03.04.10, Harbus, Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend

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Karen Winstead

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.010


Harbus, Antonina. Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002. Pp. viii, 215. ISBN: 0-85991-625-1.

Reviewed by:
Karen Winstead
Ohio State

In Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend, Antonina Harbus focuses on one facet of the legend of St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great and putative finder of the True Cross: Helena's identity as a native of Britain. Confining herself largely to British sources, particularly literary sources, she traces the religious and the political strands of what she calls "the British Helena legend" -- i.e, the story of Helena's British origin -- and she elucidates the relation of that story with two more widely circulated legends involving Helena: those of the discovery of the Cross and of Pope Sylvester's conversion of Constantine. A major contribution of this informative and extensively researched monograph is its inclusion, as Appendices 1 and 2, of two hitherto unpublished Helena narratives: Jocelin of Furness's Vita sancte Helene (ca. 1300) and the Middle English St. Elyn that appears in three late manuscripts of the South English Legendary.

Harbus begins by summarizing what can be gleaned about the historical Helena from Late Antique sources, the earliest and most reliable of which yield little information except that she was probably of low birth and that she made a journey to the Holy Land in her old age, a journey that was soon elaborated into the famous expedition in search of the Cross. On the basis of those sources, "it is almost certain that Helena never set foot on British soil" (14). In Chapter 2, Harbus traces what she believes to be the origins of the legend of Helena's Britishness in Anglo-Saxon England. Harbus asserts that the earliest hint in a written record that Helena may have been British occurs in Aldhelm's De Virginitate (ca. 700), which states that Constantine was born in Britain, though she proposes that stories about a British Helena may have circulated earlier in the oral tradition. The view that Helena herself was British, Harbus postulates, may have arisen from the interaction of "hopeful belief" with the erroneous "notion that Constantine was born in Britain," which Harbus characterizes as "a minor variation of the historically accurate version that Constantius died and Constantine was proclaimed Caesar in Britain" (43-44). The British were not alone in their attempt to claim a special relationship with Helena, however, and Harbus recounts the efforts made to represent Helena as a native of Trier by the monks of Hautvillers, near Reims. By the twelfth century, she points out, the British claims had triumphed; indeed, Helena's British origins were officially accepted by the sees of Trier and Rheims.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Harbus traces the elaboration of the Helena legend to suit political and nationalistic agendas in Wales and England. "[D]istinctively and extravagantly creative" Welsh texts dating from the tenth century represent "Elen" as "the progenitor of the race, leader of hosts, builder of roads, and wife of another Welsh appropriation from Roman history, Magnus Maximus" (52). This figure, Harbus claims, played a "significant role" in the construction of a Welsh national identity (52). Post-Conquest English historians likewise appropriated Helena in their efforts to glorify England's past, reinventing her as the daughter of King Cole of Colchester and using her to demonstrate the "vital role" their country played "in the business of the Roman Empire" (66). Henry of Huntingdon was "the first writer actively and transparently to exploit the British Helena story, deploying it within the rhetoric of nationhood when he provides Constantine with a British pedigree" (74). Geoffrey of Monmouth "exploits the nationalistic potential of the Helena legend more fully," transforming Helena into "the ideal progenitor of English kings," who is "not only exceptionally talented, beautiful, and wise...but has been groomed for monarchy" (78-79). Whereas Anglo-Latin historians largely divest the legend of its hagiographic elements (e.g., Helena's role in the discovery of the Cross), vernacular chroniclers often fuse the "secular" and the "hagiographic" strands of the legends, celebrating Helena both as a national heroine and as a saint.

In Chapter 5, Harbus turns to the representation of Helena in the post-Conquest hagiographical tradition. Though Helena was the dedicatee of many churches and a popular subject of late medieval iconography, she rarely appears in English church calendars between the Conquest and the beginning of the fifteenth century, and her legend is not included in collections featuring national saints until the sixteenth century. Harbus speculates that there may have been some skepticism about the British Helena legend on the part of "religious writers and administrators" (106), for English hagiographers appear to have been less interested in her as a saint in her own right than in her role in the discovery of the Cross. Jocelin of Furness's vita is the only full-fledged account of Helena's life to survive from late medieval England; the Middle English Elyn deals more with St. Sylvester's conversion of Constantine than with Helena's life.

Harbus's final chapter surveys the post-medieval Helena tradition in England, beginning with the Tudor appropriation of the legend and ending with the mid-twentieth-century adaptations of the legend by Dorothy Sayers and Evelyn Waugh. Edward Gibbon's "definitive refutation of the British Helena legend" (133) in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Harbus contends, did not halt the "progress of the legend's increasing patriotic resonances" (138); she characterizes Waugh's 1950 novel Helena as "the most extreme deployment of the legend within patriotic discourse" (142).

In her conclusion, Harbus emphasizes the "multifaceted flexibility" and "rhetorical usefulness" (147) of the legend of Helena's Britishness over the centuries. Yet what struck me most as I read her study is how little the British appear to have availed themselves of that "flexibility" and "usefulness" -- that is, how little interest they demonstrated in Helena as a national heroine. That the first (and only) British vita was not written until the thirteenth century is hard to fathom if, as Harbus claims, the British were, as far back as the Anglo-Saxon period, engaged in a "larger and mainly undocumented competition for claiming her as a patron, which extended to the furthest corners of both the Eastern and the Western halves of the globe" (44); the more important the contest, the less likely it should remain completely undocumented, and vitae were important vehicles for staking claims to saints. Given the high interest Middle English hagiographers showed in national saints, it is significant that Helena does not appear among the British saints that figure so prominently in the original South English Legendary or in the largely British cluster of saints' legends added to the 1438 Gilte Legende. Even the historians, hagiographers, and genealogists whom Harbus cites as playing crucial roles in the development of a "British Helena legend" often mention Helena only in passing or seem less interested in her than in the men associated with her (Sylvester, Constantine, Magnus Maximus). If Helena of Britain had acquired a hold on the popular imagination, one might expect her alleged birthplace, Colchester, to have become a major site of pilgrimage, yet it appears not to have done so.

Harbus scrupulously acknowledges the sparsity of the textual evidence for the British Helena tradition. "Witnesses to the British Helena legend suggest selective and specifically local affiliation rather than widespread appeal or acceptance" (118), she writes. Nonetheless, she sometimes succumbs to making too much of, or extrapolating beyond, scant evidence. For example, of the sole reference to Helena as a British native in Elyn, "Saynt Elene was in Bretayn born and comen of hegh kynrade," Harbus avers, "The poet is alluding to facts which he supposes to be common knowledge, or at least would like to present as such" (113). Likewise, she does not present sufficient evidence to justify the assertion that "viable folk belief lies behind the offhand or brief references to the legend in written sources" (143). And I remain unconvinced of her claim that "the range of texts, artifacts, and cultures" in which the tradition of Helena's Britishness is found "suggests a level of importance and degree of transmission enjoyed by few saints" (3).

While Harbus does an excellent job of surveying British writings about the British Helena, I cannot help feeling that she is only telling part of the story. At least two Italian Katherine legends include extensive accounts of Constantius's courtship of and marriage to the British princess Helena -- accounts far more detailed than that found in the 1420 Lyf of Seynt Katerine that Harbus discusses. (One is Bonino Mombrizio's Santa Caterina, the other an anonymous prose narrative; both date from the fifteenth century.) Why was the British Helena so appealing to these Italian hagiographers? Was there a comparable interest in the British Helena among other Continental writers? And, if so, when did that interest begin? Though Harbus acknowledges that the British Helena legend was "transmitted much farther afield than England" (3), she does not explore in any detail what she calls the "intriguing...evidence that the legend was not confined to British sources" (3), mentioning only three instances of the legend in non-British sources: a thirteenth-century Necrologium based on a Byzantine obituary list, liturgical offices from Hautvillers and Reims, and a Reims breviary. Fully understanding the British Helena legend would seem to require going beyond British sources and studying those "non-insular witnesses of the legend" that "signal that the story survived, and perhaps even arose, outside British patriotic contexts" (4).

Though Harbus's focus is perhaps too narrow, she presents and effectively analyzes a wealth of information about the Helena legend in medieval Britain, and her transcriptions provide access to two fascinating and hitherto little-known texts. Though her study has left me wanting to know more about the "British Helena," I am satisfied that I have been given a thorough account of that figure's British incarnations.

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Karen Winstead

Ohio State