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An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Cnut the Great and the walking dead

Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This post discusses how Cnut the Great (d. 1035) was scared by the reanimated corpse of St. Edith of Wilton.

The walking dead in Anglo-Saxon England

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In episode 5 of the second series of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred of Bebbanburg meets Bjorn the dead man who rises from his grave. © BBC (source)

A recent article in the Guardian reported on the mutilation of dead bodies by medieval inhabitants of Yorkshire. The archaeologists suggested that the villagers had been so afraid of the dead rising from their graves that they made reassurances by smashing some of the skeletons to pieces. Similar practices have been reported for Anglo-Saxon England. The archaeologist David Wilson, for instance, has described how some Anglo-Saxon skeletons were found buried upside down (prone burials), covered under stones, or had their heads cut off. These practices, he notes, have been interpreted as being “intended to prevent the ghost from walking and returning to haunt the living” (Wilson 1992: 92). A fear for a zombie apocalypse, it seems, is nothing new!

The Three Living and the Three Dead

A famous medieval tale revolves around the chance meeting of three living young men with three animated corpses. The corpses remind the young men that they too will die (memento mori, remember to die) and that it is not too late to change their ways.

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The Three Living and the Three Dead © The British Library, Arundel MS 83, f. 127v

Versions of the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead have come down to us from the 13th century onwards (see this blog), but the transformative power of a meeting with a dead person has a longer history; a history that includes Cnut the Great and the corpse of St Edith of Wilton.

Cnut the Great and the reanimated corpse of St Edith of Wilton

Cnut the Great (d. 1035) has a reputation as a god-fearing, Christian king. However, an anecdote in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (1125) suggests Cnut started out as an unbelieving irreligious rebel, until he saw a zombie:

Cnut was a Dane, a man of action but one who had no affection for English saints because of the enmity between the two races. The cast of mind made him wilful, and when at Wilton one Whitsun he poured out his customary jeers at Eadgyth herself [St Edith of Wilton, an Anglo-Saxon saint]: he would never credit the sanctity of the daughter of King Edgar, a vicious man, an especial slave to lust, and more tyrant than king. He belched out taunts like this with the uncouthness characteristic of a barbarian, just to indulge his ill temper; but Archbishop Æthelnoth, who was present, spoke up against him. Cnut became even more excited, and ordered the opening of the grave to see what the dead girl could provide in the way of holiness.

The tomb was opened and, like a jack-in-the-box, St Edith of Wilton rose from her grave:

When the tomb was broken into, Eadgyth was seen to emerge as far as the waist, though her face was veiled, and to launch herself at the contumacious king. In his fright, he drew his head right back; his knees gave way, and he collapsed to the ground. The fall so shattered him that for some time his breathing was impeded, and he was judged dead. But gradually strength returned and he felt both shame an joy that despite his stern punishment he had lived to repent. (Trans. Preest 2002: 127)

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If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!

Works referred to:

  • David Preest (trans.), William of Malmesbury: The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Woodbridge, 2002)
  • David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London and New York, 1992)
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