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Art. 116, De martirio sancti Wistani: Introduction

Abbreviations: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); DOML: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; FDT: French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages (Sinclair 1979); FDT-1French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages, . . . First Supplement (Sinclair 1982); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

As in the two other Latin legends collected by the Ludlow scribe, the subject here is an Anglo-Saxon saint whose tale holds local resonance: Ethelbert of Hereford (art. 18), Etfrid of Leominster (art. 98), and now Wistan [Wigstan] of Wistanstow. Located ten miles northwest of Ludlow (the scribe’s professional locale), Wistanstow was the site of Saint Wistan’s martyrdom in the ninth century at the hands of his godfather Brithfard. Like Ethelbert, Wistan is a young prince murdered by an opponent with rival political ambitions. Ethelbert was an East Anglian ambushed in the Mercian court of King Offa. Here Wistan is caught in a web of rival family claims to the Mercian throne, the prize of which is his own mother, Queen Elfleda, daughter of the deceased King Ceolwulf.

When Ceolwulf died, he was succeeded by Wiglaf, whose son Wigmund married Elfleda. When Wiglaf died after a thirteen-year reign, he was succeeded by Wigmund. But Wigmund died soon thereafter, leaving the throne open for a new successor, Brithwulf, who wanted to have his own son (Brithfard) succeed him. To secure this end, Brithwulf arranged to have Brithfard marry Elfleda. In the Harley version, Brithwulf’s role is left out, and Brithfard is an ambitious consul — both blood kinsman and godfather to Wistan — who demands the queen in marriage to secure his claim. Wistan opposes this plan not for his own ambition as the legitimate prince, but as a saint who seeks a better kingdom for himself and wants the same for his widowed mother. (His objections may also be based on grounds of consanguinity and the spiritual relationship of godparent to godson.) Wistan piously begs his mother to accept God as her “undying husband,” and she agrees. For this action, though, Wistan is treacherously called to meet with Brithfard, who feigns friendliness before he slices off the crown of Wistan’s head.

According to legend, Wistan’s martyred body was buried in the royal crypt that still exists under the chancel of Repton church (Yorke, p. 106, Fig. 10). The relics of Wistan were translated to Evesham Abbey in 1019. The oldest tale of the martyrdom, the Vita sancti Wistani, appears to have been written at this abbey. Its author may have been Dominic, Prior of Evesham, 1130–ca. 1144 (Jennings, pp. 298–304). The Vita is the source for the version in the Harley manuscript (ca. 1343–1349), which reduces it substantially. The Vita names Wistanstow, but the Harley text omits the place-name, perhaps because it was superfluous in its eponymous setting. The Harley adaptation may have been produced by the Ludlow scribe himself.

For commentary, see Blair 2002b, pp. 469, 483, and 2002a, pp. 558–59; Yorke, pp. 119–20; Walker, 38–39; and Sims-Williams, p. 167. The Harley text has not been previously edited. On its presence with the other Latin lives in MS Harley 2253, see Kuczynski 2000, pp. 138–40. It was apparently added to the manuscript later than other works, after an interval of several years (Revard 2000b, pp. 63–64), and, when it was inserted, at least one item was excised (Ker, p. xvi). The translation printed here is by Jan Ziolkowski, prepared for this edition.

[Fol. 140v. Hardy, 1:472 (no. 1023). Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 15. Layout: No columns, written as prose. Editions: None. Other MSS: None. Latin Source: Vita sancti Wistani, in Oxford, Bodl. MS Rawlinson A.287 (ed. Macray, pp. 326–32). Later Latin Analogue: John Capgrave’s fifteenth-century De sancto Wistano rege et martire (ed. Horstmann 1901, 2:465–68). Translations: None.]

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