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Windows onto the Past II

(continued from previous post)

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Images used with the kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral

In treating the early history of Bethlem Hospital, Edward O’Donoghue does not shrink from retrospective diagnosis of those who were brought to the shrine of Thomas á Becket for healing in the twelfth century. “Matilda of Cologne”, he wrote in 1914, “would find her place in a refractory ward today”.

“Her language was foul, she tore her clothes to pieces, and struck at everyone who tried to remove her. She also was tightly trussed, and thus bound she raved on for four or five hours [in the vicinity of Becket’s tomb], but by degrees she came to herself, when she said that she had seen in a dream the ‘martyr [Thomas] clothed in pontifical vestments with the blood streak across his face’.” 1

This is a fair summary of the contemporary account of the miracle given by Benedict of Peterborough, but it omits the explanation given by Benedict of Matilda’s mental turmoil, which is twofold. At one level, the cause of her troubles was simply stated to be a “devil” who “left behind foul traces” at the time it was “driven out”. Yet Benedict intimates that there is more to Matilda’s case – or another way of looking at her case – than a solely supernatural perspective might offer. “When we asked her how she came to be insane, she said that her brother had killed a young man who loved her dearly, and that in a fit of madness she had struck with her fist her baby son [fathered by the murdered man, perhaps?]…and removed him from this world.” 2

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This agonising story has a psychological depth that transcends the centuries. Matilda, we are told, left Canterbury “healed and joyful, concerned…about nothing but gaining forgiveness for her crime”. Both her torment and her recovery are vividly represented in the Cathedral windows (with rather less psychological realism, we venture to say) by the state of her hair. Interestingly, they were also the subject of a dramatic re-enactment staged in Canterbury Cathedral in 2009 by postgraduate students at the University of Kent.

Those interested in finding out more about medieval miracle accounts such as those of Benedict of Peterborough may consult Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia, 2010) by Rachel Koopmans of Toronto's York University.

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