Back to top

Art. 98, Legenda de sancto Etfrido, presbitero de Leoministria: 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).

The legend of Saint Etfrid [Eadfrith] tells of the miraculous origin for the name of Leominster Abbey, founded in the year 660. God granted to the northern missionary Etfrid a peaceful encounter with a submissive lion (leo) as a token that he would successfully convert King Merewald to Christianity. Merewald (or Merewalh in most records) was the ruler of Magonsæte, a seventh-century sub-kingdom of Mercia. The happy effect of the king’s conversion was the establishment of Leominster Abbey on the site of Etfrid’s vision. Etfrid was then made priest of this new foundation and, later, its patron saint.

In the darkness of night Etfrid, traveling from Northumbria to Mercia, receives the omen: a terrifyingly huge lion approaches him. Unafraid, he offers it a share of his bread, and the lion, assuming the mild nature of a lamb, meekly accepts it. The author of the legend interprets this vision as a foreshadowing of how Merewald will accept from Etfrid the Word of God, the metaphoric Bread of Life. When Etfrid arrives as a stranger among the Magonsætes, it is revealed that the king has just suffered a nightmare about two frightful hounds that attacked him, with rescue offered by a venerable man with a golden key, which he wielded as a cudgel. Etfrid is called forth like Joseph before Pharoah (an allusion that the scribe may have added) to interpret the dream. The key-bearer is Saint Peter, and the hounds signify the jaws of hell, an “open maw” to which the mild-mannered lion seems to serve, figuratively, as a counterweight. Feeding on God’s Bread, the king (as a lion) will avoid being fed to the frightful hell-mouth.

The legend is recounted in the Life of Saint Mildburg, whose authorship by Goscelin (ca. 1030–1107) has been proposed but rejected. Mildburg is one of Merewald’s three sainted daughters; the others are Mildred and Mildgitha. She is the patron saint of Wenlock Priory, also founded by her father. The monastic church in Leominster was demolished during the Dissolution, but Etfrid continues to serve as patron saint of the Borough of Leominster, which still celebrates his legend. His feast day is October 26, and during the period of MS Harley 2253’s copying it was observed with a four-day market and fair. Leominster is located south of Ludlow, midway between Ludlow and Hereford.

Like the other Latin legends in MS Harley 2253, this one celebrates an ancient Anglo-Saxon saint whose legend is tied to a neighboring locale. See The Life of Saint Ethelbert and The Martyrdom of Saint Wistan (arts. 18, 116). On the presence of these lives in the Harley manuscript, see Kuczynski 2000, pp. 138–40. For further commentary on the legend of Saint Etfrid, see Blair 2002a, pp. 526; and Sims-Williams, pp. 55–58, 101, 118. For another Harley text with a possible tie to Leominster, see the explanatory notes to A Song of Lewes (art. 23). The Harley text has not been previously edited. The translation printed here is by Jan Ziolkowski, prepared for this edition.

[Fols. 132r–133r. Hardy, 1:257–58 (no. 673). Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 14. Layout: Prose written with no columns. The title is underlined in red. Division numbers are written in the margin, with large initials at the beginning of all sections, and red paraphs marking sections II–VIII. Editions: None. Other MSS: None. Latin Analogue: De sancta Milburga virgine, in London, BL Addit. MS 34633, fols. 207r–208r; and London, BL MS Lansdowne 436, fol. 72 (ed. Horstmann 1901, 2:189–90). Translations: None.]

Go To Art. 98, Legenda de sancto Etfrido, presbitero de Leoministria