St Margaret’s word-centred miracle

Opening of the Gospel of Luke, St Margaret’s Gospel Book

Turgot of St Andrew’s, in his Life of Saint Margaret, expresses little interest in miracles. He writes:

I leave it to others to admire the tokens of miracles which they see elsewhere, I admire much more the works of mercy which I perceived in Margaret; for signs are common to the good and the bad, whereas works of piety and true charity belong to the good only. The former sometimes are the proof of holiness, the latter are that which constitutes it. (III.32, pp. 65-6, trans. Forbes-Leith)

This is not really the attitude we associate with the Middle Ages. We imagine the mediaeval man or woman being enthusiastic and obsessed with miracles, telling and retelling these wondrous tales, even making them up as in the case of Pope St Sylvester healing Constantine’s leprosy. We also imagine that the mediaeval mindset saw the miraculous as the primary evidence for sanctity.

But for Turgot, it is Queen Margaret’s … well … sanctity that is the primary evidence. I’m not sure which approach is truly the more common in the Middle Ages, the caricature or Turgot’s. But it’s important to have our stereotypes about historical epochs challenged. Each person who lived through the Middle Ages was an individual with his or her own beliefs and emphases. Just like you.

Turgot does, however, go on to tell one miracle story. St Margaret had a favourite Gospel Book, today in the Bodleian Library — and available online in this public domain facsimile from the 1800s! Once, one of St Margaret’s servants dropped the Gospel Book in a river unawares while he was crossing. When it was discovered missing, it was sought high and low, until found on the riverbed. Turgot writes:

Its leaves had been kept in constant motion by the action of the water, and the little coverings of silk which protected the letters of gold from becoming injured by contact with the opposite page, were carried off by the force of the current. Who would fancy that the book could afterwards be of any value? Who would believe that even a single letter would have been visible? Yet of a truth, it was taken up out of the middle of the river so perfect, so uninjured, so free from damage, that it did not seem to have even been touched by the water. The whiteness of the leaves and the form of the letters throughout the volume remained exactly as they had been before it had fallen into the river, except that in part of the end leaves the least possible mark of damp might be detected. The book was conveyed to the queen, and the miracle was at the same time related to her; and she, having thanked Christ, valued it much more highly than she had done before. Whatever others may think, I for my part believe that this wonder was worked by our Lord out of His love for the venerable queen. (III.33, pp. 67-8, trans. Forbes-Leith)

I like this miracle because it also challenges our ideas of mediaeval piety. Quite often we approach the piety of the Middle Ages through a lens that they were all relic-obsessed Mariolaters who barely gave Christ a thought and read saints’ lives instead of Scripture. Some likely were. I’ve a feeling most were not.

This miracle, along with the bulk of what Turgot says about St Margaret of Scotland, serves to remind us of the word-centred nature of Queen Margaret’s holiness. Her sanctity was founded upon the reading and reading of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. At the heart of her prayers was the Psalter — not only when she recited it in toto but also because it is the heart of the daily office which she prayed.

I think this miracle of St Margaret’s Gospel Book is as much, if not more, about the holiness of the Scriptures as about the holiness of Queen Margaret. And that’s what good hagiography (the writing of saints’ lives) should do — point us from the saint to Christ, the Trinity, and the Scriptures.

Saint of the Week: Queen Margaret of Scotland

St Margaret in her Chapel, Edinburgh

Tomorrow, 16 November, is the feast of Queen St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). St Margaret is kind of a big deal around here. Edinburgh’s oldest building is a wee, 12th-century chapel dedicated to her up at Edinburgh Castle (when Thomas Randolph demolished the Castle in 1314, he left the chapel intact out of respect). Just to the West of the city is South Queensferry (named after Queen Margaret) — this takes you to North Queensferry in Fife. Edinburgh also has a Queen Margaret University. The Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics all have churches named for her. Dunfermline has the foundations of her old mediaeval shrine.

My first contact with Queen Margaret was her chapel up at the Castle — a lovely bit of Romanesque. I then encountered her at the Christian Heritage centre at the church I attend — she is remembered there for her piety and acts of charity towards the poor of Edinburgh. Indeed, her biographer, Bishop Turgot of St Andrew’s, was a big fan Queen Margaret’s acts of mercy.

Queen St Margaret is also one of the last Aethelings! This alone makes her pretty cool. She is a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great and granddaughter to Edmund Ironside. When the Danes made good their bid for the English throne, the Aethelings took refuge on the Continent. Margaret was born in Hungary. In 1057, however, Margaret was back on English soil. And when the Normans made good their bid for the English throne in 1066 (recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the French being God’s punishment on the English for their sins), Margaret’s young brother Edgar was, in fact, a source of resistance against the William the Bastard (to no avail, obviously).

Edinburgh Castle
My photo of her chapel

Margaret wisely fled the Normans who weren’t overfond of English nobility, and the Aetheling ship landed in Fife on the Firth of Forth at St Margaret’s Hope (not its name at the time!), where they were met by King Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play). In 1070, Margaret and Malcolm were wed.

According to Turgot, Margaret wasn’t all that fussed about getting hitched and procreating and all that sort of thing. Nonetheless, she did her duty as a wife, but tried her best to spend more of her time praying and reading the Bible than being tied down by the worldly cares of her man. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t Turgot feeling awkward at the obvious sanctity of a non-virgin mother of several children who seemed to have a happy marriage — few mediaeval saints are married, after all, and virginity/celibacy was regarded as a higher way of life by many Christians since Late Antiquity. On the other hand, maybe these thoughts had infiltrated Margaret as well as Turgot, so she felt compelled to express her feminine piety in non-marriage-related ways, extolling the virtues of virginity? Who knows.

Anyway, Malcolm and Margaret seem to have ruled well together. Margaret did not convert the court into a semi-monastic world as some pious mediaeval monarchs seem to have attempted. Neither did she indulge in the sort of lavish lifestyle many a mediaeval aristocrat would have enjoyed. Since she believed in duty and decorum, for example, she made sure that the people at court were well decked out.

As mentioned above, Queen St Margaret is famous for her acts of mercy. She would wash the feet and feed the poor herself. She gave alms regularly and encourage Malcolm Canmore to do likewise. She established the ferry at Queensferry for the many pilgrims headed for St Andrews.

St Luke from Margaret’s Gospel Book

Her piety is also known from her love of books and of the Scriptures. She spent many hours reading, and we still have her own Gospel Book, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library. It is a fine specimen of eleventh-century English/Insular manuscript production.

When St Margaret was not engaged in acts of mercy or reading the Scriptures, she could often be found at prayer. In Lent she had a particularly rigorous personal round of prayers every morning. According to Turgot, she recited the entirety of the Psalter. Twice.

Really, this love of Scripture and Psalm-singing makes her sound quite Presbyterian. 😉

St Margaret’s personal piety also involved the visiting of hermits and other holy men throughout Scotland, whose wisdom and way of life she greatly admired. She sought the counsel of Turgot, both when he was in Dunfermline, and later as Bishop of St Andrew’s. She fasted and ate and drank with moderation, although this seems to have adversely affected her health.

As a monarch, Queen Margaret’s pious activity had much influence on the church of her day. She and Malcolm founded the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline where they had been married, now Dunfermline Abbey, with a palace nearby. She requested that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury and her spiritual father, to send up Benedictines. Dunfermline Abbey thus became Scotland’s first Benedictine Abbey. The present building dates to David I (of course) and is a fine Romanesque structure:

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Margaret also requested that Lanfranc send up some clerics from England who were well versed in the canons and ways of the Roman faith. Thus was hosted a synod where the Scottish church was regularised to be in greater conformity to existent Roman practice, such as starting Lent on Ash Wednesday instead of Clean Monday (because Sundays do not count to the forty days in western canonical practice, so four extra days are to be hunted down), receiving Holy Communion on Easter, and not working on Sundays.

There was also at this synod a move to regularise the celebration of the Eucharist in some parts of Scotland that was at the time being performed ‘according to some sort of strange rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church.’ (Turgot, Life of St Margaret II.20) What this entails, we do not know. My little booklet from St Margaret’s chapel claims the use of Gaelic, but Turgot does not say that. It is some sort of rite, not the language thereof. In the notes to his translation, William Forbes-Leith says that this was probably the rite of the Cele De (those who have devoted themselves to the service of God), who seem to be a particular variety of secular canon that was established in the Scottish church in the ninth century, and the name sometimes refers to unmarried laymen who lived together in community. Their rite both before and after St Margaret differed from the general practice of the rest of the Scotland. Presumably it is something was developed for themselves by themselves much like the offices of the different religious orders in later centuries.

What I’m digging at, then, is not that there was some widespread, homegrown, anti-Rome ‘Celtic’ liturgy being practised everywhere before St Margaret and that it was in Gaelic. What I think is going is rather that certain groups in certain parts of Scotland had developed their own, homegrown, personal liturgies that had nothing to do with our romanticised conceptualisations of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Roman’ Christianity.

Moving on.

In all, St Margaret led a holy lifestyle in the midst of her worldly care. I have no doubt that it was probably easier for the nobility to spend so many hours in prayer than for the labouring class. Nonetheless, the evidence for what goes on throughout the mediaeval world is that few nobility seem to have used their freedom to be religiously disciplined. They used it instead for licence. Indeed, so do most of us when given our own time, forgetting the words of St Paul that we were bought at a price and our life is not our own. How many of us, given an extra half hour, pray or read the Scriptures instead of catching a show on Netflix?

This alone makes Queen Margaret, the pearl of Scotland, a cut above the rest.

And her acts of mercy are the evidence that such prayer and Scripture reading actually had an effect.

Queen Margaret died in 1093 and was buried with her husband in Dunfermline Abbey. You can still see the foundations of her shrine there today. Her head, which was placed in its own reliquary in the Middle Ages, was squirrelled away to France during the Reformation by pious Catholics. Her body and that of Malcolm reside in the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain — where I spent a week, unknowing of their royal presences! An opportunity lost.

Anyway, don’t take my word for this! Read Turgot yourself!