What the Body Said: The Corpse-as-Text in St. Erkenwald
Panel 2: The Body Corruptible
Erin Kissick, Department of Medieval Literature (Purdue University)
Summary by Medievalists.net
St. Erkenwald was an important saint in London. This paper discusses St. Erkenwald’s encounter with the corpse of a pagan judge and how the story could be interpreted.
Erkenwald finds a beautiful, preserved corpse and initially believe the body was that of a king due to it’s lavish burial. The corpse reveals its identity to its admirers to be a pagan judge who was buried with the trappings of kingship because as a judge, he was good, fair and merciful. The judge cannot ascend to heaven because he did not know Christ and at the end of the story, Erkenwald sheds a single tear that touches the judge and enable him to be baptised (post-mortem baptism) so he can ascend to heaven as his body disintigrates into dust.
Why is there sadness at his assention? The text is often misread as hagiographical. It presents itself as a hagiography of St.Erkenwald but, “It refuses to play by the usual rules of the genre”. The uncorrupted corpse is usually that of a saint. The nature of the judge’s corpse is that it looks like a holy relic. He has been kept whole because God has deemed he was just and merciful and deserved grace for his good deeds. It’s a sort of reward – so near to heaven, yet still so far. The judge looks like a king, but he is not a king, or even a knight. He was just and merciful which caused him to be buried in regal trappings but there are problems with this reading; as soon as he becomes Holy, his body is corruptable like anyone else. His righteousness was what preserved him until the time of his conversion. The judge is stuck between his former Pagan life and community and that of the new Christian community that uncovers him. He was significant to his old community, but because the Pagans are gone, his significance is lost and his corpse is adrift. The written records conveying his identity are unreadable and therefore, he can’t properly assimilate into the Christian community. The corpse must make special efforts to convey his significance to this new community as the signs that showed his value no longer exist and make no sense to this new audience.
The corpse belongs to a tradition known as “the speaking dead”. God allows the corpse to speak to the audience and explain his predicament. He is baptised by Erkenwald’s tears and able to re-join a community – the new Christian one of the audience, however, in the end, the corpse is not allowed to remain as a relic and he is
removed along with his symbols, from the community. The corpse is intended to be misread and then decay. The author does not allow the text to be tidily resolved and leaves the audience to question the nature of the text. Erkenwald is the real focus of the story as he is the only one who is named in the poem. The judge’s disappearance might be an attempt to divert the audiences’ attention back to Erkenwald.
The text could have been written to re-inspire St. Erkenwald’s cult in late medieval London. The body disappearing at the end of the tale suggests an almost anti-relic theme in that the audience wants the body to remain as a relic but it is not permitted to stay. This could have been a political statement about the practice of not permitting post-mortem baptism. This text questions assumptions about the spirituality of the body.