Book Club questions
Issues and Questions about
The Life & Travels of Saint Cuthwin
1. The Life & Travels of Saint Cuthwin took place in an 11th century England that was dominated by Western Catholicism. There were various good and bad parts of that institution that drove the story. What parts of it might be thought of as ‘good’, from the 11th century viewpoint of an ordinary working person?
2. Cuthwin’s prime motivation for dictating his life to the monks of Cornwall (modern region’s name), was to show contemporary and later people how he was not a saint. The standout example was his inability to forgive. This alone is heretical, but are there others as well?
3. Cwenburh, Cuthwin’s wife, went about “things” in a less clever way than Cuthwin. Is that true, actually? One dark spot is she wouldn’t/couldn’t perceive the threat of noble and/or powerful people as Cuthwin did. Her open defiance of his word, though demonstrating strength of character, led to disaster.
4. If there is an 11th century hell, will the character “Frog” inhabit it after death?
5. Abbot Elsin of Peterborough often played a direct role in the making of Cuthwin what he became. But if you had to choose a scene in the novel where “Father Abbot” had the most influence on Cuthwin, what would it be?
6. As readers we see Cuthwin make an extraordinary transition from his youth in Peterborough Monastery, to the closing years of his life. First off, we have a transition from the work in the stable, to that of a commercial scribe, to the grueling (comparatively) unskilled labor building stone fences. How did these transitions enhance the fundamental moral compass Cuthwin had?
7. In almost every place in the novel, the reader ‘sees’ Cuthwin’s presence of mind. There is a single occasion, though, when Cuthwin ‘loses’ it and flies into a froth of anger: When the tragedy of Cwenburh and Cuthwin’s stillborn child is used by a churchman in an attempt to bilk the clasp from Cuthwin. What is the profound irony at this moment which lends itself to this grim human scenario?
8. In the fictitious ‘introduction’ by the equally fictitious “R. Aubrey Richards”, the reader is forewarned about “earthier words and expressions.” Furthermore, that the story of Cuthwin might be felt “negative” by the [Catholic] church of the early 19th century. What was Warner’s purpose in writing this fictional introduction?
9. When the reader encounters Marvis of Tilton, they have a rude and practical demonstration of Saxon women's different standing in society than they had under Norman rule. Discuss a woman’s role in Saxon society as seen in this novel and in historical fact. How did this role add to the tragedy of a Norman victory over the Saxon army at Hastings in 1066?
10. A thoroughly cantankerous mule came into Cuthwin’s life after the Norman slaughter all Cuthwin’s loved ones and friends in that fatal copse. Was this mule a spiritual continuation of Cwenburh’s vigorous, uncompromising essence...that she was with him, or was this mule as reminder, of metaphor, a symbol for a truth of her lesson?
11. There were many places in the novel where Cuthwin and Cwenburh actions flew in the face of eleventh century (and modern!) Christianity’s basic tenets. In fact, their relationship and child are begotten prior to marriage; her youthful pregnancy didn’t seem to bother Cwenburh one bit. This calls to mind a form of “shopping cart” religion—where one selects bits and pieces of a religion, ignoring other aspects that might not agree with one's nature or thoughts. Does this limit the serious spiritual standing of Cwenburh and Cuthwin? (Reminder! Cuthwin even ‘forgives’ Cwenburh’s adultery—a most grievous sin both ways.) Morality and religion are often sculpted by necessity, preference, choice, and one's capacity to adhere to rules... the book begs the question of how do we deem right from wrong, adapt morals and piousness, are rules more important that the sincerity of one's heart? Is religion meant to be strict or can it serve as a way to find our own inner guide to decide, with free will and the honesty of the self, to recognize a different, more flexible set of values that lie under the surface of this and that rule. Can rules break the spirit in guilt when in reality there is a huge grey area of good, mutable, flexible and dependent on individuals and circumstance? Who is really to say who is a saint and who isn't? It would seem the person of the purest heart of love could be mutable, but actions that are hurtful can mar this pure heart and it isn't enough to love, actions matter sometimes less, sometimes equally, sometimes more. In essence, do we judge others on pre-fabricated rules that can't bend to circumstance? Is this fallible or do you think rules should be resolute and for a reason? In reality, do people carve their own nests out of religions to suit their own comfort zones, where many things boil down to opinion and subjectivity?