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  • St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint
  • Lesley Allen
St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint. Edited by Anthony Bale. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press for York Medieval Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 198. $95.

Unlike the physical bodies of martyrs, recent studies in specific hagiographical subjects are alive and well. In particular, monographs by Katharine Lewis on St. Katherine of Alexandria and Samantha Riches on St. George showcase the numerous layers involved in the studies of saints’ cults—layers including cultural practice or ritual, gender, political engagement, domestic concerns, and national or local history. With such a full reservoir to tap, this volume dedicated to the ninth-century St. Edmund of East Anglia provides much-needed insight into a significant English martyr. More especially, despite the superb work of [End Page 247] the aforementioned monographs, studies of saints and their cults benefit from the increased variety of interdisciplinary voices that a collection of essays can provide. Anthony Bale, editor and contributor to St Edmund, defines the essays in the book as showing how “a saint’s cult is fed by and feeds into a wide range of cultural artefacts” (p. 145). Indeed, this “wide range” of production is certainly well represented in these essays, as scholars in art and manuscript history, literary study, architecture, history, and musicology all contribute toward understanding (or complicating) the matrix that is the cult of St. Edmund. Like the saint on which it is based, however, this body of work may risk getting lost in the “wide range” of cultural foliage until other scholars find it, unify the material, and seek to pursue the harder-hitting political and even national concerns that reside in the legend of Edmund.

Together, the essays here survey the most important points in the life and cult of Edmund, the East Anglian king who was slaughtered by the Danes in 870. Tied to a tree and pierced with arrows when he refused to submit to the invaders, Edmund is martyred in a manner similar to Christ. After he endures such torture, his frustrated attackers bring him down from the tree, behead him, and hide his head in the woods, hoping to prevent Edmund’s followers from reuniting the potentially sacred body. However, a witness observes all and later allows the community to discover the head and reintegrate Edmund back into the community as a significant regional presence and saint.

Eight essays round out this volume that found its genesis in an interdisciplinary seminar on St. Edmund at Birkbeck College, London, in 2004. With only brief chronicle accounts dating Edmund’s death historically, all of the vitae, from Abbo of Fleury’s tenth-century Passio Sancti Eadmundi to John Lydgate’s fifteenth-century Lives of Saints Fremund and Edmund, become originary points for a saint produced ex nihilo. Bale maintains that the collection aims “to read a selection of products from the cult of St Edmund, to uncover the ways in which the worship of a saint can also be a search for origins, with contested versions of the past” (p. 25). Indeed, in the opening essays by Carl Phelpstead and Alison Finlay, the histories of Anglo-Saxon Christian culture and genealogies connected to such histories appear as means for searching for origins within the narrative of Edmund. In “King, Martyr and Virgin: Imitatio Christi in Ælfric’s Life of St Edmund,” Phelpstead explores how Ælfric’s text contrasts with Abbo of Fleury’s parent text, especially in terms of Ælfric’s reduced emphasis on Edmund’s virginity. The chastity of a royal saint disturbed conventional expectations for kingly succession; however, later generations were able to trace their ancestry back to the time of Edmund’s death. Finlay’s “Chronology, Genealogy and Conversion: The Afterlife of St Edmund in the North” goes beyond an English focus to the Nordic setting of Iceland where twelfth-century sources situate kingly genealogies at the time of Edmund’s martyrdom. While Edmund does not produce heirs, his death produces a historical site worthy of lineal connections. The desire to reconstruct Edmund’s own origins was strong as well, especially for those in his immediate cult at...


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pp. 247-250
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