Some may recall that, early in September, under the post "Once More Into the Breach of the Anglo-Saxon Mind," I shared a draft of a paper I presented at the 2006 Kalamazoo Congress, titled "The Old English Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Incorporable Infinite of the Human Person," which I am now developing into an article for a subsidium volume of the Old English Newsletter, edited by Robin Norris, devoted to the four anonymous Old English saints' lives interpolated into AElfric's Lives of Saints. I would like to share portions of that article as I am writing it, and welcome any critical feedback.
The ultimate aim of the article [and by the way, I am lousy at stating a thesis and prefer to work inductively, but never mind that] is to show how the Old English Seven Sleepers are bodies--sleeping/never martyred bodies, to be literal about it, who are not yet disembodied, rising souls--who carry forward in time a specific cultural memory; their “resurrection” is a resurrection, not of bodies, but of memory and the ability to speak memory, and to bear witness to a certain erotic attachment to the world and feeling subjectivity which is necessary for the development of an individual soul that could incline itself toward god while alive [a somewhat heretical idea, perhaps?]; the Seven Sleepers are mourners of the world, Ephesus, and the the tortured/killed Christians, that make their spiritual subjectivity possible, and they resist at every possible turn their possible torture and execution; by contrast, the traditional hagiographic narrative requires the annihilation of the subjective self or individual who does not necessarily mourn his own “passing,” but rather, eagerly embraces and celebrates it, whereas the story of the Seven Sleepers, conversely, shows the important connection between mind/person/soul and the body that gives those entities expression; in this sense, the Old English version of their story, which contains rich psychological detail not found in any other version, may also be a more explicit expression of what the traditional passiones did convey: the soul desires and needs embodiment/world.
What follows here is the opening/"set-up" for the article [and I thank my friend and novelist Valerie Vogrin for turning me on to Kevin Brockmeier's novel, which could not have landed in my study at a better time]:
I know you want to keep on living. You do not want to die. And you want to pass from this life to another in such a way that you will not rise again as a dead man, but fully alive and transformed. This is what you desire. This is the deepest human feeling; mysteriously, the soul itself wishes and instinctively desires it.
They were mistaking the spirit for the soul. Many people tended to use the words casually, interchangeably, as though there were no difference at all between them, but the spirit and the soul were not the same thing. The body was the material component of a person. The soul was the nonmaterial component. The spirit was simply the connecting line. . . . When you died, the connecting line of the spirit snapped, and what remained of you was simply the body on one side—a heap of clay and minerals—and the soul on the other. The spirit was nothing more than a function of their interaction, like the ripples that formed where the wind blew over the water.I. Wrenched Out of the Their Histories
In Kevin Brockmeier’s novel The Brief History of the Dead, there are only two places. First, there is the City, which is inhabited by the recently departed, mainly victims of a viral pandemic that has wiped out the entire population of the Earth, except for one person, Laura Byrd, who inhabits the other place, Antarctica, where she had been working at a research station when, essentially, the world came to an end. Those who live in the City conduct each day much as they did when they were alive: going to work, eating meals at home and in restaurants, strolling the streets and sitting on park benches, going to the movies, and even engaging in debates over where it is, exactly, they might actually be, and what they are. “Of course we’re bodies,” one of the characters argues with another. “Bodies and nothing but. Have you ever heard of a spirit that ate hamburgers and chili dogs for lunch, a spirit that got leg cramps in the middle of the night?”
Laura Byrd, left alone on earth, has only a vague idea what has happened to everyone and spends most of the novel trudging across the ice shelf looking for other survivors and simply trying to stay alive. At one point, after many days of treacherous hiking in horrifying weather conditions, she falls into a crevasse and dangles for many hours at the end of a rope, unable to muster the strength to climb back out. She briefly contemplates simply letting herself go and considers how peaceful it would be to finally be dead, but through sheer tenacity and a kind of dumb fury and almost mindless will-to-live, she pulls herself up and out.
As it turns out, those who live in the City are comprised of only those people whom Laura Byrd remembers from her past and whom she reflects upon often as a way to keep herself from going insane. There are her family members, of course, and past lovers and friends, teachers and fellow workers, but also almost everyone she ever ran into if even only one time and can still remember: mailmen, street beggars, children who played in her neighborhood park, her doorman, a stranger she once gave a book of matches to, and so on and so forth. As long as she can stay alive, so will the inhabitants of the City, all of whom have “died” and are keenly aware that they are in some kind of purgatory or “outer room” that lies adjacent to the place you go when no one is left who remembers you at all. Everyone lives exactly as they exist in Laura’s memory: the religious fanatic paces the streets each day carrying his placards painted with dire warnings, four Korean women can always be found playing an eternal game of mahjongg in the park, and her parents, who in their former lives could barely tolerate each other, discover that they are in love with each other again, which is how Laura remembers them from before she moved away from home.
When Laura finally and tragically succumbs to the elements, lying alone and hallucinating fiercely in her tent in a penguin rookery at the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, her toes and fingers black and crumbled from frostbite, the streets and buildings and bridges of the City begin to disappear, and the inhabitants all gather at the park in the center of town, waiting “for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories.” Brockmeier’s novel is a beautiful and arresting meditation on the afterlife, and on the belief, prevalent in many cultures, that without the proper rituals of remembrance, the dead are either condemned to wander perpetually through non-places or do not really exist at all, except as general numeric abstractions. And in its heartbreakingly sad last sentence, quoted above, the novel also speaks to a very human anxiety and dread over the idea of a disembodied afterlife, one in which body and soul must split apart and the all-too-human world which has been loved and has made the journey of the self possible is left behind for good. The novel is also a kind of horror story, for as Laura lies dying, the predominant noise outside of her tent is the incessant chatter of the penguins--a harsh reminder that, even with every single human being, and therefore all of human memory, extinct, the world still continues.
Regardless of Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 15 that the human person “is sown a natural body” but rises as a “spiritual body,” and that “flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God,” and of the efforts of certain theologians, such as Origen and Aquinas, to formulate an understanding of soul as some form of disembodied personal identity, as Caroline Walker Bynum has written, “[f]rom the second to the fourteenth centuries, doctrinal announcements, miracle stories, and popular preaching continued to insist on the resurrection of exactly the material bits that were laid in the tomb.” Further, “a concern for material and structural continuity [after death] showed remarkable persistence even where it seemed to almost require philosophical incoherence, theological equivocation, or aesthetic offensiveness. . . . The idea of person, bequeathed by the Middle Ages to the modern world, was not a concept of soul escaping body or soul using body; it was a concept of self in which physicality was integrally bound to sensation, emotion, reasoning, identity—and therefore finally to whatever one means by salvation.”
There were, of course, endless theological controversies and debates over the question of bodily resurrection, centering mainly on the issue of how a body, which is inherently corruptible, could be incorruptible and still be a body, and whether or not resurrected bodies represented a continuity of the same or some kind of transfiguration. “To put it very simply,” Bynum writes, “if there is change, how can there be continuity and hence identity? If there is continuity, how will there be change and hence glory?” Augustine devoted a good deal of the last book of The City of God to answering the many arguments and worrisome doubts over the reconstitution of material bodies into new spiritual selves (will resurrected bodies have genitals? what about scars? will they be fat? will aborted fetuses rise?), and he even went so far as to address the issue of what happened to human flesh ingested by animals or other humans (answer: consumed flesh evaporates into the air where God collects and reconstitutes it). Ultimately, Augustine answered all concerns this way in Book 22, Chapter 21:
. . . even though the body has been all quite ground to powder by some severe accident, or by the ruthlessness of enemies, and though it has been so diligently scattered to the winds, or into the water, that there is no trace of it left, yet it shall not be beyond the omnipotence of the Creator—no, not a hair of its head shall perish. The flesh shall then be spiritual, and subject to the spirit, but still flesh, not spirit, as the spirit itself, when subject to the flesh, was fleshly, but still spirit and not flesh.Indeed, Augustine even went so far as to emphasize the yearning of the departed soul for the body, writing in Book 13, Chapter 20 of City of God that the souls of departed saints “do not desire that their bodies be forgotten . . . but rather, because they remember what was promised by Him who deceives no man, and who gave them security for the safe keeping even of the hairs of their head, they with longing patience wait in hope of the resurrection of their bodies, in which they have suffered many hardships, and are now to suffer never again.” We can see here a glimmer of the idea that, for Augustine, the body was somehow a necessary vehicle for the fullest possible expression of an individual spiritual soul, or individual self (which might also stand in for the idea of “person”), for why else would soul desire, or need, a material body? Soul, in fact, in this scenario, remains in an always loving relationship, even through physical suffering, with body, which is, to a certain extent, the only means by which any soul can be distinct from any other soul.
There was, perhaps, no better means than hagiography, as well as the cult of saints’ graves and relics, for vividly illustrating to a general medieval populace the importance of, and even desire for, bodily integrity in the resurrection. As Peter Brown has written,
the original death of the martyr, and even the long, drawn-out dying of the confessor and the ascetic, was vibrant with the miraculous suppression of suffering. Memories of it set up an imaginative vortex in the minds of those who thronged to the shrine. . . . The explicit image of the martyr was of a person who enjoyed the repose of Paradise and whose body was even now touched by the final rest of the resurrection. Yet behind the now-tranquil face of the martyr there lay potent memories of a process by which a body shattered by drawn-out pain had once been enabled by God’s power to retain its integrity.According to Brown, the public reading of passiones in late Antiquity was, “in itself, a psychodrame that mobilized in the hearer those strong fantasies of disintegration and reintegration which lurked in the back of the mind of ancient men.” Michael Lapidge has written that the passiones “form an extensive and distinctive body of early Christian literature.” Further, “[w]ritten in Latin and Greek, as well as Syriac, Coptic, and other languages, passiones survive in large numbers . . . from all parts of the early Christian world, especially those places where persecution was most vigorously pursued: Nicomedia, Antioch, Palestine, Alexandria, and Latin-speaking North Africa.”
The mutilated bodies of martyrs may, in fact, have been the main impetus for much of the early (late second century onwards) Christian treatises on resurrection, and later martyr stories “are filled with examples of saints who do not even notice the most exquisite and extraordinary cruelties,” and whose bodies, while under torture and violent assault, somehow remain beautifully unchanged. The pedagogical import of such stories would not have been lost on early theologians and preachers, who may have been both fearful of assaults on their own bodies and also in need of exempla for the idea of the resurrection in the midst of troubled times. Thus, as Brown tells us, the fourth-century Victricius of Rouen urged his congregation to not let a day pass where they did not reflect on the stories of martyrs: “This martyr did not blanch under the torturer; this martyr hurried up the slow work of the executioner; this one eagerly swallowed the flames; this one was cut about, yet stood up still.” It is important to note, as Lapidge does, that the passiones were written “at least a century, and perhaps several centuries, later than the ending of persecution with the Peace of the Church in 313” and that “there are few reliable (that is, contemporary and impartial) witnesses to the circumstances of persecution.”
Regardless of their historical accuracy, however, the early Christian literature of martyrdom was steeped in the spectacle of bodies tortured, burned, hacked, ripped apart, and then miraculously recomposed, and as Brown points out, “while the body is ‘painted with wash on wash of blood,’ its core, the soul, remains all of one piece.” Fidelity to the past was not what really mattered (although the stories always strove for historical versimilitude), for the performance of passiones at saints’ festivals, for example, “gave a vivid, momentary face to the invisible praesentia of the saint” by laying bare “the fragilities of the body . . . with macabre precision.” The saint, finally, was “really there,” bringing the past into the present and bridging the gap between this world and the next one.
The anonymous and Ælfrician corpora of hagiography in Anglo-Saxon England, such as the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Old English Martyrology, and Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies and Lives of Saints (which include both passiones and vitas) were certainly the inheritors of an early Latin Christian tradition of stories that emphasized the martyred saints’ ready desire to be killed, as well as the shining imperviousness of their tortured, yet fully intact bodies. In Ælfric’s story of Saint Sebastian, well before his actual torture and execution, Sebastian, and his halig companion Chromatius, beg to be thrown into hot ovens. Ultimately, Sebastian has to be killed twice—first, by arrows, and later, after his body is miraculously healed, by being clubbed to death and left to rot in a sewer. In both instances, widows retrieve his body and heal and preserve it, so that it can be interred in a site that will later serve as a holy shrine and as a locus for the praesentia of the saint’s sacred and bodily powers. Three murder attempts are made on Ælfric’s virgin saint Eugenia—by drowning, burning, and starvation—before she is finally, simply killed (acwealde) by an executioner of the emperor. It is worth noting that when she earlier enters a burning oven, “all the conflagration was extinct at her coming.” In Ælfric’s passio of Saint Julian, when the Roman emperor’s deputy in Antioch, Martianus, orders a group of men to be burned in front of Julian, although the flames “ascended more than thirty fathoms . . . until the pile was burnt up, and all the tuns,” the men who had been bound together on the pyre “stood there uninjured by the fire, glittering like gold.” In these instances, the bodies of saints are not only impervious to fire, but in one case, can even quench it.
But even in cases where the mutilation of the saint’s body is palpably realized, the saint remains unfazed, as in Ælfric’s story of the virgin Agnes, who continues praying, even after she has been disemboweled. In his retelling of the story of “The Forty Soldiers,” set in Armenia, after a group of Roman soldiers who have converted to Christianity have survived, unclothed, in a lake of ice, they are consequently dragged from the freezing water to have their legs broken. While their limbs are literally breaking and cracking in half they sing a song that beautifully captures the trope of the saint’s rejection of the material body that, nevertheless, makes his sanctity visible and whole: “Our soul is escaped out of the snare as a sparrow, the snare is broken, and we are delivered.” Afterwards, they are all burned together in a fire and their bones are disposed of in a stream, where they shine “as brightly as stars.” The gleaming radiance of their disassembled bones in the middle of the night allows them to be found and collected by other Christians who can then enshrine them in a safe place where they can be re-presented over time and endure into the future.
In all of these Old English passiones, just as in their earlier Latin counterparts, we can see the importance to early medieval Christians of the paradoxical idea of the promise of bodily resurrection, where, as Bynum puts it, “the very stuff of change and putrefaction can be lifted to impassibility and immutability while continuing itself,” and for all the supposed illogic of the idea, “it is a concept of sublime courage and optimism,” for it “locates redemption there where ultimate horror also resides—in pain, mutilation, death, and decay.” Indeed, Ælfric’s interest in translating and adapting into Old English the stories of early Christian martyrs may have had something to do, as M.R. Godden points out, with “drawing parallels between the sufferings of the saints in the time of the early persecutions and the resistance of the Anglo-Saxons to the Viking pressures in his own time.” P.A. Stafford has written that at the end of the tenth century, “the most spectacular theme in the history of England was the revival of Viking attacks,” and several of Ælfric’s hagiographical subjects were martyred Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Edmund (939-946), whose head, decapitated by the “seaman” (flot-men) and guarded by a wolf, cried out “here, here, here” continuously so that it could be found and rejoined to its body. Although Edmund is not, strictly speaking, an early Christian martyr, the details of his life, death, and bodily resurrection follow the familiar pattern of the established genre, wherein, as Ælfric writes, “His body showeth us, which lieth undecayed, that he lived without fornication here in this world, and by a pure life passed to Christ.” The very specific, historical, and political details of Edmund’s reign are less important than the ways in which his “life” can be seen to fit the model of a received tradition of sacred fiction.
It could be argued that the texts of these Old English legends, when both read and recited, served as the only possible locus within which to reveal what could not be revealed, or even realized, in the Anglo-Saxon historical present: the palpable and visible spectacle of bodies both wrenched out of and returned to their individual histories. Similar to Brockmeier’s novel, souls and bodies exist together, finally, not in an abstract Heaven, but in a shared, cultural memory—a memory, moreover, that is as fragile as the bodies that contain it and play it continuously like the flickering frames of a zoetrope. These legends might have therefore also functioned to assuage two anxieties—first, that the promised resurrection of bodies with souls might be a fiction, and second, that the material stuff of one’s identity, with all of its imperfections, would have to be given up at the last day. In other words, the legends may have answered to the fear that the world—the too fierce love of which was really a sin, but without which identity wasn't conceivable—would really have to be left behind.