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

fredag 23. august 2013

Martyrs of Flesh and Desire - the bloodless martyrdoms of Edward the Confessor and Louis IX

In the previous blogpost I compared the iconographies of Edward the Confessor and Louis IX of France through a liturgical text most likely written for the latter and later adapted for the former. There are many similarities between the two saints, and in this blogpost I aim to highlight one of these similarities, namely that they both were formulated as martyrs by some of their hagiographers, despite the fact that they both died on their sick-beds. It was argued that they had undergone the martyrdom of the flesh, instead of the martyrdom of blood.

Stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr, from MS. Stowe 12, Sarum breviary, between 1322-25
Courtesy of British Library

The Greek word martyr means "witness" and in the early Christian history this became the word for the victims of persecutions against Christians, who by dying became witnesses of their faith in Christ. It was at the graves and for the memory of these witnesses that the cult of saints grew into existence, and in its first centuries this cult revered only martyrs aside from the Biblical figures. As Christianity spread across Europe and became the official religion of the Roman Empire, few new martyrs were added to the early sanctorale. There were of course missionaries who met their brutal deaths deep in the pagan territories, but these were on a far lower scale than the mass-executions commissioned by Nero, Decius or Diocletian. The story of the 11 000 virgins massacred at Cologne by the Huns is a later, 10th century, legend and were not part of the pre-Carolingian adoration of saints (1). Similarly, the story of Amphibalus and his 999 companions - the thousand martyrs of Lichfield - was, in the words of David Farmer, "[p]urely mythical", although it was of course accepted as truth in the Middle Ages (2).

The martyrdom of Amphibalus, MS. Royal B 2 VI, St. Albans, c.1246-60
Courtesy of British Library

As Christendom expanded and the Church grew, new categories of saints came into existence. This was before canonisation of saints became a papal prerogative, a process that gained momentum first in the 12th century and culminated in 1234, so the Papal See had little control with whom Christians revered as saints. The mechanics of the sanctorale's expansion in the Early Middle Ages are numerous and can not easily be summed up here, but lay enthusiasm and missionaries' attempt of bolstering their position are probably two of the most important reasons why so many saints found their way into the liturgies. Another key factor was of course that no fixed criteria or procedure for canonisation had yet been established, which eased the process significantly. In 1031, for instance, Olaf Haraldsson of Norway was declared a saint by Bishop Grimkell one year after the king's death at Stiklestad. The reason for this was that Olaf's body was said to be incorrupt and that his nails and hair had grown in the grave, and the cult was promptly established. It should also be noted that with the establishment of monasticism in the 3rd century and its growing popularity, the paradigm of the hermit-saint also came into being and gained significant popularity in various parts of Europe.

With the expansion of the sanctorale and the emergence of new types of saints, the divisions between categories became somewhat blurred. Even though martyrdom was no longer a prerequisite for sainthood, martyrs were the most eminent of non-biblical saints, and for churches profiting from pilgrims it was of course most beneficial to have relics from martyrs, or for kings to claim a martyr's patronage. Occasionally, therefore, some saints were attempted formulated in a manner which would, at least in the minds of the devotees, portray him or her as a martyr. This began already in the early 7th century with Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. Here he states:

Further there are two kinds of martyr: one in manifest passion, the other in hidden valor of the soul. Indeed, many people, suffering the snares of the enemy and resisting all carnal desires, because they sacrificed themselves in their hearts for almighty God, became martyrs even in times of peace - those indeed who, if a period of persecution had occurred, could have been martyrs.
- Book VII, chapter xi, paragraph 4 (3)

Isidore is here reiterating the idea of the bloodless martyrdom which came into being already in Merovingian times, i.e. the 6th century (4). This idea remained in the medieval mindset into the High Middle Ages, and as the Crusades set its imprint in the mindset of the day, a new saint paradigm emerged. This was the ascetic and apostolic king who - unlike the royal saints of earlier times - did not die at the hands of pagans but lived in accordance with Christ's words and worked to defend the Church and Christ by munificence and - if need be - by feat of arms. The new royal saint was a martyr of the flesh, who mortified his own body and spurned the luxury of the court. The ideal was Alexis of Odessa, a legendary knight who left his family and wealth behind to devote himself to Christ (5).

Edward the Confessor receiving the last rites, MS. Ee.3.59, mid-13th century, England
Courtesy of Cambridge University Library

Edward the Confessor, who had died on his sick-bed and through his way of life rather than way of death confessed his faith in Christ (hence "confessor"), was formulated as a martyr of the flesh after he had been canonised in 1161. Aelred of Rievaulx touched upon this idea in a sermon held at Westminster in Edward's honour (6), while the author of the anonymous Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei was the first to expressly refer to Edward as a martyr of the flesh (7). While asceticism, contempt of the secular world and a religious simplicity in things had been well-known characteristics of Edward's literature ever since the mid-eleventh-century, it was not until after his canonisation that the martyrdom of the flesh became an element of his hagiography. Earlier writers had gone to great lengths in depicting his death and life as Christ-like, but not even the zealous Osbert of Clare, Edward's first hagiographer, had gone so far. The reason was probably that Osbert wrote for a papal audience, very influenced by the Cistercian ideal and therefore sufficiently apprehensive of the glory of asceticism to appreciate Edward's life as saintly without playing the martyrdom card. After Edward's canonisation, however, the main audience for hagiographers was the English royal court, which naturally did not have any Cistercian pretention toward asceticism, and which probably needed extra conviction in order to really see Edward as a martyr. This is probably also why the anonymous author of the Estoire, written for the court of Henry III, makes a significant point about this.

The death of Edward the Confessor, MS. Ee.3.59, mid-13th century, England
Courtesy of Cambridge University Library

The Estoire was most likely written around the third quarter of the 13th century. Several decades later, during the canonisation proceedings of Louis IX of France and in the early cult, the idea of a bloodless martyrdom again became an important idea. Louis IX had died from dysentery or fever while crusading in North Africa in 1270 - his second failed crusade - and was canonised as a confessor in 1297. The first steps in the canonisation proceedings were taken already in 1272 upon the accession of Pope Gregory X, and from 1282 to 1283 the proceedings were held with interviews and testimonies of people from all walks of life who had in some way witnessed the saintliness of king Louis. Among these was Charles of Anjou, Louis' brother and king of Sicily, who not only advocated the king's sanctity but also that of his mother and his brothers Robert, count of Artois and Alphonse, count of Poitiers. Interestingly, the latter was referred to as martyr by will - martir voluntate - and possibly also martyr by love - martir affectu - providing Paul Edouard Didier Riant interpreted the text correctly (8).

During the proceedings there were also voiced who called Louis himself a martyr. These voices the archbishops of Reims and Sens and the Dominican friar Jean de Châtillon. These clerics saw in Louis' crusade the palm of martyrdom, a sacrifice for which the king had left his wealth, family and homeland to achieve. This was, however, against canon and Jean de Châtillon conceded as much when noting that Louis had not died at the arms of the enemy (9). Consequently, the attempt to grant France another martyr saint failed.

Louis leaving for his crusade
 MS. Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (Central France, after 1332, before 1350)
Courtesy of British Library

However, in the first decades of his cult, as the liturgy for Louis was being established, various camps of devotees emphasised various aspects of his life and death. The Cistercians were as ever preoccupied with asceticism and religious adherence, and paid little heed to the crusades. The Franciscans, however, considered the crusades as the great renunciation of wealth and the service for Christ which both lay at the heart of the Franciscan ideal - at least the Franciscan ideal as it was cultivated at the turn of the 13th century. The failure of Louis' crusades was a form of passion, the christomimetic suffering in which Franciscan liturgists saw a reflection of Saint Francis' stigmata. As Cecilia Gaposchkin puts it: "[C]rusade, which the Franciscans had been preaching throughout the thirteenth century, was in a sense the defining event of Louis' life that, through the suffering brought on by its failure, identified Louis with Christ (10)". This claim was very expressly stated in the Franciscan liturgy for Saint Louis, which was modelled on the liturgy for Saint Francis himself. In the Magnificat antiphon for second Vespers Louis is, in the manner of Francis, called a martyr by desire, and the antiphon closes by stating that "the passion weakened you, but the fervor and zeal for Christ has made you a martyr (11)".

Louis on his death-bed
MS. Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (Central France, after 1332, before 1350)
Courtesy of British Library

These two non-canonical formulations of martyrdom are interesting for several reasons. First of all they illustrate the diversity in how saintliness was understood in the Middle Ages, even after the Papal See had gained control over canonisation proceedings. This is an important reminder that we can not reduce the past to simplified representations of norm. Secondly, we see another way in which the posthumous lives of Edward the Confessor and Louis IX of France share important aspects. Thirdly, however, we also see that despite a certain similarity, the rationale behind their respective formulations as martyrs differ significantly in each case, Edward being presented as a martyr to the English court, Louis being hailed as a martyr by Franciscans. These three aspects all point to the diversity of the medieval mentality and show how things that overlap at one junction may be separated at another.


1) Farmer 2005: 517-18

2) Farmer 2005: 510

3) Barney 2006: 170

4) Graus 1965: 101

5) Klaniczay 2002: 156-65

6) Raciti 2012 vol. 4: 557, lines 129-35

7) Fenster and Wogan-Browne 2008: 69

8) Gaposchkin 2010: 30, n.61

9) Gaposchkin 2010: 31ff

10) Gaposchkin 2010: 171

11) Gaposchkin 2010: 173; Gaposchkin's translation


Barney, Stephen A., Lewis, W. J., Beach, J. A., Berghof, Oliver, The Etymologies of Isi-dore of Seville, Cambridge University press, 2006

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford, 2004

Fenster, Thelma S and Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn (ed. and transl.),
The Histo-ry of Saint Edward the King by Matthew Paris, ACMRS, Tempe, Arizona, 2008

Gaposchkin, Cecilia M., The Making of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 2010

Graus, Frantisek,
Volk, Herrscher und Heiliger im Reich der Merowinger, Tschechoslowakische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Prague, 1965

Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy rulers and blessed princesses: dynastic cults in Central Europe, trans-lated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Raciti, Gaetano, Aelredi Rievallensis Sermones LXXXV-CLXXXII, Corpus Christianorum Continu-atio Medievalis IIC, Brepols Publishers, 2012 Vol. 4

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