Coming to Terms with a Pagan Past: The Story of St Erkenwald

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The poem of St Erkenwald and his encounter with the body of a pagan judge preserved in a tomb underneath St Paul's Cathedral has never provoked an intense scholarly discussion. During the past two decades, however, the poem has altogether lost the scarce attention it used to receive. This is surprising in regards to its outstanding quality but also because of a number of peculiar characteristics the text has in comparison with other works written during the Middle Ages. Arguing for the importance of the historical details provided by the poem, my article takes a number of these peculiarities into account and suggests a new reading of the poem. In this approach, I do not dismiss the major topics of the earlier scholarly discussions, mostly focused on the poem's theological and stylistic topics or its presumed sources. My article rather presents an additional reading from the perspective of a literary history, thus arguing that the poem of St Erkenwald can be placed within a discourse tradition to which a number of earlier authors contributed, the most famous among them being the Venerable Bede. While the poem addresses a variety of theological and stylistic topics and is of course influenced by its contemporary religious and social developments, it also contributes to one of the fundamental problems of English identity in the Middle Ages: coming to terms with a pagan origin.

Keywords: St Erkenwald, History of the English, Pagan Ancestry, Middle English Poetry, 14th and 15th century literature

1. Introduction

The poem of Saint Erkenwald and the story of his encounter with the body of a pagan judge preserved in a tomb underneath St Paul's Cathedral in London has never really provoked an intense scholarly discussion. During the past two decades the poem has altogether lost the scarce scholarly attention it used to receive. This is surprising, not only in regard to its outstanding quality but also because of a number of peculiar, possibly even singular characteristics the text has in comparison with other works written during the Middle Ages. The following paper will take a number of these peculiarities into account and suggest a reading of the poem which goes beyond earlier scholarly discussions which have mostly focused on the poem's theological and stylistic topics or its presumed sources. This contribution presents a postcolonial reading of a Middle English poem that deals, among other aspects, with a very fundamental problem of the English throughout their insular history, i.e. their pagan past. The arrival of the Germanic gentes and the conquest of the Christian Britons by these pagan people from the Continent as well as the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons a few centuries later had a significant influence on historiography, literature and the development of a collective memory during the English Middle Ages. The dilemma of authors in Christian medieval England explaining the conquest of Christian Britain by their pagan Anglo-Saxon ancestors was nourished by continuous changes in the ethnic composition of the Island resulting from invasions and migrations. The struggle for religious dominance during the Viking raids and for political survival during the Norman Conquest influenced the shaping of English history and the collective memory of the people. I will demonstrate in the course of this contribution that the poem of St Erkenwald can be placed within a discourse tradition which is strongly influenced by the necessity of a shared history and memory. It had been productive for many centuries before the poem was written and a number of earlier authors had contributed to it, the most famous among them being the Venerable Bede. While the poem addresses a variety of theological and stylistic topics and is, of course, influenced by its contemporary religious and social developments, it also contributes to one of the central issues of English identity in the Middle Ages: coming to terms with a pagan origin. …