The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue Navigation

Issue Homepage

Holy Kingship

Locating Maserfelth

The King's Fragmented Body

Exogamous Marriages

Enemy's Eyes

St. Oswald's Martyrdom

Forum—Irish Hagiography

Forum—Refusing the Gaze

Electronic Medievalia

Continental Business


The King's Fragmented Body: A Girardian Reading of the Origins of St Oswald's Cult

John Edward Damon  
University of Nebraska

© 2006 by John Edward Damon. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  In his book Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, René Girard discusses the similarity, indeed the identity, between the role of king and that of sacrificial victim. 'The symbolic link between sovereignty and sacrifice exists everywhere,' he asserts (Girard 1987, 55). This linkage is particularly noticeable in the early English cults of martyred warrior-kings, and most clearly embodied in the person of St Oswald of Northumbria. Oswald's world was dominated by mimetic rivalry, a process Girard describes as underlying many aspects and forms of religion. Through the sanctification of King Oswald, who became for the Church in Northumbria both a holy Christian king and a martyr for the faith, the first generations of Northumbrian practitioners of the new faith mythologized the death of their king, making it what Girard terms a "founding murder" or "founding violence" that would elevate their dynastic leaders into symbolic representations of the conjunction of the terrestrial power of the state and the heavenly power of religion, thereby seeking to end the seemingly uncontrollable cycle of mimetic rivalry and reciprocal violence (Girard 1987, 166-7, 203; Girard 2001, 82-94, 98-99).

§2.  This ritualized means of controlling deadly, destabilizing forces within a culture forms a familiar pattern cross-culturally. In his essay "Mimesis and Violence," Girard (1996, 9-19) argues that "Religious prohibitions make a good deal of sense when interpreted as efforts to prevent mimetic rivalry from spreading throughout human communities." Living in an era when the religious structures and strictures of Christianity were replacing the practices of Germanic paganism, Oswald played a foundational role in the establishment of this new order in Northumbria. His life illustrates competition between claimants to a particular throne, as in the case of the athelings of a single royal family competing for the leadership of their society, but also the rivalry between peoples and kingdoms, Briton versus Anglo-Saxon, Mercian versus Northumbrian, Deiran versus Bernician, and even Roman versus Celtic Christianity. This aspect of early Northumbrian society has been detailed by George Hardin Brown (1999, 19-33) in his essay "Royal and Ecclesiastical Rivalries in Bede's History."1 Most significantly, however, as Brown also argues, Oswald's death and the unusual treatment of his body after death reveal the continuing processes of reciprocal violence and mimetic rivalry described by Girard: 'These relics, the results of violence, underwent a mythic transformation as sacred relics of a sacral king.' (Brown 1999, 26) Oswald represents both poles of the binary oppositions associated with mimetic rivalry: king and sacrifice, royal power and sacrificial victimhood, the repeating cycle of blood feud and also the symbolic attempt to halt that cycle.

§3.  Oswald came to power as the result of an ongoing mimetic crisis. The rivalry among superficially indistinguishable Northumbrian claimants to the thrones of its two smaller constituent kingdoms, Deira and Bernicia, begins the historical record, with the Bernician king Æthelfrith killing the Deiran ruler and sending Edwin, heir to that throne and another of the martyred warrior-kings, fleeing for his life into exile.2 Rædwald of East Anglia then defeated Æthelfrith, after which Edwin came to power in the uneasily united Northumbrian kingdom. Edwin subsequently became the first Christian king of Northumbria, an event described in detail in a vita of Pope Gregory the Great produced by a member of the community of Whitby and repeated by Bede in his Historia Ecclesiastica. However, Edwin's Christian rule, despite his establishment of what Bede describes as a blessedly peaceful reign, did not end the mimetic crisis, and the sequence of reciprocal violence continued when he was defeated and killed by the combined forces of Penda of Mercia (a pagan) and Cadwallon of Gwynedd (a British Christian). Cadwallon subsequently dethroned and slaughtered Edwin's heirs, both of whom had reverted to non-Christian faith and practices after assuming power in the redivided kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia.

§4.  Far from ending the cycle of reciprocal violence, as Cadwallon may have hoped, the mimetic crisis instead deepened. Oswald, Æthelfrith's oldest surviving son, who had fled Northumbria for the relative safety of Irish Christian Dalriada, returned and exacted his blood revenge, killing Cadwallon, taking the throne, and reestablishing Christianity. Despite this renewal of Christian rule under Oswald, attempts to control the reciprocal violence occasioned by the acquisitive mimetic rivalry between forces competing for royal power once again failed.3 In the end, Oswald was killed in his own turn.

§5.  What marks these events most clearly as parts of an ongoing mimetic crisis is the subsequent sacralization of Oswald (and to a lesser extent Edwin), their treatment not just as defeated kings but as martyrs, holy sacrifices whose relics—head, arms, bones—all became sacral objects. John M. Hill identifies this sacral function clearly in his analysis of the symbolic function of bodies in Old English literature:

Oswald's bones and even splinters of the stake that impaled his severed head become potent relics . . . The right hand is both royal power and a doorway to eternal life, to God's kingdom. Thus individual dedication to sacral sacrifice is what lives, immanently, in the warrior hand (Hill 2003, 126-128).

However unexpected such ideas may seem when applied to an early Christian saint, whose claim to sainthood would normally have involved a non-violent acceptance of martyrdom for the faith, Oswald's self-presentation of commitment both to reciprocal violence and to a role as sacrifice for his people reveals the degree to which a sacrificial interpretation of Christianity was being assimilated into Anglo-Saxon society.4

§6.  Bede presents this aspect of Oswald's cult in his description of the young war leader's erection of a cross before battle and the subsequent hallowing of that spot, where "innumerable miracles of healing are known to have been achieved." (Bede HE 3.2) The king takes on a role in imitation of a sacrificial Christ, contrasting himself to his enemies, despite their similar engagement in life-threatening conflict for royal power. James G. Williams describes in a Girardian analysis of the roots of monarchy how the roles of king and sacrifice can be joined through the depiction of the king as the embodiment of the good and the corresponding demonization of the king's enemies. In the case of Oswald, the act of raising the cross before battle serves just such a function:

The paradoxical bivalency of the sacred can be split and managed in such a way that the paradox is somewhat subdued and becomes less dangerous: the king ... is divine and good, and evil comes from other sources; ... evil, misfortune, etc., has alien sources, such as the devil, demons, and the like (Williams 2000, 184).

In the early years of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, this alien source of evil becomes focused in the pagan, exemplified by Penda of Mercia, whose final defeat by Oswiu, Oswald's heir, coincides with the uniting of Oswald with the sacred as a sacrificial imitation of Christ. As part of his mission, Oswiu recovered the fragmented body of Oswald and brought it back to Northumbria, where the various pieces became objects of sacral power.

§7.  Scholars have examined the fragmentation of Oswald's body from a variety of perspectives (Damon 2001; Damon 2003, 26-57; Hill 2003; Klaniczay 2000). On one level, the act highlights significant elements of the material culture of Anglo-Saxon England. For example, as an object, Oswald's head became a highly valued object for the Northumbrians. In his history of the church of Durham, Symeon of Durham, writing in the early 12th century, described the role of Oswald's head as a foundational cornerstone of that religious institution, stating that "this venerable church derived its status and its divine religion from the fervent faith in Christ of the former glorious king of the Northumbrians and estimable martyr Oswald" and that the institution "preserves those relics of devout veneration, the undecayed body of the most saintly father Cuthbert and the venerable head of that same king and martyr Oswald, both lodged in a single shrine."5 Rather than being limited to a role in the particular political struggles of seventh-century Northumbrian society, Oswald takes on a mythologized function. He becomes not merely one claimant among many to the throne of a specific kingdom, but through the sacralization of his role and his very body itself he attains a mythical status applicable far outside of his original context. However, as Richard Bailey has noted, the precise lineage and authenticity of Oswald's head as a relic is problematized by the fact that four other sacralized body parts compete "for the title of 'St. Oswald's head.'" (Bailey 1995, 201) This evidence of competing desires to possess Oswald's head as a physical sign of his holy presence mirrors the mimetic rivalry that inaugurated his elevation to holy status, even though many of the relics appear outside of England, distant from the political context that generated the cult. A cult that grows out of mimetic rivalry continues to reflect its origins even when divorced from the nexus of competing desires that produced it.

§8.  Nor was Oswald's head the only item that came to be sanctified and enshrined. The king's hands and arms became 'uncorrupted' relics preserved at the Church of St Peter at Bamburgh. According to Bede, 'And now in the royal city . . . they are preserved, enclosed in a silver case in the church of St Peter, and are venerated with suitable honor by all.'6 Bede also provides an account of how Oswald's body came to be dismembered and then recovered after his death in battle:

Then his bones were translated and preserved in the monastery [of Bardney] . . . ; moreover, the head and hands with the forearms cut off from the body the king who killed him ordered to be hung up on stakes. A year later, King Oswiu, his successor, coming with an army carried them off, and preserved the head in the cemetery of the church of Lindisfarne, and the hands with the forearms in the royal city [Bamburgh].7

In an earlier study of Oswald's cult in Soldier Saints and Holy Warriors, I examined how this process of fragmentation and sacralization fitted into the developing ethos of holy war within the English church, but when considered from the theoretical perspective of Girard's work on mimesis and violence, the same historical and literary accounts reveal another reality: the origins of Christianity itself as a sacrificial religion in medieval England.8 Oswald's death and the veneration of his dismembered body connect two central aspects of Girard's theoretical framework: resolution of a mimetic crisis and the king as sacrificial victim.

§9.  To understand how Oswald's death and dismemberment can be related to mimetic rivalry on the one hand and to sacrificial victimization on the other, it is necessary to consider the symbolic, indeed ritual, acts that Bede records. First the body of the dead king undergoes a ritual dismemberment. Intrinsic to Bede's account of this treatment is the fact that it had been prophesied by Bishop Aidan. At an Easter feast, after observing an act indicative of Oswald's pious generosity involving a silver dish and a band of beggars, the bishop "took hold of his right hand and said, 'May this hand never grow old.'" (adprehendit dextram eius, et ait: 'Nunquam inveterascat haec manus.) (Bede HE 3.6) Bede presents this blessing as a prophecy because, as quoted earlier, the king's hands and arms became 'uncorrupted' (incorruptae) relics preserved at the Church of St Peter at Bamburgh. Yet before they could be enshrined at the royal city, it was necessary that they be removed from his body, and the mechanism of that ritual dismemberment involves the rival king against whom Oswald pitted himself in the ongoing mimetic crisis. Both kings evidently desired sole power and command, and both appear to have wished their own religious practices to be the founding concepts of the emerging Northumbrian state. Hence the unusual public display of the body parts of the dead king.9

§10.  The death of Oswald thereby became a healthy part of the growing church, a necessary and holy event. In contrast, Girard argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition rejects the tendency in other religions to side with the society against the sacrificial victim by claiming the gods required the death, that it was necessary. The biblical accounts of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and Job, on through to the accounts of the deaths of John the Baptist and the apostles, side with the victim against society, he argues, clearly portraying these deaths as man-caused, not divinely ordained. Which of these roles does Christianity itself play in the creation of the holy king and martyr? The form of Christianity practiced by the Anglo-Saxons played a crucial role in the creation of the saintly category of holy king and martyr, although the implications of the Anglo-Saxon maytyr cults. In his poem on the kings, bishops, and saints of York, Alcuin describes the sanctification of Oswald's body parts in terms that clearly implicate God in the process of mimetic rivalry. First he describes how "Omnipotent God did not allow (Cadwallon's death) to go unavenged, / but granted the kingdom to Oswald, nephew of Edwin." (Hoc tamen Omnipotens fieri non passus inultum est,/ sed dedit Osuualdum Regis regnare nepotem) (Alcuin Bishops, Kings, and Saints ll. 234-35). The poem then vividly portrays Oswald's defeat of Cadwallon. First the cross was raised by Oswald and his men:

This done, they marched directly on the enemy,
bursting in bloody slaughter upon his camp.
Just as the cruel lion and its cubs ravage the sheepfolds,
killing in its fury, devouring and tearing at the flock,
so King Oswald laid low the barbarian hosts on every side.
Advancing in triumph through the armed battalions of the foe,
cutting and trampling, he crushed their fleeing ranks.
So Oswald's army overpowered and annihilated its enemy,
leaving the battlefield behind it in rivers of blood
until the wicked Cadwallon himself fell, paying the price
for his treachery, dying amid the massacre to his men,
and yielding a brilliant victory to that splendid king.

His etiam gestis, promptus processit in hostem
caedibus inrumpens hostilia castra cruentis.
Ut leo cum catulis crudelis ovilia vastat
et pecus omne ferus mactat manditque roditque,
haud secus Osuualdus rex stravit ubique phalanges
barbaricas. Victor gradiens per tela, per hostes,
caedit et inculcat, fugientesque atterit alas.
Opprimit Osuualdi sternendo exercitus hostes,
sanguineos campis rivos post terga relinquens,
donec ipse luens cecidit Caduuala nefandus
perfidiae poenas, moriens in strage suorum,
claraque magnifico cessit Victoria regi.
(Alcuin Bishops, Kings, and Saints ll. 253-64)

The application of an epic simile to describe Oswald's actions in battle reflects Greek and Roman literary traditions, and, to a lesser extent, the Old Testament accounts of victorious kings, but reverses markedly the Christian tradition of martyrdom. Alcuin presents Oswald as a blood-stained royal lion wrecking vengeance on his enemies, not an unresisting lamb willingly led to sacrifice, and yet by the end of his account, Oswald also appears in a sacrificial role: "after the holy king was slain, / they hung his right hand, severed by a pagan's sword, / upon a stake. King Oswiu his heir, / his brother, and the avenger of his blood came, / seized that hand and carried it off into the city of Bamburgh, / where he placed it in a silver casket within the lofty temple." (. . . sancto nam rege perempto,/ gentili gladio praecisam a corpore dextram/ stipite suspendunt. Veniens rex illius heres,/ Osuui germanus germani et sanguinis ultor,/ arripuit destram Bebbamque ferebat in urbem,/ argenti condens loculo sub culmine temple.) (Alcuin Bishops, Kings, and Saints ll. 301-306). This display of a severed body part elevates the dead king into a sacral role, and undercuts the Girardian notion that "[w]hat characterizes the biblical tradition is above all the discovery of a divine reality that no longer belongs to the sphere of the collective idols of violence." (Girard 2001, 119) Unlike sacrificial religions, monotheistic Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, resist at the deepest level the complicity of God in the violent acts of humanity:

The divine reality does not get weaker in separating itself from violence; it acquires more significance than ever in the person of the One God, Yahweh, who encompasses all divinity and does not depend on what happens among humankind. This is the God who reproaches humans for their violence and has compassion on their victims. Yahweh substitutes the sacrifice of animals for the firstborn sons and later objects even to animal sacrifices (Girard 2001, 119).

Using the story of Saul to show how sacrifice intimately connects to the originating creation of kingship, James Williams points to the division of the body of the sacrificial victim as a sign of what will happen to the people if they do not respond with obedience and signs of belief to the sacrificial crisis (Williams 1994, 85).10 This would be the message that Oswald's dismembered body would communicate to the pagan Mercians under the victorious Penda. And, most tellingly, when in turn Penda himself is killed in the next round of the mimetic crisis, Bede tells us that, "the infidel head having been removed," (desecto capite perfido), the Mercian people turned to the Christian faith. I have argued elsewhere that "In this telling phrase . . . Bede appears to indicate that a reciprocal act terminated the exchange between the pagan Mercians and the Christian Northumbrians. Penda, having removed and ritually displayed the head and hand of at least one defeated Christian king" (since a similar fate appears to have been enacted on Oswald's precursor, King Edwin, by Cadwallon), "may have been treated in a similar fashion when he was himself defeated." (Damon 2001, 417)11 This ritual dismemberment and display of the bodies of defeated kings suggests the religious component to mimetic rivalry and an extended mimetic crisis in early Christian Northumbria, but the precise role of the sanctification of Oswald's royal remains requires more careful analysis. To Girard, "the biblical tendency to 'side with the victims' is obvious," and he charts the consistent articulation of the anti-sacrificial in the development of Christian holy texts, yet he also argues that, as it developed, Christianity did not always preserve its anti-sacrificial focus. "Thus," he says, "our society could result from a complex interaction between the Judeo-Christian and the sacrificial," a process of "disruption" he describes as "new wine in old wine-skins." (Girard 1979, 18-19)12 The creation of a new Christian faith and polity in Northumbria, indeed throughout Anglo-Saxon England, reflects a melding of old and new, of traditional Germanic religion with the Romanized faith of ancient Israel. Oswald's role as holy king and sacrificial victim defines and exemplifies this process.

§11.  Oswald's widespread veneration as a martyr is inextricably bound up with his function as sacrificial victim. However, some scholars have argued that his cult did not commemorate his death but rather his sponsorship of the faith during life (Chenard 2003, 116-17, 119, n. 100). Certainly he played a key role in the diffusion of Christianity throughout Northumbria, and therefore his cult does mirror the ethos of the holy confessor, sponsor and promoter of the religion, albeit from his powerful position as secular ruler rather than the confessor's traditional ecclesiastical milieu. Nonetheless, Alan Thacker has convincingly demonstrated that, by the tenth century at least, Oswald was consistently ranked among the group of martyrs (Thacker 1995, 124-25).

§12.  Bede broke with hagiographical precedent when he presented Oswald as a martyr by emphasizing the king's death and the miracles connected to his fragmented body and slivers of the wooden stake on which they were originally displayed. In her essay 'Oswald, "Most Holy and Victorious King of the Northumbrians,"' Clare Stancliffe assesses the original nature of the cult:

The novelty of what Bede set out to do should not be overlooked. Nor should its inherent difficulties. To write about a royal martyr would have been a relatively simple proposition: with martyrs, it was not the life they lived, but their actual death that was the crucial feature; and any shortcomings in the martyr's previous life was readily expiated through his death, a baptism of blood. But to present the sanctity of someone who had lived as a king so Christianly that he should be honoured as a saint was to enter a minefield. In the martyrs' acts, it is normally the secular powers which persecute Christians; even in the fourth century there lingered the idea that government service, with its routine use of torture, defiled its officers to such an extent as to unfit them for ordination. Worse still, what of warfare? From one angle, killing remained killing, however just the cause—a feeling that is reflected among the newly-converted Anglo-Saxons by the prescription of short penances even for killing someone in battle. How, then, could Bede convincingly portray Oswald as a saint, when he had had to fight and kill even to win his kingdom, and in a society where warfare was an every-day occurrence in a king's life? (Stancliffe 1995, 93)

While Oswald's cult broke with long-established tradition within the Roman church, Stancliffe does not consider the cross-cultural connection between royalty and sacrifice. It is precisely as king and sacrificial martyr that Oswald provided a foundational myth for Northumbrian Christianity. Although Oswald died not as an obvious scapegoat but as the pre-eminent member of his society, and he died in battle, not as an offering in a religious ritual, still it is precisely Oswald's role as king that makes him most eligible to function as sacrifice; as Eric Wilson argues in a Girardian analysis of Beowulf, "Most sacrificial victims are drawn from the fringes of society; prisoners of war, slaves, fools, animals, monstrous beings, or, indeed, kings" all of whom are "differentiated by falling above, below, and/or outside of the norm. The double nature of sacrificial victims is constructed by the ritual; the victim is construed as both scapegoat and hero, causer of violence and causer of peace, the same and different." (Wilson 1996, 10) His royal status does not rule out a contrasting role as sacrificial victim, but rather marks him out as appropriate target for attempted resolution of a mimetic crisis.

§13.  The most difficult aspect of Oswald's cult to explain in Girardian terms is the uneasy congruence between ritual sacrifice and death in battle. Girard has little to say about war, an odd lacuna for a theorist concerned with the intersection of violence and the sacred. His published comments are limited to observations about the function of war as a means of externalizing the dangerous mimetic crisis within a culture. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard describes "the principle behind all 'foreign' wars: aggressive tendencies that are potentially fatal to the cohesion of the group and redirected from within the community to outside it." He goes on to say that, "[i]nversely, there is reason to believe that the wars described as 'foreign wars' in the mythic narratives were in fact formerly civil strifes." (Girard 1977, 249) This can apply to the case of Oswald, especially if we recognize that Bede exaggerates the differences between Oswald and his counterpart, Penda, thereby masking their identity as mimetic doubles, essentially alike except in the matter of nation/tribe and religion. Bede portrays Penda as a violent, blood-thirsty pagan in opposition to the righteous, pious, and moral Oswald, but other evidence calls this binary opposition into question. For example, arguments concerning the actual location of Oswald's final battle, whether at Oswestry in the Welsh borderlands or at an undiscovered site in northern Lindsey, have never disputed the fact that Oswald did not die within the boundaries of Northumbria. The location of the final battle implies an aggressive, warlike stance, as Clare Stancliffe has pointed out:

A . . . query arises from Bede's words that Oswald dies "fighting for his fatherland." In the context of Bede's portrayal of Oswald, his patria must mean Northumbria. But could a battle fought in distant Oswestry be portrayed as being fought 'for Northumbria'? . . . Bede was very careful to portray Oswald as fighting only 'just wars' and omits all Oswald's battles fought between Heavenfield and Maserfelth, when Oswald was probably fighting aggressive wars to assert his supremacy. (Stancliffe 1995, 93)

Both Oswald and Penda, as members of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, fought to establish, maintain, and extend their sway within a relatively homogenous society. In this sense, Oswald's wars as presented by Bede are both foreign wars, fought to displace the conflict between the old and new religions within Northumbrian society, and also civil wars among members of a common culture and society. Similarly, as Christians both Oswald and Cadwallon struggled for supremacy within the community of Christians while also representing competitive tribal and ethnic groups, hence their wars were both civil and foreign. Reciprocal violence represents the transference of conflict into "safer" channels by which the negative effects can, to some degree, be controlled.

§14.  Another aspect of the process by which sacrificial religion attempts to redirect dangerous, uncontrolled violence into more acceptable and controllable channels is the tendency, so strongly evident in our time, for soldiers to be transformed in memoriam into sacrificial figures, dying for the sake of home, family, and the state. Three highly similar yet fundamentally different forms of "sacrifice" can be distinguished: 1) death in battle, which resembles but differs from a second form, 2) the martyr's death resulting from, in the case of Christianity, the imitation of Christ, or more generally being an exemplary figure for a belief system by demonstrating an unwavering faith even when death is the likely result, as well as a third, 3) the death of one for the many, in which one or more representatives of some larger group is killed as a form of expiation or propitiation to a deity who is thereby placated. All three are popularly regarded as forms of sacrifice, but only the third is truly sacrificial in Girardian terms. The sacrificial victim can be willing or unwilling, and the societal force exacting death can be an alien power or the victim's own society, but death is always the intended conclusion. In contrast, the willing martyr intends to further his or her cause despite the knowledge that death is the nearly inevitable result. Like a martyr, the soldier may die willingly, but except in the case of suicide bombers or similar "martyrs," it is the intention of the soldier to survive whenever possible. One type of royal saint even less prevalent than the martyred warrior-kings are those whose lives of piety and chastity made them eligible for sainthood. Only Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, truly fits this category, since the others, like Sebbi or Sigebert, who lived extremely pious lives eventually abdicated and became monks, joining the much more numerous group of spiritual converts. As Ridyard says, "Monk-kings were not popular among the Anglo-Saxons." (Ridyard 1988, 247) Warrior kings, like soldiers, endeavor to kill and, at the same time, to avoid being killed. The distinguishing feature of a holy war is that martyrdom and death in battle become intertwined, but even holy warriors do not normally intend to die as sacrificial victims. It is essential to warfare that victory in battle is far better than death.13

§15.  Any soldier killed in battle can, however, with a few deft rhetorical strokes, become regarded as a sacrificial victim, one person dying for the sake of many. A proverbial saying that Bede includes in his account of Oswald's death indicates one means by which the king's demise in battle became transformed into a willing sacrifice:

Moreover, it is well known, and has become a proverb, that he also died in the midst of prayer. For when, surrounded by weapons and enemies, he saw that he himself at any moment might be slain, he prayed for the souls of his soldiers. Thus they say now as a proverb: "God have mercy on their souls, said Oswald falling to the earth."

Vulgatum est autem, et in consuetudinem proverbii versum, quod etiam inter verba orationis vitam finierit. Nam cum armis et hostibus circumseptus, iamiamque videret se esse perimendum, oravit pro animabus exercitus sui. Unde dicunt in proverbio: "Deus miserere animabus, dixit Osuald cadens in terram." (HE 3.12)

The reliability of this story of Oswald's pious although unlikely death, cannot be definitively ascertained; however, in Bede's account of the scene, Oswald dies not as an embattled king defending his throne at the head of an army, sword in hand, but as some kind of martyr or sacrificial figure, seeking absolution through prayer even at the moment of death. The religious component is evident, but this cannot be accurately termed a martyrdom, growing out of a resolute adherence to the faith in imitation of Christ sacrifice, so much as an act of propitiation willingly undertaken in the hope of altering the relationship of a specified group and the divine. Bede asserts that Oswald's words represent prayers for the souls of his people, thereby rendering his death a sacrificial act, but the proverb itself does not confirm this interpretation: contrast Bede's commentary, "oravit pro animabus exercitus sui," (emphasis mine) to Oswald's recorded speech, "Deus misere animabus," which does not specify whose souls are intended. Without Bede's specification, Oswald's prayers might more appropriately be offered for his enemies, those putting him to death, thus echoing the words of Jesus, "Pater dimitte illis non enim sciunt quid faciunt," "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) Conceptually, Oswald would be unlikely to regard his own people, fighting in what would clearly be considered a just cause, as having need of mercy on their souls rather than their opponents. Oswald's enemies, if they are truly fighting against God, would be more in need of mercy, if less deserving of it. Oswald's enemies, if they are truly fighting against God, would be more in need of mercy, if less deserving of it. Indeed, Oswald's subsequent popularity as a saint in Mercia, the land of his enemies, would be more understandable if, like Jesus, his dying words involved forgiveness of the sins of those who were killing him. Nonetheless, Bede conceptualizes the dying words as intercession for his own people, and the death submitted as that of a sacrificial king, dying for the good of his society.

§16.  When the proverb appears in vernacular texts, the cultural inwardness of the willing sacrifice evident in Bede's account is intensified. Aelfric's Old English version of Oswald's life records the proverb, but with pronominal reference that emphasizes the degree to which Oswald's cult grew from his role as symbolic sacrifice:

Hi comon þa to gefeohte to maerfelda begen. and fengon to-gædere oð þæt þær feollan þa cristenan. and þa hæðenan genealæhton to þam halgan oswolde. Þa geseah he genealecan his lifes geendunge. and gebæd for his folc þe þær feallende sweolt. and betæhte heora sawla and hine sylfne gode. and þus clypode on his fylle. God gemiltsa urum sawlum. (Emphasis mine) (Aelfric Life of Oswald)

Then they both came to Maserfield and joined together in battle until the Christians fell there. And the heathen drew near to the holy Oswald. Then he saw his life's end approaching, and prayed for his people that falling perished there, and commended their souls and himself to God, and cried out thus as he fell, "God have mercy on our souls."

§17.  Here Oswald prays neither for those who kill him nor for his soldiers, but more broadly for "urum sawlum . . . for his folc . . . and hine sylfne": for "our souls" and "for his people and himself." In this version, Oswald's death clearly functions as a sacrifice on behalf of the Northumbrian church and state, and of himself as its leading member, thus providing a founding myth for the new Christian kingdom. Already at the moment of death, Oswald acts as intercessor for Northumbria with the divine. (Chenard 2003, 115)

§18.  One final vernacular account of Oswald's death bridges the chronological gap between Bede, writing in the early 8th, and Ælfric, writing in the early 11th century.14 In terms of the author's interpretation of the proverb, the anonymous Old English Martyrology approaches more closely what I would postulate as the original, universalizing, and non-sacrificial meaning of Oswald's purported dying words:

Oswald endade his lif in gebedes wordum þa hine mon sloh, ond þa he feol on eorðan, þa cwæð he: 'deus miserere animabus;' he cwcwæð: 'god, miltsa þu saulum.' (Old English Martyrology)

Oswald ended his life with words of prayer when men slew him, and as he fell to earth, he said: "deus miserere animabus"; he said: "God, have thou mercy on (the?) souls."

As George Hardin Brown has pointed out in a discussion of this passage, the absence of an article or demonstrative pronoun attached to saulum carries an implication of "universality, so: 'Have mercy on souls,' rather than 'Have mercy on our/those/their souls.' (Brown, 2005) The anonymous writer, unlike Bede and Ælfric, preserves both the syntax and, I would argue, the initial sense of the Latin, in marked contrast to their specifying, nationalizing, and sacrificial interpretations. If Oswald actually spoke any prayer at the time of his death, it would be precisely because he prayed not only for his own soul and the souls of his people but of his enemies that he came to be venerated not just by Northumbrians or Deirans but also by Mercians and others of his original enemies. Mercian acceptance of Oswald's cult is consistent with the universalizing role of his death in imitation of Christ, asking for mercy on those who killed him. The nationalizing, particularizing tendency evident in Bede's and Ælfric's versions of the death prayer would not have encouraged widespread participation in his cult. Indeed, the evidence of posthumous miracles recorded by Bede implies that it was outside of Oswald's own kingdom that Oswald received the greatest cultic veneration. This points up the important role played by the widespread distribution of Oswald's severed body parts.

§19.  The rapid dispersal of Oswald's cult owes much to the initial process of dismemberment and display of his defeated body. A Girardian analysis of the cult of St Oswald must reflect an anthropological conception of the nature of kingship, but it should privilege what he considers the truly Christian interpretation over seemingly parallel cultic practices. In his analysis of the fragmentation of Oswald's body by his enemy, Alan Thacker describes the act in sacrificial terms: "The body was hacked to pieces and the head and arms affixed to stakes, perhaps as some form of sacrificial offering, at the command of the pagan Penda" (97). In contrast, Girard argues:

In the triumph of a victorious general the humiliating display of those who are conquered is only a consequence of the victory achieved, whereas in the case of the Cross this display is the victory itself; it is the unveiling of the violent origin of culture. The powers are not put on display because they are defeated, but they are defeated because they are put on display (Girard 2001, 143).

The bodies displayed after a conquest might be "a consequence" of victory, yet the display of the fragmented body of a king identified as the adherent of a new religion could be carefully transformed into an act of victory itself. N. J. Higham notes how "Oswald's early popularity has been convincingly associated with his death in battle against non-Christians (notwithstanding the presence of numerous British Christians opposing him), and his subsequent dismemberment, both of which have some potential for interpretation as martyrdom", and he also discusses how Oswald's death played into an extended rivalry between Celtic and Roman Christianity. (Higham 1997, 220-223)

§20.  It is not necessary to invoke the Germanic tradition of holy kingship to see how Oswald's death in battle came to represent the sacrifice of one prominent victim on behalf of the broader society, just as a sacrificial interpretation of Christianity locates in the death of Jesus the expiation of the sins of all mankind, or at least all of mankind who professes the common faith. As Girardian Walter Wink has argued, "The nonviolent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and more precious to him, but holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required." (Wink 1992, 149) The attempt to redirect and divert the mimetic crisis into a binding and lasting substitute for reciprocal violence fails precisely as it itself becomes implicated in the never-ending spiral of violence. Each side in turn removes the faithless head of the mimetic rival, which thereby becomes a concrete physical sign of a metaphysical victory. Penda and Oswald become not opposites so much as twins, parallel and competing rivals for secular and spiritual ascendancy.15

§21.  In a society experiencing a protracted mimetic crisis, in which competing princes of opposing, yet in many fundamental ways indistinguishable, royal lines, kingdoms, and even religious faiths enacted unending spirals of reciprocal violence, Oswald's death both represented one more step in the repeating cycle of blood feud and retaliation and also a symbolic attempt to halt that cycle, through the sacralization of his fragmented body first by his pagan rival and then by his Christian successor. Lest we absolve Oswald himself of any part in this ongoing mimetic rivalry, Barbara Yorke reminds us how Oswald "threatened the infant heirs of Edwin of Deira whom Æthelburh had taken back to Kent," (Yorke 1990, 29) a detail that Bede himself recorded, just as his opponents posed a threat to his own ancestors, relatives, and heirs (Bede HE 2.20). However much the cult of St Oswald represented its saintly king and martyr as the innocent victim laying down his life on behalf of the Christian faith and the peace and security of his society, the inherent contradiction of sacrificial religion is revealed in the inability of Oswald's death and sanctification to stem the tide of mimetic rivalry. Oswiu, Oswald's heir and the king responsible for the recovery and enshrinement of his relics, will also be remembered as the king who, in the struggle between rival centers of power in a newly redivided Northumbrian kingdom, and "amid universal disgust," had his cousin Oswine killed after he had disbanded his army (Bede HE 3.14). Oswald's own son would later rebel against Oswiu, continuing the cycle of violence into a new generation (Yorke 1990, 78-79). The elevation of King Oswald as a holy king and martyr provided for the Christian Church in Northumbria a founding myth of piety and sacrifice, yet, from a Girardian perspective, failed, as all the constructions of sacrificial religion are doomed to fail, as a means of ending the uncontrolled and unending cycle of mimetic rivalry and reciprocal violence.


1.   For the rivalry between forms of Christianity, see in particular, Higham 1997[Back]

2.  According to Barbara Yorke 1990, 77, 'if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be trusted', the Deiran king was 'presumably Æthelric' who 'ruled briefly between Ælle and Edwin, but [whose] relationship to them is unknown'.  [Back]

3.  The term "mimetic rivalry" appears throughout Girard's works and is founded in his observation that individuals and groups of people often desire that which someone else desires, the mimesis serving to create or intensify the desire. He defines it most succinctly in Violence and the Sacred when he asserts that "Mimetism is a source of continual conflict. By making one man's desire into a replica of another man's desire, it invariably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence" (Girard 1977, 169). In the case of Oswald and Northumbria, the desires for power dominance and religious hegemony in all the competing parties intensify as a result of this mimetic rivalry.  [Back]

4.  For an analysis of the imagery of hands in Bede's account of St. Oswald that argues for the inherent sanctity of Oswald's role as warrior, see Chenard 2003 and 2005.  [Back]

5.  Gloriosi quondam Regis Nothanhymbrorum et preciosi martyris Oswaldi feruentissima in Christo fide, hec sancta ecclesia . . . sui status ac religionis sacre sumpsit exordium; ipsas sacre uenerationis reliquias, incorruptum scilicet sanctissimi patris Cuthberti corpus, et eiusdem regis ac martyris caput uenerandum, intra unius loculi conseruat hospitium. (Symeon of Durham Libellus 1.1) Quoted also by Bailey (1995, 196), in framing his study of Oswald's head as a holy relic.  [Back]

6.  Denique in urba regia ... loculo inclusae argenteo in ecclesia sancti Petri servantur, ac digno a cunctis honore venerantur. (Bede HE 3.6)  [Back]

7.  Ossa igitur illius translata et condita sunt in monasterio . . . : porro caput et manus cum brachiis a corpore praecisas, iussit rex qui occiderat, in stipitibus suspendi. Quo post annum veniens cum exercitu successor regni eius Osuiu, abstulit ea, et caput quidem in coemeterio Lindisfarnensis ecclesiae in regia vero civitate manus cum brachiis condidit. (Bede HE 3.12)  [Back]

8.  Girard contrasts sacrificial and non-sacrificial readings of the crucifixion of Jesus in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World; these views appear as a separate chapter in Williams (1996, 177-188).  [Back]

9.  For the varied processes of head-taking in early English cultures, see Damon (2001).  [Back]

10.  Interestingly, Bede used the image of Saul in discussing Oswald's father Æthelfrith (HE 1.34), but in regard to his success in war rather than his death and the treatment of his body.  [Back]

11.  Higham (1997, 223, 270-71, n. 49) instead reads Bede's phrase as essentially non-metaphorical, intended to describe the manner of Penda's death literally.  [Back]

12.  Girard and those who follow his line of thinking reject the traditional view of Jesus' death as a necessary sacrifice in expiation of human sin. As Ted Grimsrud summarizes this position, "Sacrificial theology does not help us overcome the problem of violence. Rather, such theology pictures ultimate reality (the heart of God itself) as requiring violence—the death of innocent victims. Thus ultimately sacrifice does not provide the means to genuine salvation and shalom but only feeds the spiral of violence" (Grimsrud 2000, 51).  [Back]

13.  Despite Sigebert's death in battle, Bede did not treat the East Anglian king as a saint, not only because of his abdication but also because he refused to carry weapons, which Bede evidently considered a dangerous precedent. Anglo-Saxon kings, like all soldiers, should kill and avoid being killed in Bede's view.  [Back]

14.  Alcuin's lengthy treatment of Oswald in The bishops, kings, and saints of York does not mention Oswald's dying prayer.  [Back]

15.  Bede states that Penda allowed Christians freedom of worship in Mercia, (HE 3.21). This does not, however, negate the existence of competing religious practices underlying their conflict. Penda had allied himself with the Christian Cadwallon, and may have felt constrained to accept Christians within his realm, but I am aware of no evidence that Oswald reciprocated by accepting pagan worship in Northumbria.  [Back]

Works Cited

Ælfric. 1881-95/1966. Natale sancti Oswaldi regis et martyris. In Ælfric's Lives of Saints. Ed. and trans. Walter W. Skeat. Early English Text Society o.s. 76, 82, 94, & 114. London: Trübner. Rprt. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.  [Back]

Alcuin. 1982. Alcuin: The bishops, kings, and saints of York. Ed. and trans. Peter Godman. Oxford: Clarendon.  [Back]

Bailey, Richard N. 1995. Oswald's heads. In Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint. Eds. Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 195-209.  [Back]

Bede. 1930. Baedae Opera Historica. Ed. and trans. J. E. King. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.  [Back]

Brown, George Hardin. 1999. Royal and ecclesiastical rivalries in Bede's History. Renascence: Essays on Values 52.1:19-33.  [Back]

———. 2005. Re: A Question, e-mail to ANSAXNET Discussion Forum, Feb. 9, 2005.  [Back]

Chenard, Marianne Malo. 2003a. Narratives of the saintly body in Anglo-Saxon England. Ph. D. dissertation, Notre Dame University.  [Back]

———. 2005. King Oswald's holy hands: Metonymy and the making of a saint in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. Exemplaria 7.1:33-56.  [Back]

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. 1968. The earliest life of Gregory the Great by an anonymous monk of Whitby. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. [Back]

Damon, John Edward. 2003. Soldier saints and holy warriors: Warfare and sanctity in the literature of early England. Ed. Erika Gaffney. Aldershot: Ashgate Press.  [Back]

———. 2001. Desecto capite perfido: bodily fragmentation and reciprocal violence in Anglo-Saxon England. Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 13:77-110.  [Back]

Fischer, Bonifatio, Johannes Gribomont, H.F.D. Sparks, & W. Thiele, eds. 1983. Biblia sacra: Iuxta vulgatam versionem. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.  [Back]

Girard, René. 2001. I See Satan Fall like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.  [Back]

———. 1996. The nonsacrificial death of Christ. In The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad Herder, 177-188.  [Back]

———. 1987. Things hidden since the foundation of the sorld. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford: Stanford UP.  [Back]

———. 1979. Mimesis and violence: Perspectives in cultural criticism. Berkshire Review 14:9-19. Rprt., in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams, New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996, 9-19.  [Back]

———. 1977. Violence and the sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.  [Back]

Grimsrud, Ted. 2000. Scapegoating no more: Christian pacifism and New Testament views of Jesus' death. In Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking. Studies in Peace and Scripture, ed. Willard M. Swartley, 4. Telford, PA: Pandora Press.  [Back]

Herzfeld, George, ed. and trans. 1900. August 5. St. Oswald. In An Old English Martyrology. English Early Text Society o.s. 116. London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner.  [Back]

Higham, N. J. 1997. The convert kings: Power and religious affiliation in early Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press.  [Back]

Hill, John M. 2003. The sacrificial synecdoche of hands, head, and arms in Anglo-Saxon heroic society. In Naked before God: Uncovering the body in Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.  [Back]

Klaniczay, Gábor. 2000. Holy rulers and blessed princesses: Dynastic cults in medieval central Europe. Trans. Éva Pálmai. Past and Present Publications. Ed. Lyndal Roper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Ridyard, Susan J. 1988. The royal saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Stancliffe, Clare. 1995. Oswald, 'most holy and most victorious king of the Northumbrians'. In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European saint. Ed. Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Stamford: Paul Watkins.  [Back]

Symeon of Durham. 2000. Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis, ecclesiae. Ed. and trans. David Rollason. Oxford: Clarendon.  [Back]

Thacker, Alan. 1995. Membra disjecta: the division of the body and the diffusion of the cult. In Oswald: Northumbrian king to European sSaint. Ed. Clare Stancliffe and Eric Cambridge. Stamford: Paul Watkins.  [Back]

Williams, James G. 2000. King as servant, sacrifice as service: Gospel transformations. In Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, Studies in Peace and Scripture, ed. Willard M. Swartley, 4. Telford, PA: Pandora Press.  [Back]

———. 1996. The Girard Reader. Crossroad Herder: New York.  [Back]

———. 1994. Sacrifice and the beginnings of kingship. In Transformations, Passages and Processes: Ritual Approaches to Biblical Texts. Ed. Mark McVann. Semeia 67, pp. 73-92.  [Back]

Wilson, Eric. 1996. The blood wrought peace: A Girardian reading of Beowulf. English Language Notes 34:7-30.  [Back]

Wink, Walter. 1992. Engaging the powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.  [Back]

Yorke, Barbara. 1990. Kings and kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England. London and New York: Routledge. [Back]