In the summer of 2017 I was visiting my family in the northeast of the UK as I prepared to begin my Ph.D. in the United States. I had been out of academia for a few years and was eager to get back to working on my passion – the literature of early medieval England. As luck would have it, in that same year Durham Cathedral had launched a new exhibition of the relics of the Anglo-Saxon hermit and bishop, St Cuthbert. After some convincing, my parents and I went up to Durham for the day and my father and I came face-to-face with the incredible trove.

Cuthbert lived in the 7th century and, despite the vast chasm of time between him and us, we know a surprising amount about him. Thanks to the work of the Venerable Bede and his ‘Life of St Cuthbert,’ his piety and asceticism are well-documented. He lived through the Synod of Whitby in 664, a turning point in Christian history in Britain. He spent many of his years at the monastery of Lindisfarne, and in 676 he moved to isolated Farne Island to live out the rest of his days in religious contemplation as a simple hermit.

Thirteen centuries had elapsed between his death and my visit to Durham Cathedral. His life and works are still remembered. They factor heavily in my research. Yet despite his renown, the collection of ‘relics’ is meagre. Only a handful of items (most famously his coffin, his cruciform pendant, and his comb) survive to us. Standing in that undercroft, I was reminded how little of the past survives to us. Cuthbert was one of the lucky ones who was able to pass something of himself down to us. How many thousands of people, how many millions of artefacts, have been lost to time? In so many ways, the history of early Britain is a patchwork of fragmentary texts, muddy foundations, and shattered objects. As a researcher, I have to be diligent and avoid the traps of generalising the period and its inhabitants. But we are still discovering things every year, and we are still adding to that patchwork of history.

– Will Beattie (Ph.D. Student)