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Building British Identity Across History in “Saint Erkenwald”

Literature addresses historical themes for a variety of purposes, especially since it often provides for fascinating plots and thought-provoking parallels. Medieval English literature was no exception to this rule, and authors of the Middle Ages utilized the topics related to the past to achieve their artistic purpose. “Saint Erkenwald,” A Middle English poem dating back to the 14th century and written by an anonymous author known only as the Pearl Poet, is one example of such use of historical themes.

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In this poem, Erkenwald, a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon bishop known for his role in Christianizing Britain, encounters a miraculously preserved body of a virtuous man from pre-Christian time and helps its soul with salvation. While the poem is mainly a discussion of whether a person born before the salvation of Christ can go to heaven, its treatment of historical material also has important implications in terms of identity-building. By setting the poem in a multidimensional London cityscape and illustrating more and less limited perceptions of history, the text carefully constructs a British identity that surpasses ethnic bonds and the time itself.

When speaking of a Medieval Christian author working several centuries before the emergence of modern European nation-states, it is easy to assume that religious identity would take primacy over ethnic or historical themes. Indeed, “Saint Erkenwald” is, first and foremost, a Christian poem, and its subject matter is religious to the core. The story reflects on the important Medieval theological question of whether a virtuous person born before the salvation of Christ could be saved and what conditions would be necessary for such posthumous salvation. In this respect, the plot is likely inspired by the similar account of the Roman Emperor Trajan and St. Gregory (Burrow and Turville-Petre 1).

Religion plays a central role in establishing the poem’s setting. The first chronological reference in the text is “noȝt full long sythen / Sythen Crist suffered on crosse and Cristendome stabled” (“Saint Erkenwald” 1-2). Yet this reference also signals the intertwining of religious and historical themes in the poem: the salvation of Christ is important not only as a religious watershed but as a chronology milestone. Thus, the poem focuses on religion but views it in a historical context.

This importance of context is all the more evident if one thinks not only in chronological but in spatial terms as well. As mentioned above, the first chronological reference in the poem is to the birth of Christ as both a religious event and a date that structures history. Yet the very first reference that defines the setting is spatial rather than chronological. The words “At London in Englond” precede the mention of Christ and, thus, spatial precedes chronological in creating the poem’s historical setting (“Saint Erkenwald” 1). By doing so, the author signals the crucial importance of London as the place where the events of the poem take place.

This emphasis reaches its intended purpose in Erkwnwald’s conversation with the miraculously animated body of a virtuous judge who lived in London long before the coming of Christ. Through this unity of place that brings the people of two ages together, the author unites the “Christian London present and the previously unknown British past” (Camp 472). London’s historical cityscape that manifests in two temporal dimensions simultaneously becomes a vehicle for demonstrating Britain both before and after Christianization.

Yet while the poem uses chronological references and roots its plot in historical context from the beginning, its treatment of history is not universally attentive. Until the animated body speaks to Erkenwald, revealing itself to be a pre-Christian Briton, the poem barely alludes to the times before Anglo-Saxons. Roman of Celtic periods of history are not mentioned specifically, and the only reference to the pre-Saxon period is that Saxons “bete oute be Bretons and broȝt hom into Wales” (“Saint Erkenwald” 9).

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The text does not offer a historical perspective that would go further than the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. In this respect, one may agree with Camp that, as far as the poem’s introduction is concerned, “historical memory goes back no further than the adventus Saxonum and the eradication of the Britons” (475). This is not due to the lack of awareness on the author’s part since the pre-Saxon past comes into play later. Rather, such depiction of historical memory is a deliberate choice to set the following events, such as the people’s initial reaction to the sarcophagus containing the earthly remains of a virtuous pre-Christian judge.

As the builders working on the cathedral unearth the wonderfully crafted sarcophagus, they are thoroughly perplexed with what they see. Admittedly, it is nothing short of a miracle, and people would be justified to feel wonder when seeing an intact body that should have turned to dust long ago (“Saint Erkenwald” 73). However, it is not only the miraculously preserved cadaver that surprises the laborers – the sarcophagus itself proves to be beyond their understanding as well. Even though the characters inscribed into the sarcophagus are clear, no one can understand or translate them. As the author puts it, “all were unable to utter their meaning,” including the unspecified “clerke in þat clos with crownes ful brode” (“Saint Erkenwald” 54-55).

It is at this point that the previously hinted limitation of historical memory in 7th-century Britain, where the poem is set, comes into play. People who know nothing of Britain’s history before the Anglo-Saxons have no intellectual apparatus to understand and interpret the events that precede their times, leaving them ignorant and unable to position themselves in history properly.

While established knowledge fails to provide an answer, Erkenwald is the man of the utmost sanctity, and his passionate prayers to reveal the identity of the mysterious corpse do not remain unanswered. The newly animated corpse answers Erkenwald’s inquiry and tells that he was the master of judges back in the pagan era – “Noʒt bot fife hundred ʒere þer aghtene wontyd / Before þat kynned ʒour Crist,” to be exact (“Saint Erkenwald” 209).

The corpse then explains that, while being neither a king nor even a high-ranking noble, he was offered a royal funeral by virtue of always judging fairly (“Saint Erkenwald” 229). However, due to being born centuries before the coming of Christ, the late judge, for all his virtues, could never find salvation by being baptized in the Christian faith. As a result, he spends his afterlife in Limbo, and his soul “þat se may no fyrre” (“Saint Erkenwald” 293). This example introduces the poem’s central theological question, but it also points out clearly that there were exceptionally virtuous people in Britain before Christianization. By doing so, the text implicitly suggests the harm of limiting perceived British history to its Christian period.

The plot reaches its logical conclusion with Erkenwald providing the way for the corpse to finally ascend into heaven, befitting its extraordinary virtues. Moved by the story of the long-dead judge, Erkenwald sheds a tear on a late Briton’s corpse. He immediately proclaims it to be an act of baptism “in þe Fader nome and his fre Childes / And of þe gracious Holy Goste” (“Saint Erkenwald”318-319).

As a consequence, the virtuous judge is now a Christian and can finally find his long-awaited and well-deserved salvation in heaven instead of spending eternity in Limbo. Thus, the story stays true to its Christian undertones and provides a solution to the plot’s central theological problem of saving the souls of those who did not have an opportunity to embrace Christ. Yet, from a historical standpoint, Erkenwald’s baptism of the long-dead judge is more than just a religious ritual solving a theological conundrum. It is an act of symbolic historical unity that brings together two people from different ages and originally different faiths that have only two things in common: their virtue and their Britishness.

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As such, the conclusion also summarizes the author’s approach to constructing British identity. The disregard for pre-Saxon history hinted at in the first lines of the poem and openly demonstrated later in the inability to decipher the writings on the sarcophagus showcases the perils of historical short-sightedness. By doing so, the author demonstrates the limitations of the identity based on a narrow application of religious credo to a specific ethnic group at a specific historical period. In contrast, Erkenwald’s recognition of the former pagan as a virtuous brother in spirit “facilitates a more meaningful integration into civic identity” not limited by rigid ethnic and historical constraints (Camp 488).

Pearl Poet goes out of his way to stress that Britain was home to decent people long before the first coming of Christ, and London’s historical cityscape witnessed people of extraordinary virtue in all ages. The author never doubts that the criteria for judging one’s worth should be exclusively Christian but insists on applying them to all ages and pushing the boundaries of British identity beyond Christian times.

To summarize, “Saint Erkenwald” makes extensive use of historical themes to reflect on the collective identity of those inhabiting the British Isles and extend it beyond the several centuries of its Christian history. While the central theme of the poem is salvation for the virtuous souls caught in Limbo, it also contemplates the history of virtue in Britain. The poem is explicitly set in the multidimensional historical cityscape of London, bringing together the Christian saint from the 7th century CE and the pagan judge from the 4th century BCE.

At the same time, it describes a fairly limited perception of British history as beginning with the Anglo-Saxon conquest. This limitation prevents the Englishmen of the 7th century from identifying the corpse they find as a testimony of Britain’s virtuous history from pre-Christian times. However, Erkenwald is not limited by such considerations and can recognize the long-forgotten dispenser of justice as a fellow in virtue. This association through virtue forged across a thousand years provides the author’s vision of the all-encompassing British identity that includes people from Britain’s entire history as long as they follow Christian morals.

Works Cited

Burrow, J. R., and Thorlac Turville-Petre. “Saint Erkenwald”. Web.

Camp, Cynthia T. “Spatial Memory, Historiographic Fantasy, and the Touch of the Past in St. Erkenwald.” New Literary History, vol. 44, no. 3, 2013, pp. 471-491.

“Saint Erkenwald”. Web.

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