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

fredag 12. desember 2014

The Psalter of Quendrada - a miracle of St Kenelm

Kenelm holding a virginal lily
From the Digby Chantry, St Augustine's Church Ramsgate, John Hardman Powell, mid-19th century
Courtesy of this website
The elusively historical Kenelm of Mercia was the head of the Mercian kingdom for some time at the turn of the 8th century. Little is known about his life, and what appears in later texts is the stuff of hagiographic legend, cultivated especially at Winchcombe Abbey, which was the centre of his cult. From documents and charters we know that a royal person by this name existed in this period, but little can be suggested beyond this. The first tokens of a liturgical cult can be found almost two centuries after his death, a time when many royal figures were the subject of new cults, such as Ethelreda, Edward Martyr and Sexburga, to mention only a few.

This flourishing of English royal saints has been treated in great detail by Susan J. Ridyard in her Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, where she distinguishes between king-saints and royal women who became saints by virtue of their monastic pursuits. Ridyard's study was published in 1988, and was a counterargument against the beliefs that royal women in the convent abandoned their roles as royal patrons (hagiography shows this not to be the case), and that these saints were cultivated to protect weak royal houses. In fact, the royal houses benefitting from these cults were all very strong at this time.

Kenelm's role as a saint, therefore, fits into a larger historical canvas, and like the other royal saints boosted by the Benedictine reform movement, his cult enjoyed a perhaps surprising longevity, as can be seen by his inclusion in the 13th-century South English Legendary, and even in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Traditions belonging to the cult of Kenelm have endured for a long time, as suggested by a certain piece of folklore expounded by Eleanor Parker in this blogpost I have given some details about his cult and iconography in an earlier blogpost, so I will avoid undue repetition. In this blogpost, however, I will present a miracle of Kenelm which is reported by Gerald of Wales in his Journey through Wales, a work completed at the turn of the 1180s. This miracle is one among many reported by Gerald in chapter 2 of Book 1. The text quoted is taken from Lewis Thorpe's translation published in Penguin Classics (reprinted in 1984).

Kenelm's dream by H. A. Payne
From The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks edited by W. R. Lethaby, plate071
Courtesy of Project Gutenberg
Before presenting the miracle, however, a brief summary of Kenelm's legend might be appropriate. Kenelm was a child-king of Mercia c.800, and he had a wicked sister Cwenthryth, or Quendrada, who plotted against him. She ordered a huntsman to slay him during the child-king's hunt, and although forewarned by a vision given to his nurse, the boy accepted his death with the stoicism so typical of martyrs. After he had died, his body was discovered by the aid of a cow who began to feed at its burial-place, while the pope had been alerted of Kenelm's death by a dove. Kenelm's body was exhumed and taken back to the royal palace, and upon seeing his brother return, Quendrada's eyes fell out of her head and onto the psalter she was reading (backwards, because she was so very evil). The miracle reported by Gerald concerns this psalter:

In our days another great miracle has caused quite a stir. This had to do with the psalter of Quendrada, the sister of Saint Kenelm, at whose instigation he was murdered. In Winchcombe, on the vigil of Saint Kenelm, when, at the invitation of the monks, a great crowd of women from the neighbourhood had congregated for the celebrations, as their custom was, the assistant cellarer had intercourse with on of them inside the precincts of the monastery. The next day he had the audacity to carry this psalter in the procession of the relics of the saints. When the solemn procession was over, he made his way back to the choir. The psalter stuck to his hands and he could not put it down. He was greatly astonished and confounded by what had happened. Then he remembered the crime which he had committed the previous eveing. He confessed his sin and did penance. His repentance was sincere enough, and he was helped by the prayers of his fellow-monks. In the end, by divine intervention, he was able to free himself from the psalter and so was liberated. The book in question is held in great veneration in the monastery, for, when the dead body of Kenelm carried out and the crowd shouted: 'He is God's martyr! There is no doubt about it! He is the martyr of God!' Quendrada, who was guilty of her brother's murder and had it very much on her conscience, replied: 'He is indeed God's martyr, as truly as my eyes are resting on this psalter!' By chance she was reading the psalter at the moment. Thereupon, by divine intervention, her two eys were torn from her head and fell plop on the open book, where you can still see the marks of her blood to this day.
- Thorpe 1984: 85-86

Carving of St Kenelm at the gateway to Romsley Church
Photograph by Pollyanna Jones
There are several interesting iconographical details to pick up on in this anecdote. First, it should be mentioned that although a seemingly novel grisly detail, the loss of eyes is also found in the legend of St Alban, protomartyr of Britain together with his companion Amphibalus. Like the wicked Quendrada, Alban's murderer lost his eyes after killing him, as depicted in gory detail by Matthew Paris in the St Alban's Psalter (as seen below). On the obverse side of the coin we find a story - mentioned by Benedicta Ward in her book on medieval miracles - in the legends of St Cuthbert (if I remember correctly) where a man who had lost his eyesight and was healed by the saint, told a miraculous tale of how birds had carried his eyes away, but that they were returned after he had prayed for healing.

The prototype of British eye-losses: St Alban's beheader
Royal 2 B VI, English psalter, c.1246-c.1260
Another interesting feature is the immediate recognition by the populace of Kenelm's status as martyr. Although we have no information about the death of the historical Kenelm and how his subjects reacted, Gerald's description - perhaps drawn from William of Malmesbury's record, or the anonymous 11th-century vita - invokes a trait typical of Northern European royal cults, namely the immediate canonisation by the vox populi following the trauma of the death of a leader-figure. André Vauchez, in his study of saints' cults, has marked this as an aspect common to several English leaders in the Middle Ages, for instance Simon Montfort and Edward II.

A final aspect I want to draw your attention to in this case, is the punitive nature of Kenelm's miracle. By way of an overly adhesive psalter, Kenelm makes the assistant cellarer's guilt obvious to everyone and forces him thus to repent his crime. Punitive miracles could take many forms, either in a mundane manner or more severely through disfigurement, disablement or death. The assistant cellarer might be grateful that his punishment was not more severe than this.

Kenelm guarding his well-head
From the chapel at the Well-Head of St Kenelm's Well, by J. D. Wyatt, 1887
Courtesy of this website


Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales, (trl. by Lewis Thorpe), Penguin Classics, 1984

Love, Rosalind, Three Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives, Clarendon Press, 1996

Ridyard, Susan J., Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, (trl. by Jean Birrell), 2005

Ward, Benedicta, Miracles and the medieval mind, 1982

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