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Things to be learned from a town’s name

As a child, I was fascinated by maps. In fact, the book that inspired me to learn to read was an enormous old atlas that belonged to my grandfather. Even so, reading was a bitter sweet experience for it led to the discovery that, far from being the largest country in the world, England was one of the smallest. Things like that seemed to matter at the age of five.

This disappointment, however, did not diminish my enthusiasm for maps—an interest that continues to this day. Indeed, I’m happy to report that St. Stephen’s owns a map of Great Britain so detailed it includes not only the obscure village in which I was born—Danbury in the country of Essex—but the equally obscure villages in which I grew up.

One of the more interesting things about English two and village names is that they often describe the reason why they were founded. Danbury, for example, is the site of a mass grave of vikings—Danish pirates—slaughtered by Saxons they were attempting to pillage.

Similarly, Bury St Edmonds, a town not so far away in the county of Suffolk, is the site of the tomb of the martyred Anglo-Saxon King Edmond. Its ancient English name, by the way, is Edmondsbury.

Towns with the Anglo-Saxon word “wick” in their names were originally the location of sheep pens or wicks. Names ending in “ton”, “den” or “don” denote a settlement. Canewden, Essex, was supposedly founded by King Canute, while the name Huntington speaks for itself, as does the name Wickford.

The Old Norse word “by” means town. As it happens, one of the greatest saints of the English Church St Hilda, hails from a town in Yorkshire in the north of England called Whitby or “White Town.”

Actually in Hilda’s day the town was known by the Anglo-Saxon name Streonshalh, but in 867 the town and its great abbey were destroyed in a Viking raid. Later in 1078 the town and abbey were rebuilt and renamed Whitby. Be that as it may, Hilda, born in the year 614, was not just the most influential church woman of her day, she was unquestionably the most influential Church leader in the British Isles.

She was the grandniece of King Edwin of Northumbria—one of many small English kingdoms established by invaders from Scandinavia and Northern Germany. Hilda’s people were “Angles” from the Jutland peninsula in Denmark

While she was still an infant, her father, Hereric, was murdered and Hilda was raised in her royal uncle’s household. On Easter Day in the year 627, at the age of the 13, she was baptized, along with King Edwin and his whole court, in a modest wooden church built on the site of the renowned York Minster.

Ten years later she made her profession as a nun. Instead of joining her widowed sister in an abbey in Gaul, she remained in Northumbria under the tutelage of the great Celtic bishop and saint, Aidan of Lindisfarne.

Under his direction, she established several monasteries, the most important of which was the great Abbey of Streonshalh, an institution she founded in 657.

Whitby, as we know it today, was a double house—the ecclesiastical term for a community that included both men and women. Archaeological excavations indicate it consisted of a dormitory for unmarried men and another for unmarried women, separated by a chapel and small cottages housing married religious.

Hilda (whose name was simply Hild in Anglo-Saxon English) presided over the entire community and under her leadership the Abbey of Whitby became a major center of learning—alma mater to five bishops, as well as Caedmon, arguably the greatest poet in the Anglo- Saxon language.

In his History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede records that the original ideals of monasticism were strictly maintained in Hilda’s abbey. All property and goods were held in common; Christian virtues were exercised, especially peace and charity.

Everyone had to study the Bible and do good works. Bede describes Hilda as a woman of great energy, who was a skilled administrator and teacher. “All who knew her called her mother because of her outstanding

devotion and grace” he writes.

According to Bede, Hilda gained such a reputation for wisdom that kings and princes sought her advice. But she was also deeply concerned about the welfare of the ordinary people in her charge—people such as Cædmon, a monk, who started life as a cow herd at the monastery.

According to legend, Caedmon was so embarrassed at being tongue-tied, he spent his evenings in the cowshed rather than remain in the refectory where the community customarily listened to Gospel stories and sacred poetry.

However, one evening, after drifting off to sleep, Caedmon experienced a life-changing vision of Jesus in which our Lord asked him to compose a poem. That poem was a masterpiece that became famous as the Song of Caedmon.

Hilda recognized his gift and encouraged him to develop it, inspiring the former cow herd compose a large corpus of religious poems in the Anglo-Saxon tongue—most of them metrical paraphrases of narratives from Genesis and the Gospels.

In 664, King Oswy of Northumbria chose Hilda’s monastery as the venue for the Synod of Whitby, the first synod of the Church in his kingdom. He invited churchmen from as far away as Wessex to attend the synod.

The king’s intention was to reconcile Celtic and Roman ecclesiastical practice in order to standardize worship throughout his realm. Most of those present, including Hilda, accepted the king’s decision to adopt the method of calculating Easter used in Rome, as well as the Roman style of eucharistic vestments and the tonsure as the monastic haircut is known.

The monks from Lindisfarne would not accept this and withdrew to Iona and later, to Ireland. Ironically. how- ever, it turns out that their method of calculating of Easter was more accurate that the Roman one.

Hilda herself greatly preferred the Celtic customs in which she had been reared, but once the decision had been made, she used her moderating influence in favor of its peaceful acceptance. GPH✠

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