Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Bishop Ælfric's Life of Saint Edmund

King Edmund, the subject of this translation, became the King of East Anglia as a teenager in 855 and was martyred fifteen years later, still a relatively young man, at the hands of the invading Vikings. He is one of more than forty saints which Bishop Ælfric chose to make familiar to the English people through a traditional saint's lives story. During the Middle Ages, saints lives were very popular forms of literary entertainment. The idea seems to have been that, by learning about holy men and women, the laity could themselves become holy. It's very important to recognize that these stories are fairly formulaic--the idea is more to edify the audience to inform.

That really is a beautiful idea that I think many of us miss when we learn about the saints. The stories are told to us in order for us to be better. Each saint exemplifies a specific virtue that we are meant to emulate. In this case, Saint Edmund is particularly admirable because he not only chooses not to abandon his people, but also to follow Christ's example by committing acts of violence against the Vikings. It is a very foreign idea of bravery, and was perhaps more so for the Anglo-Saxons: a king who was brave for not fighting. The text itself provides an interesting contrast in the unmerciful Bishop Theodrid, who never forgives himself for ignoring Christ's example with a hasty act of violent punishment.

So here, without further ado, Bishop Ælfric's Life of Saint Edmund:

Some mightily learned monk came South over the sea from Saint Benedict's Place on King Aethelred's Day to Archbishop Dunstan three years before he died, and the monk is called Abbo [of Fleury]. They came into conversation until Dunstan related about Saint Edmund, just as he told of Edmund Sword-Bearer to King Aethelstan when Dunstan was a young man and the king was an elderly warrior. Then the monk wrote all the narrative in the Passio Sancti Eadmundi [The Passion of Saint Edmund] and afterward the book came again to us within a few years. We translated it into English and even so it hereafter stayed. Then, within two years, the monk Abbo returned to his monastery and was immediately appointed abbot in the same monastery.

Edmund the Blessed King of East Anglia was wise and worthy and always worshiped the Almighty God with august customs. He was humble and righteous and so resolute that he persisted and was never attracted to abominable vices. Neither did he deviate in either direction from his good practices, but on the contrary, was always mindful of the authentic teaching, "Are thou set as the headman? Do not honor yourself, but be among the people as their peer." He was generous to waifs and widows as a father and with love led his people always to righteousness. The wrathful he punished and blessedly lived his true beliefs.

It happened eventually that the Danish people set out with ships, ravaging and slaying far and wide throughout the land, even as their custom is. In one ship were the senior headmen, Hinguar and Hubba, united by the devil, and there on Northumbria landed with spears, sacked that province, and slew the people. Then Hinguar returned east with his ships and Hubba remained in Northumbria, having won victory with bloodthirstiness. Hinguar then came rowing to East Anglia, in the year that King Alfred, who was the illustrious king of the West Saxons, was twenty-one years old. The same Hinguar, as suddenly as a wolf on land, stalked and then attacked the people, men and women, guileless children, and shamelessly mistreated the innocent Christians.

Hinguar then directly afterward dispatched to the king a boastful message that he must bow in his service if Edmund cared about his life. The messenger then came to King Edmund and directly delivered to him Hinguar's message: 'Hingaur, our king, keen and successful on sea and on land has control of many people and suddenly came now with soldiers here to land that he would have winter quarter with his company. Now he commands you to share your secret gold-horde and the treasure of your elders quickly with him and that you be his under-king if you desire to be alive because you don't have the might to withstand a young man.'

Lo! then Edmund summoned a bishop that was then nearest to him and reflected with him how he ought to answer the cruel Hinguar. Then the bishop shuddered at the sudden misfortune and for the king's life. He said to the king that it seemed advisable to him that he might cave to that which Higuar commanded. Then the king became quiet and looked to the earth and then eventually regally replied to the bishop, 'Oh you bishop, the broken-hearted people of this land have been shamefully mistreated and to me it would now be preferable that I fell fighting, provided that my people may be allowed to enjoy their homeland.'

And the bishop said, 'Oh you beloved king, your people lies destroyed and you do not have the support that you would be able to struggle. The Vikings will arrive and will hold you fast alive unless you will protect your flesh with flight, or you would thus protect yourself that you would submit to him.'

Then said the Sovereign Edmund, just as he was fully brave, 'This I desire and dream with courage: that I alone not survive after my beloved thanes, who on their beds were, with children and wives, suddenly slain by these Vikings. It was was not ever customary that I took flight, but on the contrary, I willed rather to die if I needed to for my own country and the Almighty God. I know that I do not will to yield from his observances forever, nor from his true love, whether I live or die.'

After these words, he whirled toward the messenger of Hinguar sent to him and said to the messenger, unafraid, 'Certainly you were worthy of slaughter now, however I do not will to defile my clean hand in your vile blood because I follow Christ, who so set an example for us. I blithely desire to be slain by you if God preordains it. Go now mightily and quickly and make known to your cruel lord, '"Edmund will not ever yield to Hinguar in life, heathen headman, but only to the Savior Christ. Forever with faith, in this land I dwell."'

Then herald hastily returned and found by the road the bloodthirsty Hinguar with all his army accelerating toward Edmund. To the dishonorable man he said, 'You are answered.' Higuar then bade with boldness to seize the ships of the sovereign, of the only king who rejected his command, and to bind him immediately. Lo! King Edmund stood within his hall of the mindful Healer with Hinguar, who then came, and discarded his weapons. He willed to imitate Christ's example, which forbade Peter to fight against the fierce Jews with weapons. Lo! to the dishonorable man Edmund then submitted and was scoffed at and beaten by cudgels. Thus the heathens lead the faithful king to a tree firmly rooted in Earth, tightened him thereto with sturdy bonds, and again scourged him for a long time with straps. He always called between the blows with belief in truth to Christ the Savior. The heathens then became brutally angry because of his beliefs, because he called Christ to himself to help. They shot then with missiles, as if to amuse themselves, until he was all covered with their missiles as with bristles of a hedgehog, just as Sebastian was. Then Hinguar, the dishonorable viking, saw that the noble king did not desire to renounce Christ, and with resolute faith always called to him; Hinguar then commanded to behead the king and the heathens thus did. While this was happening, Edmund called to Christ still. Then the heathens dragged the holy man to slaughter, and with a stroke struck the head from him. His soul set forth, blessed, to Christ. There was a certain man proximate, preserved by God, concealed from the heathens. He heard all this and told it afterwards just as we told it here. Lo! then the sea-army set out again to the ships and concealed that head of the holy Edmund in the dense brambles so that it would not be buried.

Then a while after Higuar was departed, land-folk came to where he was left. There the master's body lay, except the head. They became surely sorrowful in mood because of his slaughter, especially that his body did not have a head. Then the observer said that he saw before that the Vikings had the head with them and seemed to him, just as it was completely true, that they hid the head in the forest somewhere.

Then they walked all together to the woods, searching there throughout the bushes and brambles so they might be able to find the head anywhere. There was also great wonder that a wolf was sent, through God's guidance to protect the head from the other wild animals, over day and night. They walked then searching and always calling, just as it is customary to those who go in the woods often, "Where are you now, friend?" And the head answered them, 'Here, here, here!'; and thus it frequently called, answering them all as often as they called, until they all came because of the head's calling out to them. There lay the grey wolf that guarded the head, and with his two feet he held the head clasped, greedy and hungry, though because of God he did not dare to eat the head and held it from wild animals. Then they became astonished the wolf's guardianship, thanking the Almighty for all his wonders, that the wolf carried the holy head homewards with them; and the meek wolf forth also with the head until it came to village, as if he was tame, and returned again back to the woods. The land-folk then afterwards lay the head with the holy body and buried it as best they could in such haste and established a church immediately above him.

Again then in time, after many years, the harrying ceased and peace was given to the afflicted folk. Then they gathered together and built a church brilliantly to the holy man, because miracles manifested frequently at his grave, at the prayer-house where his burial was. They willed then to parade the holy body with public dignity and to lay it within their church. Then there was great wonder that he was all just as intact as if he was alive with unsoiled body. His neck was healed, which before was cut through, and there was as if there were a silken thread about his red neck, evidence for people of how he was slain. Moreover, the wounds which the bloodthirsty heathen made in his body with frequent missiles were healed by the heavenly God and he lies uncorrupted as far as this present day, awaiting resurrection and the eternal glory. His body, which lies undecayed, reveals to us that he lived without wantonness here in this world traveled to Christ with a clean life.

Many years later, a certain widow called Oswyn dwelt at this holy burial place with prayer and fasting. She willed to cut the Saint's hair every year and to cut his fingernails neatly with love and to hold the relics in the chest in the altar.

Then happened that the land-folk with belief in the saint and Bishop Theodrid greatly endowed that church with gifts in gold and in silver to honor the saint. Then, on a certain occasion, unfortunate thieves came, eight in a night to the honorable holy one. They desired to steal the money the men had brought thither and tried to contrive with craft how they might be able to come in. Some severely struck the hasp with a sledgehammer; some filed about it with a file; some also dug under the door with a spade; some of them wanted to unlock the window with a ladder. But they toiled in vain and miserably proceeded as the holy man wondrously held them fast, each as he stood struggling with a tool, that none of them neither had the might to perpetrate the crime to perpetrate nor therefrom to stir and stood thus until morning. Men then wondered at how the criminals hung, some on the ladder, some stooped to digging, and each was bound fast in his work. They were then brought them all to the bishop and he held that they all be hanged on the high gallows. He was not by any means mindful how the mild-hearted God called out through his prophet, 'Deliver them that are condemned to death--Eos qui ducuntur ad mortem eruere ne cessas [they who are commanded to death do not forbear to pull out]; those whom the man leads to death release out always.' The holy cannon always forbids the ordained ones, both bishops and priests, to be concerned with thieves because it does not befit those that are chosen ones by God to serve that they must assent to any man's death, if they be the thanes of the Lord. Then Bishop Theodrid looked again at his Holy Writ and afterwards repented with sadness that he thus set cruel doom to the unfortunate thieves. He regretted after until the end of his life, and he bade the people zealously that they fast with him fully three days, bidding the Almighty that he ought to pardon to bishop.

In the land there was a certain man called Leofstan, powerful of the world and ignorant with respect to God, who rode with arrogance to the holy man and fiercely commanded those who were there to show the holy saint and whether he was uncorrupted. As quickly as he saw this saint's body, he immediately went mad, horribly raged, and wretchedly ended his life by an evil death. This is similar to that which the ardent Pope Gregory said in his account concerning the holy Lawrence, who lived in Romebryig: that men, both good and evil, always willed to behold how he lay dead, but God stopped them. Thus there was a seven-men band that died together after their survey. Then the others ceased to look at the martyr with man-made error. Many wonders we heard in vernacular speech concerning the Holy Edmund, which we do not will to set in writing here because everyone knows them. In this holy man is manifest, and in many others, that God Almighty prepared the man to rise again on doom's day ,uncorrupted from earth, he who keeps Edmund's body unhurt until the great day, although that he comes from the earth. Worthy is the place for the honorable holy man in that those who visit might honor the man and well might equip themselves with God's pure servant for Christ's service, because the saint is more illustrious when men may to understand.

The Lord's holy English people is not deprived, when in England would lie dead such saints as the holy king is and Cuthbert the Blessed and Saint Æthelthryth in Ely and her sister, uncorrupted in body as a confirmation of the faith. There are also many other English saints which also worked worked, just as it is well known far and wide to praise the Almighty, he in whom they believed. Christ reveals to man through his memorable saints that he is Almighty God who makes many wonders, though the wretched Jews utterly renounced him because they are accursed, just as they wished themselves. There was not even one wonder worked at their tombs because they do not believe in the life of Christ. Christ revealed to man where the true belief is, that worked many wonders through his saints far and wide throughout the Earth. This would be glory to him forever with his heavenly father and the holy angels forever without end. Amen.

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