During Steven Kruger's plenary at SEMA, I got to thinking about the dynamic of supersessionarity in St. Erkenwald. I'm sure K. Biddick has handled this somewhere, or probably any number of Erkenwald's many critics, so apologies in advance, and also apologies for not having a copy in the house of the poem in Middle English.
If you don't remember Erkenwald offhand, here's the plot, cribbed from the very first paper I wrote at Columbia, back in 1999:
A group of masons discover a tomb while renovating St. Paul’s. In the tomb is an incorrupt body dressed as a king. Efforts to determine the identity of this supposed king prove unsuccessful, so the Bishop of London, Erkenwald, is summoned back from a visitation. After mass and prayer, the corpse speaks, revealing itself as the most righteous of judges under the pre-Roman kings “Sir Belyn [and] Ser Berynge . . . his brothire” (l. 213). Despite his righteousness, the soul of the nameless judge is still in Hell. Erkenwald prays for the soul, weeps in compassion, and the formula of baptism and a single tear baptizes the judge. The judge’s soul ascends to heaven, his body disappears into dust, and Erkenwald and the community of London are united in praise of the inscrutable mercy of God.
The poem begins "Not long after / Christ suffered on the cross and sanctified Christendom, / The city had a saintly and sanctified bishop; / And it happened that Erkenwald was the holy man's name." It then turns to Augustine's conversion of the Insular pagans, when in London
" at that time the temple most eminent
Was partly pulled down and purified by dedication,
Having been heathen in the days of Hengist"
Apollo's temple becomes St. Peter's church, Mahomet's St. Margaret's, Jupiter and Juno become Jesus or James, and the "Þe synagoge of þe Sonne was sett to oure Lady." The note to my sad Penguin edition explains "'Synagogue' in Middle English was used to describe any heathen temple. Probably the identifications in this stanza were determined by alliterative needs." (17 n5), a point supported, just barely, by the MED.
But in that synagogue, converted to a church of "oure Lady," I can't help think of St. Mary’s in Jewry, which Robert Stacey (“The Conversion of Jews in Thirteenth-Century England.” Speculum 67 (1992), 265) tells me was a converted synagogue (anyone have pictures? Know if it's still around? Know what happened to it?).
And, driven by that thought, I wonder at the very opening of the poem: I know Middle English poetry is not notable for its historical precision, but the historical Erkenwald was bishop some 700 years after the purported death of Christ. But if he's set "not long after" the death of Christ, Erkenwald very closely follows the cruxifixion and resurrection and thus the supersession of Judaism by Christianity. Why not understand London's converted heathen architecture as the converted Jewish architecture of post-Expulsion England (something to think through for your stone project, Jeffrey?)? Why not take "synagoge" literally instead of as a cheap metrical filler (after all, another word might have done the trick just as well, or as poorly). Why not imagine that the builders discover in the foundation the foundation of their faith, the Jewish bedrock that literally held up several London structures? Why not hear in the noise of the bells that end the poem a triumphant counter to the enforced silence of London Jewry in the 13th century, who were first told they had to worship quietly before being expelled altogether a few decades later? Why not hear in the "New Werke" the New Work of Grace? I realize the poem probably dates to the 1390s, which is rather late for all this, but, otherwise, why not?
All this is by way of setting up the question I asked Kruger after his talk: "Why a judge?" The story's normally about Trajan, an emperor, so why make the change? Why a judge rather than a king? I remember suggesting (which is not to say I actually suggested anything of the sort at that moment!), clearly this is a supersessionary narrative about the passing away of the Law, represented by the good judge, in the time of grace, represented by Erkenwald's weeping affect. The potency of his tears utterly dissolves the Law, pagan, or Jewish (which, barring the Natural Law that predated the Mosaic Law, is virtually coterminous with "the Law"), or even the Christian Law that left the righteous judge languishing in Hell (note, I prefer to aim at a reading of utter dissolution of any Law to what I recall as the standard approach to the crux of the judge's salvation, viz., to snap the miracle back into some clear doctrine and so to give it back to a law while taking away the truly miraculous).
This reading of the poem as a supersessionary allegory leads me to my final question: our philosophical interests at ITM tend towards affect and affirmation; we tend towards refusing the "said" or "being" in favor of the "saying" or "becoming"; we tend to find the rigorous application of any one critical model, particularly models of the Law (stereotypically psychoanalysis), interesting at best, but often enervating. We find ourselves on the side of the miraculous, l'avenir, on the side of surprise. And if not "we," then certainly "I." If I had to place myself anywhere in St. Erkenwald, I would find myself in Erkenwald himself, surprised by the efficacy of my own tears, unsure what to do other than praise the moment and what it wrought. I would linger in the liquefaction of the Judge, of the bodily contact between the Bishop and the Corpse in this in-between zone of fluids. But given how I have read the poem, to what degree am I conditioned by or complicit in ongoing supersessionary narratives? In whose camp do I fall when I refuse the Law?