Item 1, Saint Eustace: Introduction


1 For the wealth of possible sources and analogues for the Eustace legend, see Gerould, “Forerunners.”

2 On the biblical analogues to Eustace’s life, see Heffernan, “Narrative Motifs,” pp. 70–86.

3 For a comparison of the stanzaic Middle English Saint Eustace preserved in Ashmole 61 and Digby 86 to the other Middle English versions, see Heffernan, “Narrative Motifs,” pp. 75–86. See also the allegorized “moralité” of the legend in the Gesta Romanorum (Herrtage, pp. 87–93) in which, according to the Moralité, the emperor is “our lord Jhesu Crist,” the tournament is penance, the wife is the flesh, and the two sons reason and will. The protective stone with its three colors is the Trinity.

4 See L. Braswell, “Sir Isumbras”; Gerould, “Forerunners”; and A. Thompson, “Jaussian Expectation.”

5 As another family miscellany manuscript, Digby 86 offers useful comparisons to Ashmole 61, since it shares much similar material but dates from an entirely different period. See Tschann and Parkes, Facsimile of Oxford.
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Item 1, Saint Eustace: Introduction

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Widely venerated throughout medieval Europe, Saint Eustace was the subject of numer­ous saints’ lives in Greek, Latin, Coptic, and nearly every vernacular of the medieval West, including Old English and multiple versions in Middle English. His feast day was cele­brated on either September 20 or November 1, 2, or 3, depending on local custom. But the popu­larity of this saint’s life seems due primarily to its virtues as a story and not to any particularly strong devotion to the cult of Saint Eustace himself. The story (like those of many other saints) has only dubious connections to any known historical figure. Even if Eustace was not an invention of the early medieval church, the details of his legend seem to have been derived primarily from biblical episodes, folklore, Greek romances, and possibly stories from the Far East.1 This combination of literary sources made for a story with enduring popularity, and lives of Saint Eustace were continually translated, rewritten, and illustrated from the eighth century to the sixteenth.

No source has been identified for the stanzaic Middle English text presented here, but it likely derives from one or more of the many versions of the legend circulating in French or Anglo-Norman. It was probably written in the Midlands in the second half of the thir­teenth century. Across these various versions, the major details of Saint Eustace’s life remain largely the same. A virtuous knight named Placidas, in the service of the Roman emperor Trajan, goes out hunting one day and is converted by a stag who speaks to him with the voice of Christ. He takes the Christian name Eustace, is baptized with his wife Theopistis and his two sons, and is then told that he will be severely tested by Satan. His servants and livestock are destroyed and his wealth is stolen. His wife is seized by a sea captain, his sons are lost to wild animals, and Eustace works in obscurity as a shepherd until he is discovered by some of Trajan’s men. Eustace resumes his military service, and after a great battle he arrives in the town where Theopistis has been living. She reunites him with his two sons, who have just met each other in the course of the same military campaign. The new emperor, Hadrian, summons the reunited family and demands that they renounce their Christianity. They refuse and are martyred in a brass bull that is heated in a fire.

The story gains its appeal from the use of several familiar literary motifs, including con­version by a talking beast, the heroic endurance of loss and family separation, the recovery of identity, and martyrdom. All of these motifs resemble many similar episodes in folklore, popular literature, and the Bible (in figures such as Balaam, Job, and Daniel).2 Like many saints’ lives, the story fuses saintly patience and heroic bravery in the person of a noble protag­onist. Action, both saintly and heroic, takes priority over psychological depth, and emotion (wonderment, pity, etc.) takes priority over narrative logic or theological inquiry. While the story emphasizes the suddenness of the transition from Placidas’s identity as a soldier and hunter into Eustace’s identity as a suffering Christian, these identities do not come into any serious conflict, nor would a medieval audience see them as necessarily difficult to reconcile with each other. Only the emperor’s insistence forces Eustace to choose between his duties as a Christian and as a Roman, and the text invests little effort in articulating the differences between them.

The Middle English version presented here concentrates on the major events in the life of Saint Eustace, and omits many of the details, including the name of Eustace’s wife and the geographical references. Biblical allusions (to Job and others), present in some of the Latin versions, are largely absent, and as a whole the story emphasizes action over all else.3 Dialogues are brief, narrative transitions are succinct (even abrupt), and description borrows heavily from conventional phrases of Middle English romance. While the other surviving Middle English versions of this saint’s life are in couplets or prose, the tail-rhyme form of this version draws it even closer to Middle English romance, and the author seems to con­centrate on the story’s possibilities as entertainment, rather than its value as a devo­tional or instructional text.

Manuscript Context

There is every reason to believe that Saint Eustace was always the first text in Ashmole 61, including its place at the head of the incomplete table of contents. As the opening text, Saint Eustace introduces many of the manuscript’s particular interests, with a strong emphasis on fast-moving narrative, the depiction of uncomplicated religious devotion and pious suffering, and the central role of nuclear families. Saint Eustace is the first of a series of narratives involv­ing familial separation and reunion, including Sir Isumbras, Lybeaus Desconus, The Jealous Wife, and Sir Orfeo (items 5, 20, 22, and 39). Sir Isumbras, the first text of the second quire, is particularly close to Saint Eustace. In many respects, the plots of the two stories are nearly identical, and comparisons of the two have been made frequently in scholarly discussions of the connections between hagiography and romance.4

The didactic courtesy texts grouped with Saint Eustace in the beginning of Ashmole 61 also imagine the nuclear family as the site of Christian virtue, love, and stability. The only other saint’s life in the manuscript, Saint Margaret (item 37), makes for an interesting com­parison, as it retains Saint Eustace’s narrative pace and depth while describing a more elaborate martyrdom. The last text in Ashmole 61, at least in the manuscript’s current form (since some texts may have been lost along with the final leaves), recalls Saint Eustace as well, albeit in curious ways. King Edward and the Hermit (item 41), though the product of a very different genre, features a hunter of deer who undergoes a change of identity, and it is certainly tempting to think that Rate had placed the two texts as oddly matching “book­ends” to his interconnected collection.


Though there are several versions of Saint Eustace in Middle English, including ver­sions preserved in the South English Legendary, The Northern Homily Collection, the 1438 translation of the Golden Legend, and William Caxton’s later translation of the Golden Legend, the stan­zaic version presented in Ashmole 61 represents a separate tradition. Only one other manu­script preserves a copy of this version, the late thirteenth-century house­hold miscellany Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 86 (D).5 Though the two texts were copied nearly two hundred years apart, Rate’s text resembles the text in D in most details. But in the intervening years, compounded scribal errors seem to have rendered Rate’s copy-text very defective. In this case, it is virtually impossible to guess which changes and omissions are Rate’s, but his text omits many lines and frequently alters outdated or unrecognized words preserved in the earlier text. The major omissions, which on at least one occasion seriously damage the sense of the text, are discussed in the Explanatory Notes.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 211–19. [Prints the text of D and collates the readings of Ashmole 61.]

Adaptations and Modernizations

Weston, Jessie L., ed. The Chief Middle English Poets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. Pp. 78–83.

Reference Works


See also L. Braswell, Cazelles, Delehaye, Gerould, Heffernan (1975 and 1988), Rooney, Salih, and A. Thomp­son in the bibliography.

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