Calling All Corpses: An Examination of the Treatment of the Dead in Old English Literature
By Jessica Troy
PhD Dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2019
Abstract: The care and disposal of the dead bodies, an unavoidable reminder of one’s mortality, rarely receives in-depth literary attention. In early medieval England, the Anglo-Saxons dealt with corpses but seldom discussed the undertaking in written documents. Instead they focused on the grandiose deeds of heroes like Beowulf and the holy lives of revered saints.
This dissertation examines various genres of Old English literature to identify times when authors discuss corpses and to what end these discussions led. Hagiographers, for example, describe the corpses of certain saints such as Æthelthryth and Edmund at length while the bodies of other saints are virtually ignored post-mortem. Their burials, such as that of Cecilia, may be only one half-line in length while the description of Æthelthryth’s corpse includes burial, exhumation, discovery of incorruption, and reburial. Her dead body receives almost as much attention as does her living body. Both women uphold their chastity and virginity throughout their lives, but it is only Æthelthryth’s corpse which receives attention. Edmund’s dead body is also given great attention, but his purity is not of primary concern.
In my dissertation, I examine the discussion of corpses by various authors within hagiography as well as non-hagiographical texts, identify discrepancies in gender and social standing which may contribute to the length of the authors’ discussion, and use the Anglo-Saxon culture as a basis to explain why corpses such as those of Beowulf, Grendel, Æthelthryth, and Edmund take center stage but a battlefield full of fallen soldiers, Grendel’s mother, and Cecilia receive less than two lines of text.
Top Image: The Martyrdom of St Edmund painted by Brian Whelan hangs in the Lady Chapel of the St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. Photo by Brian Whelan / Wikimedia Commons