Saturday, May 13, 2017

Genuine Bold

Most people are celebrating the commemoration of Our Lady of Fatima today, particularly since it is the 100th anniversary. But it's also the memorial of an interesting Anglo-Saxon saint, St. Earconwald, or Erkenwald. He was born in the little kingdom of Lindsey. He's sometimes said to be the son of the King of East Anglia, and he's sometimes said to have been converted to Christianity by St. Mellitus, who was one of the companions of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Probably neither of these things are true; certainly St. Mellitus seems a generation too early. He established two monastic institutions -- Chertsey Abbey for men and Barking Abbey for women, which were both supported by the King of Mercia, and spent quite a bit of time building them up, until St. Theodore of Canterbury (also known as St. Theodore of Tarsus) appointed him Bishop of London, where he was probably the first bishop actually to be in residence. The original St. Paul's Cathedral seems to date to him. He is said to have converted the King of Essex, and he became an advisor to the King of Wessex; one sees the interrelations among all these little Saxon kingdoms, and also the way that the Church and its monastic institutions served as crossroads between them. It is said by some that he lost much of the use of his legs late in life, and so he rode around on a sort of crude wheelchair. He died sometime around 692/693, and his grave became a major pilgrimage site.

One of the ways in which he is significant is that one of the more interesting Middle English alliterative poems -- thought by some to have been written by no less than the Pearl poet -- is St. Erkenwald, which conveys in alliterative verse a striking legend about the saint. The poem starts with a general summation of the conversion of England from pagan to Christian, and then proceeds with a lively description of the building of St. Paul's. In the course of the building, the people find an old tomb, which contained the incorrupt body of what seems to be a pagan king, since he is richly dressed in undecayed and colorful robes and wears a crown. They actually try to research who it is, but their scholarship turns up absolutely nothing despite searching their archives for seven straight days. St. Erkenwald hears the tale of this mystery and visits; he prays by the tomb, asking God to enlighten him as to the identity of the buried king. Then, in front of the people, he commands the corpse to speak, and the corpse does. He says that he wasn't a king, but a judge. He judged with just judgments for forty years, so after his death the people honored him by arraying him in the most splendid way they could, declaring him king of judges. He was preserved by a miracle of God, because God, too, honors a just judge. He then laments that his soul was left behind in Christ's harrowing of hell because he had no baptism. Everyone weeps, and St. Erkenwald baptizes the just judge, who thanks him profusely. Then the judge's soul rises to heaven, and his corpse corrodes into dust before their eyes -- because, the poet says, the eternity of true life makes as nothing the glory of the body. It is an awesome poem, and well worth reading.

'Erkenwald', with slight variations, was once an extraordinarily common name. The 'earcon' means something like the real-deal, the genuine item; thus, one of the names for a gem was an earcanstan, which, of course, is where Tolkien got 'Arkenstone' from. Thus the name means something like 'genuinely bold'. It fell out of use in English, but a variant of the name came back in by way of Old French -- Archibald.

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