Bede's Account of Dryhthelm
An Early Medieval Near-Death Experience?
The Vision of Dryhthelm
Among the miracles (1) recounted by Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (2) by far the longest is his account of Dryhthelm, contained in Book V, Chapter 12 of his History. According to Bede, Dryhthelm was a Northumbrian husband and head of a household, a pious man, living at Incuneningurn (identified as Cunningham, Ayrshire) (3). He fell ill and died in the early hours of the night In the morning he suddenly sat up, having apparently come back to life. He divided his property and, renouncing the world, retired to the monastery of Melrose, where he received the tonsure and lived as a hermit.
During his residence at Melrose, he spoke of the experiences which had persuaded him to give up his life as a family man and assume the monastic habit. He told of his soul leaving his body, escorted by a guide with a shining face and radiant apparel. He was first of all brought to a valley, very broad and deep, and of infinite length. On his left were raging flames; on his right were storms of hail and snow. Tormented souls were being tossed from one side to another, seeking relief alternately from the heat and cold. His guide, however, informs him that this is not hell.
He and the guide proceed further to a place which became increasingly dark, to the point where he could barely distinguish his guide's bright clothing. Suddenly he could see dark flames rising up and falling back again. He could smell the terrible stench of burning, and saw human souls being tossed up and down in the flames.
At this point the guide disappeared, leaving him on the edge of a pit, where he could hear demonic laughter, and saw demons casting human souls into the pit. As the demons began to threaten him, he noticed a light behind him, and moved away from the pit towards it. He is then reunited with his guide and they move from the darkness into the light.
There they encounter an enormously long and enormously high wall, which seems to block their path. Suddenly they are on top of the wall where Dryhthelm can see a wide and beautiful meadow. It is bright and full of flowers, whose scent takes away the stench of the pit. It is full of joyful inhabitants, and he thinks for a moment that this must heaven. His guide, however, informs him that this is not heaven.
They move on towards a place of even greater brilliance and more wonderful fragrance. The guide then stops and turns round, preventing Dryhthelm from going any further. The guide explains the significance of the four regions which Dryhthelm has seen. The valley contains the souls of those who have not fully confessed their sins. The punishment of fire and ice will allow then to escape eternal damnation at the Last Judgement. The pit is the place of eternal damnation from which there can be no escape. The bright meadow contains the souls of those who lived a pious life, but were not perfect. They cannot enter the eternal Heaven itself until after the Last Judgement. Only the perfect may enter it immediately after death. Bede then concludes his account with a description of the acts of asceticism performed by Dryhthelm during his time as a monk.
The Vision of Dryhthelm presents many parallels with accounts of 'Near-Death Experiences' (NDEs) described by Raymond A. Moody. (4) Recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in such accounts, with the publication of both personal experiences and clinical reflections. (5) On the basis of 150 cases, Moody reconstructs the typical NDE:
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a `body', but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before - a being of light - appears before him. This being asks him a question, non-verbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go, back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life. (6)
Moody's original findings have been confirmed and refined by subsequent studies which have investigated NDEs from psychiatric (7) and neurophysiological (8) perspectives. They have also been read from a psychical perspective. (9)
The Fenwicks distinguish eleven typical features of the NDE. Only some of these are found in the Vision of Dryhthelm. (10)
1. Feelings of Peace
To begin with, Dryhthelm experiences feelings of terror: he is 'utterly terrified by this awful spectacle' which he experienced in the valley, and stands 'a long time in great terror'. It is only when he reaches the heavenly realms that his feelings are transformed to joy: ‘I was greatly delighted with the sweetness and grace of the place I had seen'. (11)
2. Out of the Body
Dryhthelm does not describe the process of leaving the body, but the guide instructs him that he must return: 'You must now return to the body and live among men again'. Bede also refers to Dryhthelm describing 'the things he saw when he was out of the body'.
3. Into the Tunnel
Dryhthelm first describes moving through a valley rather than a tunnel: As we walked we came to a very deep and broad valley of infinite length'.
4. Approaching the Light
During most of his Vision, Dryhthelm is escorted by a guide: ‘I was guided by a man of shining countenance and wearing bright robes'. This figure seems to correspond to the 'being of light' described by Moody. (12) As he proceeds further, Dryhthelm is surrounded by darkness and loses sight of his guide. ‘[T]hen there appeared behind me, on the road by which I had come, something like a bright star glimmering in the darkness which gradually grew and came rapidly towards me ... It was the one who had guided me before ... and quickly brought me out of the darkness into a serene and bright atmosphere.’
5. The Barrier
Dryhthelm encounters a wall separating the valley and pit from the meadow: 'As he led me on in open light, I saw a very great wall in front of us which seemed to be endlessly long and endlessly high everywhere. I began to wonder why we were approaching this wall, since I could nowhere see any gate or window or steps to it.'
6. Another Country
Having been instantly transported to the top of the wall, Dryhthelm enters an idyllic landscape: 'There was a very broad and pleasant plain, full of such a fragrance of growing flowers that the marvellous sweetness of the scent quickly dispelled the foul stench of the gloomy furnace which had hung around me. So great was the light that flooded all this place that it seemed to be clearer than the brightness of daylight or the rays of the noontide sun.’ As he proceeds through this landscape, he encounters an even more beautiful place: 'So wonderful was the fragrance which spread from this place that the scent which I had thought superlative before, when I savoured it, now seemed to me a very ordinary fragrance; and the wondrous light which shone over the flowery field, in comparison with the light which now appeared, seemed feeble and weak.'
7. Meeting Relatives
Dryhthelm does not describe or name any individual that he encountered. However, he mentions seeing demonic spirits dragging human souls into the pit:’ I beheld a crowd of evil spirits, amid jeers and laughter, dragging five human souls, wailing and shrieking, into the midst of the darkness. I could see that one was tonsured like a clerk, one a layman, and one a woman.’
8. Life Review
Nothing in Dryhthelm's Vision corresponds to this feature of the NDE. He does not witness the Last Judgment which has yet to take place. Yet the guide reveals that the destiny of Dryhthelm's soul had been in doubt: 'When I left you for a time, I did so in order to find out what your future would be.' This implies a test of some kind.
9. Point of Decision
Dryhthelm does not decide of his own free will to return to the land of the living. Rather, he is instructed by his guide to return with amendment of conduct: 'You must now return to the body and live among men again; but if you seek to watch your actions with greater care and keep your ways and words righteous in singleness of heart, you yourself will receive a place after your death among the joyous band of the blessed spirits.'
10. The Return
He is reluctant to leave the beautiful abode: ‘I returned to the body with much distaste, for I was greatly delighted with the sweetness and grace of the place I had seen and with the company of those whom I saw in it.’ His return to the body is instantaneous and abrupt: 'meanwhile I suddenly found myself, by what means I know not, alive and in the world of men.'
I I. The Aftermath
Dryhthelm's Vision results in profound changes to his way of life. He renounces secular and family life and enters the monastery of Melrose, where he becomes a hermit and adopts a severe ascetic regime: 'The man was given a more secret retreat in the monastery where he could freely devote himself to the service of his Maker in constant prayer, and as his retreat was on the banks of the river, he often used to enter it in his great longing to chastise his body, frequently immersing himself beneath the water; he would remain thus motionless, reciting prayers and psalms for as long as he could endure it, while the water of the river came up to his loins and sometimes up to his neck.'
by Ivan Herbison
Medieval and Modern Perspectives
While there are many similarities between the Vision of Dryhthelm and modern NDEs, there is one striking difference. Only a small number of modern accounts focus frightening or unpleasant experiences, whereas medieval accounts generally contain vivid descriptions of souls in torment, and often tell of demonic spirits threatening the subject. (13) This points to the importance of cultural context in interpreting accounts from very different societies. Only a few scholars have attempted to bridge the gap. (14) Distinctively modern elements of NDEs, such as descriptions of out of the body experience of looking down on the physical body, feelings of peace and well-being, flashback or review of the past life, and encounters with past relatives are absent from medieval visions, including that of Dryhthelm.
There is another crucial distinction to be drawn between contemporary and medieval accounts. The work of Moody and the Fenwicks is based on first-hand accounts taken down from multiple respondents. The similarities between these reports provide authentication. Medieval visions remain the accounts of individuals, and are authenticated by their status as miracles. In the case of Dryhthelm, Bede makes this clear from the beginning: 'About this time a memorable miracle occurred'. The fact that Dryhthelm was acknowledged as a saint in the Northumbrian church provides further confirmation.
At first glance it might appear that modern and medieval accounts share the status of first-person narratives. However, this proves to be far from the case. A close study of Bede's retelling of Dryhthelm's Vision raises a number of issues.
The Vision is presented in first-person narrative, which is intended to create the impression of an eye-witness account. However, this is a careful and deliberate literary reconstruction. The Vision can be dated to c. 700, no later than 705, the date of King Aldfrith's death. Bede was writing Book V of the Historic Ecciesiastica c. 730, and completed it in 73 I. Bede mentions a monk Haungils as a source for his information on the Vision:
Bede's agendas or ours?
It is by re-situating the account of the Vision of Dryhthelm in its original contexts that we can uncover Bede's agendas. His treatment of the Vision reflects many of his intellectual interests: theology, exegesis, chronology, eschatology, hagiography, historiography. In an article of this scope, I can only deal with a few aspects of Bede's concerns. In the remainder of the article I will focus on Bede's presentation of miracles and time; the four regions of the other world, and his understanding of witness.
He would often visit this man and learn from him, by repeated questionings, [my emphasis] what sort of things he saw when he was out of the body; it is from his account that these particulars which we have briefly described came to our knowledge.
The phrase 'by repeated questionings' implies that the account given to Haemgils was not a direct transcript of Dryhthelm's words, but had been elicited through numerous interviews. Furthermore, the account had been edited by Bede: ‘I think that some of them [my emphasis] ought to be briefly mentioned here.' The Latin verb putavi makes clear that the I-voice of Bede controls the I-voice of Dryhthelm.
Secondly, there are further indications of the literary nature of Bede's account. Bede makes Dryhthelm quote from Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI, 228: 'As we went on "through the shades in the lone night", there suddenly appeared before us masses of noisome flame'. Dryhthelm also uses a well-known literary trope by referring to heaven as a 'delightful place', a locus amoenus: 'When I began to hope that we should enter this delightful place [amoenitotem loci], my guide suddenly stood still.' The employment of quotation and allusion suggests the voice of Bede rather than that of Dryhthelm. There is a case for regarding Bede's narration as a sophisticated act of literary ventriloquism.
Thirdly, Bede carefully manipulates the reader's reception of Dryhthelm by the device of a framing narrative. His introduction and conclusion provide evidence of how he wishes the first-person narrative to be presented. In particular, it is noteworthy that the name of the speaker is withheld from the reader until the final section of the chapter. This carries with it the implication that Bede wishes Dryhthelm's experiences to be considered not as belonging to a unique individual, but as typical or representative. In a sense Dryhthelm is to be regarded as an 'Everyman' figure. His personal eschatology stands as an example to be heeded by Bede's contemporaries.
Miracles and Time
The opening sentence of Book V, Chapter 13 immediately foregrounds two of Bede's most typical concerns:
About this time a memorable miracle occurred in Britain like those of ancient times. In order to arouse the living from spiritual death, a certain man already dead came back to life and related many memorable things that he had seen.
These are the nature and significance of the miraculous, and the division of time.
The contrast of 'this time' and 'ancient times' not only allows him to discuss present and past, but also reflects the eschatological distinction of time and eternity. Dryhthelm's Vision takes place in the present; it is an event in historical time. However, it is also an event occurring in the personal eschatology of Dryhthelm, bringing him to the brink of the eternal. (15) It illustrates Bede's constant concern with understanding historical events in the light of eternity. (16) Bede's use of the term 'Britain' [Brittania] is also significant, since it seems to collapse the ancient Roman province with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of his own day. This is made clear when he mentions Dryhthelm as living 'in a district of Northumbria which is called Incuneningurn (Cunningham)'. The authenticating detail of the Old English place name underlines the point. Despite the historical dislocation between the two, Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon Northumbria belong to the same temporal dispensation. Both are in the last days, awaiting the end of the world and a new dispensation. There is also a political dimension to the application of the term Britain to Northumbria. Bede is asserting a continuity of authority or imperium. (17) He is claiming that the Kingdom of Northumbria is the legitimate successor of Rome. Bede's attitudes to miracles, and his inclusion of miracle stories in the Ecclesiastical History have drawn much comment. For him, the real evidence of the supernatural does not reside in the events themselves but in their ability to convert the hearer or listener to faith, and to produce repentance and amendment of life. (18) In the hagiographical tradition, miracles were considered to be proofs of sanctity, so Bede is giving evidence that Dryhthelm is a saint, and hence now enjoys eternally heavenly realms which he glimpsed briefly in his Vision.
The Four Locations: Purgatory, Hell, Paradise, Heaven?
From a theological perspective, Dryhthelm's Vision reflects discussions about heaven and hell, and reflects a transitional period in which bipartite, tripartite and quadripartite models compete. The model contained in Bede describes four locations to which later theologians would give the names Purgatory, Hell, Paradise, Heaven. It is significant that although four regions are described, only two are named, hell [inferus] and heaven [regnum caelorum], and even these identifications are negative rather than positive:
"Do not believe it", he said, "this is not hell as you think".
"No", he said, "this is not the kingdom of heaven as you imagine".
The regions not named are therefore to be understood as 'not-hell' and 'not-heaven'. Early medieval theologians had not yet formulated Purgatory as a third region. (19) Not only does Bede avoid the term; he also avoids the verb purgo or any of its derivatives. They are best regarded as interim states or regions. (20) The influential medievalist Jacques Le Goff regards Purgatory as a product of the twelfth century. (21) Thus he regards Bede’s quadripartite model as an essentially bilateral view, with heaven and hell subdivided into interim and eternal regions: ‘The system that underlies the Vision of Dryhthelm is still a binary system.’ (22) Bede does not named Paradise either, preferring to refer to it allusively as a locus amoenus. (23) It is the vagueness of Dryhthelm's whole account of the otherworld which is remarkable. Surely this cannot be attributed to Bede, given his acknowledged theological acumen and expertise. This sense of confusion is the product of his multi-layered narration. He presents Dryhthelm as tentative and unsure how to interpret his visionary experience. When he is in the valley and thinks he is witnessing hell, his guide tells him otherwise. He does not understand how he arrived on top of the wall: 'When we had reached the wall we suddenly found ourselves on top of it, by what means I know not'. Just as he thinks he might be in heaven, his guide again contradicts him. Similarly, he is unable to understand how he becomes reunited with his body: ‘I suddenly found myself, by what means I know not, alive and in the world of men'. Here Bede dramatises the confusion of the human soul facing the afterlife, and in need of a guide to understand what is happening. The guide is his teacher, and dramatises the teaching authority of the Church.
The last aspect of Bede's agenda is once again foregrounded in the opening section of the Dryhthelm narrative:
"In order to arouse the living from spiritual death, a certain man already dead came back to life and related many memorable things that he had seen."
The purpose of the Vision is to resurrect the spiritually dead to eternal life through the testimony of a man who was physically dead and was resurrected. Bede's use of the verbs narravit and narrabat 'related' is the first indication of the importance of the theme of telling and bearing witness. (24) Bede goes on to assert that even if Dryhthelm had remained silent about his visionary experience, his lifestyle would have testified to the truth of his revelation: 'even if he had kept silence, his life would have declared that he had seen many things to be dreaded or desired which had been hidden from other men.’
However, he was careful to speak of his experience only to those who would benefit spiritually. The Vision therefore becomes a spiritual testimony 'for those who were terrified by fear of the torments or delighted with the hope of eternal joys and were ready to make his words a means of spiritual advancement.' Among those who heard his testimony at Melrose were the monk Haemgils and King Aldfrith of Northumbria. Bede now reveals that Haemgils is the source of his knowledge about Dryhthelm and his Vision. Through the monk Haemgils, Bede himself is now bearing witness to Dryhthelm's story, and his dramatic change of life, from family man to monk at Melrose, engaged in rigorous ascetic practices:
How, then, are we to interpret Bede's account of Dryhthelm's Vision! Is it a medieval counterpart of the modern phenomenon of a NDE? A moral exemplum urging renunciation of the world and amendment of life? A contribution to the development of the doctrine of Purgatory? A literary narrative exploring Bede's preoccupations with time and history?
Perhaps an answer lies in another aspect of Bede's work: his biblical exegesis. As a commentator on Scripture, Bede was well aware of the hermeneutic principle of the four-fold meaning of Scripture. (27) The Bible could be read in four senses: the literal/historical, allegorical or typological, moral or tropological, and anagogical or eschatological. (28) The literal meaning explores events as past history; the typological meaning finds patterns of similarity between past and present events; the tropological meaning explores the moral relevance to the present; the anagogical meaning explores significance of events for the future, especially in the light of the Second Coming and Last Judgment.
Bede would not force us to make a choice between the different meanings. They co-exist and complement one another. Different readers will perceive different messages, according to their abilities and their spiritual needs. His Ecclesiastical History was dedicated to one particular reader, 'the most glorious King Ceolwulf', King of Northumbria 729-737. How might Ceolwulf have interpreted the story of Dryhthelm?
I will permit myself to speculate. Just as Dryhthelm had spoken personally to his predecessor, King Aldfrith, Ceolwulf would perhaps have received the story as containing a personal message for him, encouraging him to follow Dryhthelm's example and withdraw from secular affairs to devote himself to spiritual practices. He might have reflected on the meaning of the name Dryhthelm: 'Protector of the army' or 'Protector of men'. He might have pondered on the similarity to the word dryhten, 'lord', applied to both secular kings and to God. Like Dryhthelm, he was a religious man. What is certain, is that in 737 he abdicated the throne and retired to the monastery of Lindisfarne. Like Dryhthelm, he became a saint of the Northumbrian and universal church.
1 For an overview, see Bertram Colgrave, ‘Bede's Miracle Stories' in Bede: His Life, Time and Writings, ed. A. H. Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935), pp. 201-29; for a more recent treatment of Bede's miracles, see William David McCready, Miracles and the Venerable Bede (Toronto, 1994).
2 Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, ed. & tr., Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969). Translations from Bede's History are cited from this volume. Colgrave's translation is reprinted in Judith McClure and Roger Collins, eds, Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford Worlds Classics oxford: UP, 1994, 2000).
3 Colgrave and Mynors, p. 489.
4 Raymond A. Moody, Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon–Survival of
Bodily Death (London, 2001; first published 1975). The term appears on p. 6
5 See Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
(London, 2012); Eben Alexander with Ptolomy Tompkins, The map of Heaven: A
Neurosurgeon explores the mysteries of the afterlife and the truth af what lies beyond
(London, 2014). See also Roisin Fitzpatrick, Taking Heaven Lightly (Dublin, 2015).
6 Moody, Life after Life, pp. 11-12.
7 Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Truth in the Light An Investigation of Over 300 Near-Death Experiences (Guildford, 1996, 2011).
8 Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience New York, 2010).
9 Barry Eaton, Afterlife: Uncovering the Secrets of Life After Death (Crows Nest NSW, 2011).
10 Fenwick and Fenwick, pp. 5-7.
11 Quotations are taken from Colgrave and Mynors, pp. 489-99,
12 Moody, Life after Life, pp, 49-55.
13 For a discussion, see Fenwick and Fenwick, Chapter 13: 'The Road to Hell', pp. 197-206.
14 See, for example, Carol Zaleski, Otherworld journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York and Oxford, 1987).
15 See James T. Palmer, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2014, Chapter 3: 'The ends of space and time (c, 600 — c. 735)’, pp.79-106.
16 See Peter Darby, Bede and the End of Time (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington VT, 2012).
17 See Steven Fanning, 'Bede, Imperium and the Bretwaldas' Speculum, 66 (1991), 1-26. For a discussion of Bede's complex attitudes towards Britannia and the Britons, see W. Trent Foley and Nick J. Higham, 'Bede and the Britons', Early Medieval Europe, 17 (2009), 154.85.
18 See the works mentioned in note I.
19 See Isabel Moreira, Heaven's Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2010) The Vision of Dryhthelm is discussed at pp. 152-57.
20 Helen Foxhall Forbes, "Diuiduntur in quattuor": the Interim and Judgement in Anglo-Saxon England', Journal of Theological Studies, 61 (2010), 659-84.
21 See Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago, 1984), pp. 133-36.
22 Le Goff, pp. 115-16.
23 For Anglo-Saxons conceptions of Paradise, see Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 32, (Cambridge, 2001), especially Chapter 4: 'Description and compromise: Bede, Boniface and the interim paradise', pp. 90-123.
24 For a detailed exploration of this theme, see Andrew Rabin, 'Bede, Dryhthelm, and the Witness to the Other World: Testimony and Conversion in the Historia Ecclesiastica', Modern Philology, 106 (209), 375-98.
25 Bertram Colgrave, Two Lives of St Cuthbert (Cambridge, 1940; 1985), pp.78-82.
26 Robert King, The Saintly Triad, or the Lives of St Patrick, St Columbcille and St Bridget (Dublin, 1844), p. 82.
27 For an introduction to medieval biblical exegesis, see Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, 1964, 1989).
28 See Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, 3 vols (Grand Rapids, 1998-2009).
He often used to enter it in his great longing to chastise his body, frequently immersing himself beneath the water; he would remain thus motionless, reciting prayers and psalms for as long as he could endure it, while the water of the river came up to his loins and sometimes up to his neck.
This detail which Bede provides testifies to Dryhthelm's sanctity, for it recalls a similar miracle performed by St Cuthbert. It is reported in the Anonymous Life of St Cuthbert (Book II, Chapter 3) that at night the saint frequently immersed himself in cold water up to the neck. (25) As a biographer of Cuthbert, Bede would have known this detail. He may also have known that the Anonymous Life borrowed this detail from a Life of St Columba:
"[H]e [Columba] used to stay immersed up to the neck in cold water, until he would recite the whole of the Psalter of David." (26)
Here Bede uses his knowledge of hagiography to claim for Dryhthlem the same status as that of St Cuthbert and St Columba. Thus three narrators of the Vision, Bede, Haemgils and Dryhthelm, all testify to the truth of the Vision.