Things left behind: matter, narrative and the cult of St Edmund of East Anglia
By Andrew Gourlay
PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2017
Abstract: This thesis provides a detailed and interdisciplinary analysis of one of medieval England’s most enduring saints’ cults: that of St Edmund of East Anglia. Focussing largely on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the surviving material, literary and visual evidence is examined through the twin lenses of matter and narrative, thus offering a novel means of perceiving medieval saintly devotion.
Borrowing elements from Alfred Gell’s distributed agency theory, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT) and notions of ‘object biography’, chapter one develops a bespoke means of modelling the spatial, temporal and material dimensions of cult. Saints’ cults are imagined as expansive and entangled phenomena, focussed around a central ‘relic nexus’.
Following this, chapter two employs these ideas to analyse the historical and material growth of Bury St Edmunds as a cult centre. This chapter demonstrates that Edmund’s materiality both played a significant role in determining the form his cult took and positioned him within an elite cadre of incorrupt saints. Switching to the narrative lens, chapter three contrasts early chronicle texts with later hagiography and charter evidence. This chapter shows that, across succeeding generations, Edmund’s legend shifted in line with contemporary historical circumstances to become entwined with the institutional identity of Bury St Edmunds Abbey.
Chapter four expands the narrative analysis to consider the consequences of literary and oral dissemination. Tracing the literary transmission of a story implicating Edmund in the death of Swein Forkbeard, this chapter reveals how a series of twelfth-century, historical and political writers adapted this legend for their own purposes. Yet, far from being limited to literature, the chapter further argues that Edmund’s narrative was couched within a fluid oral context. Chapter four concludes by employing the theoretical structures developed in chapter one to model the narrative environment of Edmund’s cult.
Chapter five focusses on how Edmund was visualised at his cult centre. A particular example of pictorial storytelling produced at Bury, the miniature sequence in Pierpont Morgan MS M.736, is analysed to reveal that visual representations provided a means of expounding both the material and narrative sensibilities of cult. Chapter six expands the visual and material discussion. A range of media, from large-scale wall art to small-scale archaeological finds, are used to show that Edmund and his narrative could be presenced in personal and idiosyncratic ways through a variety of objects. Chapter seven draws together the interrelated strands from the preceding sections and discusses what we can say about the relationship between matter and narrative in cult. It concludes that combinations of Edmund’s materiality and narrative could be combined, to create the unique truths that fashioned personal and corporate identities.
Edmund’s cult, it is suggested, was a multi-faceted and expansive phenomenon which, although based around his shrine at Bury St Edmunds, held meaning well beyond. Following this, some concluding thoughts are offered on how the theoretical framework developed in this thesis might be adapted and applied to similar cult structures.
Top Image: St Edmund the Martyr crowned by angels, from a manuscript of Bury St Edmunds – Pierpont Morgan Library, New York manuscript 736 folio 42