The Daily

20 November 2022

Set garlike and pease
saint Edmund to please

20 November is the Feast of St Edmund the Martyr. I’m not sure when this quip, found in the Oxford Book of Days (Blackburn & Holford-Strevens, Oxford, 2000), was current. From the spelling, I would guess 15th or 16th century. Perhaps earlier, as Edmund’s feast day was barely a memory after the Reformation, and by at least the 17th century the Little Ice Age had made winter gardening in England for things like “garlike and pease” — or really any digging in frozen November soils — rather difficult. But maybe the idea is to have your garlic in the ground and peas nestled into their winter beds before St Edmund’s Day. Maybe well before then… in any case it is sound advice to have your planting done by the latter third of November. Because you can’t do much after the ground is frozen…

A related bit of farming lore from Greece says that a good farmer has at least half his field sown by 21 November, tomorrow. There are celebrations of this agricultural date along with ritual recipes across the Mediterranean. The oldest honor Demeter, the goddess of the fruitful earth. (People will try to limit her to grains, but that’s not all she is… her name literally means “earth mother” or “earth matter”.) But the Orthodox Church folded this popular date into its own ritual calendar (because peasants will have their bread and circuses…). These festivals were a sort of thanksgiving for the harvest that may yet come. (Maybe hedging their bets? We did all this planting work; thank you in advance for making it worth it.)

One common theme is to make a dish out of all the grains and pulses to share in a communal meal. Barley, lentils, beans, peas, cracked wheat — whatever is being grown through the winter growing season is tossed in a pot and cooked into a thick stew. This is then used as a base for all sorts of dishes. Some are savory. Most are sweetened with honey and fruits. This stew has a name that does not translate into English very well: polysporia… (Sounds like something you need anti-fungal cream to address…) The name literally translates into “many seeds” which is a much more lovely image. So going into this Thanksgiving week, toss many seeds into your pot and give thanks for the harvest yet to be. As well as the one we just completed…

A miniature portraying Edmund’s death, from ‘The Lives of St Edmund and St Fremund’, c.1450.

So today is St Edmund’s day. King Edmund was in former times a much larger figure in England than he is today. The patron saint of England and English peoples until St George ousted him in the 15th century, Edmund was long thought to represent the Anglo-Saxon resistance against the Viking onslaught and the Christian resistance against violent paganism. In the image above, Edmund is being executed for his faith and for refusing to capitulate to the Danish invaders. King Edmund symbolized a “pure” England, one settled by and ruled by the English peoples (who, for the record, only showed up a few centuries before Edmund… so…).

But recent scholarship is painting a different picture. Oh, there are still arrows. Edmund still dies a rather gory death. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the king was captured by the Great Heathen Army in the autumn of 868 and given a choice: renounce his faith and rule as a puppet for the Danes or die. Edmund, of course, chose death. On 20 November, St Edmund was tied to a tree and filled with arrows “until he resembled a hedgehog”. Then he was beheaded for good measure.

The martyrdom of Edmund: From Abbo’s 12th century Passio Sancto Eadmundi

But even in this folio image from the time of Chaucer, one can see that this version of Edmund’s story is not the whole picture. Why is it that the Danish soldier who beheaded Edmund looks rather sad? Well, apart from the fact that he’s cutting off a human head… but he’s a Viking soldier… presumably he has experience with this sort of thing…

However, that might be the point here. Yes, the Vikings did some horrible stuff, especially to wealthy settlements like monasteries. But it’s very likely that the image of the bloodthirsty berserker out to destroy for sheer pleasure might be another one of those exaggerations, penned by those with an agenda. The evidence on the ground is much more nuanced, much more entangled… and so very much more interesting.

What is not debatable is that the Viking incursion marks a temporary cessation to the development of Christianity in England. The century following Edmund’s martyrdom saw the destruction of churches and monasteries in East Anglia with no reparations until late in the 10th century. And yet, the cult of St Edmund developed exactly during this time of Christian quiescence. There are coins minted in Dane-held East Anglia that commemorate Edmund and his reign. These date to 890, not even a generation after his death. This doesn’t sound like the typical treatment of the loser, particularly not those defeated by the Vikings.

And there is more… If Edmund were the symbol of English resistance, one might think his veneration would be strongest where the resistance was strongest. But that is not the case. In Wessex, where the fight to repel the Vikings was fiercest, there is only the barest mention of Edmund’s death. His cult does not seem to have spread much beyond Dane-held lands until well after English Danes were no longer considered Danes. But his initial cult seems to be Danish, or perhaps more precisely, Anglo-Danish. His following is not Anglo resistance to the Viking incursion, but the symbol of the blending of two peoples into one.

It may be that the incursion was not as violent as we like to think. But in any case, the Anglo-Saxons were not replaced by Danes, nor was the Christian faith eradicated. Moreover, many Danish men of power, from the Icelandic descendants of Ivarr the Boneless who reportedly created the martyr (the poor guy who is queasily decapitating Edmund in the image above) to Cnut who created the famous shrine at Bury St Edmunds in the early 11th century, have consciously associated themselves with this decapitated Anglo monarch. Why would they do that if Edmund did not have a different resonance in Dane culture than that of the soundly defeated enemy?

In “St Edmund the Viking Saint” (History Today, Volume 68, Issue 9, September 2018), Francis Young tells us

In the Middle Ages Edmund was often considered the quintessentially English saint. Yet there is more evidence for his popularity among Scandinavians than for his alleged status as a symbol of English resistance. Edmund was a focus of unity for ninth-century Anglo-Saxons and Danes, just as he would become for 11th-century English and the Normans. Edmund did not represent unadulterated ‘Englishness’; rather, he was the symbol of a composite Anglo-Danish identity in eastern England and his remarkable cult laid the foundations for the ethnically complex national identity that is characteristic of England to this day.

St Edmund was the patron saint of England until almost precisely that time when the English were beginning to play a larger role in international affairs, when they were seeking to embellish their image and to justify their noble lineage, their right to be rulers over rulers, their purity as a distinct Christian people in contrast with the messy states on the Continent. At this point in their narrative, they kicked out the “ethnically complex” local and instated George, who was unquestionably Roman, a soldier of Empire. (Though… rather questionably real…) St Edmund was relegated to the benighted Dark Ages, the final insult coming in the Reformation when his burial site was desecrated and looted, the monks at Bury St Edmunds expelled, and the abbey dissolved.

Perhaps it is time to exonerate Edmund and dig deeper into his real story, the true story of this small island. Edmund might possibly show us that we are a collective story and that our strength is not in purity and strife but in collaboration and intermingling. It is interesting that Edmund is still the patron saint of kings, generally. His is the name whispered by those in power when they feel threatened or ecstatic. In other words, this martyred king of a conquered land is the representation of power. Think on that one, if you will.

Also interesting, Edmund is the patron of pandemics. His relics reputedly halted the contagion of the bubonic plague in Toulouse in the 17th century. I’m all for science and evidence over anecdote and faith… but I’m also very tired of COVID… so if anyone has an Edmund knucklebone or patella or something, I think I might be willing to give that a go.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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