Violence and Non-Violence in Anglo-Saxon England: AElfric's "Passion of St. Edmund"

By Earl, James W. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Violence and Non-Violence in Anglo-Saxon England: AElfric's "Passion of St. Edmund"


Earl, James W., Philological Quarterly


The turn of the millennium draws the mind back a thousand years to the deeply troubled 990s in England, a paradoxical decade that enjoyed a high clerical culture even as the Vikings were ravaging the land. A newly reformed monastic system was flourishing under the king's favor, but this king would be remembered less fondly ever after as AEthelred "the Unready." As Simon Keynes says, "The internal and cultural affairs of the kingdom were able to prosper, but ... the external and military affairs of the kingdom were not conducted ... with comparable success."(1) That is an understatement: many of our surviving manuscripts and much Latin and Old English literature date from this highly productive decade--which is framed, however, by the disastrous Battle of Maldon in 991 and AEthelred's attempt to exterminate Danes in England (mostly merchants and recent settlers) on St. Brice's Day, November 13, 1002.

The St. Brice's Day massacre was a desperate gamble that did not pay off. The Danes, unsurprisingly, redoubled their efforts and eventually took AEthelred's throne. Keynes admits that the massacre "might well offend modern sensibilities and appear as the despicably cruel reaction of a paranoid king to a reported threat against him, but no act of violence on such a scale could have been carried out unless it had general support" (205); but that is largely what is so appalling about it. He concludes, "There might be good cause if not to applaud then at least to condone rather than to deplore ... the massacre of St. Brice's Day" (208)--but I don't think so. A millennium later the thought of such an Anglo-Saxon Kristalnacht sends a shiver down the spine.

The massacre made a certain kind of sense, of course, as revenge for decades of Viking atrocities. Raids had resumed in 978, the year of AEthelred's accession, after nearly a century's remission. From a modern point of view, however, the massacre only illustrates the terrible inadequacy of revenge as a legal concept, for revenge falls on groups rather than individuals, and within those groups it falls on the innocent as well as the offending members. The massacre reminds us also of a similar horror at the beginning of Anglo-Saxon history, the slaughter of 1200 monks of Bangor by King AEthelfrith of Northumbria in 605. That massacre too made sense as an act of revenge--divine vengeance, according to Bede, for the Celtic Church's refusal to submit to Augustine of Canterbury.(2)

In the world of medieval violence--in the world of violence, period--the Anglo-Saxons enjoy a certain well-deserved reputation. Anglo-Saxon England was the site of constant wars and repeated invasions for half a millennium; it was ruled by warrior kings and a warrior class; within and without this class it was hierarchically ordered by an ideology which idealized servitude as loyalty; it developed a precocious form of feudalism; it regulated social violence by a variety of legal transmogrifications of revenge and blood-feud; and it left us a vernacular literature best known for its morbid portrayal of suicidal male heroics and a martial-arts adaptation of the Christian faith. Now add the Vikings into this picture. For two and a half centuries the Vikings shared more than just the slaughter-field with the Anglo-Saxons. They also shared, increasingly from the ninth century on, a national culture with them, culminating in the Anglo-Danish kingship of Cnut. In the world of violence, of course, the reputation of the Vikings remains unsurpassed.

Even if we restrict ourselves to literature written in Old English, however, poems like Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon will still hold pride of place in the long tradition of Germanic violence, the one as its primary epic, the other as the late classical formulation of its code--both written along the fault-line of Anglo-Scandinavian relations. Not to mention the tradition of violence in the Christian literature, violence explicit or implicit, brutal or mystified, exposed so nakedly by John P.

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