St. Erkenwald (poem)

St. Erkenwald is an alliterative poem of the fourteenth century, thought to have been composed in 1386. It has sometimes been attributed to the Pearl poet. It takes as its subject Erkenwald, the Bishop of London between 675 and 693.

It exists in only one manuscript, MS Harley 2250 in the British Library. The first line in the manuscript begins with a rubricated letter "A" two lines high and line 176 begins with a similar letter "T". The first modern edition was published by HL Savage and Israel Gollancz in 1926. The author is unknown, but there is some evidence it may have been the Pearl Poet, who wrote the poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among others.


The poem consists of 352 lines. Alliteration is used consistently throughout the poem, usually with three alliterating words per line.

Plot summaryEdit

St. Erkenwald's storyline appears to house two distinct sections. The first provides a brief, historical context for the poem. The primary section also depicts the discovery of an awe-inspiring sarcophagus and the concern and confusion of those that found it. The last 180 lines of the poem focus on St. Erkenwald's dialogue with the re-animated corpse.

The poem begins with a brief historical synopsis which describes the shift from pagan belief to Christendom. When the pagan Saxons invaded Britain, a great deal of land was destroyed, while many priests and laypeople were also killed. St. Augustine of Canterbury was sent to convert the English and to purify the pagan temples. The poem goes on to state that modern day London was then called "the New Troy." From this comes an incident in the life of St. Erkenwald. Throughout the construction of a cathedral on the site of a former pagan temple, a mysterious tomb is uncovered. Adorned with gargoyles and made of grey marble, the tomb is inscribed with a series of golden characters; however, no scholar is able to decipher them. Once granted permission by the sextons, the mayor takes control of the sanctuary and tomb for further investigation. As they open the lid of the tomb, they find a preserved body and the garments of a king. Puzzled by the identity of the corpse and concerned about a royal, yet forgotten past, St. Erkenwald is summoned to the tomb. After Erkenwald prays, hoping to learn the identity of the body, a "goste-lyfe" animates the corpse and revives it. Such a "goste-lyfe" most probably refers to the Christian Holy Spirit. As Erkenwald questions the corpse, it is revealed that he is a pre-Christian Briton and once a just judge that lived during the Britain times—under the rule of King Belinus. His explanation for his royal attire is his impartial rulings throughout his time as a judge. Although he claims he was a fair and just judge, he was forced into a "lewid date" (205). Such a term most likely refers to a state of limbo due to his existence before the salvation of Christ. This reveals an underlying thread of theological questioning that pervades throughout St. Erkenwald: Did all before Christ go to hell? Erkenwald sheds a single tear that baptizes and consequently saves the corpse from his "lewid date." With this, the corpse immediately dissolves into dust, as the soul of the man finally enters eternal peace.


By presenting an exemplum, this poem addresses the question of whether salvation was possible to persons who lived morally admirable lives without having the opportunity to receive Christian Baptism. The story of St. Erkenwald proves that a physical body is necessary for baptism and salvation. This insinuates that such an option is not viable for heavily decomposed bodies that have been buried after many years. In the case of St. Erkenwald, it would appear that the body miraculously remained intact only to enable its salvation, since the body dissolved immediately following its baptism. The example of the corpse found in the story demonstrates quite graphically that salvation was possible for such intact bodies.

Exemplary passageEdit

Opening Lines of St. Erkenwald

At London in England noȝt full long sythen
Sythen Crist suffrid on crosse and Cristendome stablyd,
Ther was a byschop in þat burgh, blessyd and sacryd;
Saynt Erkenwolde as I hope þat holy mon hatte.
In his tyme in þat toun þe temple alder-grattyst
Was drawen doun, þat one dole, to dedifie new,
For hit hethen had bene in Hengyst dawes
Þat þe Saxones vnsaȝt haden sende hyder.
Þai bete oute þe Bretons and broȝt hom into Wales
And peruertyd all þe pepul þat in þat place dwelled;
Þen wos this reame renaide mony ronke ȝeres.

At London in England not very long ago
Since Christ suffered on the cross and established/ founded Christianity,
There was a bishop in that burgh (town), blessed and holy;
Saint Erkenwald, as I believe that holy man was called.
In his time in that town the greatest temple
Was drawn down, that one part of it, to dedicate a new one,
For it had been heathen in Hengest's days
When the Saxons hostilely had come there.
They beat out the Britons and brought them into Wales.
And perverted (led astray) all the people that dwelled in that place;
Then was this realm renegade (i.e. pagan) many rebellious years.

—lines 1-11

Language and dialectEdit

St. Erkenwald is written in the Cheshire dialect, a North-west Midlands English dialect that closely resembles those of nearby counties Lancashire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Derbyshire. The Cheshire dialect remains distinct from Standard English and its usage dates back to the 14th century. Aside from St. Erkenwald, such a derivation of the Middle English language may be seen in Gawain Poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other alliterative verse.

A number of the vocabulary words in the Cheshire dialect may be traced back to Anglo-Saxon language, also known as Old English. The two seemingly foreign characters within the St. Erkenwald excerpt above are known as the letters yogh (ȝ) and thorn (þ).


The letter yogh (ȝ) was derived from the Old English form of the letter g. Commonly used in Middle English and Early Scots, yogh commonly represents y. Within Middle English, yogh has come to be interchangeable with the tailed z. After the development of printing, Middle Scots orthography often confused the use yogh with a cursive z. Because of this, the early Scots printers often used z whenever yogh was not available in their fonts. Yogh has also been substituted often with the Arabic number three (3) due to its similar appearance.

List of words containing a yoghEdit

noȝt ("not")

ȝeres ("years")

broȝt ("brought")

niȝt ("night")

yȝe ("eye")

ȝiefte ("gift")

wrouȝte ("wrote")

ȝhere ("ear")

ȝhat ("gate")

ȝise ("yes")


The letter thorn (þ) is often seen in the Middle English dialect, but it is also used in Anglo-Saxon runes, Old Norse, Gothic and Icelandic alphabets. Thorn originated from the rune in the Elder Fuþark. Such a character is referred to as thorn in Anglo-Saxon and thurs ("giant") in the Scandinavian rune poems.

Its sound closely resembles a voiceless dental fricative [θ], like th in the English word thick, for example. It also may be heard as a voiced dental fricative [ð], such as the th in the English word the. Seen throughout Old English writing, thorn also remained common throughout literature in the Middle English period. Throughout such a period, a handwritten form of the letter thorn was similar to the letter "y"; when composed with a small "e" above it ( ), it was an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the. Such a form may be seen within the 1611 edition of the Bible (King James Version) in Romans or in the Mayflower Compact. The letter thorn has survived to date in the form of a "Y" within pseudo-archaic passages. A well-known example of this would be "Ye olde".

Abbreviations of thorn in Middle and Early Modern EnglishEdit

– ( ) a Middle English abbreviation for the word the

– ( ) a Middle English abbreviation for the word that

– ( ) a rare Middle English abbreviation for the word thou (which was written early on as þu or þou)

- (ys) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this

– ( ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the

– ( ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that

List of words containing a thornEdit

þat ("that")

þe ("the")

Þai ("they")

Þen ("then")


There is no direct source for this poem. The known lives of Erkenwald do not contain a miracle concerning the salvation of a pagan judge. The closest analogue is the story of Pope Gregory the Great and the Roman Emperor Trajan. In several versions of the story, Gregory learns of Trajan's just life, and prays to God on his behalf. The story of Trajan is a popular one throughout the Middle Ages, and can, for example, be found in Dante's Divine Comedy.



  • J.A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) ISBN 0-631-19353-7
  • Clifford Peterson (ed.) and Casey Finch (trans.). In The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1995) ISBN 0-520-07871-3 (with facing page Modern English translation).
  • Ruth Morse. St. Erkenwald (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer Ltd, 1975) ISBN 0-87471-686-1.
  • Henry L. Savage. St. Erkenwald (Hampden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1972) ISBN 0-208-01136-6
  • Clifford Peterson. St. Erkenwald (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977) ISBN 0-8122-7723-6

Commentary and criticismEdit

  • Larry D. Benson, 1965 “The Authorship of St. Erkenwald.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 64: 393–405.
  • Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002) ISBN 0-8122-3655-6.
  • Seeta Chaganti, The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary: Enshrinement, Inscription, Performance (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 47 - 71.
  • J. R. Hulbert, 1918 - 1919 “The Sources of St. Erkenwald and the Trental of Gregory,” Modern Philology 16: 485 - 93.
  • T. McAlindon, 1970 “Hagiography into Art: A Study of St. Erkenwald.” Studies in Philology 67: 472 -94.
  • Ruth Nissé, "'A Coroun Ful Riche': The Rule of History in St. Erkenwald." ELH 65.2 (1998): 277–95.
  • Monika Otter, "'New Werke': St. Erkenwald, St. Alban's, and the Medieval Sense of the Past," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies. 24.3 (1994): 387–414.
  • William A. Quinn, 1984 “The Psychology of St. Erkenwald.” Medium Aevum 3, No. 2: 180 - 93.
  • G. Whatley, “Heathens and Saints: St. Erkenwald and its Legendary Context.” Speculum 61.2 (1986): 330–63.
  • Helen Young, 2007 "Refusing the Medieval Other: A Case Study of Pre-Modern Nationalism and Postcoloniality in the Middle English "St Erkenwald"." 'The Politics and Aesthetics of Refusal.' Eds Caroline Hamilton, Michelle Kelly, Elaine Minor, Will Noonan. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 140 - 65.

External linksEdit