Kings, Peasants, and the Restless Dead: Decapitation in Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives
By Gerald Dyson
Retrospectives, Vol.3:1 (2014)
Introduction: In the Vita sancte Moduenna uirginis, a saint’s life written in the early twelfth century, a remarkable story can be found. Two peasants from the village of Stapenhill, which was under the authority of the abbot of Burton, desert their apparent duties to the monastery and bring false accusations against the abbot to a local lord. The lord responds by sending knights to plunder and destroy the monastery’s crops. The next morning, the two unscrupulous peasants drop dead simultaneously and are buried the following day. Only hours after their burial, the men rise from their graves, carrying their coffins on their shoulders. Taking the form of bears, dogs, and other animals, the men bang on the walls of houses, and call to the townspeople of the neighboring village to ‘Move!’ and ‘Come!’ After continuing to terrorize the populace ‘every night and every evening for some time’, a plague befalls the village, which only ceases after the two peasants are exhumed, decapitated, and have their hearts removed. The peasants are then reburied in the churchyard at Stapenhill, while their hearts are taken to the local diocesan boundary and burned, at which time a raven flies from the fire. Fittingly, a decapitated corpse was found in the excavations at Stapenhill. This and other bizarre stories of decapitation from Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives often seem to bear more resemblance to a horror film than hagiography. However, these stories can be illuminated and placed in their cultural context through examining their place in text, image, and archaeology.
Decapitation is not a particularly common event, however notable, in the records of Anglo-Saxon history. Edwin and Oswald, both seventh-century monarchs of northern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, were decapitated after military defeats, in a somewhat similar fashion to the way in which Edmund, the mid-ninth century king of East Anglia, was later killed by Scandinavian invaders. The cult of Oswald began not long after his death, and soon encompassed both sacred and secular sites in Britain and the Continent.
In addition to the above story from the Life and Miracles of St Modwenna, a number of other grim hagiographical stories can be found. An early example occurs in the Life of St Ecgwine, an eleventh-century writing of the life of an eighth-century bishop of Worcester. In this account, a peasant accidentally cuts off his own head with a scythe immediately after attempting to defraud a monastery of its land. The peasant in question had deceptively claimed that he owned the ground upon which he stood after filling his shoes with dirt from his own property.