To the Students of “Myths, Legends and Heroes”:

I assume you’re responsible for the sudden spate of AElfric-related search strings which have been bringing people to this blog, particularly the ‘aelfric cult of saints’ string and the ‘St Eadmund’ string.

For those wanting to know about English attitudes to the Vikings- there are some half-decent sources out there on that, but not much (that I know of) in the way of scholarly sources online. Sadly, almost everything which is of use to you in book form is currently either loaned out to me or to K (which is why I know about your assignment, as she is in MLH with you), and as your essay is due on Tuesday you’re not going to get hold of it by then.

When it comes to St Edmund, you might as well give up- K tells me there is one article out there on the depiction of the Vikings in the St Edmund homily, but I don’t know the citation for it since I didn’t look at Vikings when I worked on Edmund. Best to work from your lecture notes or come up with your own interpretation.

Instead of googling, I recommend you use the Old English Bibliography Database to find articles which you can use for your essay. You will need to register- put down your university as your affiliation, and then you’ll need to read their ‘how to search’ instructions as the search function is a bit complicated. But that will find you everything written on Old English lit or history up to 2004.

If you are going to research using google, can I please encourage you to consider some principles for using online sources before doing so? I know all of your teachers: your lecturer is my supervisor; one of the tutors is my mentor and the other two I like to consider friends. (“Some Principles” was vetted by said mentor, so you can trust it as a reliable guide to reliability). They are none of them silly people; they will notice if you’ve plagiarised or used unreliable sources. For the love of Bede, do not use anything from this blog- don’t plagiarise, they can all use google, and don’t cite me, they all know who I am. Finally, if you do use any online source, please consider the example citation which I gave in “Some Principles”. Your markers will feel less like strangling you if you have all the appropriate details in your citation.

Yours Sincerely,


P.S. If any of you are doing the ‘decay and destruction’ question, can I recommend the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos? I think it’s not a text about Viking invasion so much as about social decay. One day, I will write a paper or a thesis or a book about this, but for now, consider it a free idea and I’ll be glad to have influenced young minds.


Dear Google

Just to be clear on this:

none of AElric’s Saint’s Lives deal with Homosexual saints. Most of AElfric’s saints are stridently celibate, so at best you could call them anti-sexual. I doubt AElfric had any idea about ‘Homosexuality’ as an umbrella identity, although he certainly knew some people commited acts of Sodomy. Just not his saints.

We here at Helpful Industries suggest you look elsewhere for legends about homosexual saints (I believe you will find relevant, more recent, accretions to ledgends like that of St Sebastian).

The Humourous Later Life of St Aethelthryth

So, my attempt to make Arthurian fudge cookies isn’t going so well. When the recipe says ‘refrigerate for an hour’, but your fridge is full, covering the mixture and putting it outside for a while will only be a suitable substitute if you live somewhere where winter is actually COLD.

And on with the later life of St Aethelthryth! If you recall, we left her two weeks ago, newly proffessed as a nun at Coldingham. One week ago, we looked at her image in the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, in which she appears the right holy sourpuss.

After only a year as a nun, Aethelthryth was appointed abbess at Ely, which, if I recall correctly, was a new foundation at the time. Aelfric tells us she was a mother to many nuns- Mecthild Gretsch, in her book ‘Aelfric and the Cult of Saints’, writes as if everyone knew that Ely in Aethelthryth’s day was a double monastery, but how everyone comes by this information I’m not sure. (It could be Aelfric’s use of the term ‘mynstre’, but I don’t know what the word for convent would be if it were a distinct term…) I also read a theory once- and this was back before I had any idea how to spot a crackpot Anglo-Saxon theory when I saw it- that Ely before Aethelwold refounded it was never a ‘real’ monastery, but a house where Aethelthryth and her sisters and their women retired to live chastely (not unlike the ‘nunnan’, not nuns but consecrated widows, a distinction Sarah Foot makes in her several-volume work, ‘Veiled Women’).

Regardless of the formal arrangements at Ely, Aethelthryth continued to be on her best saintly behavior. She fasted, eating only one meal a day, except for feast days; she prayed alone; she wore woollen clothes. She took a bath only on high feast days, and then only after first bathing everyone else in the convent with her own hands.

Eight years on, she grew a ‘swelling’ under her jaw- variously accounted for as a tumour, swollen glands, and a leftover plague buboe. As you do, if you’re a saint, Aethelthryth thanked God for sending her an ‘affliction in her neck’, concluding that it was punishment for having worn necklaces adorning said neck in her youth. ‘And now’, she said, ‘me thinketh that God’s justice may cleanse my guilt, since I now whave this swelling, which shineth instead of gold, and this scorching heat instead of sparkling gems.’ (Trans. in Skeat, which is not, as it turns out, by Skeat, but by Skeat, Gunning and Wilkinson, the two latter ladies having done all the grunt work and Skeat the revision.)

A leech was called to ‘shoot’ the swelling, and shoot it he did, ‘and there came out matter’. In spite of this helpful leech, Aethelthryth ‘gloriously departed to God’ on the third day after his ministrations.

Strangely, dying of a tumour qualifies her for an entry in Bede’s Martyrology- the only Anglo-Saxon saint therein, in fact-, which interesting piece of information I found via Michelle of Heavenfield.

Having carked it, Aethethryth was buried in a wooden coffin and remained quiet for sixteen years. After sixteen years, her sister Sexburh, now abbess, decided Aethelthryth belonged inside the church itself, and ordered the brethren- (ah, that’s where the double monastery thing comes in)- off into the fens to look for a nice big stone to make a sargophagus out of. Off they went, rowing their way to Grantchesteter, where they found a coffin-ready made, standing against a wall, made out of white marble. The brethren nicked off with the coffin, declaring it a miracle. This explanation seems to have been acceptable, and no one asked who the coffin might have belonged to in the first place.

Next stop: the graveyard. They pitched a tent over Aethelthryth’s grave and dug her up, singing hymns all the while. Lo and behold, she lay there as if asleep. The leech who had tended her was there, and gave assurance that she looked exactly as she did the day they buried her, save that the wound he had made was healed, and all her clothes were freshly pressed and laundered. Despite this last fact, Sexburh took out the body, had it bathed and dressed in new clothes, and interred in the church, where, conveniently, the new marble coffin was found to fit her body exactly and to have a hollow in the pillow just the right size for her head. Aethelthryth’s shrine, her first shroud and her first coffin all went on to be mighty potent in the way of healing miracles, and it was generally agreed that between the incorrupt body and the miracles, we had definite proof she had been a lifelong virgin.

Ely Cathedral- which did not exist in Aethelthryth’s day but is neverthless very pretty.

Aelfric doesn’t go into any great detail about Aethelthryth’s posthumous miracles, as he did with St Edmund. Instead, he goes on to a little appendix, beginning ‘In like manner have laymen also, as books tell us, preserved often their chastity in the marriage-state, for the love of Christ’, and proceeding with a short story adapted from the Vita Patrum, about an upstanding citizen who lived with his wife in ‘claenysse’ (chastity, purity, continence- the same word Aelfric uses for the virgin Aethelthryth, but not limited to absolute abstinence), had three kids and then abstained, lived a virtuous life and finally entered a monastery. There have been all kinds of speculations about this appendix- a good summary of which you can find in Peter Jackson (not the director)’s article in Anglo-Saxon England for the year 2000, entitled ‘Aelfric and the purpose of Christian marriage’. Suffice it to say, Aelfric seems to have had nearly as much trouble with Aethelthryth’s obstinate abstinence has he did with Judith, who used her sexual attractiveness to manipulate men. (Aelfric wrote a homily/letter on Judith, which can be found in an eddition by Assman or in an online edition by Lee.) In the case of Judith, he carefully wrote out all hints of sex from the narrative, but it’s not really possible to rewrite Aethelthryth as a good wife and queen, when her whole sanctity rests on her virginity. Instead, throughout the Life Aelfric refers back to Bede and his judgement of Aethelthryth; he also shifts power off Aethelthryth and onto God, as he does with Judith; and finally he appends this example of marital ‘claennysse’ appropriate to the layity. In my humble opinion, it’s the word eac (also) which is crucial here. Laymen also have often preserved their chastity, Aelfric announces, implicitly setting Aethelthryth appart from the laity even though she lived most of her life as a laywoman. Aelfric certainly didn’t like sex much, or want anyone to enjoy it, but he did understand that the laity had to marry and reproduce; if anyone, male of female, was going to neglect their conjugal duties in imitation of Aethelthryth, he, Aelfric, wasn’t going to be responsible for it.

So that’s St Aethelthryth for you. Next week… who knows? Maybe something really odd, like the Seven Sleepers.

An interesting excercise…

Rather than working on essays currently due (I know, I’m procrastinating), I had a go at chopping down an essay from last year and trying to make it suitable to enter the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship’s student essay competition. It’s on Aelfric’s treatment of Judith’s heroism in his homily (or letter) concerning her. This is a topic stuffed full of gender norms and whatnot- and my really original thought on the matter was all about gendered roles and symbols- but when I wrote it, I went out of my way not to write a ‘gender’ essay, and to approach the homily more broadly.

It’s a much better essay now that I’ve cut the rest of the stuff out. Much more streamlined. However, now I’m faced with the fact that I’ve written an essay which basically says “Aelfric excludes Judith from (masculine) heroism- he makes her about passive virtues like chastity and obedience, and then he has her cast off masculinity in the form of Holofernes’ weapons. Look, i can do a close text-study to prove it!”

Which is great. But I’m hearing the inevitable ‘so what’, and I don’t have an answer. Even if I did, I don’t have the time, or space within the competition’s page limit, to do so.

One lesson, at least, I have learned: cutting out around a thousand words can really improve your essay…

AElfric: quite a tricksy fellow

*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?

St AEthelthryth, Naysayer

It’s hard to improve on the AElfrician narrative for sheer weirdness, sometimes.

We will now write, miraculous though it is, regarding the holy St AEthelthryth, the English virgin, who was with two men and nevertheless remained a virgin.

It doesn’t get odder than that. But wait, it does! Her father, a man unfortunately named Anna, was king of the East Angles (which possibly makes AEthelthryth a distant cousin of St Edmund), and Anna was a bit of a god-botherer. His daughters, at least, inherited this trait, and none more so than AEthelthryth. Of Anna, AElfric informs us solemnly that ‘all his team was honoured by God’ (team– ‘line’ of descendants, progeny, family, etc).

This Anna married AEthelthryth off to a fellow named Tondbyrht, as his wife. Who knows what AEthelthryth thought about this at the time, but if she was determined at that stage to avoid hanky-panky, Tondbyrht didn’t put up any resistance. Quite possibly he wasn’t in a state to put anything up, because he carked it not long afterwards, and AEthelthryth was summarily handed off to King Ecfrid of Northumbria.

For twelve years AEthelthryth kept King Ecfrid hanging, and- even more bizarrely- for twelve years King Ecgfrid kept waiting for her to come around. He must’ve been a nice guy, King Ecfrid, and not inclined to enforce his conjugal rights. He stuck it out for twelve years, begging the Archbishop Wilfrid,1 AEthelthryth’s spiritual adviser, to convince her to ‘have enjoyment of his marriage’, with no luck. He promised Wilfrid lands and money and what have you in return for a compliant wife, but no luck.

AEthelthryth, meanwhile, spent twelve years begging for permission to enter a nunnery, which Ecfrid steadfastly refused. Eventually, he gave up, and Wilfrid took her to Coldingham and veiled her as a nun.

There are a few things I wonder about, at this point in the story, and I think it all comes down to one man: Wilfrid.

Q: Why didn’t Ecfrid repudiate AEthelthryth from the day dot? An unconsummated marriage is grounds for annulment, yes?

A: Wilfrid. You don’t get far in your appeal for annulment if your local bishop wants you to stay married. (There could be political reasons here, like not wanting to alienate Anna, and I bet Wilfrid, an astute politician, would have brought them all out whenever the King spoke to him.)

Q: Why didn’t Ecfrid let AEthelthryth go into a nunnery when she first asked?

A: Wilfrid, surely. Was Wilfrid playing one off against the other? Was he telling Ecfrid he’d talk AEthelthryth around, and telling AEthelthryth to ask just one more time? Was he taking Ecfrid’s bribes, smiling, and then taking whatever AEthelthryth was offering him as ‘spiritual adviser’ in her celibacy? (No, not like that. Well, ok, maybe like that. If it amuses you….)

AELfric relies heavily on Bede here, and having poked around in Bede, and Eddius Stephanus,  his biographer, Wilfrid strikes me as a very, very wily politician. I wouldn’t put it past him to be pulling all the strings in the King’s marriage… the question is: why?


1. Have I mentioned my giant crush on the Archbishop Wilfrid of York (or really, of Ripon and Hexham, but his diocese included York)? Um. In case you can’t tell, my taste in dead men runs to powerful reformist prelates…
Yes, I do realise it’s a bit odd.

The Hilarious (After)Life of St Eadmund, with still more apologies to AElfric.

King Eadmund lived a boring life full of piety, generosity and justice. Things hotted up when Vikings stalked in his land and ran off with his head. But wait, it doesn’t stop there! What Eadmund’s life lacked in action and adventure, he made up for in the afterlife.

Last week, we left the East Angles as they ventured into the forest in search of Eadmund’s missing head. Off they went, into the deep dark forest, and, as sensible woodsmen do, they shouted out to one another as they went:

Where are you, comrade?

Where are you, comrade?

And the head shouted back to them:

Over here! Over here!

As often as one of them shouted out Where are you, comrade?, the head of King Eadmund shouted back: Over here! Over here! And soon enough they came across the head, nestled between the paws of a slavering, ravening wolf. This wolf really, really, desperately wanted to eat the head. Om nom nom, tasty head. However, luckily for the East Angles, God had given the wolf divine orders not to eat the head of king Eadmund. Not even a little bit. Not even a tiny snacking around the ears. (Unlike the Wolfish stalking Hinguar, real wolves obey God. Vikings are mean and nasty and diabolical. Subtlety and tolerance? Not Aelfric’s cup of tea.)

The East Angles were quite pleased to have the head back, and they grabbed it out of the wolf’s paws and scurried back to the castle. The wolf followed them all the way back to the town, and, realising that it wasn’t going to get even a nibble of the head, finally gave up and went home. Poor wolf.

Delighted with the way things were going (despite the obliteration of their king and most of their countrymen), the East Angles got together and put up a church over Eadmund’s body. Some time later, (in 869) their descendants decided that a shoddy job and been done, and built a grand shiny new church. Predictably, when they pulled out Eadmund’s body, it was all perfectly intact, head attatched, wounds healed, the whole works. (‘Now, if I were a skeptical person,’ says a devout audience, ‘which I’m not, that might suggest to me that it wasn’t the same body.‘) What’s more, there’s a nice silk thread around his red throat. (‘If I were a skeptical person,’ says my devout listener, ‘I might be inclined to think it was the body of a recently hanged man…’)

The ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey, est. 869.

At any rate, miraculous preservation of body achieved, King Eadmund is set up in a brand spanking new church, with a holy widow to keep him company and clip his fingernails. (Her name was Oswyn, and her fondness for barbering and manicuring dead saints is all we know of her.) All the locals brought gifts and offerings in Eadmund’s honour, and Bishop Theodred decked the church out in gold and silver. The afterlife was going well for King Eadmund, but a rich church will attract unwonted attention, and one night, eight ‘unblessed’ theives turned up, bent on knicking off with the offerings.

Some of them slogged at the door haspe with sledge-hammers; some filed around it with files; some of them got spades and tried to dig under the door; and some of them brought ladders and tried to get in by the windows. For a mere eight thieves, they were swarming all over the place like flies. But for naught- St Eadmund, it turns out, was the best kind of saint: better than a closed-circuit video camera. He froze those theives in their tracks, and held them there all night. When the townspeople (and presumably the monks) turned up in the morning, they found eight thieves- some hanging from ladders, some frozen over spades, and so on, stuck fast in their tracks. They picked them up (apparently without un-freezing them) and dragged them off to Bishop Theodred.

Now, Bishop Theodred was a pretty good bishop, but not the best bishop around. He was good about donating silver and gold to churches, not so good on his canon law. And so he (conveniently?) forgot that he, as a bishop, shouldn’t be sentencing anyone to death, and ordered the poor frozen thieves to be hung. And hung they were, nowhere does AElfric mention any un-freezing.

After the thieves were good and dead, Bishop Theodred thought to look in his books1, and suddenly remembered that he was a churchman, and not supposed to be orchestrating hangings. He was properly sad, and feared for his immortal soul, and ordered the East Angles to fast with him for three days and pray for his salvation. (Salvation: so much easier if you have minions!)

Next up, a fellow named Leofstan, of a more skeptical bent than was generally good for you in Anglo-Saxon England, came along and demanded to see the intact body of St Eadmund. The monks were obliging, and opened up the tomb for him to have a looksee. Leofstan looked, and saw, and went barking mad and ran off and committed suicide. I’ve no idea what was going on there, but AElfric assures us it was a copycat miracle, in the model of St Lawrence, who sent mad seven men who dared to look upon his intact body.

Apparently many more hilarious miraculous things happened to St Eadmund in his afterlife, but AElfric didn’t feel like writing them down for us, and so we don’t get to find out what they were.


1. Look, look, books! AElfric and Wulfstan seem to be on common ground here: books (ie, canon law books) are crucial to proper bishoply behavior.