St Cuthbert's beads

St Cuthbert's beads

St. Cuthbert's beads (or Cuddy's beads) are circular columnals of Carboniferous crinoids which were strung together as a necklace or rosary in medieval Northumberland, and became associated with St Cuthbert. In Germany, the columnals were known as "Bonifacius Pfennige" (St Boniface's pennies). In other parts of England, circular crinoid columnals were known as "fairy money." Pentagonal crinoid columnals were known as "star stones", and moulds of the stems left impressions which were known as screwstones.

The "beads" are thick discs or short cylinders, which, in life, were articulated to form a branched structure, linked by soft tissue, nerves and ligaments which occupuied the central hole (lumen). The columnals often disarticulated after the animal died. Articulated fossils are relatively rare, but disarticulated columnals are relatively common in the fossil record. They may be extracted from their matrix (often limestone) or found deposited on the foreshore.

In medieval England, the fossilised columnals were collected at Lindisfarne, and strung together as as a necklace or rosary. Over time, they became associated with St. Cuthbert, who was a monk on Lindisfarne and the nearby island of Hobthrush (also known as St Cuthbert's Isle) in the 7th century and became Bishop of Lindisfarne. According to legend, it was said that St. Cuthbert used the beads as a rosary, or that his spirit created them on stormy nights so they could be found on the beach the next morning. Lane and Ausich (2001) suggest that the beads were not associated with St. Cuthbert before the 12th century, and may have become popular after a limestone quarry came into operation on Lindisfarne in the 14th century.

The first known reference to Cuthbert's beads in a documentary source is found in an account of a visit to Lindisfarne by a John Ray in 1671:

At the time, the origin and nature of the "beads" was not well known. The peculiar stones were categoried with "Devil's toenails" ("Gryphaea" shells), "snakestones" (ammonites), "St Peter's fingers" or "Devil's fingers" or "thunderbolts" (belemnites); although by 1673, Martin Lister hypothesised that crinoids were "plants petrified". The term "St Cuthbert's beads" became a common way of referring to crinoid columnals from the 17th century, and remains a term used occasionally in the palaeontological literature.

The beads are said to have been created by Cuthbert in a passage in Sir Walter Scott's poem "Marmion" (1808), which also refers to St Hilda, who, according to legend, turned the snakes of Whitby into stone (possibly a reference to fossil ammonites):

But fain Saint Hilda's nuns would learnIf, on a rock by Lindisfarne,Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frameThe sea-born beads that bear his name:Such tales had Whitby's fishers toldAnd said they might his shape behold, And here his anvil sound: A deadened clang - a huge dim form Seen but and heart when gathering storm And night were closing round. But this, a tale of idle fame, The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim. (canto 2, verse 16)


* [ Fossil Folklore: St Cuthbert's Beads] from the Natural History Museum, London
* [ Fossil Folklore: Crinoids] from the Natural History Museum, London (including illustration)
* [ The Legend of St. Cuthbert's Beads; A Palaeontological and Geological Perspective] , N. Gary Lane, William I. Ausich. "Folklore", Vol. 112, No. 1 (Apr., 2001), pp. 65-73

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