Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2018
Rebecca Pinner The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2015. 292 pp.; 4 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Hardcover $95.00 (9781783270354)

Rebecca Pinner examines the cult of the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund (d. 869) in the High and late Middle Ages. Exploring both textual proliferation—as she points out, more than thirty versions of his legend were created (2)—and visual representation, Pinner attempts to uncover how a king for whom only the sketchiest biographical details are recoverable became the subject of a “vast, elaborate cult” (5) by the end of the Middle Ages. She argues that the haziness of Edmund’s biography was the reason for extensive devotion to him, claiming that “ambiguity is precisely what led to Edmund’s popularity” (6). Relying on an interdisciplinary approach, Pinner undertakes her ambitious study thematically, as she discusses veneration of Edmund from the ninth century to the sixteenth in East Anglia (the modern English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk).

Part 1, “Texts and Contexts: The Legend of St Edmund,” discusses the textual production in Edmund’s cult. Pinner takes a diachronic approach to the textual traditions of Edmund’s sanctity, examining the proliferation of hagiographic texts from the tenth century to the fifteenth century. She draws a firm distinction between what she sees as a static retelling of the Edmund legend in chronicles and a dynamic revision process in hagiographic texts. Chapter 1 discusses the first hagiographic account of Edmund, Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi, written in 985–87. Pinner argues that Abbo’s text “illuminates the genesis of the entire hagiographic tradition concerning St Edmund” (35). Chapter 2 examines an eleventh-century miracle collection and its later revisions, arguing that the texts “chart a telling shift, from an emphasis on the integrity of the abbey’s lands and privileges in response to conquest and incursion, to a more confident, less defensive, phase when Edmund’s intercessions became more demotic and magnanimous” (62). Chapter 3 describes several manuscripts containing both Edmund’s vita and the miracle collections, devoting particular attention to the illuminations in a mid-twelfth-century manuscript from Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, now in the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York (MS M.736). Chapter 4, “The Elaboration of the Hagiographic Tradition,” discusses several high medieval texts: De infantia sancti Eadmundi, written by Geoffrey of Wells between 1153–56; the Anglo-Norman La Passiun de seint Edmund, written ca. 1200; the Vita Sancti Eadmundi by Henry of Avranches, ca. 1220; and the late-fourteenth-century manuscript compilation (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 240). Pinner argues that throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, “the textual cult underwent further revision” (85). Chapter 5 pays particular attention to the illustrated version of John Lydgate’s Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, now residing in the British Library, London (MS Harley 2278).

Part 2, “Relics, Shrines and Pilgrimage: Encountering St Edmund at Bury,” moves away from hagiography and investigates pilgrimage and the material cult of Edmund, what Pinner calls “the physical remains” (24). Chapter 6, “Sacred Immanence, the Incorrupted Body and the Shrine of St Edmund,” attempts to reconstruct the eleventh- and twelfth-century experiences of pilgrims at the shrine. Chapter 7, “The Devotional and Iconographical Context of the Shrine,” examines what Pinner calls “the specific orchestration of the east end of the abbey church” (138); she discusses liturgical practice, secondary relics, and the “artistic schemes adorning the interior of the abbey church” (152), a surviving motet collection, and evidence for the pilgrimage route around the church.

Part 3, “Beyond Bury: Dissemination and Appropriation,” rather than considering a type of cultic production, instead shifts geographic focus and explores the cult outside of its center at Bury St. Edmunds. Chapter 8, “Writing St Edmund into the East Anglian Landscape,” returns to the hagiographic texts and attempts “mapping the legend of St Edmund onto the East Anglian landscape and noting the extent to which his life relates to the region as a physical entity” (172). Chapter 9, “Miracles beyond Bury,” discusses the miracles recorded in a variety of collections that apparently occurred some distance from the shrine at Bury—apparently 17 to 33 percent of all miracles attributed to Edmund (183). Chapter 10, “Images of St Edmund,” explores “church art”: images of the saint in local churches (193), including wall paintings, windows, bosses, and carved wooden bench ends. Several black-and-white images are included in this chapter. Chapter 11, “Texts beyond Bury: Legendary Collections,” explores sermon collections and legendaries dealing with Edmund from the late thirteenth century to the early sixteenth, including the South English Legendary, the Speculum Sacerdotale, and translations of the Legenda Aurea. She ends the section by suggesting that “the regional cult in its textual manifestation is subtly, but significantly, different to how Edmund was imagined on a national scale” (238), an interesting assertion that could have used more extensive development.

The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia is an ambitious attempt at interdisciplinarity (11) across a variety of sources. It thus deploys literary, historical, and art-historical approaches to saints’ cults, as Pinner attempts “to reveal in detail the way in which the legend of St Edmund evolved over five centuries in response to particular circumstances” (243). Pinner is to be commended for her examination of a wide variety of sources and evidence. Yet, more chronological attentiveness would aid Pinner’s argument. As a consequence of her “thematic approach, organising material in terms of production and reception” (10), readers may lose sight of when, precisely, texts were composed, when manuscripts were copied, or when events occurred. Unfortunately, this lack of chronological precision often undercuts Pinner’s attempt to explore reception and “particular circumstances” (243) that influenced cultic practice. This is particularly evident in chapter 7, when Pinner moves between twelfth-century and fifteenth-century evidence for pilgrimage with little consideration of how a pilgrim’s experience may have differed across three centuries.

Much of Pinner’s discussion of manuscript illumination and visual representation of Edmund is thoughtful and observant. The color plates with images from two illuminated manuscripts she examines in detail (New York, Morgan Library, MS M. 736, and London, British Library, MS Harley 2278) are high quality and particularly useful in advancing her discussion of the visual representation of Edmund. It is surprising, then, to encounter references to manuscripts in Pinner’s text without full shelf marks or identifying information. Simply referring to a manuscript as “GI.Kgl.1558” (63) or “the Liber Albus” (139) leaves the reader at a loss. Perplexingly, the bibliography lists only two manuscripts under “Unpublished Primary Sources” (251); a list of all manuscripts Pinner references would have been enormously useful. There are other surprising absences in the bibliography. As Pinner references several scholarly works from 2014, one would certainly expect a mention of Robert Bartlett’s Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), and one would expect her to use Rebecca Rushforth’s Saints in English Kalendars before AD 1100 (London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 2008) rather than Francis Wormald’s English Benedictine Kalendars before AD 1100 (London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1934). Unfortunately, the book as a whole could have used more careful proofreading. Surely Pinner must mean “sexual voracity” rather than “sexual veracity” (19), and the author of A History of Anglo-Latin Literature is A. G. Rigg (cited correctly in the notes and bibliography), not A. G. Riggs, as found in the text (84, 105).

More precision generally would be useful in clarifying Pinner’s argument for her readers. For instance, the observation that a cult was “introduced to the devotional consciousness through the creation of a successful passio” (48) may lead a reader to wonder not only what makes a passio successful or unsuccessful but also what, precisely, “devotional consciousness” might be, who has it, how it works, and who might introduce it to whom. Similarly, Pinner refers to the construction of Edmund’s “saintly identity” throughout but leaves it to her readers to attempt to understand what, precisely, such an identity might be and who, precisely, might construct it. Her observation that “Edmund’s complex saintly identity meant he was inherently suited to manifest his power in numerous and varied contexts” (150) could surely be applied to any number of medieval saints, not just to Edmund. Nevertheless, scholars will find Pinner’s exploration of the local cult of Edmund an interesting contribution to ongoing discussions about the nature and practice of medieval veneration of saints. 

Lauren Whitnah
Lecturer, Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of Tennessee Knoxville