Constantinople, Jerusalem and Canterbury: Joseph the monk and the Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest is most often considered primarily in an English context, obviously enough given its immediate circumstances. Historians are increasingly minded to give 1066 a wider British context too, in the light of its immense consequences for Wales and Scotland over the decades that followed. But we shouldn’t forget that the Conquest also had a broader “international” impact. One of its most intriguing consequences was the establishment of a group of Englishmen in exile at the court of the Emperor of Byzantium in Constantinople, a group often known as the “Varangian guard”.

This blog is about one of the most important pieces of early evidence for that group. It’s a short text about the adventures of a Canterbury monk called Joseph, a text to my knowledge never translated into English before (my provisional translation is provided below). It records how, on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Joseph took a detour to visit Constantinople – modern Istanbul –  because of the quantity of holy relics stored there. By chance, he met some other English men, “in the emperor’s household”, some of whom he knew already. These men arranged for Joseph to obtain access to the imperial chapel, and one of them acted as an interpreter. Joseph used this interpreter to try to bribe the Greek guard, in the hope of acquiring relics of Saint Andrew for the newly reformed monastic community back in Kent at Rochester.

There the text unfortunately breaks off in its sole surviving manuscript (now stored in the Vatican)[1]: but it’s already given us lots to think about. We learn that the English were a community in Constantinople around 1090; we learn that they were the kind of people who might be acquainted with a wealthy Canterbury monk; we learn that at least one of them had learned Greek; we learn that they were integrated into the imperial court, with Byzantine friends there. For these men, presumably remnants of the pre-conquest English aristocracy, 1066 had been nothing short of a catastrophe; but they had managed successfully to reinvent themselves in a very different world, thousands of miles away.

In many ways, however, Joseph is the more interesting figure. For ultimately Joseph outdid his English friends when it came to cultural flexibility.  Like them, he was a seasoned and intrepid traveller, familiar with the Near East. Like them, he was English – and it is noteworthy how important that identity was to the text. When Joseph recognised his compatriots, he spoke to them “joyfully”. They in turn welcomed his visit, and helped him in his efforts to secure relics: they evidently considered him ‘one of them’. Yet documentary sources suggest that Joseph would later become close to Anselm, the Italo-Norman archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109).

True, Joseph was determined to bring relics home to his English homeland, the patria he shared  with the Constantinopolitan exiles. But what specifically motivated him to obtain the relics was the recent reform of the cathedral community at Rochester, transformed from canonical to monastic: a change in line with an English tradition to be sure, but one pushed through nevertheless by the new Norman bishop there, Gundulf.

So, Joseph’s life had undoubtedly been affected by the Norman Conquest, but ultimately not nearly as much as those of his secular friends. He had managed to come to terms with the new order, and even to thrive under it: remaining English, but adapting smoothly to Norman rule, secure in the continuity of an enduring Christian order.

However, just a few years after Joseph’s return to Kent, another army, once again with a sizeable Norman contingent, would make another conquest. For in 1099, the original object of Joseph’s pilgrimage, the holiest city in his cosmology, the site of the central miracle of Joseph’s religion, astonishingly – providentially – fell to besiegers from the Latin west: Jerusalem. That conquest, we may suspect,  turned Joseph’s world view upside down far more than had the events of 1066.

Joseph of Canterbury’s visit to Constantinople: translation by Charles West [2]

“At the time when King William the Younger was in charge of the English people and the church of Christ at Canterbury was bereaved by the death of Archbishop Lanfranc [1089], there was a certain monk called Joseph from that church who went to Jerusalem for the sake of prayer. When he had fulfilled his wish and was returning directly with a large number of companions, he left the direct route and went with only a few of his own servants to Constantinople. For he heard that there was an incomparable treasury of relics there, to whose patronage he wished to commend himself in person.

When therefore he arrived there with God’s guidance, and asked where the treasury was stored, he found certain men from his own homeland (patria) and his own friends, who were part of the emperor’s household. When he suddenly recognised them and joyfully spoke with them, he learned that these relics were in the imperial chapel, and that it was difficult for anyone to gain entry there. For the emperor, wishing carefully to guard these incomparable jewels, had installed many guards, including one in particular who was in charge of the others in guarding them. But since the friends of the already mentioned monk were known to the guard and were his friends, it was arranged that by their intervention the guard would introduce the monk into the chapel, and show him the greater part of these relics.

When the guard had displayed various relics to him, and the monk had humbly venerated each one, it happened that the guard pointed out certain bones of Saint Andrew the Apostle to him, among the other relics. When the guard said that these relics were of that apostle and confirmed it, the monk venerated his relics with even more devotion, because he had always loved this apostle in particular. As soon as he saw them, he very devoutly prostrated himself on the ground, and amongst other things prayed for this, “May it be pleasing to Almighty God that I shall hold these relics in the place I want to keep them”. The guard heard this but because he was Greek, did not understand it at all, and he asked one of the monk’s friends, who was their interpreter, what it was that the monk had said.

The interpreter however, since he did not dare to reveal this kind of wish to the guard, first asked the monk whether he wanted him to tell the guard, and when he had received permission to tell him, then finally he laid bare to the guard that the monk had wished for these things. Hearing this, the guard said to the monk through the same interpreter “What price would you pay to the person who carried out the desire you have indicated?”. He replied “Little money remains to me for my journey, and there is still a long journey for me to travel. But if someone carried out the wish I hope for, I should give him as much of my money as I can manage to spare.  And I would take those relics to a place where the very greatest reverence would be shown to them. For there is in my homeland a certain episcopal see [Rochester], in which there is founded a church in honour of St Andrew the Apostle, where a group of monks, recently gathered together, very devoutly serves God. If God deigns to fulfil my wish, I wish to take some of these relics of the Apostle to that church.”

Then the guard replied “Go, and return to your lodgings, and then send this our interpreter and your friend back to me, and indicate your wish to me through him. For it is not convenient for us that you should return, lest anyone notice about this matter…” [text breaks off]


[1] Vatican Lat. 4951 (s. XII), f. 220, now available online here

[2] Based on the edition by C.H. Haskins, ‘A Canterbury Monk at Constantinople, c. 1090’, English Historical Review 25 (1910), pp. 294-5. See also S. Kuttner, ‘Reliquie di sant’Andrea: un testo poco conosciuto’, Rivista di Storia della Chiesa in Italia 36 (1982), pp. 105-110.

A version of this blog was first posted at http://marcus.group.shef.ac.uk/constantinople-jerusalem-and-canterbury-joseph-the-monk-and-the-norman-conquest/

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