Cynthia Turner Camp, University of Georgia
This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in postmedieval. The definitive publisher-authenticated version, postmedieval 4.4 (Dec. 2013): 416-26, is available online at dx.doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2013.29.
The Lindisfarne monks knew what happens to dead flesh. It shrivels, decomposes, liquefies. They knew that Cuthbert should have been bare bones eleven years after his death, and their surprise at finding him otherwise -- neither putrescent nor skeletonized -- resounds in Bede’s account of Cuthbert’s first translation. The monks 'expected to find [his bones] quite dry, the rest of the body, as is usual with the dead, having decayed away and turned to dust' (more mortuorum consumpto iam et in puluerem redacto corpore reliquo sicca inuenienda rebantur). Instead, when they opened his tomb, they found 'the body intact and whole, as if it were still alive, and the joints of the limbs flexible, and much more like a sleeping than a dead man' (corpus totum quasi adhuc uiueret integrum, et flexibilibus artuum compagibus multo dormienti quam mortuo similius; 1940, 292-93). Cuthbert’s preserved flesh is a shocking excess: a superabundance not just of divine power but of carnality, of soft and spongy tissue, of something undeniably present that should be absent.
Dead flesh is always surplus, whether it offers a simulacrum of life or grotesquely witnesses its absence. The beloved’s embalmed body offers too much presence of one we know to be gone; the gory exuberance of rotting flesh on television crime dramas horrifies with its macabre detail. In either case, dead flesh’s primary excess is its ability to expose that which we wish to stay hidden in the grave: biochemical recycling turning person into non-person, divesting the body of subjectivity and rendering it an object devoid of will. I consider here not the way the human cadaver becomes a material object; scholars like Carolyn Walker Bynum (1995; 2011, 31-33, et passim) and Ewa Domanska (2005, 398-407; 2006, 341-38) have written eloquently on the subject. Rather, this essay explicates how the fleshly surplusage of the corpse-thing can become a temporal excess, an eruption of the past that disrupts the present’s simplistic supercessionary presumptions and, through an affective shock that spurs the viewer to ethical renewal, can even change the future. Middle English accounts of dead flesh foreground its time-bending abilities, so I will illustrate this argument via well-known narratives of unnatural corpses -- Bede's account of Cuthbert's translation, the judge’s preserved body in the alliterative St Erkenwald, and the rotting cadavers of the alliterative 'Three Dead Kings' -- and by considering at length a less familiar poem, the c. 1420 Wilton Chronicle and its depiction of St Edith of Wilton’s active incorrupt remains.
I begin with two basic premises, one biological and one theoretical. First, the human corpse is subject to specific biological and chemical processes when life passes from the body. Second, when the corpse does not adhere to those processes, it transforms from 'object' to 'thing.' Upon death, the human body passes through a series of physical changes that gradually – and nastily – transform once-living flesh into its constituent parts, changes that track the corpse’s 'death-time.' In the first few days, the body cools, stiffens, relaxes; blood drains into lowermost tissue; deprived of oxygen, cells autolyze and break down. A week later, putrefaction begins as bacteria within the digestive system feed on tissue, rendering flesh further liquified and noisome. Decomposition proper follows as insects, aerobic microorganisms, and other scavengers join the feast. Eventually, only desiccated flesh, if any, will be left and the body will be skeletonized (Vass, 2010; Iserson, 1994, 41-43, 308-316). The time from death to complete skeletonization depends on environmental factors like temperature, depth of burial, and presence of trauma, making the postmortem interval difficult to estimate from physical appearance alone (Mann et al., 1990; Vass, 2011). Death-time does not correlate easily to clock-time. Nevertheless, tracking decay does track corporeal change over time; one does not need advanced training in forensic anthropology to realize, when confronted with a putrefying body, that time has passed since this flesh was a living, breathing human. Bede says as much about Cuthbert’s corpse; the monks anticipated complete skeletonization after eleven years, 'as is usual with the dead.'
Decay, hidden within the grave, is the proper action of the dead body. When flesh does not decay, it breaks the biochemical rules to which it ought to be subject. In the terms articulated by Bill Brown in 'Thing Theory' (2001), the undecayed corpse ceases to be an 'object' (a material presence that functions in accordance with normative codes) and becomes a 'thing,' an object that 'stop[s] working for us' and refuses to adhere to standard expectations of use and deployment (4). A thing is an object behaving badly: a corpse that defies natural processes. Thingness, Brown continues, encompasses both the latent potential and the excessiveness of objects, 'what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects' (5). The surplus of the undecayed corpse, its status as thing rather than object, is therefore intimately connected to the untimely persistence of intact flesh beyond the scope of normal death-time.
Its excesses are therefore temporal as well as corporeal, and the incorrupt cadaver becomes a historiographic problem as well as an ontological one. The undecayed body appears to freeze time. Hagiographic commonplaces of incorruption – phrases like 'looking as if asleep' or 'looking as if he/she died that day' – elide simultaneously the process of decay and the passage of time. When the Anglo-Saxon Londoners in St Erkenwald unearth the 'bry3t' body 'in blysnande hewes,' 'freshe hym þe face and the fleshe nakyde' (of gleaming completion; he was fresh in his face and in his bare flesh; 87, 89),i they recognize his temporal displacement. 'How longe had he þer layne his lere so vnchaungit?' (how long had he lain there, his face so unchanged; 95) they ask. A cadaver this fresh should be a recent interment and therefore in recent memory, the townspeople know, but the depth of his burial indicates he was entombed long ago. This spatio-temporal disconnect engenders a historiographic and memorial crisis, as the silence of chronicle and memory belies the Londoners’ presumption that the corpse belongs to their own era.ii
The thingish cadaver's natural effect, the temporal folding of excess past into the present, has a natural affect: discomfort and disruption. Certainly in St Erkenwald the 'quontyse strange' (outlandish mystery; 74) that is the judge’s body generates 'a cry aboute a cors' (a cry about a corpse) that 'crakit' (was shouted; 110) throughout London, derailing the proper operations of civic order (Chism, 2002, 56-57). Michel de Certeau’s (1988) explication of historiographic processes helpfully clarifies the disruptive nature of fleshy thingness. The writing of history, he insists, entails the creation of a useful, comprehensible, and relevant past, a process that inevitably includes the forgetting of irrelevant and problematic fragments. Yet those repressed remnants inevitably return, 'despite everything, on the edges of discourse or in its rifts and crannies . . . [to] perturb the pretty order of a line of "progress" or a system of interpretation' (4). Certeau’s remainders are the excesses of a past (in St Erkenwald, the pagan British undecayed body) that cannot be incorporated into the narrative of historical progress (the Anglo-Saxon Londoners’ casual assumption that they can simply raze pagan temples to assert their new Christian identity); yet those remainders return anyway, revealing that narrative’s ideologies and blind spots.iii The judge’s corpse explodes, in Jonathan Gil Harris's (2009) understanding of 'explosive time,' as a 'shard that has been sundered from official history and now presents the possibility for doing and imagining things differently' (94). Standing outside time’s diachronic flow and thus separate from history’s progressive movement, preserved flesh belies the past’s obsolescence, insisting instead that the dead still walk (sometimes literally) among us.
Flesh, delicate and frangible, is a viscerally bewildering temporal disruption. Medieval literature, true, is peppered with untimely objects – Beowulf's 'eald enta geweorc' (old work of giants; 1950, l. 2774), Arthur's mammoth bones beneath Glastonbury's graveyard (Gerald of Wales, 1891, 127), the Hercules-laid stones grounding Chester's walls (Higden, 1869, 80). However intrusive these items’ pasts might be in their respective narratives, upon further consideration their transtemporal persistence isn’t surprising. There is nothing 'thing-like' about stone’s perdurance, for its perceived affordance is to endure. Granted that lithic stability is a myth born of humans’ foreshortened temporal perspective (Cohen, 2010, 56-57), mortal vision nevertheless perceives stone as durable and flesh as friable; this presumption renders the long-undecayed corpse less intellectual curiosity (as often true of stone and bone) than affective fright. Bede captures this succinctly: the Lindisfarne monks were so paralyzed by Cuthbert's unanticipated flesh 'that they hardly dared to say anything or even to look upon the miracle which was revealed, and scarcely knew what to do' (ut uix aliquid loqui, uix auderent intueri miraculum quod parebat, uix ipsi quid agerent nossent; 1940, 292-93). The dead body, temporally explosive and emotionally volatile, disrupts deep-seated presumptions about time far more violently than more resilient material.
Such affective encounters render the cadaver ethically productive. While intact flesh can engender shock and ethical reformation – the unruly Londoners in St Erkenwald process harmoniously from the cathedral precinct after their encounter with the incorrupt judge – medieval art and literature typically use moldering carrion, the uncanny double of the living body, to interpellate the beholder into a self-recognition that ideally disrupts ethical complacence.iv In these macabre narratives, corporeal thingness often derives from the cadaver’s mobility, its ability to transfer spatially the decay process from the tomb (where it belongs) to the world of aristocratic sport (where it does not). A fourteenth-century alliterative poem in the 'three living and three dead' tradition, 'Three Dead Kings' uses the horrific decrepitude of its cadaverous triumviri, '[Sc]hadows vnshene' (dark shades; 43) who '[H]adyn lost þe lyp and þe lyuer' (had lost lip and liver; 45),v to spur the three living kings, sons of the corpses, to change their prideful ways.vi The poet focuses on the terror the roaming paternal bodies generate in their sons: the first living king 'gre[de]' (laments) and is 'agast / Of þre gostis ful grym' (terrified of the very hideous three spirits); 57-58), while the third king’s 'hert fare[s] fore fre3t' (heart skips in fright; 85) when faced with ambulatory putrefaction. That terror spurs the prideful rulers to renovate their rule: 'Holde þai neuer þe pres be hew ne be hyde, / Bot ay þe hen[d]yr hert after þai hade' (They were never oppressive concerning servants or land, but ever after they had better ordered hearts; 135-36). Enacting a temporal confrontation between the living and their dead ancestors, the poem deploys not only a 'lineage fiction,' but also corporeal putrefaction, to 'create an anxiety in the Living Kings that the poem converts into socially, and economically, productive behavior' (Kinch, 2008, 68).
Collapsing the distance between then and now, insisting that the past not be immured, generating renewal in the present: the untimely corpse-thing activates the past to imagine a new possible future via the gut-wrenching inappropriateness of unburied flesh.
* * *
The Wilton Chronicle (a surprisingly understudied poem, even by scholars of women’s literature) capitalizes on all these excesses, using the intact, mobile cadaver to reshape history. Written around 1420, almost certainly for the nuns of Wilton Abbey, the Chronicle combines the life of Edith (d. 984), daughter of King Edgar and lifelong nun of Wilton, with a narrative of the abbey’s origins and a history of late Anglo-Saxon Wessex into a hybrid chronicle-cum-hagiography. In this lengthy (nearly 5000 lines) anonymous poem, Edith’s corpse destabilizes a range of well established authorities -- Latin, ecclesiastical, political, and historiographical -- to rewrite a pivotal moment in Anglo-Saxon history, the interloping King Cnut's conversion from pagan Dane to pious ruler, through the active intervention of Edith's superfluous flesh. Bursting from its tomb fully incorrupt and preternaturally active, despite a hagiographic tradition that asserted its partial decay, Edith’s dead flesh enables an encounter between an illegitimate ruler and the dynasty he thought he had eradicated, an encounter in which the revenant's reproach reforms the pagan usurper.
Edith was not one of England’s great incorrupt virgins, for the eleventh-century Vita et Translatio Edithae by Goceslin of Saint-Bertin claims that her extremities decayed, leaving only her torso intact. The Wilton Chronicle, however, resists its source’s claims of fragmentation, insisting upon Edith’s corporeal completeness at her relic translation (even as it does lip-service to Goscelin’s account of her putrefaction) and thereby making her incorruption doubly excessive; the poet simultaneously claims that her sensory organs decayed and that her body appeared whole and beautiful 'Ry3t as alyve hit was goynge here' (2560).vii Such a juxtaposition constructs Edith's incorruption as a superabundance of carnality that overtly displaces her prior decomposition. The poet insists throughout the poem that Edith persists fleshily and 'bodylyche' (2212), perfectly whole and even ambulatory, by substituting corporeal terms for Goscelin’s heavenly descriptors. One example, Edith’s appearance to quell conventual grumbling, will suffice. In Goscelin's Latin, she manifests as a 'stellar virgin' who speaks to the nuns 'in a vision as if physically present' (Wright and Loncar, 2004, 90; per uisam ac si corporaliter siderea uirgo; Wilmart, 1938, 298); in the Chronicle, however, 'by vision [s]he was as conversaunte among hem, y wys, / Ry3t a lyve as þaw [s]he hadde among hem 3et be' (4842-43). The vernacular poet changes her astral apparition into a mundane conversation among fellows, reusing the phrase 'Ry3t alyve' from her translation ceremony to emphasize the corporeal nature of even this visionary appearance.viii
This re-enfleshment serves many functions in the Chronicle. Through it, the poet asserts the nunnery's independence from episcopal authority, imagines a harmonious and well-governed convent, and norms ethical action for the Wilton nuns. He also re-emplots the narrative of Cnut's reign around Edith's corpse, imagining that the Wessex dynasty perdures corporeally and that dead but still active flesh can redirect England’s spiritual course.
To demonstrate how the Chronicle rewrites English history, I must first explain how chroniclers dealt with Cnut's competing reputations in the medieval historiographic tradition. On the one hand, as a pagan Dane with no ties to the Wessex line, who came to the throne after Edmund Ironside was treacherously murdered, Cnut represented the tragic Anglo-Danish supercession of the weakened House of Wessex. Robert of Gloucester suggests as much when he laments England being 'out of kunde' (1887, l. 6466) after Edmund Ironside’s death, as does Robert Mannyng, who claims that Cnut was 'kyng þorgh conquest & desceit' (1996, 2.1213). On the other hand, Cnut was remembered as a pious ruler and religious patron, a notoriety for ethical productivity that was superfluous to his 'interloping Dane' persona. The Brut praises him as a supporter of monasteries (1906, 124/13-17), and Robert of Gloucester claims that he “muche louede holi chirche & susteinede als so” (1887, l. 6507).
Many chroniclers contained this historical surfeit by portraying Cnut as a usurper who, after an affective encounter with natural and divine inexorability, transformed into a pious ruler whose spiritual awakening enabled England’s infrastructural and religious healing. Anglo-Latin chroniclers emplotted this conversion story by conjoining two popular vignettes, Cnut’s attempt to exert royal power over the sea and his humble crowning of a crucifix, thus: Cnut, sitting on the sea shore, proudly commands the rising tide not to wet his royal robes. When the sea disobeys the order, Cnut realizes the limitations of his kingly power when compared to divine authority and places his crown upon a nearby crucifix, refusing thereafter to wear a crown that rightfully belongs to Christ. Vernacular chroniclers heighten this narrative's conversion potential. In the Brut, for example, Cnut’s humbling by the sea leads not to his crowning of the crucifix but to a repentant pilgrimage to Rome, 'my Wickednesse forto punisshe, and me to amende,' after which Cnut 'bicome a gode man and an holy' and generously founds monasteries (1906, 124/5-6, 11-12). This conversion narrative thereby recuperates Cnut in service of a temporally progressive narrative of England's spiritual history, in which the pagan's regeneration enables England's religious renewal after the depredations of the Anglo-Danish wars.
Writing within and against this historical tradition, the Wilton Chronicle exploits Cnut’s doubled reputation. Here Cnut is the pagan defiler of English Christendom, 'no trewe cristen mon' who 'Ny levede no thyng on criston lawe' (3275, 3276) and who perpetuates the political and spiritual destitution England suffered under Æthelred and Edmund Ironside’s reigns. Following the chroniclers, the poet too emplots a narrative of conversion and national renewal, but with a twist. In the Chronicle, Cnut repents when confronted, not with the rising sea, but with the specter of the now-defunct yet still legitimate Wessex line, reanimated in Edith’s preternaturally active corpse. Suspending time and embodying her blood heritage, Edith’s intact flesh presents a superabundance of legitimate royal authority, able to abash the usurper and reform his reign.
The crucial episode tells how an oafish Cnut, while feasting at Wilton, casts aspersions on Edith’s sanctity, refusing to believe that a daughter of a philanderer like Edgar could be holy. The doubting king is taken to Edith’s tomb to 'se how hole hurre body þere 3et leythe' (3358), but even the sight of Edith’s incorruption is insufficient to persuade him. Cnut began to 'lawe [laugh] hurre to scorne' (3378), at which
þat mayde rerede up hurre body every whytte,
and gederede to gedere hurre lymnys þo 3eke,
and made a sygne, as þaw [s]he wold þe kyng have smytte
wyth hurre fust under his cheke.
Cnut, physically threatened by this revenant saint, becomes 'assmayhydde' and swoons: 'Was he never so sore agast þat tyme byfore' (3384, 3386). This fear generates repentance in the king, who announces that 'ychull do herre worshippe ever whyle y leve / and trewelyche ychull ever byleve in Gode, / . . . / by cause of þis holy virgyn þat here now leythe' (3394-95, 3398). This experience transforms Cnut spiritually; he not only becomes Edith’s biggest patron (3403-18), but he also undoes the damage caused by the preceding Anglo-Danish wars (3632-33) and returns England to devout rule. The kingdom’s regeneration is produced by royal renewal, itself engendered by Edith’s lifelike flesh.
Edith’s corporeal excesses in this scene are numerous. Not only does the poet reiterate her carnal perfection -- the presiding bishop tells Cnut that he will find her 'as wholl / and as freysshe as [s]he was ony tyme þat day byfore' (3360-61) -- but he also imbues her remains with unprecedented activity. Incorrupt saints may appear in visions after death, and they may do miracles to preserve their relics, but they do not reanimate those corpses. This mobility annexes the agitating power of roving decayed bodies, like those of the Three Dead Kings, to Edith’s saintly perfection, for only her raised fist and the threat of physical contact dismay the recalcitrant ruler; the sight of Edith’s perfect body generated mockery, not reverence.
This conversion-generating confrontation occurs, importantly, not just between a female saint and a pagan king, but between a remnant of the Wessex past and an illegitimate Danish ruler, for Edith’s third corporeal excess is her embodiment of the defunct royal line. At this point in any chronicle of English history, the Danes appear to have effaced all vestiges of the House of Wessex: Edward the Confessor and his brother are in exile, Edmund Ironside is dead, and Cnut has systematically eliminated Edmund’s sons. In the Wilton Chronicle, however, Edith remains present, her dead flesh’s untimely persistence allowing an unsubdued Wessex authority to challenge Cnut’s displacement of legitimate rule much as St Erkenwald’s British judge disrupts London’s complacent attitude toward its past.
The poet identifies Edith with Wessex throughout the poem by emphasizing her generation from Edgar, portraying her as his legitimate, royal, and privileged daughter. She is 'worthy to bene a quene' (1074) and even, the poem claims, able to wear the crown. After young King Edward, Edith’s half-brother and son of Edgar, was martyred by his stepmother Ælfthryth so that her son, Æthelred, could assume the crown, the ealdormen are faced with a crisis of succession. In the Chronicle, the poet (contra the chronicle tradition) imagines that 'þe lordus of þe reme token hem to rede / to make hurre quene' because of Æthelred’s presumed complicity in Edward’s death (1703-04). Edith could inherit, the poet makes explicit, because Æthelred
my3t not challange þat heritage,
ny nomore ry3t hadde þerto by ony lawe,
non hadde he þat nas not of þat lynage.
That is, Edith had just as good a claim to the throne as did Æthelred. She, of course, refuses the siren song of royal authority, but the very proposition that Edith could rule – that her noble 'heritage' is guaranteed in being part of Edgar’s 'lynage' -- solidifies Edith’s position within the Wessex dynasty.
The Wilton poet also manipulates the Latin tradition of her decay to demonstrate a bodily similitude between Edgar and Edith -- a likeness that is ethical, not only genealogical. According to Goscelin, Edith appeared in a vision to Dunstan to urge him to translate her remains, telling him what he would find when he opened the tomb; the Wilton poets adds that her partial decay was 'more for my fader gulte' than for her own faults (2483). In the Chronicle, Edith's flesh continues Edgar's, such that the sins of the father can be visited upon the daughter’s corpse: even after death, her body perpetuates the house of Wessex. Cnut presumes a similar somatic and ethical equivalence, doubting Edith’s sanctity not because she is a nun, or a woman, or a saint, but because she is Edgar’s daughter:
3e, Syre Archebysshop, hold þu þy clappe.
For y 3eve no byleve þerto.
Kyng Edgares dou3ter, yche wene [s]he was,
y kete bot upon a wenche.
How shulde [s]he ever have suche a grase,
whose wolde hym self þis well by thenche?
Cnut's crass claim that Edgar 'kete' Edith 'bot upon a wenche' might be idiomatically rendered 'sired her upon a strumpet.' 'Ketenen' is the verb used of animal propagation,ix and the poet’s decision to place that term in Cnut’s mouth draws attention to the physicality of Edith’s descent.
Edith’s flesh does not simply manifest Wessex legitimacy in this scene, however: it also purifies it, removing any possible taint from Edgar’s reputation and therefore from the legacy he leaves behind. Cnut voices one of the more unsavory but enduring facets of Edgar’s reputation (Yorke, 2008, 155-57), but Edith’s incorruption belies that tradition. When Cnut dismisses Edith’s sanctity, asking 'How shulde [s]he ever have suche a grase' as sanctity (3353), he assumes an ethical similarity between father and daughter, one that he thinks should deny Edith any holy grace. When, however, the signs of Edgar’s sin, her decay, are (textually, poetically) erased from her flesh by the poet’s insistence on her incorruption, the poem effectively denies Edgar's sinfulness. The form of Cnut's objection – as Edgar's daughter, Edith perpetuates his reputation – actually underscores the way Edith represents Wessex legitimacy in this scene, while the erroneous substance of his objection – refusal to acknowledge Edith's holy grace, her role as her father's redemptrix and later her preserved body -- highlights by contrast the way Edith's intact corpse acts as a repository for a cleansed and idealized form of Wessex royal authority.
Edith’s incorruption is therefore more than a miracle in the tradition of Bede’s Cuthbert; it is the means by which the Wilton poet re-imagines England’s history. Exploding from her tomb as fresh, mobile, and legitimately royal as were she alive, Edith becomes one of de Certeau’s dead men brought to life. But she is not, as in the historiographic fantasy he describes, a past revived illusorily only to affirm the present’s ideologies (1998, 35-36, 46-47). Rather, Edith emerges as the past undesired by the present regime, the shard that disrupts horrifically to reconfigure the interloping Dane’s rule – and to challenge late medieval chroniclers’ image of Anglo-Saxon rulership. Her preserved flesh not only belies Cnut’s supposed eradication of the Wessex line but, more provocatively, also becomes the “thing” through which the Wilton poet can imagine England’s history differently: an English past in which a princess can reign, a nun can legitimize contemporary rule, and a saint can correct the course of history.
Importantly, that correction occurs only through Cnut’s dismay in the face of the dead Christian princess, his own inverted doppelgänger. Superabundant dead flesh, therefore, not only introduces the historiographic desiderada of unmediated access to -- the possibility of grasping -- the past. It also enables that past to touch back. And when that past moves to touch the present – when the pagan judge’s corpse speaks, when the dead kings approach the living, when Edith lifts her hand to Cnut – it changes the terms of engagement. No longer an inert object of scholarly inquiry or a reflection the present’s desire for the past, dead flesh and its volatile thingness circumvent rational intellection to strike at the hindbrain, generating in the viewer a horror, pity, and ethical self-reflection capable of generating true renovation. Cnut converts and returns England to spiritual productivity; the three living kings reform their governance; Erkenwald’s Londoners are finally united, if only momentarily.
If these Middle English alternate histories hold any lesson for our present, therefore, it might be the promise of Edith’s mobile cadaver: an affective encounter with the past might just have the potential to change the future.
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vii Quotations taken from Dockray-Miller's 2009 edition, cited parenthetically by line number. Because the poet uses 'he' for both male and female third person, I add an 's' to the female pronouns for clarity.