And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 15. oktober 2012

Framing the King's Three Images - Methodological Introduction

In the previous blogpost I presented a brief overview of the cult of Edward the Confessor, the historical framework for my MA thesis. In this blogpost I will continue on the subject of Edward and present an introduction to the methodological issues I have faced in my work on the king's three images, i.e. how the king and has been depicted in three categories of literature: historiography, hagiography and liturgy. The purpose of my thesis is to examine how these three categories relate and influence each other. The liturgical excerpts are taken from MS Rawlinson liturg. g. 10 and have been translated by me, with invaluable assistance from my supervisor.

Edward the Confessor and Edward Martyr (MS Royal 2B VI, 13thC), courtesy of British Library

And so as the king moved forward little by little, burdened by this noble burden, the tendons that the longstanding illness had contracted were suddenly extended, the passage of blood that his stiffened veins had restricted resumed, his bones became firm, and his withered flesh became warm again. His joints emerged out of his flesh, and his feet were separated from his buttocks. The man stretched out his lower legs from the knees, which were now flexible and flowing with healthy blood. The royal clothing was adorned rather than defiled.
- The Life of Saint Edward, Aelred of Rievaulx (translated by Jane Patricia Freeland)

The Representation of St. Edward

The heart of the issue is as follows: how was Edward the Confessor represented in the various Medieval texts, and how do the various categories relate?

To answer this we must first look at what texts we are dealing with. I have divided the literature about Edward into three categories - or genres - and I have made this division based on the conventions and purposes that guide the respective types of texts. First of all we have historiography and hagiography which both are historical narratives with an expressed didactic purpose. I have chosen to treat these two separately because while they both fall under the aegis of history, the genre of hagiography has a very unique structure in that it is centred around repetition and moulded after the Gospels' presentation of Christ. A hagiography is a sacred biography focussed on one particular person and his or her saintly and virtuous life, death and miracles. For this reason the hagiographic texts of Edward the Confessor are treated as a category of their own. The third type of text is the liturgical, and this is a category set to music, aimed at celebrating a saint in a particular setting - i.e. the Church space - on days assigned to the saint in question. Liturgy is a form of communication between the supplicating choir and the recipient saint - unlike the two other genres it is not designed to be intelligible for an audience beyond this. When examining the various textual sources for St. Edward they must all be approached on their own accord, keeping in mind the guiding conventions in order to understand how they function within the cult.


Historiographical works occupy the largest share of the Edward literature. The most important work is Vita Ædwardi - abbreviated Vita I - which was executed by an anonymous Flemish monk at the behest of Edward's widow Edith. The text was completed shortly after Edward's death and - although this is an issue of some contention - had as its purpose to ensure Edith a favourable position in the Norman regime. This text is very important in that it established Edward's virtues and typology, and provided later writers - both historiographers and hagiographers - with material with which they developed Edward's character. Not every characteristic was included in later texts, and some characteristics were added later. The characteristics that did make it into the standard repertoire and became canonical virtues, so to speak, were Edward the Solomonic peacemaker, the chaste king, the man of visions - likened to the prophet Jonah who foretold the fall of Niniveh - and the pious monarch who preferred to discuss theology with monks rather than to immerse himself in the world of the court - a sort of monkish king with traditions all the way back to Merovingian times. These virtues were also to some extent included in Norman historiographies written shortly after the Conquest.

The next significant historiographical text, however, was William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings written in the mid-1120s. In this book William presents Edward as an almost dual figure: on the one hand Edward was a very saintly king - although not regarded by William as a saint - whose piety, charity, chastity, temperance and humility ensured him a favourable standing in the eyes of God. Edward's rule was pre-ordained by the Almighty, William stated, and this could be seen in Edward's ability to heal the sick and foretell the future. However, William was adamant that this was due to Edward's personal piety, not his office as king. In his book William of Malmesbury in fact uses Edward as a foil against the idea that sanctity came inherently with kingship, a claim that was on the rise in France. In this light it is also interesting to note that the second representation of Edward is that of a man too simple of mind to be a good king. In fact, claims William, had it not been for God's personal intercession England would have fallen into destitution during Edward's reign because of his inability to rule.

These two historiographical texts were very formative for the later tradition. Hagiographies were based on these works, and in the case of William of Malmesbury he was copied more or less verbatim into later works of history - which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The perhaps most interesting aspect of the historiographical tradition is that historians would include Edward's less saintly characteristics - as found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and to some extent in pre-canonisation histories - such as his confiscation of his mother's possession and the king's participation in war. These elements were included even after Edward had been established as a saint.


The first proper hagiography written for Edward the Confessor - i.e. the first that unequivocally follows the conventions established for hagiographic texts - is Vita Beati Regis Edwardi (or Vita II for short) written c.1138 by Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster Abbey. This text was a part of a conscious effort to have Edward canonised, although - as we have seen - that effort ultimately failed. In Vita II Osbert gleaned material from Vita I, William of Malmesbury and a handful of other sources and arranged them in a hagiographic structure. This meant, chiefly, to remove the political narrative of Vita I, include more miracles and pays more attention to Edward's virtues. These virtues are the same that has already been established: Edward was a Solomonic man of peace, a prophet, a chaste man, a temperate and pious man pre-ordained to rule by God. Osbert's emphasis, however, is Edward's visions and his healing - both while living and posthumously - and this is of course natural since Osbert aimed to propagate Edward's sainthood. There were, however, some novelties aside from the new miracles and the new visions. Osbert wrote for a well-educated Papacy heavily influenced by Cistercian devotion to the Virgin Mary, and he therefore included Edward's invocation of the Holy Virgin and compared Edward with antitypes from the Classical lexicon: His charity was compared to the covetous Midas and his mildness was contrasted with the tyranny of Dionysious of Siracuse.

When Edward had been canonised in 1161 the Abbot of Westminster saw the need for a new hagiography, ostensibly one that was better suited for a royal audience than Vita II and one through which they could hope to mould the king according to their own tastes. The Abbot commissioned Aelred of Rievaulx and on the translation of Edward's relics October 13 1163, Aelred presented his Vita Sancti Edwardi - henceforth Vita III - to the king at Westminster and held a sermon based on the passage from Luke where Christ says nobody hides their light under a bushel. Vita III became the official vita and it engendered a wide array of adaptations in prose and verse, Anglo-Norman and Middle-English. Aelred's was the last proper vita written for Edward, and although there were later Latin adaptations too, these were abbreviations. Since Aelred wrote for a royal audience he made some changes accordingly: he left out the Classical antitypes of Vita II and compared Edward instead with a larger catalogue of Biblical figures - some of them women. He also added a few more miracles, some of which were meant to show that Edward could work wonders beyond the walls of Westminster. When it comes to virtues Aelred presents essentially the same list as Osbert, but he gives them more space: while Osbert dedicates 9 pages to Edward's chastity, Aelred spends more than 20; while Osbert refers to Edward's temperance a couple of times within five pages, Aelred returns to it on at least four very separate occasions. Additionally Aelred emphasises the Christlike aspects of Edward to a greater degree. Another interesting difference is that while Osbert explicitly says that all kings should take heed from this story, Aelred specifically turns to Henry II - which was probably part of the reason why a new vita was needed.


Liturgy is a tricky category in this regard since it stands out in certain ways. One the one hand liturgy has an historical dimension in that parts of the liturgical repertoire presents episodes from the saint's life and miracles - especially the lessons at Matins, which were read as opposed to the chants which were sung. The lessons at Matins were also called historia since it was from the saint's historia they took much of their material - material that clearly belongs to the established historical narrative. On the other hand these episodes are interspersed with scriptural readings and chants sometimes taken from a common repertoire, and several of the liturgical items were sung, not read. We have, in other words, a category far more complex than the simple narratives of historiography and hagiography. Because of the difference in form, liturgists had to present the material in a different, more compressed way than the ordinary hagiographer. In other words, what Osbert and Aelred could dedicate several chapters to, the liturgist had to compress into one or two chants comprising only from about four to fourteen lines, give or take. In addition the material was sometimes rendered in verse, which added certain constraints to the manner of expression, and we see this in an episode recounted in both vitae regarding an Irish cripple: where the hagiographers dedicate a chapter to the matter, the liturgist expresses the case accordingly:

Who exerts power over riches and mundane

delights, observe in awe the grace and glory of

King Edward who [although] a mighty

and noble king is [nonetheless] so humble

that someone so miserably ugly and crippled

he supported [him and] carrying [him] 

made the one carried healthy again.

This is from a lesson, read at Matins, and treats the same episode as depicted in the epigraph. The compression of meaning becomes even more acute in the chants - which sometimes deal with biographical details - which are much shorter. One such chant is the responsory, which was performed after the lesson, and had a particular division: the main division is between the choral respond and the verse. The respond is in turn divided into responsum and repetenda, and the repetenda is repeated after the verse. In this way, the heart of the message - what needs to be emphasised - is placed in the repetenda, which thus contains the key to the responsory. I will now show you some examples taken from the material for Matins, which was the first service of the day, held a few hours after sunset. The Matins was the longest of the services and it is here we find the narrative material.

This can be seen here:
[R] The man was called back to his fatherland

from exile by the intercession of Saint Peter

to rule the entire kingdom

.he was elevated to his ancestral throne

[v] Although he was married

he led a celibate life.

[r] he was elevated to the ancestral throne.

As we see, the important part of the message is that Edward was elevated - or in this sense probably pre-ordained - to the English throne. The compression of material is further illustrated in another lesson from Matins:

The merits of the holy king 

are pleasing to God;

this simple meaning [truth?]

a threefold vision demonstrates.

First: the Seven Sleepers turned around.

Second: The Danish king

who was enclosed in the seas.

Third: Miraculously appeared

Christ [unto] Edward visibly

when he participated in Mass.

Through his holy prayers

we shall be saved in Heaven.
As we see from these examples the form of liturgy contains very different guidelines for the liturgist than the hagiographer, and although both categories deal with the same material, it is presented very differently. There is also another great difference to keep in mind: while hagiographies could be dedicated to either a courtly or a clerical audience, the liturgical image was not meant to be beheld by anyone but those who performed the liturgy and the one for whom it was performed: the saint. This means that when we behold the king's liturgical image we see him the way his devotees saw him. We see emphasised those virtues, characteristics and topics most important to those who through their prayers and liturgical performance upheld the cult and constituted the very heart of it. By unveiling the liturgical image we come almost face to face with the most central part of the cult.

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