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

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St. Oswald's Martyrdom: Drogo of Saint-Winnoc's Sermo secundus de s. Oswaldo

David Defries  
Ohio State University

© 2006 by David Defries. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.


§1.  The fate of a saint's cult in the Middle Ages depended on a complex set of negotiations—between memories of the saint's life and changing saintly typologies, between existing saintly typologies and evolving interpretations of the Bible, between a saint's promoters and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, between accounts of the saint and the demands of the society in which the accounts were disseminated and between hagiographers' skills and audiences' tastes. In most cases, these negotiations broke down over years or decades, and many cults ossified. In some cases, such as that of Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642), however, a cult demonstrated extraordinary longevity—an existence of at least a millenium in his case. As Clare Stancliffe (1995, 3) has noted regarding Oswald's cult, the key to such longevity was successive revivals in different places, not intense and sustained popularity from the cult's inception. The protean nature of Oswald's appearance is testament to his cult's revivals: in different places, he appeared as a martyr, a prototypical crusader, an anti-Protestant crusader and an ideal emperor (not to mention a romance hero). (Clemoes 1983, 10-12; Folz 1980, 57-60, 66-9; Thacker 1995, 97-127).

§2.  In one revival of Oswald's cult, the Flemish hagiographer Drogo of Saint-Winnoc (c. 1030-84) depicted him as a heroic and saintly king who was martyred while fighting pagans. In the Sermo secundus de s. Oswaldo (Second Sermon on St. Oswald) [BHL 6364], Drogo wrote that Oswald "struck with his sword . . . He mowed down whatever was nearby" and "in the midst of his soldiers pierced by the spears of his adversaries, he fell . . . battling for his homeland and fighting for the Christian religion."1 This description of the saint's death is the product of Drogo's attempt to reconcile discordant English and continental traditions regarding king-saints, and it made him the first author who specifically explains how Oswald's death is a martyrdom. Although previous authors had labeled the king a martyr, none had explained how his death qualified as a martyrdom (Thacker 1995, 115-19). The Sermo secundus also seems to have made Drogo the first author to fuse the traits of a rex iustus (just king) as depicted in Carolingian mirrors-for-princes with the virtues of a martyr.

§3.  This article describes how Drogo made an eighth-century account of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon king-saint relevant to an eleventh-century Flemish audience. It analyzes the delicate negotiations he conducted with Bede's presentation of Oswald in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, with various hagiographic traditions regarding king-saints and with contemporary audiences to make the saint's life meaningful for his own society. It also reveals how a saint's cult could be simultaneously "international" and intensely local in the Middle Ages.

Drogo of Saint-Winnoc and Oswald's Cult in Flanders

§4.  Drogo of Saint-Winnoc was born in Flanders and entered the abbey of Saint-Winnoc at Bergues (modern French Flanders) as a child. His literary career began in the 1050s, when he wrote three texts on Oswald—the Vita s. Oswaldi regis ac martyris (Life of St. Oswald, king and martyr) [BHL 6362], the Sermo primus de s. Oswaldo (First Sermon on St. Oswald) [BHL 6363] and the Sermo secundus de s. Oswaldo (Second Sermon on St. Oswald) [BHL 6364]. His career ended about 1084, after he had produced at least six hagiographic texts. This hagiographic corpus is one of the ten largest attributable to one author from a period—900–1200—that produced an exceptional amount of hagiography.2 Drogo is probably best known today for his Vita Godelevae, which relates how a contemporary Flemish man murdered his wife and how she was subsequently venerated as a martyr.3

§5.  Drogo's texts on Oswald stand out in his corpus not only because they were his earliest works, but also because they provide so little explicit information about the saint's cult in Flanders. The hagiographer's other texts describe how the saints about whom they speak came to Flanders and what happened to their relics, as well as the miracles they performed. In contrast, the Vita Oswaldi consists largely of excerpts from Bede's eighth-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum: thirty-eight of its forty-two passages—about 90%—appear as they do in Bede's text. The sermons also concern events found in the Historia ecclesiastica. Though the texts reveal that Saint-Winnoc possessed some of Oswald's relics, they do not specify which relics.

§6.  Nicholas Huyghebaert (1976, 90-1) has made a good case that Drogo's texts are silent about Saint-Winnoc's relics of Oswald because the abbey did not possess any of his corporal relics. Drogo used the term reliquiae (relics) in reference to his abbey's relics of Oswald, while he used ossa (bones) or corpus (body) to refer to its relics of two other saints. This terminology is important because, in the eleventh century, hagiographers made careful theological distinctions between corporal and non-corporal relics. They wrote that saints maintained a living presence at the former and that when such relics arrived at a community, it meant that the saint to whom they belonged had chosen to incorporate it into his or her patrocinium (patronage). As a result, authors carefully documented the provenance of corporal relics in order to authenticate them (Geary 1990, 124). Non-corporal relics did not signify that the saint was present and keeping track of their movements was less important. Thus, Saint-Winnoc probably possessed only "secondary relics" of Oswald—perhaps splinters from the stakes on which his severed head and hands were impaled.4 Scholars have proposed numerous hypotheses about how Drogo's community acquired these relics (Huyghebaert 1976, 91-3; Ó Riain-Raedel 1995, 217-20). Unfortunately, too many of these hypotheses are credible for any one to prove conclusive, though they do testify to the closeness and frequency of Anglo-Flemish contacts.

§7.  Despite the lack of explicit information in the Vita Oswaldi, Sermo primus and Sermo secundus, the texts still provide important evidence for the development of Oswald's cult. Much can be learned from placing them in their hagiographic and historical contexts.

Discordant Traditions and Bede's Oswald

§8.  Drogo did reveal his chief source of information about Oswald. In the Vita Oswaldi, he wrote to the monks of Saint-Winnoc:

. . . I combined in one work the life and martyrdom of holy Oswald the king, as well as the wondrous deeds of that same one, and I sent the composition to you . . . But, lest anyone should think that the things I combined are my own, I must explain that, on the contrary, these illuminating things are from the pen of the blessed priest Bede.

. . . vitam martiriumque sancti Oswaldi regis, seu miracula eiusdem in uno opere coniunxi, vobisque descripta misi . . . Verum ne quis existimet mea fore quae coniunxi, excusatum venio, sed esse beati Bedae presbyteri dilucidata stilo. (Prologus 2)

In addition, he also specified how he had altered Bede's presentation. Immediately after identifying his source, he wrote:

But since the events in Bede's account were written in a mixed up order, we placed them in [their proper] order . . . Then, moreover, where so much history forced the man [Bede] to shorten the account, we expounded a little, adding things from our own [knowledge]—things which perhaps he too may have said, if the brevity of the composition or material had allowed.

At nos eius ipsius ordinata scripta versa serie in ordinem taxavimus . . . Tum autem ubi tanta historia adegit virum abbreviare orationem, nos paululum dilucidavimus, addentes de nostro quae idem fortassis diceret, si brevitas sententiarum vel materiei sineret. (Prologus 2)

To scholars who study Anglo-Saxon England, this description of Drogo's texts may seem unremarkable. Hagiographers often excerpted and rearranged passages from the Historia ecclesiastica in order to create vitae of Oswald. Some hagiographers, such as Ælfric, added material from other sources as well (Thacker 1995, 125; Rollason 1995, 166).

§9.  These same scholars might also find Drogo's designation of the saint as a martyr-king unremarkable. From the eighth through the eleventh centuries, English authors regularly called Oswald a martyr or a "king and martyr" in hagiographic texts and litanies, and included him in martyrologies and calendars with similar designations (Thacker 1995, 113-25). Nor would the appearance of a royal saint, or even a royal martyr, be likely to raise an eyebrow. Royal saints were more common in Anglo-Saxon England than anywhere else in early medieval Europe. In addition to numerous royal saints who abdicated to enter the religious life as pilgrims, monks or nuns, royal martyrs were unusually common in England (Ridyard 1988, 1). Several kings, such as Edwin (d. 632), Sigebert (d. 635) and Anna (d. 654), who were killed in battle by pagans, appear to have been regarded as martyrs (Folz 1984, 45-8; Thacker 1995, 124-25; Ridyard 1988, 176-77). In addition, David Rollason (1983, 2-11) has compiled a list of twelve English kings and princes who suffered death at the hands of Christian assassins and were recognized as martyrs. The English seem to have been willing to recognize a member of the royalty as a martyr solely on the basis of a tragic death, especially if it involved treachery.

§10.  To appreciate the importance of Drogo's texts, especially his Sermo secundus, one has to view them from the continental perspective that exercised the most influence on him. Before the tenth century, royal saints were scarce on the continent—only two king-saints, two prince-saints and four queen-saints appeared.5 With greater frequency than in England, early medieval saints on the continent tended to come from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, rather than royal families. In fact, royal saints seem to have achieved recognition on the continent despite their royal status. Throughout most of the first millennium, most Christian authors described secular office as inherently opposed to sainthood. The first saints were those believers who were willing to suffer execution as testament to their faith, making them martyrs—literally, "witnesses." Later, those who had exhibited a willingness to die but who had not actually been executed (the confessors) also achieved recognition as saints. In both cases, the state pitted itself against Christianity, leading to the belief in a conflict between secular office and sanctity that, beginning in Late Antiquity, became deeply ingrained in continental hagiography (Klaniczay 2000, 8-11).

§11.  Moreover, royal saints achieved recognition in ways that reflected this perception. Typically, they abandoned secular office to go on a pilgrimage or to live a monastic life. In a few cases, such as that of King Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 523), royal saints obtained recognition as saints through martyrdom. Apparently, the holiness of a martyr's death outweighed all other considerations: Sigismund was not known for his Christian virtues during his life—in 522, he had his own son, Sigeric, strangled. The abbot of Saint-Maurice-d'Agaune (modern Switzerland), Sigismund's foundation, was nevertheless successful in promoting the king's veneration as a martyr (Klaniczay 2000, 67-8; Rollason 1983, 14).

§12.  By the late tenth century, the perception of a conflict between secular office and sanctity had diminished somewhat. In the 980s, two continental hagiographers presented martyr-kings who lived holy lives as kings, then confirmed their faith by submitting to death as martyrs. The first was Gumpold, bishop of Mantua (d. 985), who composed the Vita s. Vencezlavi martiris (Life of St. Wenceslaus, the martyr) [BHL 8821] about Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia (d. 929). The second was Abbo of Fleury (d. 1004), who composed the Vita s. Eadmundi (Life of St. Edmund) [BHL 2392] about Edmund, king of East Anglia (d. 870).6 In Gábor Klaniczay's (2000, 62) words:

What we have here is a new hagiographic type: the ruler who wields the power of his office reluctantly, is renowned for his exemplary charity, his support of the Church and his missionary zeal, and who finally dies a martyr's death at the hands of the enemies of the faith.

These two vitae were important because they exalted the virtues of the rex iustus (just king) depicted in Carolingian mirrors-for-princes and juxtaposed them to topoi related to martyrdom. Still, Abbo's and Gumpold's vitae preserve the sense of opposition between kingship and sainthood. They present kings who exhibited great faith as Christian rulers, then confirmed their faith by exchanging the sacred office of king for the sanctity of martyrdom (Folz 1984, 55-64).

§13.  It was not until the late eleventh century that some continental hagiographers discarded the perception of a conflict altogether. In 1083, Vaik of Hungary (d. 1038)—who was coincidentally baptized with the name of the protomartyr Stephen after converting to Christianity—became the first king to achieve sainthood without being martyred or abdicating for religious purposes: he became the first confessor-king (Szovák 1993, 243). Stephen's recognition inaugurated "le siècle des saints rois" (the century of king-saints) in which seven of nine king-saints were confessors (Folz 1984, 113).

§14.  Bede's presentation of Oswald would have been especially troubling to a continental hagiographer like Drogo because it focused so strongly on the saint's deeds as a king, a result of Bede's interest in the development of the English Church. While it would be wrong to posit a rigid dichotomy between medieval history and hagiography, the Historia ecclesiastica presents saints in ways that differ from explicitly hagiographic texts. Bede himself occasionally hinted at these differences. For example, he noted that he did not choose to relate everything he knew about the miracles of Eorcengota (d. c. 660), a Kentish princess who became a nun at the Frankish monastery of Faremoutier-en-Brie. Although hagiographers often stated that they had omitted miracles or other information about a saint, they usually claimed that it was because they feared to bore readers with too much material. Bede, however, wrote that he would "leave [the other miracles] to be related by her own people." (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 3.8). His statement implies that the other miracles were worth knowing but that it was her supporters' job, not his own, to publicize them. Bede's various presentations of Cuthbert (d. 687) are even more instructive. His hagiographic versions of Cuthbert's life focus on the saint's virtues as a person, while the Historia ecclesiastica concentrates on Cuthbert's proselytizing and the institutional contributions he made as abbot of Lindisfarne (Bede Vita s. Cuthberti; Bede Historia ecclesiastica 4.27–32).

§15.  Bede placed saints in the Historia ecclesiastica based on their roles in a larger narrative, not their individual narratives of holiness. He chose to produce a unified work about the development of the English Church (or, at least, the Northumbrian role in the development of the English Church), not a series of vitae. To phrase it differently, the Historia ecclesiastica has more in common with Gregory of Tours' Liber historiae Francorum (Book of the History of the Franks) than it does with Gregory's Liber in gloria martyrum (Book on the Glory of the Martyrs). In fact, the Liber historiae Francorum was probably one of three models for Bede's history, the other two being Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (via Rufinus' Latin adaptation) and the Old Testament (Colgrave and Mynors 1969, xxx, xxxvi). The Historia ecclesiastica does include "hagiographic" material, but this material is always subordinate to the overarching narrative. For example, the Historia ecclesiastica refers to Alban's saintly typology as a "blessed confessor and martyr" and gives an account of his passio (passion) (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 1.7). The reason his story was included in the narrative is revealed at the end of the preceding chapter, where the text mentions Diocletian's fourth-century persecution of Christians then states that "Britain also attained to the great glory of bearing faithful witness to God." (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 1.6) The story demonstrates that the future home of the English Church could boast of a sacred history dating back to the age when pagan Rome created the first Christian martyrs. Similarly, Bede's account of Æthelthryth (d. 679), the founder and abbess of Ely, is a lengthy description of a virgin saint. (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 4.19) In the hymn to virginity that follows the account, her vita's chief purpose in the narrative becomes clear. The hymn mentions several virgin saints who had lived under pagan Rome—Agatha, Eulalia, Thecla, Euphemia, Agnes and Cecilia. Then, it proclaims "nor lacks our age its Æthelthryth as well." (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 4.20) Again, Bede wanted to demonstrate that England had a dignified sacred history.

§16.  In the Historia ecclesiastica's narrative, Oswald is important for his reunification of Northumbria and his role in its conversion. Stancliffe (1995, 65) has argued convincingly that in the Historia ecclesiastica, the kings Edwin and Oswald, both of whom ruled over a united Northumbria, represented two stages in its conversion. Edwin established the foundations of the English Church and Oswald completed its structure. A concrete example in the text emphasizes this point:

[Edwin] was baptized at York on Easter Day, 12 April, in the church of St. Peter the Apostle, which he had hastily built of wood while he was a catechumen . . . Very soon after his baptism, he set about building a greater and more magnificent church of stone . . . The foundations were laid and he began to build his square church surrounding the former chapel. But before the walls were raised to their full height, the king was slain by a cruel death and the work left for his successor Oswald to finish (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 2.14).

Bede clearly thought that Oswald was a saint—he attributed miracles to him—but he chose to focus his account of the Northumbrian king on specific aspects of the king's vita.

§17.  The Old Testament's presentation of the Hebrew kings seems to have been particularly influential as a literary model for Bede's account of Oswald. As Walter Goffart (1988, 238) has pointed out, "biblical commentary, not history, was the privileged focus of Bede's scholarship, and presumably he would have gone to his grave without regrets" had he never produced the Historia ecclesiastica. Steeped in years of biblical study, Bede presented the development of the English Church in terms of a providential narrative: the English, like the Israelites, had a special relationship with God in which they prospered when they obeyed God's laws and suffered when they did not.7 Although scholars disagree on the greater purpose of Bede's text, most agree that he couched it in such terms (Colgrave 1969a, xxx; Goffart 1988, 235; Stancliffe 1995, 62; Thacker 1995, 111; Kirby 2000, 56). What connected Oswald's sanctity to his kingship was the idea that Northumbria's prosperity depended upon his virtues: the kingdom prospered because its ruler upheld its covenant with God. For this reason, Bede lingered over Oswald's royal virtues and attributed posthumous miracles to him that validated his deeds in life (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 2.5). Both Heavenfield, where Oswald's reign as king began in battle, and Maserfelth, where it ended in battle, were the sites of miracles. Bede also placed his reports of posthumous miracles in the middle of the account of Oswald's life. This is important because it was traditional in hagiography to narrate the saint's life first, then to relate any posthumous miracles. This is probably what Drogo meant when he said that "the events in Bede's account were written in a mixed up order." By mixing up the order, Bede was calling attention to the events that surrounded the miracles in the text. He was using them to validate Oswald's deeds as king, not to prove his posthumous miracle-working power as a saint. As Benedicta Ward (1976, 72) has noted, for Bede, the awe inspired by miracula (wonders) was always secondary to their value as signa (signs) of God's beneficence.

§18.  Bede's presentation of Oswald has generated considerable debate among modern scholars regarding which saintly typology the author meant to assign the king. On the one hand, many scholars have argued that the Historia ecclesiastica presents a traditional martyr-king. For example, Robert Folz (1984, 45-6) has placed Oswald under the heading "Le Roi martyr de la foi" (The King, Martyr for the Faith) and according to Susan Ridyard (1988, 243), he "attained sanctity by martyrdom." On the other hand, scholars, such as Victoria Gunn (1993, 65-6), have argued that Bede was proposing a new typology for the king-saint in which Oswald achieved sanctity as a king, rather than as a martyr. Given the strong English proclivity for viewing fallen kings as royal martyrs, Bede probably considered depicting Oswald as a martyr, but he never actually called him one. (In fact, Bede never called any king a martyr in the Historia ecclesiastica.) Perhaps, he feared that the martyr's palm would obscure the king's crown. (Sigismund's supporters had indeed relied on this feature of martyrdom.) But, there was also no prototype for a king who achieved sanctity only as a king.

§19.  Drogo would have been even more perplexed by Bede's presentation than modern scholars because he probably knew Oswald as a martyr. Most authors influenced by the dominant English tradition assigned Oswald the status of martyr, including the author of an eighth-century martyrology from the monastery of Echternach (modern Luxembourg), the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord's (d. 739) foundation. Echternach was responsible for widely disseminating the king's feast on the continent (Thacker 1995, 115-16), and there is good reason to believe that Echternach's influence reached Saint-Winnoc. In 1022, Drogo's abbey was founded by the Flemish count Baldwin IV (r. 988-1035). His wife, Otgiva, had familial connections to Echternach and was an avid relic collector. In fact, Huyghebaert (1976, 92) has proposed her as the likely source of Saint-Winnoc's relics of Oswald. Even if she was not the source, there is still a good chance that Drogo knew of Echternach's treatment of the king-saint as a martyr through her connections. At the same time, aspects of Drogo's presentation of Oswald suggest that he was influenced by Abbo of Fleury's Vita Eadmundi. Echoes of the Vita Eadmundi in Drogo's texts may be explained by the ties that King Cnut (d. 1035) and his wife, Emma (d. 1052)—both enthusiastic supporters of Edmund's cult—developed with Saint-Bertin, where Drogo probably wrote his texts on Oswald (Ridyard 1988, 225; Grierson 1941, 96-7; Campbell 1949, xix-xxi, xlviii; Huyghebaert 1971, 210). At the very least, Drogo was aware of the continental tradition that viewed king-saints with suspicion. Not only would Drogo have had difficulty understanding how a king who died in battle could be a martyr, but he also would have been puzzled by Bede's emphasis on Oswald's life. As Thomas Head (1990, 242) has noted, Abbo's decision to treat Edmund as a martyr led him to focus almost exclusively on his death and the discovery of his relics, not his life as king. In the process of explaining how Oswald's death qualified as a martyrdom in the Sermo secundus, Drogo introduced important changes into Oswald's cult and made significant innovations in the king-saint typology.

Drogo and Oswald's Martyrdom

§20.  Drogo's Vita Oswaldi and Sermo primus were important precursors to his Sermo secundus. In the Vita Oswaldi, Drogo rearranged passages from the Historia ecclesiastica and composed new passages to form a traditional vita with the saint's lineage, birth, youth, deeds, death and posthumous miracles, described in that order. He bound these elements together with a narrative portraying Oswald's life as a trajectory rising from innate goodness to sanctification. According to the text, the king was a rex iustus who exhibited great faith that he then confirmed by his death. In this respect, the Vita Oswaldi resembles the Vita Eadmundi. But, rather than having the role of martyr replace that of rex iustus, the Vita Oswaldi blurs the distinction between the two by hinting that the king was already a saint when he suffered martyrdom. The Sermo primus is an amplification of the Vita Oswaldi's portrait of a rex iustus, emphasizing, in particular, Oswald's charity. It relates the famous story of a dinner at which the king distributed alms and Bishop Aidan blessed his arm.

§21.  The only report of Oswald's death in the Vita Oswaldi and the Sermo primus appears in the former (III.26), where it repeats Bede's statement that after a reign of eight years:

Oswald was killed in a great battle, by the same heathen people and the same heathen Mercian king as his predecessor Edwin in a place called in the English tongue Maserfelth, on 5 August in the thirty-eighth year of his age (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 3.9).

The brevity of this statement contrasts markedly with Abbo's extensive treatment of Edmund's death in the Vita Eadmundi. It is not surprising, then, that Drogo would want to concentrate on Oswald's martyrdom in the Sermo secundus, his final text on the king-saint. He had to explain how a rex iustus who never surrendered his office qualified as a martyr. A glance at the Vita Eadmundi helps to clarify the problem.

§22.  Hagiographers described the early martyrs as having fully imitated Jesus by suffering execution in testament to their faith. Luke was instrumental in establishing this connection by relating the story of the protomartyr Stephen in Acts (Bruce 1993, 714). Acts 7 reports that Stephen (d. c. 35) was one of Jesus' followers who, like Jesus, was charged with blasphemy before the Sanhedrin. Acts also includes a long statement of beliefs that Stephen made at his trial, beliefs which so enraged the crowd that they stoned him. In the subsequent era of persecutions, Stephen was a model for Christians executed by the state for their beliefs. Martyrs might be defiant, like Lawrence (d. 258)—who purportedly told his executioners as they roasted him on a gridiron that he was done on one side and that they should flip him over—but they had to submit to execution willingly in witness to their faith.

§23.  Abbo's Vita Eadmundi indicates that the image of a vigorous king did not reconcile easily with the image of a martyr's submission to death. First, killing a king was almost always done to gain power, not because of his faith. Second, a good king would bravely face his enemies in battle. If he fell resisting his enemies, could one really say that he had willingly accepted death? Abbo solved both of these problems by having Edmund cast off his kingship to become a martyr. The text states that the Danes suddenly invaded Edmund's kingdom, raped its women, pillaged its towns and decimated its population. Among those killed were the king's closest friends and family, causing him to lose the will to live. A servant urged Edmund to flee but the king refused, stating that he had never fled from battle. Neither did he resist, however. Moved to despair by his failure, he surrendered to the invaders. Still, Edmund did not dishonor his office by collaborating with the Danes. He preferred to die, saying "having followed the example of my Christ . . . I am prepared to die voluntarily by your weapons."8 Abandoning his role as rex iustus, Edmund became a martyr. The Danes then used him as an archery target and finally beheaded him (Head 1990, 240-44).

§24.  Since Oswald never surrendered, Drogo had to fuse the just king with the martyr-king in the Sermo secundus. He did this by transforming Oswald from a rex iustus to a rex et sacerdos (king and priest). He began by referring to a story from Bede about how Oswald served as translator between his subjects and the Irish bishop Aidan. Drogo wrote:

O praiseworthy king, whom priests themselves longed to imitate in so far as the seed of the divine word dripped from his mouth into others' and he often attentively claimed for himself that which is a priest's to administer—namely, the word of God.

O praedicandum regem, quem etiam ipsi desiderabant imitari sacerdotes. Siquidem semen divini verbi ab ore eius in alios stillabat, quodque est sacerdotis amministrare, verbum Dei scilicet, nonnumquam solers sibi vindicabat (ll. 89-96).

The text then mentions Melchizedek, the Old Testament type for the rex et sacerdos. It continues:

He even imitated that Melchizedek in the action of his moral life, which excellent king administered his rule publicly and poured out an offering to the heavenly king for the victory of Abraham. Thus, without doubt, thus the noble king provided for his kingdom, thus he sowed the eternal seed. Truly, the good seed, by the dispersal of which minds are refreshed, regain health, are restored, and are fed.

Illum etiam Melchisedech actu moralis vitae imitabatur, qui exterius sedem rex praepotens amministrabat, et excelso regi oblationem pro Abrahae victoria libabat. Sic nimirum, sic nobilis rex suo regno providebat, sic semen perhenne serebat. Bonum vero semen, quo iacto mentes reficiuntur, convalescunt, vivificantur, pascuntur (ll. 96-102).

§25.  The comparison to Melchizedek is not easy to grasp, but an interpolation suggests Drogo's purpose. Genesis 14:17-20 presents Melchizedek as both the king of Salem and the priest of God Most High, and discusses him meeting Abraham when the latter was returning victorious from a battle. The rex et sacerdos gives Abraham bread and wine, then blesses him. The Sermo secundus states, however, that Melchizedek ruled his kingdom and "poured out an offering for the victory of Abraham." The account in Genesis does not include this detail. It states only that Melchizedek offered Abraham bread and wine then blessed him, but does not specify how. The Sermo continues:

O how beneficent a king, how essential to his homeland, and to the welfare of his kingdom. It was not enough to administer the need of the body to that kingdom, unless he also conferred the dish of the divine sacrifice. He set to plowing, and separated out the useless sprout of the tare, of the thistle, and of the weeds with the divine hoe.

Cultivate the vine of Christ, [Oswald,] so that afterwards you might become the pure wine of the cup, squeezed by the press in an outpouring of blood.9

O quam utilis rex, quam necessarius suĉ patriĉ suique regni auspicio. Haud satis habebatur illi amministrare necessitudinem corporis, nisi etiam conferret ferculum divinæ dapis. Aratrum admittebat, et inutile germen lolii, cardui, zizaniorumque sarculo diuino auferebat.

Vineam Christi excole, ut postea fias uinum merum calicis, pressus prælo in effusione cruoris (ll. 89-102).

The text compares Melchizedek pouring wine to Oswald spilling his blood.

§26.  Medieval authors sometimes praised kings for their actions in support of the Church by comparing them to Melchizedek. For example, Venantius Fortunatus (d. c. 600) wrote that the Merovingian Childebert II (d. 596) was "our Melchizedek, in merit both king and priest / a layman perfected the work of religion" (Melchisedek noster merito rex atque sacerdos / conplevit laicus religionis opus) (Venantius Fortunatus Carmina 2.10, "De ecclesia Parisiaca" in Myers 1982, 138). It was far more common, however, for Melchizedek's priestly attributes to overshadow his royal ones because in medieval theology the letter to the Hebrews provided the dominant interpretation of him. The letter characterizes Jesus as "a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (sacerdos in aeternum, secundum ordinem Melchisedech) (Hebrews 5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:17; Nelson 1993, 511). It was most common to refer to Melchizedek in reference to priests, not kings. More specifically, by offering Abraham bread and wine, the rex et sacerdos served as a type for Christ at the Last Supper and consequently, for the eucharistic offerings of priests as well (Dohi 1994, 78).10 One of three common representations of Melchizedek in medieval iconography depicts him making this offering. Sometimes he even appears alone, holding the bread and wine before an altar like a priest (Caroff 2000, 936).

§27.  The offering provides the key to Drogo's comparison. By adding the libation of wine, Drogo connected Melchizedek's offering of the bread and wine as a type for the Last Supper with Oswald's martyrdom through a series of parallel associations. First, all of the Gospels associate the Last Supper with the Jewish celebration of the Passover. Second, the breaking of the bread and drinking of the wine, which the synoptic Gospels say Jesus called his body and blood at the Last Supper, imply the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. Third, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb alludes to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross as the "lamb of God" (John 1:29; Marshall 1993). Fourth, although Jesus was the type for all saints, he was especially the type for martyrs because of the manner of his death. Thus, the meaning of Drogo's comparison becomes clear: like Jesus, Oswald became "the pure wine of the [eucharistic] cup, squeezed by the press [of martyrdom] in an outpouring of blood" (fiebat uinum merum calicis, pressus prælo in effusione cruoris). King Oswald was a "priest" who offered the sacrifice of his own martyrdom. To my knowledge, this connection between martyrdom, a martyr-king and Melchizedek is unique.

§28.  Most significantly, Drogo's addition changes martyrdom from a passive to an active fate. Rather than choosing to be executed in witness to his faith, Oswald chooses to advance as a rex (iustus) et sacerdos and pour out his own blood. After mentioning Oswald's victory at Heavenfield, the Sermo secundus depicts a fierce battle at Maserfelth—partly in verse:

Oswald the most victorious king approached with his soldiers. A great battle was joined. The Christians were laid low with great slaughter. In the middle of the destruction of his soldiers, the celebrated king persisted in piety; viewed the men falling around him; prayed; grieved; yet hoped.

He struck with his sword, and poured out prayers to heaven,
He lashed out in battle, and elevated his thoughts [to heaven],
He mowed down whatever was nearby, then spoke these words in prayer,
"Jesus Christ, most glorious of kings, have mercy on the souls of the dead."

Affuit Osuualdus rex uictoriosissimus cum suis, grave praelium committitur, christiani gravi caede sternuntur. In media strage suorum rex praecluis pietate perstat, aspicit in circuitu cadentes, precatur, tristatur, tamen sperat.

Fulminat ense suo, funditque precamina cælo,
Intentus bellis, arrectus lumina cordis;
Proxima quæque metit, tunc verba precantia dicit.
Ihesu Christe regum gloriosissime, animabus defunctorum miserere
(ll. 112-16).

This description is Drogo's creation. Only the king's prayer came directly from Bede, who had written:

It is also a tradition which has become proverbial, that [Oswald] died with a prayer on his lips. When he was beset by the weapons of his enemies and saw that he was about to perish he prayed for the souls of his army. So the proverb runs, "May God have mercy on their souls, as Oswald said when he fell to the earth." (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 3.12)

§29.  If Drogo had followed Abbo's precedent, he would have had to show Oswald laying down his arms and submitting to death. Instead, in stark contrast to Abbo's Edmund, who was "prepared to die voluntarily by [Danish] weapons," Oswald marched out valiantly to do battle. The Sermo secundus then depicts Oswald falling in battle as a heroic king:

He prayed and in the midst of his soldiers pierced by the spears of his adversaries, he fell. Thus, battling for his homeland and fighting for the Christian religion, he merited to be crowned by the Omnipotent, merited to obtain the palm of victory and of the heavenly triumph through martyrdom . . .

Orauit, et in medio suorum confossus telis adversariorum cecidit. Igitur decertans pro patria, pugnansque pro religione christiana, ab omnipotente meruit coronari, meruit palma[m] uictoriae triumphique caelestis per martirium potiri . . . (ll. 128-31).

There is no hint that Oswald submitted. Instead, unable to cast the king as a lamb—even a defiant one—Drogo did not shrink from describing him as a lion. He allowed Oswald to remain a rex iustus through the moment of his martyrdom, erasing the line between secular office and sanctity.

§30.  Drogo exhibited some uneasiness with the changes he made. After reporting Oswald's prayer for his own soldiers a second time, he also stated:

O the wondrous devotion of the mind of this king. If they would have been of the Christian religion, in this same hour, he would have prayed for his enemies, so that he might be an imitator of the Lord and of His witness, the protomartyr Stephen. But since they were pagans, he prayed for those, for whose salvation he knew that his own prayer was [effective].

O mira huius regis animi deuotio. Si fortasse, forent christianae religionis, hac eadem hora pro inimicis orasset, ut imitator domni, testisque eius protomartiris Stephani existeret. Verum quia pagani erant, pro illis orauit, quorum saluti suam orationem esse sciuit (ll. 124-28).

This is an allusion to Luke's presentation of Jesus as the type for Stephen. In Luke's gospel (23:34), Jesus prays for his enemies, saying "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Similarly, in Acts 7:60, as he is being stoned Stephen cries out "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Luke, the author of both texts, drew attention to the similarities between Jesus' and Stephen's deaths with this prayer. Drogo apparently wanted to do the same for Oswald with his twist of Bede's account.

The Flemish Historical Context

§31.  Apparently, Drogo's contemporaries, especially the monastic community at Saint-Winnoc, accepted his changes to the king-saint typology. Saint-Winnoc preserved Drogo's texts on Oswald until at least the late twelfth century, when scribes copied them into an illustrated lectionary (Bergues, bibliothèque municipale, ms. 19, ff. 79r-109r). They are the only prose works on Oswald in the manuscript, suggesting that the abbey relied on them for liturgical readings about the king-saint.11

§32.  The factors that prompted Drogo to reconcile the English and continental martyr-king traditions and facilitated his contemporaries' acceptance of them originated from his historical context. Between 1050 and 1069, Saint-Winnoc conducted a successful campaign to raise its prestige and gain its independence from its mother abbey, Saint-Bertin. The support of the Flemish counts was crucial to Saint-Winnoc's eventual success because Saint-Bertin was powerful and unwilling to surrender control. Drogo's texts on Oswald were probably attempts to curry favor with the counts by presenting a model of Christian rulership similar to the one the counts advanced for themselves.

§33.  According to Geoffrey Koziol (1992, 138-43), Capetian monarchs used ritual and literary propaganda to depict themselves as guardians of their people and patrons of the Church. At first glance, Drogo's texts seem to form part of this propaganda—the Flemish counts held territory in fief to both the French Capetians and German Ottonians, but the Capetians were the nominal sovereigns over most of Flanders. The Vita Oswaldi (I.5) presents a king who was at pains "to attend to the care of his kingdom, to guard its borders from the incursions of enemies, [and] to provide for his own and his subjects' salvation" (curam regni sui gerere, tutari fines suos ab inimicorum incursibus, providere suae suorumque saluti). In addition, the Sermo secundus reports that Oswald died "battling and fighting for his homeland and the Christian religion." These descriptions are, however, puzzling since they strongly conflicted with Flemish experience. By the time that Drogo wrote, it had been two hundred and fifty years since any monarch had been able to exercise regular authority within Flanders. This was especially true under Counts Baldwin IV (r. 988-1035) and Baldwin V (r. 1030/35-67), who controlled Flanders during most of the hagiographer's life. More often than not, as the Flemish counts maneuvered in the fluid world of French and imperial politics, monarchs were the invaders rather than the defenders of Flanders (Nicholas 1992, 46; Ganshof 1949, 33-5; Dhondt 1944, 57-60). Nor were these texts meant simply to flatter a king: Drogo had no access to a royal court. Nor were they literary curios to be placed on a shelf and forgotten: as noted above, they provided readings for the liturgy on the saint's feast day.

§34.  Drogo's inspiration came from a more localized milieu. In the latter part of his reign, the Carolingian king Charles the Bald (r. 840-77) granted a series of great lords nearly autonomous control over large portions of his West Frankish kingdom. Scholars generally adopt medieval terminology and call these lords "territorial princes" (principes) and the lands they ruled "territorial principalities" (monarchia) (Dunbabin 2000, 13-4). In contrast to areas of France where power was more fragmented, territorial princes in the northeast, especially in Flanders and the Vermandois, welcomed Capetian propaganda because they stood to gain more than they lost from royal pretension. The princes asserted that magnates like themselves shared in the king's divine commission to provide justice, defend the realm and protect the Church. By these claims, they hoped to distinguish themselves from lesser lords who ruled by military force alone. While the eleventh-century Capetians made relatively few gains from their efforts, the princes did enhance their positions (Koziol 1992, 138-43).

§35.  During the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Flemish territorial princes adopted a Carolingian model of authority for their comital office. They promoted themselves as the primary rulers of Flanders, on par with or just below the Capetian kings. For example, they increased the use of a rare Carolingian formula, "count by the grace of God" (comes gratia Dei), to emphasize that God, not a king, invested them with power. They promoted the notion that, like kings, they ruled by hereditary succession. They used ever more exalted titles, such as "most noble marquis of Flanders" (clarissimus Flandrensium marchysus) (Gysseling and Koch 1950, 1:197), to distinguish themselves from less powerful figures who also bore the title count.12 They called attention to the numerous marriages that mixed their blood with royal blood, especially Carolingian blood—the Flemish dynasty's founder, Baldwin I (d. 879), had eloped with Charles the Bald's daughter. They inserted themselves into the patrocinia of saints whose corporal relics were located in Flanders. Finally, they initiated and supported the Peace movement in Flanders to assert themselves as the protectors of the Flemish Church (Bozóky 1997, 271-72, 276, 279-80, 287). It was these powerful territorial lords who administered Flanders, defended it from attack and were the chief patrons of its Church. Even though the Flemish counts did not hold royal office, both Drogo and his audiences would have compared Oswald to the counts, not to the French or German kings. Certainly, the Flemish counts acted like reges iusti within their own territory. In addition, the Flemish counts often attended masses at the church of Saint-Winnoc, making them part of Drogo's audience (Pruvost 1875, 38-64; Svoboda 1983, 81).

§36.  Evidence for comital intervention in ecclesiastical affairs comes from Drogo's own monastery. A charter from 1067 in which Count Baldwin V (r. 1030/35-67) essentially granted Saint-Winnoc its independence from Saint-Bertin, depicts the counts acting like just kings by intervening in religious life at Bergues. First, it states that Baldwin II (r. 879-918) "founded a church in honor of the holy confessors, Martin and Winnoc, and established canons there [at Bergues] who should serve God day and night," (in honore Sanctorum Confessorum Martini & Winnoci Ecclesiam fundavit, & Canonicos, qui diu noctuque Deo servirent, ibidem instituit) (Miræus 1728-43, 511). Then, it notes that many years later, Baldwin IV (r. 988-1035) built a new church dedicated to Winnoc and moved the saint's relics there, along with the canons. In 1022, however:

since pleasure accompanied affluence, and forgetfulness of the commandments of God accompanied pleasure, the aforementioned canons, led astray by their own desires, were found not very much devoted, nay nearly ignorant, regarding the matters which concern God. When this was made known to the renowned Count Baldwin [IV], he eradicated the root of sins entirely [by expelling the canons] lest it should spring forth again.

quoniam rerum affluentiam delitiæ delitias autem comitatur Dei mandatorum oblivio, præfati Canonici, propriis voluptatibus inescati, circa ea, quæ Dei sunt, non nimis devoti, imo penitus ignavi reperti sunt. Quod ubi inclyto Comiti Balduino . . . innotuit . . . radicem vitiorum, ne amplius pulularet, funditus exstirpavit (Miræus 1728-43, 512).

Baldwin then founded a Benedictine community—Saint-Winnoc—at Bergues with monks drawn from Saint-Bertin. The charter, which was drawn up by a monk from Drogo's abbey, speaks approvingly of the counts' actions.


§37.  Drogo of Saint-Winnoc negotiated the turbulent straits between the English and continental traditions of king-saints. In his Sermo secundus, he synthesized the English tradition's willingness to assign the status of martyr to kings who fell in battle with the continental tradition's elevation of the traits of a rex iustus. The result was a portrait of a king-saint who would have been recognizable to Drogo's eleventh-century Flemish contemporaries as one of their counts (at least, in ideal form). This synthesis made Drogo the first hagiographer to offer a detailed account of Oswald's martyrdom. It also made him an innovator in the king-saint typology, the first continental hagiographer to fuse the traits of a warrior king with the virtues of a martyr.

§38.  Drogo's negotiations reveal the dynamic nature of enduring medieval cults, such as Oswald's. Even when information about a saint came from a widely-known source like Bede, hagiographers often had to revise presentations of this information to gain the saint's acceptance by contemporaries. These negotiations resulted in chronologically and geographically localized flowerings of such cults. A saint's cult could be simultaneously "international" and intensely local.


AASS = Acta Sanctorum Database,

BHL = Bibliotheca hagiographica latina Database,


1.  Fulminat ense suo . . . proxima quaeque metit . . . in medio suorum confossus telis adversariorum cecidit. Igitur decertans pro patria, pugnansque pro religione christiana . . . (ll. 115-16, 128-29). Note: All quotations of Drogo's Sermo primus and Sermo secundus come from Huyghebaert 1982. All quotations of Drogo's Vita s. Oswaldi regis ac martyris [BHL 6362] come from AASS. Aug. 2. coll. 94A-103E. All translations of Drogo's texts are my own.   [Back]

2.  In addition to his texts on Oswald, Drogo produced the Historia translationis s. Lewinnae virginis et martiris (History of the Translation of St. Lewinna, virgin and martyr) [BHL 4902] (AASS. July, V. coll. 613A-27F), the Liber miraculorum s. Winnoci (Book of the Miracles of St. Winnoc) [BHL 8956] (AASS, Nov. 3. coll. 275A-84F) and the Vita s. Godelevae martyris Ghistellae (Life of St. Godelieve, martyr of Ghistelles) [BHL 3591t] (ed. Maurice Coens, 1926. La vie ancienne de Sainte Godelieve de Ghistelles par Drogon de Bergues, Analecta Bollandiana, 44:103-37; ed. Nicholas Huyghebaert, 1982. Drogo van Sint-Winoksbergen: Vita Godeliph. Belgium: Lannoo, Tielt en Bussum). For a profile of hagiographic production in the Middle Ages, see Philippart and Trigalet 1998.  [Back]

3.  For citations of studies on Godelieve, see Bruce Venarde's introduction to his English translation of the Vita Godelevae (Venarde 2000). For Drogo's biography, see Huyghebaert 1971.  [Back]

4.  Saint-Winnoc finally acquired corporal relics of the saint in 1221 (Huyghebaert 1976, 85-6).  [Back]

5.   The king-saints were the Breton Judicael (d.647/58) and Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 523). The prince-saints were Chlodovald/Cloud (d. 560) and Hermenegild (d. 585). The queen-saints were Clotilde/Chrodechild (d. 545), Ultrogotha (sixth-century), Radegund (d. 587) and Balthild (d. 680) (Graus 1965, 395-414).  [Back]

6.  Though Edmund was an Anglo-Saxon saint, Thomas Head (1990, 240-51) has made a good case that Abbo's presentation of the saint reflected his own continental political concerns.  [Back]

7.  See, for example, the setbacks encountered by the sons of Sæberht after they renounced Christianity (Bede Historia ecclesiastica 2.5).  [Back]

8.  Christi mei exemplum secutus . . . libenter paratus sum uestris telis occumbere (Abbo of Fleury, Vita s. Eadmundi, 9 (ed. Winterbottom 1972, 76)).  [Back]

9.  Although it may appear from this excerpt that the sermon is exhorting the audience to cultivate themselves as the "vine," it actually aims the comment at Oswald. Several times, the sermons switch to the imperative and explicitly address the saint in the vocative.  [Back]

10.  This interpretation was significantly influenced by Ambrose's (d. 397) systematic interpretation of Melchizedek's offering in his De Sacramentis (Rubin 1991, 129-31).  [Back]

11.  Offices for the mass of later composition are also included (Bergues, bibliothèque municipale, ms. 19, ff. 72r-76v). See Clemoes 1983, 6-7.  [Back]

12.  Markysus or marchio was a term that originally denoted the royal official who guarded a frontier region called a march. Over time, it became a distinction given to powerful men as a sign of royal affection, then a distinction that powerful men applied to themselves.  [Back]

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