Thursday, December 27, 2012


If you look closely at the left-hand portal you'll see that one of the saints is holding his head in his hands. This is Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris, who died in 273 A.D. According to legend, Roman soldiers tortured Denis near where Notre-Dame now stands and then decapitated him. The legend says that the martyred saint picking up his head and walked almost four miles to the site where the cathedral of St. Denis now stands. Probably the legend was created centuries afterwards St. Denis died. It gave the abbey located at St. Denis a special attraction, and St. Denis became well know among French saints. Wherever you see St. Denis depicted, you will see that he holds his head in his hands

Of course, it is not only monsters who have their heads removed in Anglo- Saxon England. Saints seem likewise prone to this disorder. There are a number of headless saints in the Anglo-Saxon canon, but a single example will suffice to connect monstrosity and sanctity. Ælfric translated into Anglo-Saxon an account of the martyrdom of Saint Edmund, King of East Anglia in the ninth century. Known for his holiness, Edmund was the unfortunate victim of a series of attacks by the Danes in 870. After having been captured and riddled with arrows that failed to kill him, Edmund was decapitated. His head was left in the woods by the Danes. His followers sought him, and found that:

It was a great miracle that a wolf was sent through God's guidance to defend that head day and night against other wild animals. They went out then looking and frequently called out, just as is the custom of those who often go into the woods: "Where are you now, companion?" And that head answered them, saying "here, here, here" as often as any of them called, until they all came, on account of its calling to them. Then the grey wolf who watched over the head lay with his two feet embracing that head, greedy and hungry, but on account of God, he did not dare to taste the head. Instead, he kept it from wild animals. Then they were astonished at the wolf 's shepherding and they carried that saintly head home with them, thanking the Almighty for all his miracles.  

The saint is made headless, like the monsters, but his head-able to speak after being severed from its body-is then protected by a ravenous wolf, an animal associated with violence and death through the trope of the Beasts of Battle.  Why do saints and monsters share this common ground? As Kristeva writes, "the abject is edged with the sublime." Literally, on the Hereford Mappamundi and the Tiberius B. v. Map, the English are `edged' with the monsters of Africa. This zone, which Kristeva might describe as "a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered," is the realm of the abject, the disgusting. If the monsters might be said to live "at civilization's periphery," this is also where the Anglo-Saxons found themselves, beyond the pale, in the margins of the world, surrounded by monsters.

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