‘Do You Not Know I am a Healer?’ Royal Authority and Miracles of Healing in High Medieval Lives of Kings
Paper by Elizabeth Hasseler
Given at the 2016 International Medieval Congress
Introduction: The long twelfth century was a particularly productive moment in the history of medieval royal sanctity. New royal cults flourished not only in the established centers of Latin Christendom, but also on its newly expanding frontiers to the north in Scandinavia and to the east in Hungary. For their promoters, few signs demonstrated a king’s claims to sanctity as clearly as his ability to work miracles of healing, which during his lifetime seemed to signal his imminent ascension from the earthly kingdom to the kingdom of heaven, and after death remained a continuing reminder of his potency as a spiritual intercessor. Today I’d like to place in comparative perspective the reputations for miraculous healing achieved by two high medieval royal saints: Edward the Confessor of England and Óláfr Haraldsson of Norway.
On the face of it, Edward and Óláfr were very different kinds of royal saints: Óláfr, a former viking, was represented as a strict arbiter of justice whose death on the battlefield was read as martyrdom; while Edward was remembered for having lived a humble life within the bounds of his kingship and for having maintained his chastity within the bounds of his marriage. Óláfr and Edward are useful cases for comparison not only because of the instructive contrast in the ways in which they were remembered, but also because both occupied the same interconnected North Sea political world, and Óláfr’s cult in particular reflected significant English influences as a result of the important role played by Anglo-Saxon missionaries in the establishment of the early Norwegian church. My goal in comparing the two today is thus to consider generally the conceptual space occupied by the healing king in the historical writing of the eleventh-and twelfth-century North.
That is, to ask: did the miracle stories of St. Edward and St. Óláfr function in similar ways within their respective historical traditions? Did their thaumaturgical abilities capture a similar range of meanings that would allow us to more fully understand what it meant in the high medieval imagination for a king to also be a healer and a saint? In order to address these kinds of questions, I’ll look closely first at several miraculous acts that Óláfr and Edward were reported to have performed in life, and then at the reports of posthumous miracles that circulated later around their cults.