Civilising the Scots

02 November 2006

PROBABLY born in Hungary, Margaret was an English princess. She became the second wife of Malcolm III of Scotland, nicknamed Canmore or “Big-head”. Rough and illiterate, he constituted quite a contrast to his devout and gentle queen.

Even so, readers may be tempted to cast Margaret into a best-forgotten age, when I reveal that her most treasured possession was a supposed splinter from the cross. This was encased in a jewelled cross, and subsequently held before the face of each Scottish king as he died, until it was captured in 1346. It was venerated, along with an alleged tooth of Margaret, in Durham Cathedral.

Medieval superstition at its worst, you may say. Why single out something so trivial as a tooth, or venerate something as implausible as a “true relic” of Christ’s cross? But, if we contrast our own sophistication with the naïve incredulity of the Middle Ages, we congratulate ourselves too quickly. For there is something important to learn from even those apparently trivial relics of tooth and splinter.

The traditional view is that Margaret’s achievement was considerable: by the time she died in 1093, she had both civilised the Scots and at last brought them fully within the orbit of the Catholic Church. Summoning Benedictine monks from Canterbury, she established a splendid new monastery at Dunfermline, and refounded Iona. Monastic reform and firm episcopal government became the order of the day.

Many modern historians, however, now want to tell a different tale. The reliability of a contemporary biography, by Turgot, a former prior, is being doubted. Not that Queen Margaret’s saintliness is thereby destroyed, but, rather, the extent of her achievement is called into question.

The prevailing view is now that Turgot deliberately exaggerated, in order to please the person who commissioned the biography, Margaret’s daughter Edith (or Maud, as she became known when she married Henry I of England). It was Margaret’s son, King David I, who was really responsible for the religious transformation of Scotland. Margaret’s two children almost certainly achieved far more than their mother.

But are we right to leave matters there? Nowadays, we love to see ourselves as our own creation, shaped entirely by our choices. But is this not pure fantasy? Consider an instance from my life. Picture a little boy, another David (that’s me), saying goodbye to an elderly lady called Winifred, who is leaving her northern home. Politely, I remark that I look forward to seeing her again one day when I visit London.

Her response draws me up with a start: “David, I shall be dead before then, but you will see me again.”

She tore down for me the curtain between heaven and earth.

The point I am trying to convey is that, for better or worse, we are all dependent on one another. We only partly shape ourselves; the rest comes from others, in ways that our benefactors often little appreciate themselves.

That is an intuition that I would suggest the other David, the king, and his sister, Maud, fully realised. They brought about larger transformations in their own time, but it was their mother Margaret who was entitled to the ultimate credit for making them who they were.

So to the tooth and splinter that once adorned Durham Cathedral. Of course, there were bad motives in desiring to possess such relics, but there were also good. They spoke of the acknowledgement that we are not just individuals; that an association with Margaret, however minimal, could make the people of Durham a better, more Christian community. Like Winifred, their acts spoke of the curtain of heaven pulled back, as they sought Margaret’s prayers and influence on their lives.

The historical distance serves only to intensify our sense of the contrasting individuality between Margaret and ourselves. What, then, has become of our belief in the body of Christ, with us seen as all only living in and through one another, because we all live in him? It is as families, as friends, and as communities that we create one another. Give me the tooth and splinter any day.

This is an edited extract from Through the Eyes of the Saints by David Brown (Continuum, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 0-8264-7640-6).

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