April 11th: St. Guthlac of the Fens (673-714)

'You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight...'

From ‘Litany’ by Billy Collins (b 1941)

Let’s go saint hunting in the Lincolnshire Fens. St Guthlac of the Fens was born about 673 AD. In his early youth he was a soldier in the army of King Aethelred of Mercia. However at the age of twenty four, Guthlac became a monk at Repton where his refusal to drink intoxicating drink caused much comment amongst the other monks and two years later he decided to become a hermit.

I wonder if soldiering in brutal Anglo Saxon England had given him an abhorrence of the deeds that men can do, and made him want to withdraw from the world? Anyway, Guthlac went to Crowland - then an island in the fens. Here he is arriving by boat.

The history of the fens fascinates me. They were literally the backwaters of England, teaming with life – eels and other fish and birds of every description. Think of those wildlife films you see of vast flocks of birds in Africa and you get an idea of what the fens were like before they were drained. The fen people lived off the waterland and the waterland was incredibly fruitful.

On a bend in the River Welland, St Guthlac built himself a small oratory and lived in a cell that he excavated from a prehistoric barrow. After his death in 714 a cult grew up around him; devotional poems were written about his life, and his biography ‘Vita Sancti Guthlaci’ was written by another monk – Felix.

Felix tells us that St Guthlac was tormented by British speaking demons. The visions that haunted him spoke the language of the indigenous people of Britain – not Anglo Saxon. I wonder if they were the voices of the Ancient Britons killed in battle by the Anglo Saxons and in fact Guthlac was suffering from post-traumatic stress?

Anyway poor Guthlac seems to have lived a miserable life in his barrow, eating only barley bread, drinking muddy water and wearing animal skins, his body weakened by ague and self mortification. He even shared his meagre rations with the crows and magpies because ‘man ought to set an example of patience to wild creatures’.

What Guthlac did do however, was give spiritual guidance to all who visited him. After he advised Aethelbald, the future King of Mercia, Aethelbald promised to found an Abbey when he became King and he did this two years after Guthlac’s death. Crowland Abbey met the fate of all religious houses in the sixteenth century, but its magnificent ruins survive.

Some Saints really do speak to you across the centuries and I’ve become quite fond of poor tormented Guthlac - his dark life seems so very different from St Maddern - who had a sweet little Cornish cell, a clear well and fields of herbs.

What can I cook for such an ascetic person?

Here from the two Sams of the wonderful ‘Moro’ is -

Barley Bread

140g/5oz pearl barley, 1.6 litres/3 pints water, 1 tsp fine sea salt, olive oil for grilling or frying

1. Combine the barley, water and salt in a medium to large saucepan (with a thick bottom) and bring to a good simmer. Stir from time to time with a spoon to stop it from sticking on the bottom, and cook for about one hour until the total volume has reduced by half. Take care at the end of cooking, as the mixture may bubble like hot lava and could burn you.

2. Use an electric hand-held blender or food processor to roughly purée half the barley, then cook for two more minutes.

3. Remove from the heat and spread out onto an oiled plate or baking dish so that the mixture is about 2-3cm/1-11⁄4in thick. Leave until completely cold, then cut into wedges.

4. Drizzle both sides with a little olive oil and grill on a hot griddle or barbecue until crisp and slightly charred on both sides. If frying, place a frying pan over a high heat and add a little olive oil. Cook crust-side down for 3-5 minutes until browned and crisp, then turn to cook the other side for just a minute or two to warm through.

NB You have to really like the earthy taste of barley and its gelatinous texture for these to be your cup of tea. I found they browned better dusted with a little flour and I preferred then cold to hot.

I hope St Guthlac had a little bit of cheese to eat with his barley bread.

‘We gaze on wrecks of ornamented stones,
On tombs whose sculptures half erased appear,
On rank weeds, battening over human bones,
Till even one’s very shadow seems to fear.’

From: ‘Crowland Abbey’ by John Clare (1793-1864)

PS. And to prove the inclination to be a hermit is still alive and well - http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/mar/27/neil-ansell-my-life-as-hermit


Liz said...

just testing...

2friends said...

the loveliest blog to go to again and again!you should write a book with all this!

Liz said...

Thank you - maybe one day...

Choclette said...

Just love the image of the ancient Fens you've conjured up. My mother is from the Fens and although it was her choice to move to Cornwall and she wouldn't go back, it's still in her blood.

Liz said...

Yep as you might have guessed I have fen ancestry too. I have ancestors who lived there before the drainage, Walloon ancestors who dug the ditches and ancestors who invested in the drainage systems - all very fascinating (to me!)

Mary Beth said...

Liz, I was looking for a Palm Sunday food post- but couldn't remember the reference for sure- thought it was for the Good Thief- and found your entry from last year, and thus, your BEAUTIFUL blog. Just absolutely lovely, from your banner illustration to your literary references and delicious recipes. THANK YOU for some grace and thoughtfulness in blogdom.

I am going to make that lovely fig tart for tomorrow, and send off the barley bread recipe to a friend who is off of wheat (but not gluten altogether.)

I look forward to keeping up with your posts.

Liz said...

Mary Beth - that is so kind of you - it means a lot to me this little blog. There will be another entry for Palm Sunday tomorrow - just finished photographing it and am about to eat it! ( Oh and I'm Mary Elizabeth too - not a lot of people know that...)