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Giving the head's up in Aelfric's Passio Sancti Eadmundi: postural representations of the Old English Saint.

POSTURAL DESCRIPTIONS are an important feature of decapitation scenes in Anglo-Saxon texts. 'Posture' is denoted through physical positioning, elevation and descent, and prepositional descriptions. It is also portrayed through a focus on anatomical order where the head is positioned above other bodily members. These descriptions are used in Old English to frame decapitation scenes and to portray saints and adversaries, working on typological and tropological levels.


Much has been discussed about the significance of decapitation in Old English texts but the theme of posture has not yet been highlighted. (1) The posture of enemies is used to emphasize their vices and their total defeat by a hero. For example, Grendel and Grendel's Mother are portrayed as monstrous enemies through their overbearing postures in Beowulf. They attack their victims when the retainers are lying down (140, 740-45, 1251, 1298), Grendel rips open the doors of Heorot (described as the hall's mouth, "recedes mujian," 724) with his hands, and the ruthless hands of Grendel's Mother ("grimmam grapum," 1542) make Beowulf fall to a physically subordinate position ("he on fylle weard," 1544). (2) The defeat of the enemy is also described in terms of posture. Grendel's anatomical order is inverted when his arm is raised above the gables of the hall roof (833-36). This is reinforced when four warriors carry Grendel's head back to Heorot ("geferian / to paem gold-sele Grendles heafod," 1638-39) and across the hall floor as a symbol of victory: "pa waes be feaxe on flet boren / Grendles heofod" (1647-48). (3) The head is held by the hair ("be feaxe") and placed below the victors' hands, emphasizing the hero's victory over the enemy.

The decapitations of Grendel and Grendel's Mother are also described in terms of their postures. Grendel's body lies lifeless in the cave when Beowulf cuts off the head: "to daes pe he on raeste geseah / gud-werigne Grendel began ... ond hine Jja heafde becearf" (1585-86, 1590). (4) Grendel's Mother is also shown to have a subordinate posture when she is beheaded:
   "rodera Raedend, hit on ryht gesced
   ydelice, sypflan he eft astod...
   yrringa sloh,
   paet hire wid halse heard grapode,
   ban-hringas braec; bil eal Surhwod
   faegne flaesc-homan; heo on flet gecrong."
   (1555-56, 1565-68)

   [the Ruler of the Heavens rightly settled it
   as soon as the Geat regained his feet...
   and brought it [the sword] down in fury
   to take her full and fairly across the neck,
   breaking the bones; the blade sheared
   through the death-doomed flesh. She fell to the ground]. (5)

Gods justice is reflected in Beowulf's posture when he is able to stand again ("he eft astod") and in Grendel's Mother's posture when she falls to the ground in a physically subordinate position ("on flet gecrong"). Postural descriptions are used to depict the decapitation scenes in Beowulf and they are consistently used to portray the hero and enemy.

The postures of enemies are highlighted in other decapitation scenes in Old English poetry. I have drawn attention to this feature in the biblical poem Judith, where postural epithets are used to denote Holofernes's vices and total defeat at the hands of a woman. (6) Many passages from Judith resonate with Beowulf and there are close connections between the texts' decapitation scenes. (7) The decapitation in Judith is drawn out over fifteen lines to emphasize Holofernes's unheroic subordination to a woman who awkwardly wields a sword. (8) God's justice is reflected in the postural descriptions surrounding this decapitation. Judith's posture is constantly superior to that of Holofernes, and these epithets are used throughout the entire poem to frame the decapitation and to depict the hero and enemy.

There are other texts that also focus heavily on posture to narrate the deaths of saints. For example, Bede presents King Oswald's sanctity through descriptions of a horse's posture:

"It happened that not long after his death a man was travelling on horseback past this place [where Oswald died]. The horse suddenly began to tire; next it stopped, bending its head to the ground and foaming at the mouth and then, as the pain became unbearable, it fell to the earth ... as it turned over, it came upon the very spot where the famous king had fallen.

Forthwith the pain ceased ... it rolled from side to side, stood up completely cured and began to crop the grass greedily." (III. 9) (9)

Oswald's sainthood is verified by the beast's renewed posture. Bede mentions only that Oswald was killed by Cadwalla but AElfric's Life of Oswald elaborates on this by stating that he was decapitated: "ha het se hasjaena cynincg his heafod of-aslean / and his swidran earm and settan hi to myrcelse" (162-63). (10) William of Malmesbury later developed AElfric's account, emphasizing that the king's body was mutilated after decapitation:

"When he was slain, his arms with the hands and his head were cut off by the insatiable rage of his conqueror, and fixed on a stake. The dead trunk indeed, as I have mentioned, being laid to rest in the calm bosom of the earth, turned to its native dust; but the arms and hands, through the power of God, remain ... without corruption." (I. 3) (11)

The king is anatomically subverted and his head is then displayed on the same level as his arms as a sign of his defeat. However, his overall spiritual victory is confirmed through the preservation of his other bodily members. Oswald's posture is used to highlight his martyrdom and sanctity after his decapitation.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also presents the saint through postural epithets. AElfheah, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in the year 1012 AD by the Vikings:

they pelted him with bones and with ox-heads, and one of them struck him on the head with the back of an axe, that he sank down with the blow, and his holy blood fell on the ground, and so he sent his holy soul to God's kingdom. (12)

This account from the Chronicle is also elaborated by William of Malmesbury, who adds that AElfheah was decapitated and later found incorrupt. (13) AElfheah's sanctity is confirmed when his soul ascends to heaven after his physical posture descends to the earth.

In AElfric's homily for Ash Wednesday, God's justice is revealed through postural descriptions. AElfric retells a story by Saint Jerome about a wife who is accused of committing adultery with a young man. After a series of terrible tortures, the young man wrongfully admits to the alleged adultery to end his torment. The faithful wife, however, refuses to admit to the crime and remains steadfast through more torture. They are both condemned to die and the young man is decapitated with one stroke. His abrupt death reflects his inability to endure for the sake of truth and his posture reflects his spiritual decline: "he laeg heofod-leas / mid anum swencge" (208-9). (14) The wife, on the other hand, is protected by God and the executioner's sword cannot break through her neck:
   Heo let to siege and he sloh pa to
   mid eallum maegene ac paet swurd ne mihte
   buton pa hyde ceorfan peah pe he hetelice sloge ...
   Heo weard pa ofslagan ac hire swura naes purh-slagen.
   Heo waes swa-peah dead and sona bebyrged
   ac god hi eft araerde eadelice of deade
   on paere ylcan nihte."


   [She bent down for the stroke, and he then struck at her
   with all his might, but the sword could not
   cut anything but the skin, though he struck fiercely...
   She was then killed, but her neck was not stricken through;
   she was nevertheless dead, and quickly buried;
   but God easily raised her again from death
   in that same night]. (15)

The wife is killed despite God's revelation of her innocence and her posture is physically subordinated to the executioner. She bends down for the stroke ("let to siege") and is buried beneath the earth ("sona bebyrged"). However, God's justice is revealed after her death as her body is raised from the earth and her upright posture is regained ("hi eft araerde"). This fascinating story draws upon postural descriptions to frame a decapitation scene and to reflect divine judgment through God's faithful people.

There are other examples of decapitation scenes in Old English that frame their narratives with postural descriptions to denote God's enemies and holy saints. This theme has not been highlighted in Anglo-Saxon scholarship yet it informs our readings of many different Old English texts. AElfric's Passion of St Edmund provides another example of how the theme of posture is used to represent the saint. Like other texts that deal with decapitation, the beheading scene occupies a central position in the story but postural descriptions are used before, during, and after the decapitation to highlight the vices of adversaries and the virtues of the saint. In the Passion of Edmund, the martyr-king is presented as a heroic leader and God's saint and his posture reflects this throughout.


The Passion of Edmund narrates one of the most famous decapitations in Anglo-Saxon saints' lives that had a lasting impact upon the politics and succession claims of later periods. (16) AElfric based his version on Abbo of Fleury's Passio Sancti Eadmundi but condensed much of the source material, seeing himself "not so much as a translator but rather a mediator whose aim it was to convey an idea." (17) AElfric closely follows Abbo's narrative in many places but he also adapts his source material to emphasize key ideas for his own contemporary audience. (18) He responded to the renewed Viking attacks of the late tenth century by exhorting his audience to nonviolent resistance: "AElfric's message is that a cruel enemy can be overcome only by a concerted programme of prayer offered by all groups of society. (19) King Edmund provided one such example of how the Viking enemy could be overcome by the Christian, who gains the ultimate victory in death. Among other literary techniques, AElfric conveys this idea of saintly conquest through Edmunds posture.

Paul Cavill has discussed Abbo's biblical sources for his Passion of Edmund, arguing that he based his account on the death of Saul more than any historical event. (20) Abbo uses postural descriptions to portray Edmund as a martyr during and after his decapitation. For example, when Edmund's head is found guarded by a wolf in a forest, emphasis is placed on its position on the ground and between the wolf's feet: "Quippe immanis lupus eo loci divina miseratione est repertus, qui illud sacrum caput inter brachia conplexus procumbebat humi" (12: 40-42, emphasis mine). (21) AElfric accurately translates these descriptions following the decapitation but he also provides additional postural epithets to frame the decapitation scene. Before Edmund is captured, Abbo describes his refusal to bow before a heathen king in terms of his submission to Christ: "qui me sub Christo solo uiuere, sub Christo solo regnare" (8: 47-48). (22) Adfric describes Edmund's choice of submission with repeated emphasis on his posture: "se aelmihtiga god wat / pae ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum" (80-81). (23) In Abbo's Passio, Edmund states that he lives as Christ's subject, but in AElfric's account he declares that he will never stop bowing before God. Unlike Abbo, AElfric repeatedly uses the image of bowing to describe Edmund's faithful choice of postural submission (61, 72, 91, 93).

Another instance where AElfric elaborates on Abbo's Passio is found in the scene where robbers attempt to break into the church where Edmund is buried. Abbo describes the tools that the robbers use to break in from different positions: "alius postibus scalam applicat, ut per insertam fenestram se ingerat; alius cum lima aut fabrili malleo instat serae aut pessulo; alii cum uangis et ligonibus suffossionem parietis machinantur" (15: 17-20). (24) The robbers' points of entry into the church imply their physical positioning and AElfric emphasizes this with additional prepositions: "sum heora mid feolan feolode abutan / sum eac underdealf J)a duru mid spade" (203-4). (25) The majority of postural descriptions in Abbo's narrative are closely translated by AElfric but there are some instances where AElfric introduces additional imagery to emphasize the postures of Edmund and his enemies.

There has been much work done on how AElfric combines Christian and heroic values. Mary Clayton has highlighted AElfrics treatment of heroic defiance as a response to the contemporary Viking threat. (26) Hugh Magennis and Kent Hare have also discussed the purpose of warrior saints in AElfric's Lives for his contemporary audience. (27) John Halbrooks has commented on Aslfric's representations of Christian heroism and his attempt to reconcile heroic combat with Christianity. (28) John Damon discusses the interaction of kingship and religious conversion in AElfric's Lives and he remarks that the Passion of Edmund presents an example of "a symbolic defeat able to be righted by the widespread conversion of those who had put the holy king to death and their descendants." (29) According to Damon, the martyr-king conquers through his death and reigns over his subjects through their conversion. Catherine Cubitt has discussed the theme of decapitation in saints' lives and the topography of the accounts of Edmund. (30) Cubitt also attempts to find features of paganism in the Passion of Edmund narrative, arguing that its oral, cult origin betrays non-Christian elements that were later shaped by ecclesiastical authorities. (31) She argues that the "wolf was a prominent animal in pagan cosmology and the association between Edmund and trees is suggestive of popular religious veneration." (32) Although these "pagan" elements are difficult to substantiate in AElfric's writings, Cubitt draws attention to the importance of decapitation in Anglo-Saxon hagiography and Edmunds almost immediate veneration.

More recently, Mark Faulkner connects Edmund's passion with his virginity but argues that descriptions of his bodily purity eclipse the narrative of his decapitation: "For AElfric, Edmund's virtue is his defining characteristic ... the beheading is thus treated very summarily." (33) Faulkner does, however, add that Edmund's beheading is central in a theological way:

Edmund's death is narratively anti-climactic after the gruesome series of tortures, but theologically climactic in that it punctures the rhythm of human history by marking his insertion in the annual cycle of the liturgical calendar. This briefly related beheading takes on greater dramatic significance post mortem. (34)

As Faulkner observes, Edmund's beheading clearly has extended significance in the narrative as a whole. This consistency is most evidenced by postural epithets but posture has not yet been highlighted in AElfric's depictions of the saint. These descriptions frame the saint's decapitation scene and accentuate their Christian and heroic virtues.

The story opens with the challenge presented to King Edmund by a raiding Viking army, and their demand of him to submit to their leader Hingwar. Edmund refuses, so he is bound and killed and his head is hidden in a forest to prevent his proper burial. He miraculously calls out to his people who are trying to find it and he receives a fitting funeral ceremony. Further miracles are described after a church is raised above his tomb, in particular how he stops thieves breaking into the holy place. These scenes are all emphasized through postural descriptions which add to Edmunds representations as heroic leader and saint.

The Viking leaders challenge to Edmund is focused mainly on submission. Hingwar is represented as dishonorable because of his actions against Edmunds men, who were killed whilst lying down with their wives and children:

"aefter minum leofum pegnum pe on heora bedde wurdon mid bearnum and wifum faerlice of slaegene fram bysum flot-mannum." (75-77)

["after my dear thanes, who even in their beds, with their bairns and their wives, have by these seamen been suddenly slain"]. (35)

Hingwar's brutality and antiheroism is expressed through his victims' horizontal postural positioning. The king is also expected to acknowledge his defeat through postural gesture, and this is emphasized by the repetition of bugan (to bow) in Hingwar's challenge to Edmund: "he abugan sceolde" (44), "him raed puhte / paet he to pam gebuge" (60-61), "gebeorge paet pu buge to him" (72). The emphasis on posture is made not only by the repeated use of bugan (to bow) but also through the prepositional prefix a-bugan (to bow down). The use of the dative case also highlights what Edmund is expected to submit to (emphasis mine): "to his man-raedene" (45), "to him [Hingwar]" (72), "hingware ... / hcepenum here-togan" (91-92). The physical gesture of lowering ones head and body in submission, to the point of becoming a literal and physical "under-kyning" (54), is rejected by the king without hesitation.

Edmund defiantly responds to the challenge by stressing his own upright postural positioning and by negating the same words used in Hingwar's demands: "ne abihd neefre eadmund hingware on life" (91). Yet it is not the act of bowing down which is the issue here. Rather, it is to whom Edmund is required to submit and for what reasons. As a saint, Edmund makes his reasoning clear in refusing to submit to a heathen:
   "sege pinum retail hlaforde
   ne abihd naefre eadmund hingware on life
   haepenum here-togan buton he to haelende criste
   aerest mid ge-leafan on bysum lande gebuge."

   [say to thy cruel lord;
   Edmund the king will never bow in life to Hingwar,
   the heathen leader, unless he will first bow,
   in this land, to Jesus Christ with faith]. (36)

Edmund refuses to acknowledge Hingwar as his royal superior if the Viking leader will not submit to Christs spiritual authority through postural gesture. In addition, Edmund stresses that he is not concerned for his earthly life but would rather sacrifice himself for his people, "pa bilewitan cristenan" (42):
   me nu leofre were
   paet ic on feohte feolle wid pam pe min folc
   moste heora eardes brucan ...
   ic wolde swiSor sweltan gif ic horfte
   for minum agenum earde and se aelmitiga god wat
   paet ic nelle abugan fram his biggengum aefre
   ne fram his sopan lufe swelte ic lybbe ic.
   (65-66, 79-82)

   [it were now dearer to me
   that I should fall in fight against him who would possess
   my peoples inheritance ...
   I would rather die, if I must,
   for my own land; and almighty God knoweth
   that I will never turn aside from His worship,
     whether I die or live]. (37)

Edmund is represented as a saint by refusing to submit to a heathen and by preferring self-sacrifice for his people over anything of earthly value. He is not primarily concerned with postural submission, as he will under no circumstances "abugan fram his [God's] biggengum" (81). Edmund will not submit his posture to a heathen but neither will he stop bowing down to God. He is represented as a saint by his faithful choice of submissive posture.

Edmunds other saintly qualities are also represented through posture and anatomical order. After he chooses to die fighting against Hingwar ("on feohte feolle," 66), Edmund makes his decision through rational consideration. He demonstrates intellectual qualities by first seeking ecclesiastical advice and then by making his own decision, trusting in his judgment and leadership as head of the people:
   Hwaet pa eadmund clypode senne bisceop
   pe him pa gehendost waes and wid hine smeade
   hu he pam repan hinguare and-wyrdan sceolde.
   pa forhtode se bisceop for ham faerlican gelimpe
   and for haes cynincges life and cwaep paet him raed puhte
   paet he to pam gebuge pe him bead hinguar.
   pa suwode se cynincg and beseah to paere eorpan.

   [So then king Edmund called a bishop
   who was handiest to him, and consulted with him
   how he should answer the savage Hingwar.
   Then the bishop feared for this terrible misfortune,
   and for the king's life, and said that it seemed best to him
   that he should submit to that which Hingwar bade him.
   Then the king kept silence and looked on the ground]. (38)

The king initially acts humbly by seeking advice from a bishop. The bishop is presented as a man of worldly fear and political strategy and he is concerned for the king's earthly life. The verb bugan is again repeated in the bishops advice ("he to pam gebuge pe him bead hinguar"), and his attitude is placed in opposition to the king who continuously negates this verb in his direct speech. Edmund is shown to be wise in considering the bishops words when he remains silent ("suwode") and bows his head towards the ground ("beseah to paere eorpan").

Edmund then reproaches the bishop for his earthly fear and speaks with authority as a king ("cwaep pa set nextan cynelice him to," 63). Edmunds personal respect for the advice of an ecclesiastical authority now becomes a defiant, authoritative admonition of advice that is based on human fear. His leadership is presented in terms of heroic loyalty to his people and a saintly disregard for the earthly life:
   pa cwaep eadmund cyning swa swa he ful cene waes
   "paes ic gewilnige and gewisce mid mode
   paet ic ana ne belife aefter minum leofum pegnum...
   Naes me naefre gewunelic paet ic worhte fleames
   ac ic wolde swidor sweltan gif ic porfte
   for minum agenum earde."
     (73-75, 78-80)

   [Then said Edmund the king, full brave as he was;
   'This I desire and wish in my mind,
   that I should not be left alone after my dear thanes...
   It was never my custom to take flight,
   but I would rather die, if I must,
   for my own land']. (39)

Edmund is presented as a saint when he bows his head in thought after seeking advice from the Church and when he makes a decision mid mode (with mind), trusting in God and refusing to abandon his people. He is shown to be heroic by refusing to bow before his enemy, by ruling with his head and by standing resolute against the Viking army.

The significance for AElfric's contemporary audience who faced the threat of Viking attacks is clear. Edmund's rational virtues provide an ideal for how to react to such a threat. Indeed, "this saint is no pacifist, since he has indicated that his first option would have been to die in battle." (40) Edmunds reverent gesture to the bishop stresses his submission to Gods authority, his rational consideration reflects his leadership as the head of his people, and his rebuke of the bishop for his fear of earthly life portrays Edmund as a figure of Christian leadership for the Church. By seeking counsel, listening, and fearlessly making his own decision, Edmund shows that he is ruled by virtues of the mind and demonstrates his kingship as head of the people.

The king's refusal to bow down to Hingwar leads to his capture. He throws away his earthly weapons, rejecting the heroic last stand to become heroically Christian. The Vikings find Edmund standing upright in his hall thinking on Christ:
   Hwaet pa eadmund cynincg mid pam Hingwar com
   stod innan his healle haslendes gemyndig
   and swearp his waepna wolde geaefen-laecan
   cristes gebysnungum.

   [Then Edmund the king, when Hingwar came,
   stood within his hall mindful of the Saviour,
   and threw away his weapons, desiring to imitate
   Christs example]. (41)

From standing upright within the hall, the heart of Anglo-Saxon civilization, Edmund is then bound and physically restrained. His refusal to fight is depicted as the "ultimate courage by going into battle unarmed," thus becoming heroically Christian. (42) He freely sacrifices his upright position in imitation of Christ's self-sacrifice, offering his posture to the enemy rather than shedding his people's blood. The connections between sacrifice, blood, and the imitation of Christ represent Edmund as a priestly figure as well as a king, thus appealing to both religious and secular audiences: "[AElfric] utilizes Edmund as a vehicle not only for concepts of kingship but also for advancing the tenets of reformed monasticism ... As a Christ-like figure, and therefore analogous to a priest, he refuses to shed blood." (43) He becomes obedient to his enemy through epithets denoting his new posture that closely parallel Christ's posture in his Passion: "jja eadmund gebundon" (106), "and beoton mid saglum" (107), "laeddon jjone geleaf-fullan cyning" (108), "treowe and tigdon hine paer-to / mid heardum bendum" (109-10). These descriptions fit firmly within traditional features of saints' lives that include "typological conventions of hagiographic violence, like the scourging of Christ." (44) The typology of Edmund's self-sacrifice is made explicit through prepositional descriptions of his binding and postural restraint.

Edmund's abrupt execution by decapitation forms the central part of the narrative. Following this, his head is hidden in a wood on the lowest physical position on the ground in "a final attempt to prevent Edmund from eventually enjoying the bodily resurrection universally promised to every Christian." (45) Soon after the Vikings' departure, however, we find that his posture and anatomy are again normalized. After "his sawl sipode gesaelig to criste" (126), his people despair at not being able to find the head; the loss of Edmund's head reflects the people's loss of their head. Despite the demeaning posture of the king's head lying in a wood and his body lying lifeless on the ground (135), Edmund is once more represented as a saint by overcoming anatomical restrictions. He transcends the limitations of corporeality and retains the vitalizing quality of speech. Even after his anatomical subversion, Edmund's decapitated head directs and leads his people by rationality:
   Her her her and swa gelome clypode
   andswarigende him eallum swa oft heora aenig clypode
   oppaet hi ealle becomen purh da clypunga him to.

   ['Here, here, here.' And so it cried out continually,
   answering them all, as oft as any of them cried,
   until they all came to it by means of those cries]. (46)

Edmund's ability to communicate after his decapitation "anticipates his future incorruption" as a saint. (47) As a heroic king, Edmund still leads his people to his displaced head by rationality. Although it is on the ground and anatomically inverted, Edmund still rules with his head.

The presence of a wolf protecting Edmund's head also represents him as a saint through posture. The wolf is described as lying down ("Pa laeg se graega wulf," 154) and embracing the head with its feet: "mid his twam fotum haefde paet heofod beclypped" (155). The fact that the wolf lies by the head and protects it with its feet portrays a posture submissive to Edmund, raising the head to the same anatomical level as the wolf's feet and body. Even a creature distinguished from man through an absence of intellectual activity reveres and venerates Edmund as a saint through postural gesture. The wolf also acts as an ideal retainer protecting its lord ("paes wulfes hyrd-raedenne," 158). As in other saints' lives, the wild animal is then tamed by Edmund as it faithfully follows his head until it is realigned with his body, testifying to Edmunds sanctity after his martyrdom. (48) By retaining rational qualities after decapitation, Edmund proves his spiritual prowess over man and beast alike. Malcolm Godden has discussed AElfric's distinction between the body and soul and highlights that the intellectual capacity of man is a key theme in Afifric's works: "[It] is not just a life-spirit but a rational and immortal soul unique to man ... It is primarily an intellectual inner self, whose mental activity imitates God and distinguishes man from the beasts." (49) Edmund's mental activity imitates God as he reunites his people when they search for his head and when they bury him. However, the king's intellectual inner self prompts a beast to behave in such a way that it is no longer distinguishable from the people. Edmund maintains intellectual influence over both man and animal to prove his sanctity despite his earthly posture.

Edmund's anatomy is normalized again after death when his head is realigned with his body for burial: "pa land-leoda pa sippan ledon paet heofod / to pam halgan bodige and gebyrigdon hine" (164-65). (50) He is literally laid to rest when his head and body are repositioned. This realignment symbolizes both the reunification of the king (as head) with the people (as body) and it imitates Christs relationship with his body, the Church. Edmund's anatomy links the Christian Anglo-Saxons with the universal Church through suffering at the hands of heathens. Within the Christian tradition, the unification of Christ with the Church through suffering is described by St. Paul in terms of the head ruling the body: "Et ipse est caput corporis ecclesiae ... pacificans per sanguinem crucis ejus." (51) AElfric develops this Pauline theme in his typological and tropological message that Edmund's example is to be imitated by his people and by the Anglo-Saxon Church. AElfric uses Edmund's realigned body to exhort his audience to imitate the saints and Christ by patient suffering at the hands of the Vikings.

The king's burial expresses his submission to the Church through his new physical positioning. A church building is constructed over his grave so that he is directly below God's dwelling place which is built according to his location: "cyrcan araerdan sona him onuppon" (167). The preposition onuppon stresses the link between Edmund and the church, thus confirming his sanctity through this physically aligned relationship between the foundation (Edmund) and the object of Edmunds submission (God). Once Edmunds submission to God in both life and death is confirmed with the construction of a church above him, conventional miracles inevitably occur at his resting place: "gelome wundra wurdon set his byrgene" (172). Following these miracles, Edmund's body is then elevated from beneath the church to within the building:
   Hi woldon pa ferian mid folclicum wurdmynte
   pone halgan lichaman and laecgan innan pasre cyrcan.

   [Then desired they to carry the holy body
   with popular honour, and to lay it within the church]. (52)

By virtue of his sanctity, confirmed by unspecified miracles, Edmund is physically placed on the same horizontal plane as the living inside the church. His earthly elevation reflects his spiritual elevation to sainthood.

Having represented Edmund as a saint by his elevation to reside within the church, AElfric now describes the most significant miracles he performed. Faulkner comments on the distinction between these miracles and the previously unspecified miracles performed by the saint: "we see AElfric's typical earnestness in distinguishing miracles that are appropriate to be set down in writing from further deeds of Edmund (and other English saints) that circulated orally." (53) These following miracles are written down for the benefit of AElfric's audience. There is a clear agenda in including these miracles as they carry symbolic significance for a national audience undergoing what AElfric saw as a period of Christian persecution: "Wulfstan saw the Vikings as punishment for the nations sins, but AElfric saw them as an occasion for virtuous suffering." (54) The following miracles of healing, unity, and justice give purpose to virtuous suffering and are expressed through both Edmund's anatomy and his enemy's posture.

The first such miracle is that of Edmund's physically reattached head, with a "seolcen praed" (179) signifying his martyrdom. Faulkner describes this healing in terms of Edmund's ascent to heaven: "after this earthly defilement, he ascends towards his spiritual zenith, an ascent figured through the reheading of Edmund's physical body." (55) Edmund's spiritual ascent is first signified by his bodily ascent from beneath the church building to his residing within it. It is then confirmed by the reattachment of his head to his body after his translation. Though he is lying down, Edmund still demonstrates the vitalizing quality of healing to the point of reforming his mutilated body and removing other wounds (181-83). Despite his posture in death, Edmund remains active in the corporeal world through his anatomical reformation: "he waes eall swa gehal / swylce he cucu waere mid claenum lichaman" (176-77). (56) Edmund is represented as a saint precisely because he is not limited by his posture or corporeality. AElfric's tropological message is clear: that only through faith, obedience, and temperance can true victory be obtained over the Vikings. James Earl takes this further to claim that these virtues were viewed as spiritual weapons that were to be used for the conversion of the enemy: "the conversion of the Vikings could be seen as England's ultimate victory ... Edmund falls but conquers." (57) Although Edmund is lying down in death, he heals and unifies, and is vitalized and preserved through his reformed body. The saint overcomes corporeal restrictions and worldly persecution through divine power.

The second miracle is Edmund's remarkable control over the enemy's posture whilst remaining unmoved. He is able to bind eight thieves who attempt to steal "pa madmas Joe men pyder brohton" (200). They approach from all angles and cover all possible positions, signified by a number of prepositions (emphasis mine):
   hu hi in cumon mihton ...
   sum heora mid feolan feolode abutan ...
   sum eac underdealf ...
   sum heora mid hlaeddre.

   [how they get in ...
   one of them filed about it with a file ...
   one dug under ...
   one of them by a ladder:] (58)

Edmund's body is surrounded as the thieves attempt to break in but his power over corporeality and earthly posture again becomes apparent. Edmund remains stationary and is still lying down when he paradoxically restrains them all: "se halga wer hi wundorlice geband / aelcne swa he stod" (207-8). (59) He physically restricts those who are in a more dominant posture and animated position to himself, thus subverting his own binding and death. Like Edmund during his torture, they are held still ("ne hi J>anon astyrian," 210), whilst remaining upright ("ac stodon swa," 210), they are in suspense ("pa weargas hangodon," 211), remain in the same prepositional locations ("sum on hlasddre sum leat to gedelfe," 212) and they are completely prevented from carrying out any action ("aelc on his weorce waes faeste gebundan," 213). As a saint, Edmund maintains control over God's enemies after his death, even though his posture remains physically subordinate. Edmund is a type of Christ as he exacts justice after his death and delivers God's enemies into the hands of the Church through power over their posture. As a heroic leader, Edmund protects the treasures (madmas) that are kept in the church building, subverting his own earlier capture in his hall, and he provides protection for the Christian people against external enemies.

Edmund's representations as hero and saint occur through continuous epithets denoting his posture. He defies the enemy after seeking counsel and choosing a course of action according to his faith in Christ. He is shown to be defiantly upright and rules by his rational mind. He undergoes martyrdom by self-sacrifice, allowing his enemies to have complete control over his posture. After his decapitation he still leads his people and he is guarded and venerated by a beast through its submissive posture. He is buried and elevated to reside inside the church and he is found to be incorrupt and fully healed, showing his sanctity through anatomical reformation. Finally, his overall victory exacts justice in terms of his own posture and that of his enemies.


AElfric's Passion of St Edmund provides another instance of how postural descriptions frame decapitation scenes in Old English. Edmunds martyrdom occupies a central position in the narrative, but the many representations of hero and saint are highlighted by continuous epithets denoting posture. These descriptions are essential in establishing the significance of decapitation and continuing its meaning throughout the narrative after the head has been removed. Posture continues to open readings of texts dealing with decapitation, and this theme is used in many different ways to denote both saints and adversaries.

Centre for Medieval and Modern Studies, University of Kent


(1) See for example Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey, eds., Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination (Leiden: Brill, 2012); Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2002), 170-206; Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford U. Press, 2009), 1-60.

(2) Charles L. Wrenn, ed., Beowulf, 2nd ed. (London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1958), 113, 134.

(3) Wrenn, Beowulf, 137.

(4) Wrenn, Beowulf, 135; "he saw where Grendel lay at rest, limp from the fight ... he had severed the neck," Michael Alexander, trans., Beowulf (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 101.

(5) Wrenn, Beowulf, 135; Alexander, Beowulf, 100.

(6) Ciaran Arthur, "Postural Representations of Holofernes in the Old English Judith: The Lord Who Was Laid Low," English Studies 94 (2013): 872-82.

(7) See Peter J. Lucas, "The Place of Judith in the Beowulf Manuscript," RES 41 (1990): 463-78; Mary F. Godfrey, "Beowulf and Judith: Thematizing Decapitation in Old English Poetry," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 35 (1993): 1-43; Kathryn Powell, "Meditating on Men and Monsters: A Reconsideration of the Thematic Unity of the Beowulf Manuscript," RES 57 (2006): 1-15; Arthur, "Postural Representations", 877.

(8) See also Megan E. Hartman, "A Drawn-Out Beheading: Style, Theme, and Hypermetricity in the Old English Judith" JEGP 110 (2011): 421-40.

(9) Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, 2nd ed. (Oxford U. Press, 1999), 125.

(10) Walter W. Skeat, ed. and trans., AElfric's Lives of Saints: Part Two, 2 vols. (London: EETS, 1881-1890, reprinted 2004), 186-7; "Then the heathen king commanded to strike off his head and his right arm, and to set them up as a mark [trophy]." Like Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth also makes no mention of how Oswald died, see The History of the Kings of Britain, XII. 10, ed. and trans. Michael A. Faletra (Ontario: Broadview, 2008), 212.

(11) William of Malmesbury, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England: From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, ed. and trans. J. A. Giles (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1847), 48.

(12) Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans., English Historical Documents c. 500-1042, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1979), 246. For a discussion of the later accounts of AElfheah's death, see Alexander R. Rumble, "From Winchester to Canterbury: AElfheah and Stigand--Bishops, Archbishops and Victims," Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church: From Bede to Stigand, ed. Alexander R. Rumble (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012), 165-82.

(13) William of Malmesbury, Vita Dunstani, William of Malmesbury: Saints' Lives, ed. M. Winterbottom and R. M. Thomson (Oxford U. Press, 2002), 11.34, 296.

(14) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 276-77; "he lay headless with one stroke."

(15) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 276-79.

(16) For a discussion of the development of the cult of Edmund and its political manipulation, see Susan Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults (Cambridge U. Press, 1988): 212-30; Emma Cownie, "The Cult of St Edmund in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: The Language and Communication of a Medieval Saint's Cult," Neophilologische Mitteilungen 99 (1998): 177-97; Anna Chapman, "King Alfred and the Cult of St. Edmund," History Today 53 (2003): 37-43; Anthony Bale, ed., Saint Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2009).

(17) Michael Pieck, Old English Prose, Passio and Vita: Two Concepts of a Saint's Life in Anglo-Saxon England (Santa Cruz, CA: Grin Verlag, 2009), 9.

(18) See Pieck, Old English Prose, 11-12, and Mechthild Gretsch, AElfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), 226.

(19) Gretsch, Cult of Saints, 57.

(20) Paul Cavill, "Fun and Games: Viking Atrocity in the Passio Sancti Eadmundi," N&Q 52 (2005): 284-86.

(21) Abbo, Life of St. Edmund, Three Lives of English Saints, ed. Michael Winterbottom (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1972), 81.

(22) Abbo, Life of St. Edmund, 76.

(23) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 320.

(24) Abbo, Life of St. Edmund, 83.

(25) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 328.

(26) Mary Clayton, "Suicide in the Works of AElfric," RES 60 (2009): 341-70.

(27) Hugh Magennis, "Warrior Saints, Warfare, and the Hagiography of AElfric of Eynsham," Traditio 56 (2001): 27-51; Kent G. Hare, "Heroes, Saints, and Martyrs: Holy Kingship from Bede to Aelfric," Heroic Age 9 (2006): 1-25.

(28) John Halbrooks, "AElfric, the Maccabees, and the Problem of Christian Heroism," SP106 (2009): 263-84.

(29) John Edward Damon, Soldiers, Saints and Holy Warriors: Warfare and Sanctity in the Literature of Early England (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2003), 172. For a discussion of the relationship between kingship and sainthood in AElfric's Lives of Saints, see Bryan Houghton, Saint Edmund: King and Martyr (Austin, TX: Dalton, 1970).

(30) Catherine Cubitt, "Sites and Sanctity: Revisiting the Cult of Murdered and Martyred Anglo-Saxon Royal Saints," Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000): 63-4.

(31) Cubitt, "Sites and Sanctity," 64-65.

(32) Cubitt, "Sites and Sanctity," 64.

(33) Mark Faulkner, '"Like a Virgin': The Reheading of St. Edmund and Monastic Reform in Late-Tenth-Century England," Heads Will Roll, 40, 43.

(34) Faulkner, "Like a Virgin," 43.

(35) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 318-19. All subsequent quotations follow Skeat's edition and translation.

(36) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 320-21.

(37) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 318-21.

(38) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 318-19.

(39) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 318-21.

(40) Magennis, "Warrior Saints," 45.

(41) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 320-21.

(42) Damon, Soldier Saints, 182.

(43) Cubitt, "Sites and Sanctity," 65. For a thorough discussion on Ailfric's use of the Imitatio Christi motif for Edmund, see Carl Phelpstead, "King, Martyr and Virgin: Imitatio Christi in AElfric's Life of St Edmund',' St Edmund, King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint, ed. Anthony Bale (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2009), 27-44.

(44) James W. Earl, "Violence and Non-Violence in Anglo-Saxon England: AElfries 'Passion of St Edmund,'" PQ 78 (1999): 130.

(45) Faulkner, "Like a Virgin," 43.

(46) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 324-25.

(47) Faulkner, "Like a Virgin," 44.

(48) One example of taming a wild animal in a saints life includes Jeromes Life of Paul of Thebes, where lions dig a grave for the saint; see Carolinne White, trans., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), 83.

(49) M. R. Godden, "Anglo-Saxons on the Mind," Learning and Literature in England, ed. Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge U. Press, 1985), 285. See also Mary Clayton, "Blood and the Soul in AElfric," N&Q 54 (2007): 365-67.

(50) The anatomical positioning of a decapitated body in the burial rite is significant. It has been argued that some burial sites reveal "the heads placed at the foot of the grave" as a gesture of degradation and a fitting posture for executed criminals; see Sam Lucy, The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death: Burial Rites in Early England (Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2000), 75. Edmund's realignment signifies his re-humanization and directly contrasts with the postural positioning of other decapitated bodies in Anglo-Saxon burial customs. See also Reynolds, Deviant Burial Customs, 34-60.

(51) Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam versionem, ed. Roger Gryson et al., 5th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007), Col. 1.18, 20.

(52) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 326-27.

(53) Mark Faulkner, "AElfric, St Edmund and St Edwold of Cerne," Medium AEvum 77 (2008): 4.

(54) Earl, "Violence and Non-Violence," 132.

(55) Faulkner, "Like a Virgin," 43.

(56) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 326-27; "he was all as whole as if he were alive, with clean body."

(57) Earl, "Violence and Non-Violence," 139.

(58) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 328-29.

(59) Skeat, Lives of Saints, 328-29; "the holy men wondrously bound them, each as he stood."
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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