— VOTF05 November Saints

General Remarks

  • The narrator of this chapter is Alfgiva, now a Christian nun, earlier in her life, a beggar. She also has dreams in which she is Saint Ragener, dying around the year 870.
  • The date given is AD 1064, about 780 years after chapter four.
    • The date was likely chosen to be after “the mid-11th century” (see Closing Remarks), but before the Norman Invasion of 1066.
  • The indicated map location is St. Peter’s Church.
  • Northampton is known as Northampton in this chapter, though in Alfgiva’s visions of Ragener’s death (c. 870 AD), it is called Ham Town.

Section 1

  • “mea culpa” – A religious phrase, meaning “through my fault“.
  • “Matins” – Early morning prayers.
  • “I work the days, I count the beads and say the names.” – Alfgiva appears to be praying a rosary. (Rosaries are not known to have existed this early, but their origins are obscure.)
    • The mention of beads also recalls Usin’s necklace from chapter two.
  • Abingdon” – A market town in Oxfordshire, about xxx miles south south-west of Northampton.
  • Ivalde” – A Norse name, of uncertain origin.
  • “Alfgiva” – Historic name, origin unclear.
  • “Drotinum” – This word seems to only appear in stories about Saint Ragener.
  • “The bridge of blackened timber that had surely spanned it since the world was small.” – At least 5,000 years by now, since it had already been built by chapter one.
  • Bruning” – Historic name, meaning “son of Brown”.
  • “Brunigus” – Latinate form of Bruning.
  • St Edmund” – A king of East Anglia, martyred during a Viking attack on November 20, 870 AD. The details given here are accurate to the legends about his death, including the wolf.
  • “Its image looks more like a dog … under the ground” – This seems to suggest that the guardian beast is a shagfoal.
  • Glassthorpehill over the Nobottle Woods” – A small Northamptonshire hamlet, mentioned in the Domesday Boke.
  • Eadgyth” – Anglo-Saxon name, possibly meaning “prosperous in war”.
  • “chalk-merchant” – Chalk seems to have been a Northampton industry for a considerable time. (More detail needed here… xxx)
  • “from Spelhoe to Cleyley” – These are both “hundreds” (administrative districts) mentioned in the Domesday Boke. Spelhoe includes Northampton; Cleyley is to the south, across the River Nene.
  • “at Abingdon here in the far fields north-east of the old chuch where so long I lay.” – Alfgiva (or Moore) is confused here; Abingdon is south-west of Northampton, not north-east.
  • Aethelflaed” – Anglo-Saxon name, meaning “noble beauty”.
  • “Hel’s Town” – According to some traditions, Saint Edmund was killed in the area now known as Hellesdon.
  • “flayed first from his neck to his loins” – This is not the traditional account of Edmund’s martyrdom. The phrase “blood-shirt” is clearly meant to evoke “blood-eagle“, a (possibly apocryphal) Viking method of execution, referred to explicitly a few paragraphs on. The description of the blood eagle given here is not consistent with current scholarship (see link).
  • “only to shriek out its renunciation” – This, too, is not part of Edmund’s traditional story. If it had been, he would hardly have been sainted!
  • “Wotan” – A Germanic form of “Odin“, god of Norse mythology. Odin has one eye, and is often accompanied by his two ravens.
  • the feast of the Passion” – November 15.
  • “as if here were a picture I knew of old” – Deja vu, a common theme in _Jerusalem_. This may also be seen as a callback to Boy’s arrival in Northampton, or perhaps even an anticipation of the returning monk from chapter 5 of _Jerusalem_.
  • “one of the queet painted figures that grace a cartomancer’s deck.” – This is a clear comparison of Ivalde to The Fool, trump 0 of the Tarot. The reference is anachronistic;  you can’t have cartomancy without cards, and playing cards didn’t reach Europe until the 14th century. Tarot cards were not developed until the 15th century (and not known to be used for cartomancy until the 18th century).
  • “an angel with folded green wings …flute … great spindled legs like a bird” – It would seem that Ivalde has been having visions of Stilts, from chapter three.
  • “it walked through the wall… the room was too small to contain it” – On the one hand, these qualities may be because Ivalde is merely hallucinating. On the other, they may be because Stilts is currently existing in a higher-dimensional space. This notion of higher dimensions comes up often in _Jerusalem_.
  • “token of Lust” – Such carvings are known as Sheela-na-gigs.
    A 12th century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England
    A 12th century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England
  • “smaller things, hairless and blind” – These might conceivably be Stilts’s ‘second family’, from chapter three, though the wording more strongly recalls the newborn shagfoals that Boy dreamed of in chapter one.
  • clew” – An archaic spelling of the word “clue”. It also can refer to a Ball of thread, such as that given by Ariadne to Theseus for navigating the labyrinth.
  • “Ingwar” – Old english form of a norse name, meaning “protected by Yngvi”. This Ingwar, who slew Edmund and Ragener, “can probably be identified with” Ivar the Boneless, a historical Viking leader.
  • “like the skull of an ice giant” – In norse mythology, the primordial ice giant Ymir was slain by Odin and his brothers, who fashioned the heavens from his skull (and most of the rest of the known universe from other body parts). The allusion suggests that Ragener is more familiar with this ‘heathen heresy’ than a good Christian ought to be.
  • “Ragener” – Brother (or possibly nephew) of Saint Edmund (see above). The name is Anglo-Saxon, meaning unknown.
  • “were they scourged and then shot through with arrows,  beheaded at last” – This is the traditional account.
  • “midden-breath” – A midden is a trash-heap. The Sister apparently could benefit from some mouthwash.
  • “bloodworm-crazed” – There are several things called bloodworms; it is not certain which is meant. “Crazed” can mean “having a network of fine cracks”, which might be a metaphor for “lots of worms”. The phrase was probably chosen for its evocation of violence and madness, themes relevant to Ragener’s death – and to this book as a whole.
  • “plaited beard dyed into stripes of all colours” – While Vilings certainly were known to plait (braid) their beards sometimes, I was able to find no evidence that they were extensively dyed in multiple colors. (There is one Arab reference to Vikings bleaching their beards.)
  • “maddening drugs on his breath” – This aligns with the theory (far from universally accepted) that Viking berserker rages were fueled by drugs.
  • “Bruning … will later describe what we saw as the Holy Ghost” – See closing remarks about “The Legend of Ragener”.
  • “slippery and thick like the seed of a man” – It is interesting that Alfgiva knows what “the seed of a man” feels like, given her limited life experience.
  • “the slime of old rivers … pale green luminescence” – It seems that this “angel” is another manifestation of Stilts from chapter three.
  • “parts of it will appear to pass through other parts … as if they were air” – Again, this suggests that Stilts is now existing on some higher dimensional plane.
  • “Not until I am halfway down … do I understand what I’ve done.” – That is, that she has run for the first time in her life. This is truly miraculous; even if function were instantly restored, she should have no muscle-memory of how to run.
  • “I lie on a smoldering pyre with my throat cut” – Boy, from chapter 1.
  • “cook, in a great skull of iron, or bound to a post” – Respectively, see chapters nine and eight.
  • “I rot as the head of a traitor” – See chapter seven.
  • “I am child.” – Again, Boy from chapter 1.
  • “murderer” – Several possible references, most likely Nusin from chapter two, and/or the narrator of chapter eleven.
  • “poet” – John Clare, in chapter ten. (Arguably also the narrator of chapter twelve.)
  • “saint” – Ragener, in this very chapter.
  • “hands burmed to stumps” – This image recalls the clumsily-drawn angels who had no hands on the walls of Alfgiva’s lean-to.
    • While many Christian martyrs have been burned to death, only one seems at all associated with a burning handThomas Cranmer. Cranmer didn’t live until centuries after Alfgiva, but since the reference appears in the middle of other anachronisms, it may be correct.
  • “bristling with arrows” – The fate of many martyrs,  imcluding (allegedly) Edmund and Ragener.
  • “our breasts rendered open whence spills the great light of our hearts” – This is a remarkably poetic way of describing death by blood-eagle. (An archaic term for lungs is “lights”, which lends a double-meaning to the above.)
  • “if I am in Heaven then where come there so many fires?” – While Moore’s ideas about the afterlife are not as fully formed here as they will be in _Jerusalem_, he already seems to resist conventional notions of a Christian Heaven. While Alfgiva seems to fear she is in Hell, the varied fires that speak in this book are nothing so reductive as that, either.

Closing Remarks

  • pamphlet published by St. Peter’s Church in the late 1980s quotes the Oxford Book of Saints on Saint Ragener:
    • Soldier and martyr of Northampton. The only witness is a single manuscript of Nova Legenda Angliae. According to this, Bruning, the wealthy and devout parish priest of St Peter, Northampton, in the mid-11th century, had a simple-minded manservant of Viking family, who set out on pilgrimage for Rome in honour of St Peter, whom he called Drotinum (i.e. “lord”). But he was repeatedly admonished in visions to return. Once back, he saw the same celestial visitor as before, who now told him that the body of a friend of God lay buried under the floor of the church, and that the parish priest should be told where to find him. Bruning set about digging and found a grave just where he had been told. The news was made public but nobody knew who was buried there.
    • Alfgiva of Abingdon, who was severely crippled, was cured at the tomb during the Vigil on Easter Eve after seeing a miraculous light, and walked as she never walked before. After three days of fasting, Bruning opened the tomb. In it he found bones with a  scroll. This identified the body as that of Ragener, martyr of Christ, the nephew of Edmund of Bury; both had suffered for Christ in the same persecution.
    • Other miracles of healing followed; Edward the Confessor enriched Northampton with many gifts; a fine shrine was made for the saint; Alfgiva became a nun in Northampton.
  • “The Legend of Ragener” is expanded upon at some length in Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Chapter Three. It is too long to quote in full here, but is a possible source for some details not found in Oxford Book of Saints, specifically Alfgiva seeing a “dove”, and being sprinkled with “Holy Water”.
  • Ragener’s Saxon tombstone (photo by Father Oliver Coss):
    Ragener's Saxon gravestone
    Ragener’s Saxon gravestone
  •  An interesting theory about Saint Edmund, that seems thematically relevant – Some researchers have suggested that the ‘recovered body’ of Saint Edmund “was in fact a prehistoric bog body, and that in trying to find their murdered king, his people had recovered the remains of a sacred king of the old religion still bearing the marks of his ritual strangulation.”
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