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Soldier saints and holy warriors: Warfare and sanctity in Anglo-Saxon England

Soldier saints and holy warriors: Warfare and sanctity in Anglo-Saxon England

By John Edward Damon

PhD Dissertation, University of Arizona, 1997

Saint Guthlac - Roundel from Guthlac Roll, depicting St Guthlac in contemplation - British Library

Abstract: It is common but too simplistic to say that Old English literature shows the unconscious blending of the traditional Germanic heroic ethos and the early Christian aversion to war. The matter is more complex. Throughout the Latin West, Christian perceptions of a tension between sanctity and warfare changed over the period from the arrival of Roman Christianity in England (AD 597) to the period following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Christian disdain for and rejection of warfare (at times no more than nominal) gave way eventually to active participation in wars considered “just” or “holy.” Anglo-Saxon literature, in both Latin and Old English, documented this changing ethos and also played a significant role in its development. The earliest extant Anglo-Saxon hagiographic texts featured a new type of holy man, the martyred warrior king, whose role in spreading Christianity in England culminated in a dramatic death in battle fighting enemies portrayed by hagiographers as bloodthirsty pagans.

During the same period, other Anglo-Saxon writers depicted warriors who transformed themselves into soldiers of Christ, armed only with the weapons of faith. These and later Anglo-Saxon literary works explored the intersection of violence and the sacred in often conflicting ways, in some instances helping to lead Christian spirituality toward the more martial spirit that would eventually culminate in Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade in 1095, but in other cases preserving intact many early Christians’ radical opposition to war. Aspects of crusading ideology existed alongside Christian opposition to war throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

This study examines hagiographers’ changing literary tropes as subtle but important reflections of medieval Christianity’s evolution from rejecting the sword to tolerating and even wielding it. Hagiographers used various narrative topoi to recount the lives of warrior saints, and, as the ambient Christian ethos changed, so did their employment of these themes. The tension between forbearance and militancy, even in the earliest English lives of saints, is more profound and more culturally complex than what is generally understood as merely the Germanic heroic trappings of Anglo-Saxon Christian literature.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Arizona

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