Cuthman was 7th century Anglo-Saxon shepherd boy who became a mendicant hermit, travelling the roads to beg and preach. His mother was paralysed, so he put her in a wheelbarrow which he dragged or pushed along wherever he went, by means of a rope round his shoulders. It certainly can’t have been a comfortable ride for the poor woman, being trailed through the mud in rain, wind and snow or bumped over frozen ruts on rough tracks.
Inevitably, the wheelbarrow couldn’t take the jolting and fell apart at Penfold Fields in Steyning, Sussex and Cuthman’s long-suffering mother was pitched out, much to the amusement of the field-hands nearby who were hay-making. Legend has it that, in his rage at being mocked, young Cuthman cursed Penfold Fields saying that from then on whenever anyone tried to harvest hay there it would rain and destroy the crop. The curse seems to have drifted out far and wide, because eventually the superstition grew up that whoever cut grass on St Cuthman’s day would cause it to rain. An excellent excuse for not cutting the lawn today!
But the accident was a blessing for Cuthman’s poor mother, for the young saint took it as a sign he should build a wooden church at Steyning together with a hut for his mother, which must have been a great relief to her. In 1939, Christopher Fry wrote a play about St Cuthman, called The Boy with a Handcart.
Cuthman’s method of provision for his aged mother may have been unusual, but the problem of taking care of the elderly has been exercising all our minds recently as we all worry about our future pensions and who will pay for them. They had exactly the same concerns back in the Middle Ages. In medieval times pension provision took the form of a corrody, a single lump sum of money paid to a convent or religious house. In return the convent promised that when the corrodian became old and infirm they would provide lodgings, food and fuel for that person until their death.
Sometimes the convent guaranteed to give the person a regular annual fixed income to buy these necessities, otherwise the convent would provide the lodgings, food and fuel itself.
Employers often bought corrodies for valued employees. The religious houses used the insurance scheme as a means of obtaining ready cash especially in times of financial hardship -and they gambled that the old person would die quickly, so they could make a profit. But if the corrodian lived longer than expected, the religious house would end up losing money and there were a number of complaints from almoners in the convents or monasteries at the time that the elderly were living too long and proving too expensive. It seems little has changed!Sculpture of St Cuthman by Penelope Reeve, created 2000, on St Cuthman’s field. Photo attribution - Pam Fray [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons