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The Canon of John Lydgate Project

The Lives of Ss. Edmund and Fremund: Introduction

Aelfric's Old English Life of St. Edmund
The Life of St. Edmund, by Aelfric (written before 1002, in Old English): a summary.

Aelfric opens with an account of how Abbo, whose Latin text he is following, learned the story from Dunstan, who had heard the story from Edmund's armour-bearer on the day of Edmund's death. Abbo of Fleury's "Passio sancti Edmundi" is the earliest account of Edmund's martyrdom, and Aelfric's account follows Abbo's closely, though Aelfric omits Abbo's account of Edmund's ancestry and his election to the kingdom. Abbo mentions no dates (though later writers regularly declare that Edmund came to the throne at age 14 in the year 855); Aelfric does date the death of Edmund as occurring in the year that Alfred, prince of Wessex, was 21.

After a paragraph on the character of Edmund as a God-fearing king, Aelfric relates how Ivar and Ubbi ravaged Northumbria before Ivar came south to East Anglia and slew many. Ivar sends a messanger with a proud message for Edmund, demanding tribute and offering Edmund an under-kingship; Edmund refuses to submit to a pagan. When Ivar and his forces arrive, Edmund stands unarmed in his hall; offering no resistance, in imitation of Christ at his arrest, Edmund is taken, bound, beaten with cudgels, tied to a tree and flogged; when he continues to praise the Christian God, he is shot with arrows (until, says Aelfric, he looked like a hedgehog or like St. Sebastian), and finally beheaded. The severed head is removed by the Danish warriors and hidden in dense brambles to prevent its burial.

God sends a wolf to protect the head from being devoured by other beasts; the head cries out "Here, here, here" to those who are searching for it. Once the head and body are re-united, they are buried in some haste and a chapel erected over the tomb. Many miracles are reported at the chapel. At some later time, when peace was re-established, a larger church was built to house the relics (Aelfric fails to mention, though it had appeared in Abbo's text, that this larger church was not on the original burial spot, but that the relics were carried to the monastery of Beodericsworth and a new church built there). When the original tomb was opened, it was discovered that Edmund's body lay uncorrupted; further, the head had been re-attached to the body, and both the neck wound and the various arrow wounds had healed. After the building of the new church to house the relics, a devout widow lived alongside the shrine for many years, and she took responsibility to trim Edmund's hair and clip his nails, and the trimmings and clippings were treated as new relics.

Aelfric recounts several more miracle stories, but declares that everyone already knows hundreds more than he has space to relate. In a concluding paragraph he lists several English saints, among whose number Edmund is now to be counted, and declares that the miracles which surround the relics of these saints are a confirmation to the world that the Christian faith is the true faith.

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© 1995 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Last revised: 9 Nov. 1995

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