The Cult of St Edmund in Medieval East Anglia,             Rebecca Pinner, (Woodbridge) 2015.

St Edmund, Kelshall church

St Edmund, Kelshall church

There have been too many studies of the saint that merely repeat the same old legends as if they were incontrovertible facts, so it is refreshing to have a real academic study of the cult of St Edmund. I must make it clear that Dr Pinner is a lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, and she is therefore at her best when examining the literature of the St Edmund hagiographies. Much of this body of work originated in Bury St Edmunds, and it is to this that she devotes most of her attention. Some accounts of the saint originated from outside East Anglia (including the first, from which all that followed drew their basic story) and these cannot be ignored.

Her study of the iconography of Edmund only occupies a small section of the book, but it covers a wide range of styles and locations. Because the remaining items of stained glass, pew ends and paintings of the saint (to mention but three media) represent late medieval church decoration, they show how popular the saint was in the East until the Reformation. Many more examples would undoubtedly have remained, had not the Puritan iconoclasts been particularly active in East Anglia in the 17th century. As the author points out, much of this art was connected with the Liberty of St Edmund (West Suffolk), but it is notable how much is to be found in Norfolk.

One of many local reminders of the saint.

One of many local reminders of the saint.

Rebecca Pinner’s examination of the cult in East Anglia from a literary angle provides a firm overview. Her treatment of the geographical context of the cult leaves something to be desired however. The map of East Anglia which precedes the introduction to her work leaves out many of the medieval East Anglian churches dedicated to St Edmund. Neither Thurne in Norfolk or  Aldeburgh in Suffolk are included, and nor is there any mention of the church at Southwood on the river Yare. These are not ruins; they are still functioning as places of worship. She makes no claim for completeness in her mapping (such a thing would be impossible), but the church at Aldeburgh is the parish church of an important town. Several vanished or ruined churches of St Edmund she omits with more reason.

I was disappointed that what I regard as the single most important book on the death of Edmund, and on his slayer Ivarr the boneless, is not mentioned at all in Dr Pinner’s book. Although the death of Edmund necessarily preceded the establishing of the cult, one may hardly ignore this seminal moment.  Alfred Smyth’s work¹, which he produced as his PhD thesis, is both assiduously detailed and highly readable. Other more recent works do not appear in her book; neither the important researches of Mark Blackburn² on Viking coins and the St Edmund Memorial Coinage nor Alan Frantzen’s³ interesting observations on the cult around Bury St Edmunds is included. I am slightly surprised that no members of the UEA History Faculty, who helped her with her research, were able to point Dr Pinner in the direction of these up-to-date works.  Instead she refers to one obsolete paper nearly 50 years old. There is little enough modern academic writing on the subject of St Edmund, and I would have expected this relevant material to have got a mention in her bibliography.

Although she mentions Oswen as among the early guardian of Edmund’s tomb in Bury St Edmunds, she does not examine the fascinating part played by women in his early cult. The body of Edward the Martyr (another Anglo-Saxon Royal Martyr) was entrusted into the care of the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, and women played a similarly significant part at the beginning of the cult of Edmund. The Abbey at Lyng was the establishment of nuns dedicated to St Edmund, and in Domesday it is recorded that there were still many nuns accompanying the monks at Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Obviously nuns played a significant role in the early cult; with the current popularity of feminist history I feel that this omission represents a missed opportunity.

By all means read Dr Pinner’s book; although I have mentioned matters where I would have handled the history of the cult rather differently, it contains much of value.  At nearly £60 for quite a slim volume it is by no means cheap; but you could always try a library.

¹Alfred Smyth, Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles 850 – 880, OUP, 1977

² Mark Blackburn, Numismatic Journal, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2011

³ Frantzen, A. J., Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War, USA, 2004




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