St. Erkenwald (again)

Chapter 5 of my first book is a close reading and contextualization of an alliterative romance from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. St. Erkenwald narrates the discovery beneath St. Paul’s cathedral of the miraculously preserved corpse of a pagan British judge, who discourses with Erkenwald, seventh-century bishop of London, about his life and times. Erkenwald sheds a tear that accidentally baptizes the judge, whose body disintegrates as his soul rockets heavenward.

My chapter title, “The Erkenwald Poet’s Sense of History,” refers to my PhD adviser Roberta Frank’s “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” itself modeled on her PhD adviser Morton W. Bloomfield’s “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” The three essays all take a polemical stance against the familiar claim that medieval writers lacked a sense of history. Chaucer’s poetry, Beowulf, and St. Erkenwald, in different ways, belie the still-current narrative of a “birth of the past” (Schiffman: a 2011 book) in early modern Europe.

However, its placement in English Alliterative Verse meant that my chapter could not fully develop this theme with reference to St. Erkenwald. The purpose of the chapter was to illustrate the historical arguments advanced in more schematic form in the rest of the book–arguments about alliterative meter, medieval English literary and cultural history, and Old English/Middle English periodization. Now I have a new book forthcoming on medieval/modern periodization in English literature, and while it doesn’t feature St. Erkenwald, I’d like to revisit the poem’s historicism. St. Erkenwald provides a potent refutation of the ideology of ‘the’ ‘Renaissance,’ insofar as that ideology is expressed as a claim about a swerve in historical perspective. At the same time, the poem is blatantly anachronistic: the judge is dressed like a fourteenth-century judge, for example.

In the book, I described the Erkenwald poet’s sense of history this way:

For a late medieval composition, St. Erkenwald is “full of oddly advanced notions” [Frank 57, of Beowulf]. Its achievement is not to redeem the past, but to traverse a longue durée so broad that it connects Christianity with what Christianity would repudiate. In the course of events every possible response to this conjunction is mooted, but none is endorsed. Like the squabbling clans of Beowulf in the wake of the hero’s death, the Londoners of St. Erkenwald seem doomed to squander the legacy of the past. Construction grinds to a halt; the hoi polloi just gawk. After a week of research and prayer, the tomb is as inscrutable as ever. The tearful baptism is inadvertent and of debatable sacramental efficacy. An attentive late medieval reader would have wondered why God preserved the corpse in the first place, whether He therefore preserved others, what the inscription meant, how old the judge was, what sort of England he lived in, and whether pagan souls could, or should, be saved by baptism. Six hundred years have not made any of these questions easier to answer. The bishop’s confrontation with the unknown is all the more striking for being unexpected. No one in St. Erkenwald goes in search of a tomb, or a judge, or a pagan past. Tomb, judge, and past simply materialize.

I would now emphasize the paradox enclosed in the second sentence. Chakrabarty writes–in a book that welcomes the European Middle Ages into ‘modernity’–“It is because we already have experience of that which makes the present noncontemporaneous with itself that we can actually historicize” (112). This is an idea that the author of St. Erkenwald intuited and expressed at the level of narrative form. The poem, a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century depiction of seventh-century London, literally represents a present “noncontemporaneous with itself.” That distant present has its own past, to which it bears a relation that is, fictionally at least, not reducible to late medieval historicism. The distant past and the proximate past of St. Erkenwald are scenes of which the poem’s readers “already have experience,” through the genres of historiography and hagiography.

In St. Erkenwald, the paradoxical desire for and horror of the past takes on a specifically Christian flavor. A supercessionist religion, Christianity must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Judaism. Analogously, within Christianity and its history, Protestantism must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Catholicism.

Chakrabarty’s work in the philosophy of history suggests that anachronism and historicism describe a fully dialectical relationship. If so, no temporal or spatial boundary-line drawn around human experiences of history can be valid. St. Erkenwald reaches the same conclusion. The past in the poem is unlike the present, but it is nevertheless contained within the present: the past is right here, lurking underneath your cathedral. The Erkenwald poet’s sense of history is archaeological (Otter).

St. Erkenwald shows attunement to the possibilities of historical difference; but it balances that attunement against a sense of anachronism. The past did not have to be born, because it has always been present.

further reading

Bloomfield, Morton W. “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 301-13.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; repr. 2007.

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 53-65.

Otter, Monika. “‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and the Medieval Sense of the Past.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24 (1994): 387-414.

Schiffman, Zachary Sayre. The Birth of the Past. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

the authorship of St. Erkenwald

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I participated in a panel discussion entitled “Alliterative Traditions,” held in memory of Larry D. Benson. Thanks to Susanna Fein, Daniel Donoghue, and Nicholas Watson for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “The Authorship of St. Erkenwald: Why Are We Having This Conversation?”:

St. Erkenwald is a romance in English alliterative verse, found uniquely in a late fifteenth-century manuscript anthology of hagiography. The plot of the poem is as follows: in the seventh century, Erkenwald, bishop of London, discovers a tomb beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral covered in indecipherable carvings and containing the undecayed body of a pagan judge, who begins to speak to the astounded onlookers; after interviewing him about his life and death, Erkenwald unintentionally baptizes the judge by reciting the baptismal formula while shedding a tear.

From its first printing in 1881, St. Erkenwald has often been ascribed to the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other Middle English poems in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x. The case for the Gawain poet’s authorship rests on internal evidence. Before 1965, co-authorship of St. Erkenwald and the Gawain poems was orthodoxy; after 1965, proponents of co-authorship came to occupy a marginal position in scholarship on both poems. The difference was a carefully argued essay by Larry Benson (“The Authorship of St. Erkenwald“). In my contribution to this panel discussion in Benson’s memory, I ask what is at stake in this particular philological debate.

The authorship of St. Erkenwald is a small problem with big implications for literary history. It radiates outward from the study of one alliterative poem to related issues: most immediately, the oeuvre of the Gawain poet, but also the literary culture of the Northwest Midlands in the fourteenth century, the value of style as historical evidence, the status of authorship in metrical tradition, and the increasingly suspicious literary-historical concept of an Alliterative Revival.


The irony of the co-authorship debate is that it has been unkind to St. Erkenwald, which figures in anthologies and criticism, if at all, as an optional addendum to an important foursome of poems. Like Beowulf, St. Erkenwald may have been stupendously unimportant, unread, unimitated, and quickly forgotten by contemporaries. Of course, modern scholars are under no obligation to take a medieval view of the poem’s literary merits (I certainly do not); but, equally, the poem is under no obligation to yield intelligible answers to modern questions. St. Erkenwald deserves separate treatment in any case, not because it is a work of genius that transcends its tradition, but because it epitomizes its tradition. I think Larry Benson understood this; he framed his 1965 essay as a rescue mission. “[T]he most unfortunate effect of the attribution,” he wrote, “is that it has obscured the real literary value of [St. Erkenwald]” (394-95).

My forthcoming monograph on English alliterative verse represents an extended attempt to demonstrate and contextualize the “real literary value” of St. Erkenwald, together with two earlier alliterative poems of exceptional historical significance: Beowulf and Lawman’s Brut. The only concerted close reading in a book otherwise concerned with metrical and cultural history comes in the fifth chapter, and it is devoted to St. Erkenwald. The central question of St. Erkenwald, I argue there, is the central question of the alliterative tradition: how to uncover and understand the distant past. Consequently the narrative proceeds in two discrete stages, excavation and interview. The hinge comes after line 176, precisely halfway through this 352-line poem.

The literary arguments of this chapter rely directly on Larry Benson’s withering critique of the case for co-authorship. In 2016, St. Erkenwald can stand on its own as an important and worthwhile alliterative poem. For it is in one way, at least, a more perfect poem than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: it crystallizes the problem of history with none of the distractions of chivalric romance. In 1965, Benson dramatically redirected a critical conversation that, ironically because of his contributions to it, we are now ready to stop having.

tradition and literary history

My first book, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History, is published by Cambridge University Press (2016).

Eric Weiskott, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History

English Alliterative Verse tells the story of the medieval poetic tradition that includes Beowulf, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stretching from the eighth century, when English poetry first appeared in manuscripts, to the sixteenth century, when alliterative poetry ceased to be composed. The book draws on the study of meter to challenge the traditional division of medieval English literary history into ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ periods. The two halves of the alliterative tradition, divided by the Norman Conquest of 1066, have been studied separately since the nineteenth century; this book uses the history of metrical form and its cultural meanings to bring the two halves back together. In combining literary history and metrical description into a new kind of history called ‘verse history,’ English Alliterative Verse reimagines the historical study of poetics.

Individual chapters consider (1) Beowulf; (2) prologues to Old English poetry; (3) Lawman’s Brut, an alliterative verse chronicle of the twelfth century; (4) prologues to Middle English poetry; (5) St. Erkenwald, an alliterative romance of the fourteenth or fifteenth century; and (6) the alliterative tradition in the sixteenth century.

A version of Chapter 3 appears in an edited volume devoted to Lawman’s Brut. I have also edited two late fifteenth-century alliterative poems, The Ireland Prophecy (Studies in Philology) and The Vision of William Banastre (in an edited volume devoted to early English poetics), and I have brought to light two sixteenth-century excerpts from Piers Plowman (Review of English Studies). These new texts inform the arguments of Chapter 6. Four articles bring the arguments and methods of the book to related topics: the relationship between metrical history and language history (Modern Philology); the meter of Piers Plowman (Yearbook of Langland Studies); the history of modern scholarship on medieval verse (ELH); and the historical study of poetics (Modern Language Quarterly).

a companion website

Through a generous grant from Boston College’s Academic Technology Advisory Board, I have received funding to use the MediaKron digital toolkit to build a companion website for my undergraduate course, Middle English Alliterative Poetry. An in-progress version of the site is publicly available here. The site currently features a short guide to Middle English pronunciation, with sound clips; a short guide to Middle English alliterative meter, with bibliography; a short guide to medieval English codicology and paleography, with annotated manuscript images and bibliography; and a timeline of poems and significant historical events, with short descriptions and bibliographies. Through collaboration with my students, the site will eventually feature an introduction to each course text, with annotated manuscript images and bibliographies. Here’s the course description, which also appears on the landing page of the website:

In the fourteenth century, there were two ways of writing poetry in English. Chaucer’s rhyming, syllable-counting iambic pentameter exemplifies one tradition. This course makes a survey of the other tradition, known today as alliterative poetry. Among the poems we will read are tales of King Arthur’s court, the story of a resurrected corpse discovered in London, and a wild allegorical dream-vision starring such characters as Bribery and Truth. We ask how this poetry is formally organized, where this form of writing comes from, and why medieval English writers chose to use it. No prior knowledge of Middle English required.