- “A Coroun Ful Riche”: The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald
Quot et quantos arbitraris fuisse reges, de quibus nusquam sermo est aut cogitatio?
How many great kings do you suppose there have been, about whom there is now neither a word nor a thought?John of Salisbury, Policraticus1
By any standards, the late fourteenth-century alliterative poem St. Erkenwald is a strikingly anxious work. It opens by questioning the historical integrity of British Christianity with an explanation of the need to demolish the very center of the English Church, St. Paul’s Cathedral, because of the Saxon use of it “in Hengist dawes” as a pagan temple and reestablish it, free of the pollution of religious syncretism.2 Emphasizing the actual destruction of the cathedral, “drawn doun, þat one dole, to dedifie new” (6), the Erkenwald-poet problematizes the prior exchange of idols for saints, which he evokes in an extensive description of St. Augustine’s renaming of various temples. By means of a linguistic sleight of hand curiously similar in its method to the author’s own alliterative poetics, “Mahoun” is switched to “Saynt Margarete oþir to Maudelayne” (20) and “Jupiter and Jono” to “Jhesus oþir to James,” (22) regardless of gender or any other inherent qualities, because their names sound vaguely alike.
St. Paul’s, however, the center of the community, must be refounded—“buggyd eft anew” (36) from a truly Christian origin—not simply retrieved from one of the pagan religions that previously held sway in England. Underlining this crucial difference, the poet suppresses the actual name of the temple’s former deity, “derrist of idols praysid,” (29) leaving its past a cipher. This initial critique of language as radically unstable signals St. Erkenwald’s larger concerns: the loss of the earliest British language and customs, the desire for cultural continuity, and the fragmentary, uncertain nature of history itself. The prologue of St. Erkenwald, in itself an episode from the life of a saint particularly famous [End Page 277] for converting pagans, thematizes not only the tenuous nature of conversion but the fundamental instability of the “stablyed” (2) community.
In this essay, I will argue that the Erkenwald-poet responds to the chaotic climate of English politics in the 1380s and ′90s with a searching political skepticism, an enquiry into how much a society can ever know about its past from either its current institutions or surviving written sources. Together with a deep concern for the English nation shared by a number of other poems of the so-called Alliterative Revival, St. Erkenwald displays a singular distrust for the epistemological bases of nations in general.3 Specifically, the poet deploys the instabilities of language, history and religion to re-imagine Trojan Britain, a mythic period usually invoked to glorify the English monarchy, as bequeathing a new and very different idea of political order to late Ricardian England. The uneasiness of the poem, an account of the Londoners’ recovery of an ancient kingly corpse who resists all identification until a miraculous conversation with and baptism by St. Erkenwald, speaks to a host of contemporary theological and political divisions but, above all, to the ever-problematic relations between regal government and custom.
By reading St. Erkenwald as a response of sorts to Richard II’s increasingly absolutist policies in the mid- to late-1390s, I am proposing an answer to a problem that has long intrigued critics of the poem: namely, why a work manifestly about London and its citizens was produced in the dialect and style of the Northwest Midlands. In his groundbreaking study of social mobility and culture in Cheshire and Lancashire during the Ricardian period, Michael Bennett suggests that “the author of St. Erkenwald, whose Cheshire dialect and London interests appear superficially incongruous, would seem to have been a local careerist based in the capital.”4 If the poet were indeed a “careerist,” a cleric with some legal training from the circle of Richard II’s Cheshire supporters advanced to a position in London, the poem itself reveals a career in crisis. While Cheshire was a stronghold of royal support at the end of Richard’s reign (from 1397 on...