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. There is a 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 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?
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. Isn’t this a form of “shopping cart” religion, i.e. that you select here and there bits and pieces of a religion that meet your approval, then ignore others that do not? Does this not limit the serious spiritual standing of Cwenburh and Cuthwin? (Reminder! Cuthwin even ‘forgives’ Cwenburh’s adultery—a most grievous sin both ways.)