The Whitby life of Gregory the Great: exegesis and hagiography

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Butler, Brian
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University College Cork
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The eight-century Whitby Vita Gregorii is one of the earliest examples of Anglo-Saxon hagiography, and is the earliest surviving life of Gregory the Great (590-604). The work has proved itself an anomaly in subject matter, style and approach, not least because of the writer’s apparently arbitrary insertion of an account of the retrieval of the relics of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin (d.633). There has, however, been relatively little research on the document to date, the most recent concentrating on elements in the Gregorian material in the work. The present thesis adapts a methodology which identifies patristic exegetical themes and techniques in the Vita. That is not only in material originating from the pen of Gregory himself, which is freely quoted and cited by the writer, but also in the narrative episodes concerning the Pope. It also identifies related exegetical themes underlying the narrative of the Anglo-Saxon material in the document, and this suggests that the work is of much greater coherence then has previously been thought. In the course of the thesis some of the Vita Gregorii’s major patristic themes are compared with Bede and other insular writers in the presentation of topics that have been of considerable interest to insular historians in recent years. That is themes including: the conversion and salvation of the English people; the ideal pastor; monastic influence on formation of Episcopal spiritual authority; relations between king and bishop. The thesis also includes a re-evaluation of the possible historical context and purpose of the work, and demonstrates the value of a proper understanding of the Vita’s spiritual nature in order to achieve this. Finally the research is supported by a new structural analysis of the entire Vita Gregorii as an artefact formed within literary traditions.
Pope Gregory I , Anglo-Saxon hagiography
Butler, B. 2005. The Whitby life of Gregory the Great: exegesis and hagiography. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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