16.06.10, Pinner, The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia

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Alban Gautier

The Medieval Review 16.06.10

Pinner, Rebecca. The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia. Woodbridge:The Boydell Press, 2015. pp. xii, 276. ISBN: 9781783270354 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Alban Gautier
Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale (Boulogne-sur-Mer)
gautiersansh@gmail.com

St Edmund, "king, virgin and martyr," was one the most popular saints in high and late medieval England. His cult was particularly developed in Norfolk and Suffolk, around the abbey of Bury St Edmunds where most of his relics were kept. Rebecca Pinner's book traces the whole history of the cult in its local and regional context, over the nearly seven centuries that elapsed between his death in the late 960s to the Reformation and Dissolution of monasteries. After a long and thorough introduction--in which the historical origins of the cult are assessed and the scope and questions of the study are expounded--the book is divided into three parts of unequal length, devoted to texts and manuscripts produced at or for Bury, relics and images at and around Bury, and traces of the cult over the East Anglian landscape. One of the main points highlighted by Pinner over the chapters of her book is that Edmund, though he was very much a local figure honoured at Bury whose life and death were set in a specific time, became a very versatile saint: he was at the same time a king, a virgin, a martyr and even more, and the exact circumstances of his life and death being virtually unknown, it was easy to tell all sorts of stories about him. In the author's words, he was "a saint whose cult was based upon his factual indeterminacy and resulting ability to signify in various ways" (9).

Part I ("Texts and Contexts: The legend of St Edmund") begins with Abbo of Fleury's passio, written in the late tenth century, and ends with John Lydgate's Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, composed in the 1430s: in between, about half a dozen other texts and manuscripts are examined. The development of the story of the life, martyrdom and miracles of Edmund is methodically retraced. There is not much that is really new in this first part of the book, but it is nice and useful to have all the information gathered here in a very clear manner. One interesting point is the insistence of many authors and artists on miracles of vengeance: clearly, they were writing in order to defend the rights of the saints and his community. A few points might be criticized, which do not impair the overall quality of the text. Abbo's career and context are only roughly examined, and not reference is made to Pierre Riché's synthesis on this author (the book was published more than a decade ago in French: almost no references in languages other than English appear in the bibliography, which is problematic in a chapter studying a continental author). [1] The pictures from the illuminated manuscript New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS 736, are well treated, but the publisher should have allowed a few more reproductions. I also think that Pinner downplays the importance of the author of the of Edmund hagiography that appears in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS 240: this "huge hagiographic compendium" (86), written at Bury in 1377, contains a Vita et Passio cum Miraculis which prefigures in Latin many of the innovations which appeared in Lydgate's Lives a few decades later: the names of Edmund's parents, his birth in Nuremberg and, most importantly, his martial character appeared in that text ahead of Lydgate's Middle English rewriting. Calling its author a mere "scribe" (because he remained anonymous?) is, to my mind, a mistake. One impression the reader gets from the juxtaposition of these successive rewritings of Edmund's life and death is how much the Bury community relied on exterior expertise for writing the story of its martyr in the first centuries of its existence: many hagiographers did write at Bury but they only came to Edmund's abbey in order to write about him. Abbo, his first hagiographer, was from Fleury in the Loire Valley and he wrote at Ramsey; Osbert of Clare was a monk from Westminster Abbey (61-62); Pierpont Morgan MS 736 was probably illuminated by an artist from St Albans (64-65); Geoffrey of Wells was a canon of Thetford (75-76); Henry of Avranches was a renowned poet who probably wrote at the instigation of Abbot Hugh (84-85). Does it mean that Bury was too poor and did not have the resources for producing hagiography at home, or is it a sign of the abbey's power of attraction and ability to commission the best writers of the age? Unfortunately, the question is not addressed here.

Part II ("Relics, Shrine and Pilgrimage: Encountering St Edmund at Bury") is much shorter. It explores the architecture and layout of the abbey, shrine and relics at Bury, relying both on Jocelyn of Brakelond's thirteenth-century description and on iconography. The author shows that it is possible to reconstruct the way pilgrims encountered the church and the saint in the last three centuries of their existence. It is very much a pity that the pictures which are here commented upon--for instance those of London, College of Arms, MS Arundel 30, or the "palimpsest" brass from the church at Frenze, Norfolk, which depicts the death of King Sweyn--could not be included in the book. It makes the reading of the description rather tedious, and it means that those chapters must be read with a computer and internet access at hand. More problematic is the absence of maps of the abbey precinct and the interior of the church as it stood in the late Middle Ages: it makes the paragraphs on the architecture and itinerary of pilgrimage almost impossible to visualise.

Part III ("Beyond Bury: Dissemination and Appropriation") is probably the most original and well-researched of the book. The sources are very numerous, from pilgrimage tokens to legendaria through miracles stories, wall paintings, altarpieces, and sculpture on wooden pews and benches. The enquiry is exhaustive over the whole of Norfolk, Suffolk and part of the Fenland, and it shows how popular Edmund became in that region in the centuries preceding the Reformation. Unfortunately, the map included on p. xi got badly pixelated in the process of printing and, even with a magnifier, it proves difficult to read the place-names; and again, a few more colour pictures would have greatly improved the reader's experience, since the black and white photographs included in the chapters are not always of the best quality (e.g. fig. 3 at 209). I must insist on the fact that the publisher is probably much more to blame than the author for this inconvenience, which does not reduce the interest of the text. Each work of art--many of them almost unknown before and very demotic in character--is thoroughly examined in its context of production, patronage and religious use, as far as they can be reconstructed. Thanks to this wealth of material, the author shows that the artists who worked in towns, villages and small shrines over the East Anglian landscapes were less obsessed than the Bury-connected artists and authors with the vindication of the saint's rights: with far fewer references to miracles of vengeance, they concentrate on Edmunds heroic and exemplary virtues. Thanks to this third part, the book becomes more than a good introduction to St Edmund's hagiographical dossier over the Middle Ages: it is a full hagiological study of a saint and his cult among the people of a whole region over four centuries.

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Notes:

1. Pierre Riché, Abbon de Fleury: un moine savant et combattif (vers 950-1004) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004).

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