Stephen of Ripon

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Page from an 11th-century manuscript of the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi describing the foundation of Hexham Abbey

Stephen of Ripon is the author of the eighth-century Vita Sancti Wilfrithi ("Life of Saint Wilfrid"). Another name that has been traditionally attributed to him is Eddius Stephanus or Æddi Stephanus, but since his identification with the bearer of this name is no longer accepted by historians today, modern usage tends to favour Stephen.

Life[edit]

Very little is known about his life. The author of the Vita Sancti Wilfrithi identifies himself as “Stephen, a priest”. Bede mentions that Wilfrid brought a singing master from Kent, Ædde Stephanus, to Ripon in 669 to teach chant, and he has traditionally been thought to be the same person as the “Stephen” mentioned. However, there is no more solid evidence that the two names describe the same person.[1] If the two were in fact the same, Stephen would have been at least twenty years old when he came north, placing him in his sixties or older at Wilfrid’s death in 709.

Regardless of whether or not Stephen the priest was Wilfrid’s singing master from Kent, he appears to have been a follower of Wilfrid and was able to consult individuals who had known Wilfrid closely as sources for the Life of Wilfrid. He wrote for the monks in Ripon, many of whom had known Wilfrid.[2]

Writings[edit]

Life of Saint Wilfrid[edit]

Manuscripts:[3]
1.London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian D. vi. Provenance: probably transferred from Yorkshire before it was held in Canterbury and then acquired by the British Library.
fos. 2-77: 9th century, with 11th-century additions;
fos. 78-125: 11th century, with 12th-century additions on final page.
2. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Fell vol. III 34a-56b, originally vol. I. Written in late 11th or early 12th century.

Stephen’s Life of Saint Wilfrid is our only source on Saint Wilfrid aside from Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. It was written shortly after Wilfrid's death in 709. Stephen was asked to write the Life by Acca, one of Wilfrid’s followers, who later became a bishop and succeeded Wilfrid in the See of Hexham. Although Stephen knew Wilfrid personally and had access to others who had known him, he recounts several extraordinary events and makes use of source materials in places. He even copies two lines directly from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, among other borrowings.[4] However, unlike many early medieval hagiographies which consisted of strings of miracles attributed to saints, Stephen’s Life takes the form of a chronological narrative and includes specific names and events.

It is unknown exactly what Stephen hoped to accomplish in writing the Life of Saint Wilfrid. Scholars have come up with several theories. It has been argued that Stephen’s use of lines from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was a way of outdoing the cult based around Cuthbert and replacing him with Wilfrid. However, Stephen’s borrowings only make up a tiny percentage of the whole and are entirely located in the early part of the work, making this theory appear unlikely.[5]

The work is highly biased in favour of Wilfrid and includes explicit comparisons of Wilfrid to Old Testament figures and the Apostle Paul.[6] Early on, Stephen explains that the community urged him to write the Life. Stephen’s goal in writing could simply have been to describe the community’s feelings on the holiness and goodness of the life of Wilfrid, whom they had known personally.[7]

Significance[edit]

Stephen’s Life of Saint Wilfrid was one of the first Anglo-Saxon histories, and the earliest to survive. Bede evidently used it as a source for sections of his Historia Ecclesiastica, although he did not acknowledge it.[8]

The Life of Saint Wilfrid is also significant in that it provides a contemporary perspective on events that transpired during Wilfrid’s lifetime. For instance, the Life gives an account of the Synod of Whitby that differs from Bede’s. While Stephen's writing has come under more criticism than Bede’s, the account found in the Life of Wilfrid reveals political factors that may have affected the Synod alongside the religious controversies described by Bede.[9]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Kirby, p. 102.
  2. ^ Abels, p. 13.
  3. ^ Colgrave, Life of St Wilfrid. pp. xiii-xiv.
  4. ^ Heffernan, p. 138.
  5. ^ Laynesmith, p. 164.
  6. ^ Laynesmith, p. 175.
  7. ^ Foley, p. 99.
  8. ^ Kirby, p. 3.
  9. ^ Abels, p. 2.

Bibliography[edit]

Text
  • Colgrave, Bertram, ed. & trans. (1927) The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927, 1985.
Works of criticism
  • Abels, Richard (1983) “The Council of Whitby: a study in early Anglo-Saxon politics”, in: The Journal of British Studies; 23.1 (1983), pp. 1–25.
  • Foley, William Trent (1992) Images of Sanctity in Eddius Stephanus’ “Life of Bishop Wilfred”, an early English saint’s life. Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press.
  • Heffernan, Thomas J. (1992) Sacred Biography: saints and their biographers in the Middle Ages. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kirby, D. P. (1983) “Bede, Eddius Stephanus and the ‘Life of Wilfrid’”, in: The English Historical Review; 98.386 (1983), pp. 101-14.
  • Kirby, D. P. (1965) “Problems of Early West Saxon History”, in: The English Historical Review 80.314 (1965), pp. 10–29.
  • Laynesmith, Mark D. (2000) “Stephen of Ripon and the Bible: allegorical and typological interpretations of the Life of St Wilfrid”, in: Early Medieval Europe 9.2 (2000), pp. 163–82.
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links[edit]

Works by or about Stephen of Ripon in libraries (WorldCat catalog)