St Rumwold: The Infant Saint and Medieval Miracle Stories
Tucked away in an almost-forgotten manuscript from the 11th century is the extraordinary tale of St Rumwold, an infant saint who lived on this earthly plane for only three days. But in that short time, the story goes, he not only spoke with the eloquence of a fully grown man, but he declared himself a Christian and gave a sermon to those who had gathered for his birth.
The story itself may seem nothing short of preposterous to a 21st century reader, but to an 11th century audience, the tale would not have actually seemed at all strange or far-fetched. In bygone centuries, historians concluded that medieval people readily believed these miraculous stories because they were simple or gullible. In fact this couldn’t be further from the truth.
So what made medieval people so willing to believe the fantastical, miraculous tale of St Rumwold in a way that modern readers would not? Let’s take a step into the Middle Ages and see how people in that time understood the world around them.
The Infant Saint of Buckinghamshire
Rumwold was born in the district of King’s Sutton sometime in the 7th century, supposedly the son of the king of Northumberland (also known as Northumbria, in northern England) and his wife, who was a daughter of Penda of Mercia. The hagiography of his short life claims that his parents were en-route to visit Penda for the birth of their first child, the infant Rumwold.
Before they could reach their destination the party was forced to make camp by the roadside in a meadow, as the princess of Mercia entered labor. Rumwold was born in the meadow, near to the place that would become known as Sutton and then later King’s Sutton. Sadly the infant lived only for a short time and died on the third day after his birth. Rumwold was buried in Sutton.
Not an unusual story so far, but it is the events following Rumwold’s birth which begin to move into the realm of fantasy. The hagiography tells of how Rumwold’s birth was “desired by many and sanctified by God” and that upon being born, the infant proclaimed three times “I am a Christian!”
The stone font of St Rumwold’s baptism is now housed in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, King’s Sutton (John Salmon / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The child then asked the two priests who attended the royal party, Widerin and Edwold, to baptize him and perform Holy Communion. Seeing as there was no baptismal font nearby, he directed the priests to a nearby bowl-shaped stone. The men were miraculously able to lift it and carry it to the meadow to use for the baptism.
Following the ceremony, Rumwold proceeded to give a lengthy sermon about the need for virtuous living to all those present. He finished by decreeing that after his death, his body should lay for one year at the place which would be called Sutton, for two years at a place to be named Brackley, before coming to his final resting place, which would be known as Buckingham.
None of these place-names existed at the time of Rumwold’s birth. Rumwold died, as he himself prophesied, on the third day of his life, the 3rd of November.
Fact or Fiction?
The details of the story are somewhat vague, which is partly why modern historians have discredited it as pure fiction. Rumwold’s parents are never named, and both the date and place of his birth are unclear.
Rumwold was supposedly born during Penda’s reign, which was between 626-655, and although some historians place his birth towards the beginning of Penda’s reign, it was more likely to be sometime during the 650s given what we know about the Christianization of Mercia.
The hagiography states Penda became a Christian before Rumwold’s birth. This timeline is consistent with the most likely candidate for Rumwold’s father, Ethelwald, who was the son of Oswald of Northumbria. When his uncle Oswy ascended the throne upon Oswald’s death in 642, Ethelwald sought Penda’s protection in Mercia where he very likely married one of Penda’s daughters.
King Penda of Mercia, Worcester Cathedral (Violetriga / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The only marriage recorded between a king of Northumbria and a daughter of Penda is that of Alchfrid, son of Oswy, and Cyneburga in the early 650s. As a result, many historians have named the pair as Rumwold’s parents, but this is highly unlikely to be true.
Alchfrid was a Christian king, and Rumwold’s father is said to have been a pagan king. In fact, the story of his life says that Penda’s daughter, a devout Christian, refused to enter her new husband’s bed until he converted to Christianity.
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As for Cyneburga, she became a nun after the death of her husband and was later made a saint for her role in founding a monastery at Castor. It is unlikely that if she had also been the mother of a saint, even a minor one like Rumwold, that this fact would have been forgotten by those who venerated her.
A Strange Tale
There are other, more likely, explanations for the vagueness and historical inconsistencies in the Life of St Rumwold. It has been theorized that the 11th century version of the hagiography, which was thought to be the earliest, is not actually the original form of the tale.
The theory goes that it was copied from an earlier text by a local Buckinghamshire priest who was ill-informed about historical details. It might also be a transcription of local oral tradition about the saint. What cannot be explained away so easily are the more miraculous elements of the story.
Not only was a newborn baby supposedly fully capable of speech, but he gave a sermon which was recorded “verbatim” in the story of his life. In it, he demonstrated detailed knowledge of theology that would usually be acquired over a lifetime of study in a monastery.
The infant Rumwold also possessed the gift of prophecy, naming himself Rumwold as had been ordained by God, and sharing foreknowledge of his own fate. Most importantly, after his death Rumwold’s remains were capable of performing healing miracles:
“There and in many places, when invoked, St Rumwold bestows favors upon those who ask, giving sight to the blind, making the lame to walk, and granting deliverance to the sick weighed down by various ailments, with the consent of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Tradition Of Miracle Stories
Miracle stories such as these occur in every hagiography written in the Middle Ages and were in fact an essential part of any narrative of a saint’s life, because without the ability to perform miracles one could not be considered a saint.
There were many different “categories” of miracles that could act as proof of a person’s holiness. Prophecy, revelation, revenge on the ungodly, healing, changing minds and raising the dead, all of which directly imitated the miracles performed by Jesus in the Bible.
Most hagiographers attempted to make the saints appear Christ-like in their stories, a phenomenon known as “Imitatio Christi.” Sometimes the comparison was subtle, but in the Life of St Rumwold there are obvious connections.
Aspects of St Rumwold’s story echo events in the life of Jesus, such as the Adoration of the Magi (Quentin Matsys / Public Domain)
The infant Rumwold is worshipped by the adults in his presence, as Jesus was worshipped as a baby by the Three Wise Men. Further, Rumwold’s miraculous knowledge of doctrine from a young age recalls the story of Christ speaking to worshippers in the Temple as a young child and answering their questions.
Some less obvious parallels to Jesus’s life are Rumwold’s insistence that he be baptized to follow in Christ’s example, and the foreknowledge of his own death. Both Rumwold and Jesus were also descended from ancient royal lines.
Historians versus Hagiographers
The desire of hagiographers to draw parallels between their saints and Christ seems logical in the eyes of a modern reader – after all, Christ is the pinnacle of the ideal Christian way of life. But for medieval readers this connection held much deeper significance.
In the medieval cultural consciousness, Jesus Christ was considered to be both the center and the fulfilment of human history. This meant that every story told about mankind’s past, present, or future was really on some level about mankind’s relationship with God, and His providential control of history, as it moved inexorably towards its divinely ordained end of Judgement Day.
This view of history also meant that medieval people did not see history and hagiography as two distinct and separate categories. History in the Middle Ages was a rhetorical and moralizing endeavor, not a scientific search for an objective historical “truth.”
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From the very earliest part of the medieval period, prominent theologians and historians such as Augustine of Hippo have written treatises on this topic. The writings of Frankish historian and hagiographer Gregory of Tours had perhaps the biggest impact on how medieval writers viewed their own role in producing narratives about the past.
Gregory wrote that the author was almost insignificant, as they were merely a conduit for the word of God, and that their commitment should be only to the “higher” truth of Christian doctrine rather than the lesser truth of factual detail. Under Augustine and Gregory’s ethos, the promotion of “superstitious”, miraculous elements of these narratives over factual historical detail was entirely legitimate, but this is what draws the most criticism from modern historians.
The Legacy Of Dismissive Criticism
Post-Enlightenment historians from the 18th and 19th centuries almost unanimously derided hagiographers as “pious fools”, or even worse as liars, and their narratives about saint’s lives as dishonest, ahistorical and fictional. The main reason for their criticism was the supernatural, fantastical elements of hagiography, specifically miracle stories.
Edward Gibbon, author of the extensive work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in 1776, was one of the most vocal critics of medieval hagiography. He wrote that hagiographers could not have believed their own writing was possible within the natural order so therefore it must be lies. He also felt that as they chose to deliberately distort the truth, these writers were undeserving of the title “historian”.
The crucial point that Gibbon and other modern critics that followed him failed to understand however, is in the treatment of the divine and the supernatural. Modern historians consider them to be outside the boundaries of human history, but in the medieval period these things were the boundaries that defined human history and the supernatural was experienced as a lived reality.
Hagiographers and their medieval audiences saw no contradiction between real “facts” and the “fantasy” of miracles because both were considered signs of the observable truth of God’s presence and his divine power. The reality of these in the real world was always hidden or disguised, such as the presence of Christ disguised within a saint.
The Miracle of St Zenobius, c1445. Miracles were seen as the actions of God manifest (Fitzwilliam Museum / Public Domain)
The fact that such a saint was able to perform miracles was seen as evidence of God’s power being allowed to work through them on Earth. In this way, medieval historians recognized the manifestation of their Christian beliefs in real events.
The Miraculous Afterlife Of St Rumwold
Unfortunately for the once-flourishing cult of St Rumwold, the later part of the medieval period saw increased skepticism of miracle stories. Changes in taste and thinking saw a push towards secularism and realism in narrative histories.
The veneration of St Rumwold had been fairly widespread prior to the 12th century, with churches dedicated to him appeared in Kent, Essex, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Dorset and Yorkshire. However his name ceased to appear in monastic calendars after the turn of the century and local bishops began to suppress “superstitious” pilgrimages to sites associated with officially unaccredited miracles, including those of St Rumwold.
In 1280, there was an official order by the Bishop of Lincoln that all pilgrimage to St Rumwold’s shrine must cease, and so the popularity of his cult declined rapidly.
That is not to say St Rumwold disappeared into obscurity, never to be heard of again until the manuscript of his story was discovered. Locals continued to venerate St Rumwold for centuries: in the will of Richard Fowler, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, dated 1447, he directed that he be buried on “the isle of St Rumwold” and that a new shrine be made there for the saint in which a coffin containing the saint’s bones should be laid.
In 1522, the “Fraternity of St Rumwold” at Buckingham is recorded as owners of property in the area of Buckinghamshire, and it was recorded by a local bishop in the 16th century that St Rumwold was still invoked as a patron saint by the fishermen of Folkestone, on the coast of Kent. Rumwold’s name even curiously appeared in some liturgical materials from the late medieval period in Sweden.
St Rumwold’s Church, Bonnington, Kent (Jules & Jenny / CC BY 2.0)
The legacy of St Rumwold can still be found in Buckinghamshire today. One street in the town of Buckingham is named “St Rumwold’s Lane” and at least one well in each of the three locations where he was buried (King’s Sutton, Brackley, and Buckingham) also bears his name.
The continued devotion that locals have showed throughout the centuries to their miraculous infant saint is evidence of the indelible impact the tale of St Rumwold had on those who heard it, from the Middle Ages through to more modern times. Rumwold’s story has stood the test of time and survived critics who would dismiss it as superstitious fantasy or religious fiction. Today it serves as a reminder of a bygone era when the historical and the miraculous were one and the same.
Top image: St Rumwold was an infant saint. Source: Framestock / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
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