Things left behind: matter, narrative and the cult of St Edmund of East Anglia

Gourlay, Andrew (2017) Things left behind: matter, narrative and the cult of St Edmund of East Anglia. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis provides a detailed and interdisciplinary analysis of one of medieval
England’s most enduring saints’ cults: that of St Edmund of East Anglia. Focussing
largely on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the surviving material, literary and visual
evidence is examined through the twin lenses of matter and narrative, thus offering a
novel means of perceiving medieval saintly devotion. Borrowing elements from Alfred
Gell’s distributed agency theory, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour’s Actor Network
Theory (ANT) and notions of ‘object biography’, chapter one develops a bespoke means
of modelling the spatial, temporal and material dimensions of cult. Saints’ cults are
imagined as expansive and entangled phenomena, focussed around a central ‘relic
nexus’. Following this, chapter two employs these ideas to analyse the historical and
material growth of Bury St Edmunds as a cult centre. This chapter demonstrates that
Edmund’s materiality both played a significant role in determining the form his cult
took and positioned him within an elite cadre of incorrupt saints. Switching to the
narrative lens, chapter three contrasts early chronicle texts with later hagiography and
charter evidence. This chapter shows that, across succeeding generations, Edmund’s
legend shifted in line with contemporary historical circumstances to become entwined
with the institutional identity of Bury St Edmunds Abbey. Chapter four expands the
narrative analysis to consider the consequences of literary and oral dissemination.
Tracing the literary transmission of a story implicating Edmund in the death of Swein
Forkbeard, this chapter reveals how a series of twelfth-century, historical and political
writers adapted this legend for their own purposes. Yet, far from being limited to
literature, the chapter further argues that Edmund’s narrative was couched within a
fluid oral context. Chapter four concludes by employing the theoretical structures
developed in chapter one to model the narrative environment of Edmund’s cult.
Chapter five focusses on how Edmund was visualised at his cult centre. A particular
example of pictorial storytelling produced at Bury, the miniature sequence in Pierpont
Morgan MS M.736, is analysed to reveal that visual representations provided a means of
expounding both the material and narrative sensibilities of cult. Chapter six expands the
visual and material discussion. A range of media, from large-scale wall art to small-scale
archaeological finds, are used to show that Edmund and his narrative could be
presenced in personal and idiosyncratic ways through a variety of objects. Chapter
seven draws together the interrelated strands from the preceding sections and discusses
what we can say about the relationship between matter and narrative in cult. It
concludes that combinations of Edmund’s materiality and narrative could be combined,
to create the unique truths that fashioned personal and corporate identities. Edmund’s
cult, it is suggested, was a multi-faceted and expansive phenomenon which, although
based around his shrine at Bury St Edmunds, held meaning well beyond. Following this,
some concluding thoughts are offered on how the theoretical framework developed in
this thesis might be adapted and applied to similar cult structures.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: St. Edmund, East Anglia, king and martyr, Bury St Edmunds, medieval religion, cult of saints, relics, narrative, matter, materiality, actor network theory, agency, object biography, medieval England, eleventh century, twelfth century.
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > History
Supervisor's Name: Smith, Prof. Julia and Finlay, Dr. Nyree
Date of Award: 2017
Depositing User: Mr Andrew Gourlay
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8265
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 16 Jun 2017 14:33
Last Modified: 25 Sep 2017 16:07

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