerable historical merit, despite the fact that he wrote works in a genre that did not encourage it. Second, this study reveals that he must be considered an effective stylist, since his diction and rhetoric were suited to the aims he hoped to accomplish by writing hagiography. Finally, this re-evaluation indicates that he was ·an erudite man whose works had an impact on the process of cultural awakening which took place in late eleventh century England. In the light of all these accomplishments, it is perhaps not hyperbole to assert with William of Malmesbury that Goscelin was indeed post Bedam secundus in the. catalogue of pre-twelfth century Anglo-Saxon hagiographers.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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