*Scratches head* I swear, I will never understand the ways of AElfric. In my quest to put together an essay about the importance of books in the Life of St Edmund, I happily stumbled across a synopsis of his source text, the Passio Sancti Eadmundi of Abbo of Fleury. Abbo, who had made a tactical retreat from the monastic politics of Fleury and buggered off to England to advise the Benedictines there, wrote the Passio based on the testimony of St Dunstan, who had his information from Eadmund’s sword-bearer, who either had it from the unnamed observer who saw the martyrdom, or was himself said observer.
Looking at this synopsis, I can see that AElfric made a few particular changes: he shortened Abbo’s introduction; he twiddled with the representation of Eadmund a little, presumably to make him as heroic as possible under the circumstances; he altered Bishop Theodred’s penance; and he left out a final moralising on the value of virginity.
The alteration of the penance is fortuitous for my purposes. In the passio, Theodred hangs the thieves and the next day regrets it. There is no mention of books in this synopsis, although I’ll have to chase down a proper translation. 1As penance, he begs to wash, clothe and re-coffinate the body of St Eadmund.
By the time AElfric gets his hands on the story, however, books are explicitly the catalyst for his penitence; and he asks the nation to join him in a three-day fast. I reckons I can argue that this change universalises the relevance of canon law and canon law books and invests the laity with an interest in their contents and use.
So that’s happy.
On the other hand, AELfric cuts out the passage at the end which attributes his incorrupt body to his virginity, while in the same book he insists that AEthelthyth’s incorruptibility is testament to her virginity. Abbo, a bigshot Benedictine reformer, used the end of Edmund’s life, and his apparent virginity to appeal to those who served him to follow in his chaste footsteps. Why on earth would AElfric, himself a staunch second-generation Benedictine reformer and opponent of clerical marriage, leave out this interpretation? I dinnae understand it, I don’t think it’s crucial for this essay, but it’s sitting there and niggling at me and driving me batty.
I was reading Peter Jackson (not the director)’s article ‘AElfric and the purpose of Christian marriage’ (ASE 29) the other day, in which he discussed AElfric’s addition of an exemplar from the Desert Fathers, a fellow who had three kids with his wife before embarking on thirty years of married abstention, and then buggering off into a monastery. In the first part of the article, he talks about AELfric’s habit of singling out the virtue of chastity above all other virtues attributed to a given figure, particularly when using Desert Fathers material. With St Eadmund, meanwhile, he deliberately avoids talking about virginity, even though it was in his otherwise authoritative source. Very, very strange.
My only thought here is that perhaps lifelong chastity is not something AElfric regards as conventionally appropriate for the laity. As the Jackson article- not mention AElfric himself, constantly propping up his authority by reference to Bede- shows, AElfric had terrible trouble with AEthelthryth, a ‘strong willed, sexually autonomous woman’. It’s not really the Done Thing as Queen of anywhere to refuse sexual congress (and therefore procreation) with your husband. The exemplar at the end functions as a sort of balance, an example of proper marital chastity, a co-operative effort between husband and wife. It also provides a model of chastity which enables marriage to fulfil its proper function: the creation of children, after which abstention shall commence by mutual agreement.
Maybe AElfric doesn’t want to hold up Edmund as an example of virginity, because Edmund is a member of the laity- and a king, at that. You really do want your kings to produce sons, particularly when you have Vikings swarming around trying to conquer your kingdom.
On the other hand, maybe AElfric is just frustrating and weird.
1. Anyone know if there’s a translation of Abbo’s Passio out there somewhere? It looks as though there might be one in Winterbottom’s Lives of Three English Saints, from the Fisher Catalogue, but that book has a long list of holds on it. 😦 A keyword search for ‘Abbo of Fleury’ only brings up four books, though. Does he go by another name? Anyone know the title of his collection of saint’s lives?