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Monstrous Conversions: Recovering the Sacramental Bodies of The Passion of St. Christopher

Monstrous Conversions: Recovering the Sacramental Bodies of The Passion of St. Christopher

Russell, Arthur J.

Hortulus, Vol. 5, No. 1, (2009)

Abstract: This article examines the monstrous attributes of the dog-headed St. Christopher and his struggle to convert the pagan king Dagnus in the Old English Passion of St. Christopher. St. Christopher’s body is a monstrous body unlike any found in the Beowulf–manuscript because it does not serve to affirm normative cultural values as negative contrast, but rather seeks to convert them. Dagnus cannot overcome the monster because he, that he might eternally live, must become like a monster.

Introduction: This article examines the monstrous attributes of the dog-headed St. Christopher and his struggle to convert the pagan king Dagnus in the Old English Passion of St. Christopher. In section one, Monstrous Bodies, I will look at the saint’s multiple monstrosities as they are represented in the text and analogous sources in order to revisit and redress questions of contemporaneous reception and modern critical interpretation. Section two, Monstrous Rites, explores the text’s first baptismal scene, a baptism of fire, and how it functions as confirmation and commissioning of the saint’s body to fulfill his evangelical calling. In the final section, Monstrous Conversions, I look at the second of the text’s baptisms, a baptism of blood, and argue that through this baptism the monster functions as a temporary site of conversion through which the king must pass through to receive eternal salvation. This article considers how the physical and ideological monstrosities embodied by St. Christopher preserve and project an idealized vision of the early conversion era Church in Anglo-Saxon England.

Saint Christopher’s body is a monstrous body unlike any found in the Beowulf-Manuscript. True to its hagiographic form, The Passion of St. Christopher is a narrative reliant upon stark dichotomies—good versus evil, sinner versus saint—and their inversions. The narrative’s greatest inversion comes in the form of a dog-headed giant, Christopher, who assumes the side of the good, of the hero, and subsequently, as a saint, the side of his Christian audience. Throughout the text, Christopher’s physical monstrosity appears to have been eclipsed by his virtuous acts, and nearly all memory of the saint’s monstrous makeup has faded. In fact, because the text of the manuscript begins imperfectly, the only indication of Christopher’s atypical physiognomy is derived from the accusatory words of the heathen king, Dagnus, when the king calls Christopher the ‘wyrresta wilddeor’ [worst wild beast] (ll. 37-38). The king’s literal reading of Christopher overlooks the intrinsic virtue hidden beneath the dog-man’s horrific exterior. In this moment, Dagnus sees exactly what Christopher is—a monster and a threat to his way of being. The king’s words capture the full extent of Christopher’s alterity, recalling his grotesque form and reflecting the strangeness of his Christian virtue in a pagan land. Not only is Dagnus unable to overcome the monster, but he must also partake of the saint’s monstrosity to gain eternal life. Saint Christopher’s body is a body unlike any other because it challenges normative cultural values.

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