Edmund of Abingdon’s Dream Job
It was the early 1200s, and a young university lecturer had fallen asleep after a hard day’s teaching. As he slept the young man, whose name was Edmund, had a dream in which his late mother appeared before him. She scrutinised the notes and drawings he had been working on and asked him: ‘Son, what are those shapes you’re studying so earnestly?’ Edmund – probably more than a little startled – explained that he was planning a lecture for his students, and these were diagrams he was using to illustrate geometric figures. His mother was not impressed. Seizing his hand, she traced her own diagram on his palm: three circles, within which she wrote the words ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit’. ‘Those are the figures you should be studying!’, she said, and vanished.
The young man understood this motherly advice to mean that it was time to change his career path. He was in his late twenties, and for several years he had been building a promising career as a lecturer in the liberal arts. He had studied in Paris in the 1190s, before coming to Oxford to teach among the new communities of students which were increasingly gathering there. Supposedly the first person to lecture on Aristotle at Oxford, he was much in demand as a teacher and lecturer.
Now the dream advice of his mother – or was it his own conscience? – persuaded Edmund that he had spent enough time on the liberal arts and he should progress to the higher study of theology. Perhaps not many academics would be grateful for such blunt parental feedback on their research plans, but Edmund’s mother Mabel had always been closely involved in her son’s education. The family came from a fairly humble mercantile background in Abingdon, near Oxford, and Mabel, a devout and determined widow, seems to have felt education was the way for her children to get on in the world. She supported her teenage sons when they were sent to study in Paris. While they were away she would send them parcels of clothes, and it was said that with this care package she would include a hair shirt, a little nudge towards habits of self-discipline.
His mother’s posthumous career advice turned out well for Edmund. He thrived as a scholar of theology and gained a reputation as a preacher and teacher outside the universities. Eventually he was appointed to a position at Salisbury Cathedral, and in 1233 was selected as Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death in November 1240, he immediately began to be talked of as a saint – St Edmund of Abingdon, as he became known. Letters and testimonials to support the cause of his canonisation were gathered from his former students and friends, and it is through these that we know personal details of his early career.
So what did it take for a medieval academic to become a saint? When describing Edmund’s life as a student and teacher these testimonials emphasise his charity, self-denial and humility. It was remembered that as a young man Edmund would give financial help to support poor scholars at university, even selling his own books to do so. He had so little concern for wealth, one friend testified, that when he was paid for his teaching he would throw the money on the windowsill and let it be carried away by anyone who happened to be passing.
You might not think academic life would offer much scope for working saintly miracles, but Edmund apparently found opportunities. Through prayer he healed one of his scholars from a serious illness, and he wrestled with a devil who attacked him while he was making lecture notes for his students. Perhaps most useful of all, he had the power to miraculously keep rainclouds away when he was preaching outdoors.
Spiritual revelations were important evidence for sanctity too, of course, including the vision of his mother, whose influence over his career Edmund clearly remembered with gratitude. The stories about him suggest a medieval ideal of scholarly holiness, not remote from the everyday work of teaching and learning in a busy university, but woven into its every detail. It might not be the kind of thing that would score highly in a modern research assessment or tenure review; the goals of an academic career have changed a little in the past 800 years. But it would not be a bad aspiration for any teacher to wish to be remembered by their students as warmly as St Edmund seems to have been.
Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and the author of Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England (Bloomsbury, 2022).
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