The fascinating tale of Dunstan — the Abbot of Glastonbury
by Mary Anne Yarde
|Saint Dunstan ~ Wikipedia|
I have always been fascinated with folklore, and today I want to tell you about a 10th Century Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey.
Dunstan had a notable career. He was not only the Abbot of Glastonbury but also the Bishop of Worcester, the Bishop of London, and if that was not enough, The Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a famed worker of metal. He was also an illuminator and a great musician. There is also a rumour that he dabbled in unlawful arts when he was a young man. But most notable, Dunstan restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church.
But what does Dunstan have to do with folklore?
Well, this is where it gets interesting.
I think it is time for a story...
Dunstan was a man of God. Wherever he went, and whatever he did, God never strayed far from him. They were inseparable. He was the holiest of holy men.
Dunstan could often be found working in the smithy, for he was a skilled craftsman. One day, a woman of great beauty came into his workshop. She smiled becomingly at him and asked if he would forge her a toasting fork.
Dunstan agreed. But instead of leaving him to his work, the young woman watched as Dunstan worked the metal, moulding it and shaping it. Unable to resist, the young woman began to tease Dunstan. But Dunstan was not one to be manipulated by a beautiful face even if her eyes did sparkle with the promise of seduction. He continued with his work, trying his best to ignore her.
The woman became even more daring in her bid to get Dunstan to pay her some attention. But as she danced around him, her skirt lifted up, and Dunstan could clearly see hooves where feet should be.
Not one to be easily shocked, Dunstan very calmly picked up his pair of tongs, that had been resting in the fire, and he clamped them hard on the woman’s nose. The woman screamed, and her appearance changed. Wings came out from her back, and Dunstan watched, with no surprise, as the woman turned into the Devil.
Lucifer (Le génie du mal) by Guillaume Geefs (Cathedral of St. Paul, Liège, Belgium) ~ Wikipedia
The Devil managed to free his nose from the burning tongs, and he flew up into the air. It is said that the Devil flew to Kent and seeing the water at Tunbridge Wells, he landed and dipped his face into the water in a desperate bid to ease his burning nose. And from that day on the water turned red and tasted of sulphur.
But this wasn't the last encounter Dunstan was to have with the Devil. One day the Devil came to Dunstan and asked him to reshoe his horse. But instead of putting the horseshoe on to the horse's foot, Dunstan nailed it onto the Devil's hoof. The Devil, understandably, roared with pain. He ordered Dunstan to take the shoe off. But Dustan folded his arms about him and shook his head. In the end, the Devil began to beg. Dunstan said he would take the shoe off but only if the Devil swore never to enter a house that had a horseshoe nailed above the door. The Devil agreed, and now you know why a horseshoe hung over a door is considered lucky. For the Devil will leave such a house alone.
Dunstan shoeing the Devil's hoof, as illustrated by George Cruikshank ~ Wikipedia
The life of Dunstan is a fascinating one. He was disgusted with how the Church was run, and he wanted to do something about it. He did not think it right that priests could marry and have families. Priests, in his opinion, should take a vow of celibacy. Well, as you can image, his view was not popular, and he met a great deal of opposition to his argument.
Possible self-portrait of Dunstan. Detail from the Glastonbury Classbook ~ Wikipedia
Things finally came to ahead in the meeting which had been called to address this troublesome matter. These important men of the Church met on the first floor of a building in Wiltshire.
They debated, they argued, but no one could agree. They were going around in circles with their arguments. This was going to be a complete waste of time. Dunstan had had enough, so he simply said...
"Let Jesus decide."
And with those words, something terrible happened. There was a creaking and a groaning and then without warning the floor gave way. Many men fell through the floor. I was quite a drop, and many were injured. But Dunstan and his supports stood on the other side of the room unharmed, and they looked down, though the hole in the floor upon their fellow priests with shocked surprise. Jesus had decided.
Those who had fallen through the roof believed that it wasn't Jesus' will that had made that part of the floor collapse, but instead, it was Dunstan's will. He had sabotaged the floor. But no one would believe them.
Dunstan won that argument and from that day on priests were forbidden to marry.
But there is more. It wasn't plain sailing for Dunstan as he tried to implement new laws for the priesthood. He wanted to see an end to the days of drunkenness and disorder within the monasteries. But he had learnt that arguing had got him nowhere, so from now on, if anyone disagreed with him, he simply turned them into eels and threw them into the rivers and lakes of the Fenlands. A certain place that Dunstan favoured became known as Ely — the place of Eels!
So there we have it. No wonder everyone both feared and respected Dunstan.
Dunstan died on the 19th May 988 at the age of 79. He was made a saint shortly after.
If not otherwise stated, all images can be found on Pixbay.
First published on Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots 10th August 2017
Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury--the fabled Isle of Avalon--was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood.