Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics

Jocelin of Furness was one of the most influential hagiographers of the Insular Middle Ages. He lived at the turn of the thirteenth century and was a monk of the Cistercian abbey of Furness (a site whose ruins lie in south Cumbria). Four substantial Lives composed by Jocelin survive, namely of St Patrick (patron saint of Ireland), St Kentigern (patron saint of Glasgow), St Waltheof (abbot of Melrose), and St Helena of Britain (mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great). Jocelin worked under the patronage of prominent British and Irish ecclesiastical and secular leaders. These included Jocelin, bishop of Glasgow; Patrick, abbot of Melrose; and John de Courcy, conqueror of Ulster.

Aims of the Project

The aims of the project were threefold:

  • to bring forth editions and translations of two texts (Jocelin’s Lives of Patrick and Helena);
  • to conduct research into the cultural context in which Jocelin was working;
  • and to further knowledge of Jocelin’s work among the general public.

The writings of Jocelin of Furness have not attracted a great deal of scholarship, although there has been a resurgence of interest in his work recently, as witnessed by Dr Helen Birkett’s book, The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010).

The study of Jocelin’s work has been hampered by the absence of satisfactory published editions of his writings, notably the Life of St Patrick. Jocelin’s Lives of Saints are, however, of great interest to scholars of medieval Britain and Ireland.

This AHRC funded project ran for two years from July 2010.


  • Fiona Edmonds, 'Saints' Cults and Gaelic-Scandinavian Influence around the Cumberland Coast and North of the Solway Firth', in Jón Viðar Sigurðsson and Timothy Bolton (eds.), Celtic-Norse Relationships in the Irish Sea in the Middle Ages 800-1200 (Leiden:Brill, 2014), pp. 39-63
  • Fiona Edmonds, 'Norse influence in north-west England: Jocelin of Furness's Interpretation of the Name "Waltheof"' The Journal of Scottish Name Studies, 9 (2015), 43-62
  • Clare Downham (ed.) Jocelin of Furness: Essays from the 2011 Conference (Donington, 2013) ISBN 978-1-907730-33-7.
  • Ingrid Sperber, Ludwig Bieler and Clare Downham (eds and trans) (forthcoming) The Life of St Patrick by Jocelin of Furness, PIMS: Toronto.
  • Translation of the Life of St Helena by Jocelin of Furness
  • The Latin text of the Life of St Patrick by Jocelin of Furness (edited by Ingrid Sperber and Ludwig Bieler) is available in online searchable edition at: Anthony Harvey and Angela Malthouse (eds), Royal Irish Academy Archive of Celtic-Latin literature (2nd development and expanded edition, ACLL-2) http://www.brepolis.net

Research team members

Dr Clare Downham
(Principal Investigator)

Dr Fiona Edmonds

Dr Ingrid Sperber
(Research Associate)

News and events

March 2014

Clare Downham delivered a talk on the Lives of St Patrick at Shenanigans Irish Bar, Liverpool, on the morning of St Patrick's day.

February 2014

The project is showcased in Research Horizons: Pioneering research from the University of Cambridge, issue 23, pp.12-13. The article results from an interview with Fiona Edmonds (Dept Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) on her important contribution to understanding the cultural context in which Jocelin worked.

December 2013

Publication of our conference proceedings: Jocelin of Furness. Essays from the 2011 Conference, edited by Clare Downham (Shaun Tyas: Donnington, 2013) ISBN 978-1-907730-33-7.

To learn more about the publication, please see this flyer: Jocelin of Furness: Essays from the 2011 Conference (pdf).

February 2013

New Gallery opens at the Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness which celebrates the region's medieval heritage and displays the Furness viking silver hoard discovered in 2011. See the Dock Museum website to read more about the findings.

24 September 2012

Fiona Edmonds delivered a talk about the project at Westholme School, Lancashire.

12 June 2012

'The Great British Story: Furness Journey' aired on BBC One. Clare Downham was consulted by producer Sally Williams about several aspects of the medieval history of Furness for the programme.

4 May 2012

Fiona Edmonds presented a paper at the University of Oslo, using material from her work on the project: 'Saints' cults, proprietary churches and monastic networks in the Irish Sea region'.

18 and 19 April 2012

New discoveries at Furness unveiled in the press. Read news articles at the links below:

Furness Abbey grave yields treasures of a prosperous medieval abbot
(The Guardian, 19 April 2012)

Spectacular ecclesiastical treasures discovered in ruins of a medieval abbey in Cumbria
(The Independent, 19 April 2012)

Extraordinary discovery of 12th century abbot's grave: 2012 technology could unmask his identity - and that of a ghost that roams the site
(MailOnline, 18 April 2012)

March 2012

Clare Downham presented talks related to the project to school pupils at Liverpool College and Manchester Grammar School.

Her article, 'Britain's Medieval Identity Crisis', was published in the March edition of the BBC History Magazine (pp 43-46).

19 December, 2011

Fiona Edmonds gave a talk related to the project at Winstanley College in Wigan.

4 to 6 November, 2011

Haskins Society
Conference at Boston College (Massachusetts, USA)
Panel VIThe Cistercians of Furness and Cross-Border Contacts 
Chaired by Frederick Suppe, Ball State University

  • Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and his Near Contemporaries
    Clare Downham, University of Liverpool
  • Plausible Fictions: Jocelin of Furness and the Book of British Bishops
    Helen Birkett, University of Exeter
  • Furness Abbey and Daughter Houses: Irish Sea Relations in the Twelfth Century
    Fiona Edmonds, Clare College, Cambridge University

13 September 2011

Dr Fiona Edmonds presented a talk focusing on the project to Cartmel Priory School, Cartmel.

8 July 2011

‌A one-day conference entitled ‘Medieval Furness: Texts and Contexts’, was held to complement the AHRC project. This took place at the Abbey House Hotel in Barrow-in–Furness.

More details of the day's schedule are at our Conference Programme for this event.

12 May 2011

Dr Ingrid Sperber presented a paper on 'The Life of St Patrick by Jocelin of Furness' at the Department of Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University, Sweden.

19 February 2011

A CNWRS and CWAAS Day Conference entitled ‘Medieval Cumbria: the documentary and physical record' was held to commemorate the life and work of John Todd, former president of CWAAS.

Speakers were Prof Sandy Grant, Dr Clare Downham, Prof Richard Sharpe, Dr Hugh Doherty, Deirdre O’Sullivan, Prof Christopher Knüsel and Rachel Newman.

See CWAAS website for details of their organisation and links to their newsletters.

22 December 2010

Fiona Edmonds details the project on the ASNC blog site.

16 September 2010

‌Publication of ‘The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics’ by Helen Birkett.

'The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics', by Helen Birkett. (Boydell and Brewer Publishers, Woodbridge, Suffolk).

This is the first full-length study of the Lives. It combines detailed analyses of the composition of the texts with study of their patronage, audiences, and contemporary contexts; and it provides new insights into Jocelin's works and the writing of hagiography in the period. Helen Birkett is a Mellon Fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto. Helen has kindly agreed to act as Project Adviser and spoke at our conference in July 2011.

May 2010

Professor Richard Sharpe (University of Oxford) very kindly donated the incomplete edition of Jocelin’s Life of St Patrick which was being worked on by the late Ludwig Bieler. This edition will be finished and translated by Ingrid Sperber as part of the AHRC project.

Bieler’s enormous contribution to the study of Irish hagiography and the Lives of Saint Patrick in particular is witnessed by his many publications.

See the Electronic Bibliography of Irish Linguistics and Literature 1942-71.

17 April 2010

Clare Downham gave a short presentation about the Jocelin project at the AGM of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS). 

Useful links

Host Institutions

Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (University of Cambridge)

Projects of Interest

Forum for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Ireland

The Norman Edge (University of Lancaster)

The People of Medieval Scotland (University of Glasgow)

Database of Dedications to Saints in Medieval Scotland, University of Edinburgh


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