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Shorter South English Legendary Life of St. Frideswide


1 Lines 4-6: These were her parents (elders), who begot her together (between them). / Frideswide, their young daughter, they set to reading and writing in [her] youth; / So well she succeeded that in six months she knew her Psalter

2 Lines 8-10: She was a source of joy to everyone who knew her. / The nearest garment [to her skin] was made of harsh haircloth. / The main foods she ate were vegetables and barley bread

3 Nowadays a knight's daughter [not to mention a king's] would regard such provisions with great scorn

4 Lines 17-19: The king was pleased with this child who was drawn to a life of virginity. / At once in a great hurry he sent after a bishop / Who was then [the bishop] of Lincoln

5 Lines 25-27: The devil hated her for her goodness / And planned by some trick to lead her away from [her] good life. / He came to her to tempt her, in the likeness (body) of a man

6 Lines 29-30: "My beloved maiden," he said, "don't worry yourself (ponder) too long." / It is time for you to receive your reward for your labor(s)

7 Worship me here, and I [will] crown you as a reward for your service

8 She made the [sign of the] cross, and he flew away with an outcry and great disturbance

9 The king who succeeded King Dydan was named Algar

10 Lines 44-45: If she did [break her promise], she knew well that God would be avenged. / She said, "I would be a fool to forsake the high King of Heaven"

11 Taken away from them was the power to find the maiden

12 And that they might have the ability to return from there to the king

13 Then they went away and told the king the whole story

14 She went to the Thames and found a boat [there] all ready, provided by God

15 [She] lived for three years in a cave, so that she was seldom seen

16 And to have this maiden Frideswythe immediately taken with force

17 Lines 85-86: As a result, she was seen when she was fleeing. / After her men pursued swiftly; the king rode at a gallop

18 And fell and broke the king's neck; and that [is] what he accomplished

19 Lines 92-96: Everyone who could speak with her or go to [see] her was glad. / Her holy life was recounted everywhere, / Until nobody known in England was considered to be her equal. / A very amazing thing happened one day / To a fisherman who lay asleep in a boat with his companions

20 The virgin made [the sign of] the cross on his forehead

21 And then [told] him in God's name to get up, healed and sound

22 And [praised] that maiden who had delivered him from that foul creature

23 Lines 115-16: Many miracles were known of her during her life, / And also after her death; they were not hidden

24 Now may God bring us to the joy where He brought that maiden!


3 Kyng Dydan. Blair suggests that he was probably a local sub-king who ruled part of the Thames Valley under the great Mercian kings of the seventh century, and that his seat was probably not in Oxford itself but in a more important center like Eynsham ("Frideswide Reconsidered," pp. 87, 88). See also textual note to this line.

6 in six monnthes that heo hure Sauter couthe. That is, she had learned all 150 Psalms (in Latin, of course) within six months. This kind of knowledge was important in the lives of monks and nuns, who were expected not only to meditate on the Psalms but also to sing them all frequently in the liturgy of the Hours, but it would have meant relatively little to the laity. Significantly, although the longer South English Legendary account preserves the name of Frideswide's teacher, it does not mention the saint's learning anything more specific from her than "godnesse" (line 12).

10-11 Frideswide's diet - limited to vegetables, coarse bread, and water - would have seemed unusually austere even to a well-disciplined medieval monk or nun, since most monastic rules explicitly recommended a menu for much of the year that also included fruit, eggs, dairy products, fish, and wine or beer.

12 Now wold a knyghtes doughter grete hoker of suche sondes thynke! A bit of satirical commentary that sets the saint's values against those of well-born women in the narrator's own society. Such satirical asides, directed especially at the rich and powerful, are a distinguishing feature of the SEL.

14 Seint Marie churche, that he hadde er bygonne. Not just a church in the modern sense but a religious foundation, a monastery. The foundation built by Frideswide's father was probably a double monastery of the kind familiar from other Anglo-Saxon examples (i.e., a house with both monks and nuns, headed by an abbess). Latin Life A includes some specific details omitted from this Middle English retelling: "Didan then had a refectory, dormitory and cloister built for the nuns, assigned religious men to serve them, and gave the estates and villages of St. Mary and a third part of the city of Oxford to provide the nuns' food" (quoted from Blair, "Frideswide Reconsidered," p. 75, col.1). The first abbess was of course Frideswide herself.

18-19 a byschop . . . Of Lyncolne that was tho - Edgar. Latin Life A calls him "Orgar, bishop of Lincoln." The title sounds like a blatant anachronism, since the modern see of Lincoln seems not to have begun until 1092. As Blair comments, however, "it is just possible that this reference has substance after all; between the 690s and the 720s the bishop of the old Mercian see of Lindsey was one Eadgar, who may conceivably have exercised diocesan functions in the Oxford area" when the see of Leicester was vacant (p. 82).

20 To maken his doughter nonne ne thoght hym no schame. This sounds like another pointed comment on upper-class values in the time of the SEL itself.

22 schar hure. The same verb was used for tonsuring a monk as for cutting off a nun's hair. In both cases, the "shearing" symbolized departure from one's former status in lay society and reception into the monastic life.

23-36 The story of being tempted by a devil who comes disguised as Jesus himself, but is recognized as an impostor, is told of Martin of Tours and other saints. Often the story conveys a theological or spiritual lesson - for example, in the case of Martin, that Jesus can be recognized in this world by the marks of His suffering, not the trappings of royal power. In this narrative about Frideswide, however, the point just seems to be the saint's ability to stand up to the devil, see through his fraudulent claims, and force him to depart.

39 Algar hete the king after the king Dydan. Latin Life A identifies this miscreant as "a certain king of Leicester, a man who was very wicked and hateful to God, . . . named Algar." Blair points out that, despite the familiar plot conventions in the king's pursuit of Frideswide, there was at least one historical English king in the early eighth century, Æthelbald of Mercia, who was actually "accused of seducing nuns" (p. 90).

41-46 The pagan ruler's attempt to woo the virgin saint, who rejects him because she is already betrothed to a much nobler and more desirable king, was a favorite motif in virgin martyr legends. For the most fully developed example in this collection, see the stanzaic Life of Margaret, lines 39-114.

47-56 The miraculous disabling of persecutors, to prevent them from doing violence to the saints, is another familiar motif in hagiography, and the disabling miracle is often followed - as it is here - with a cure that shows the mercy of God and His saints even to those who have been their enemies. An unusually dramatic example occurs in the legend of St. Agnes, whose pagan suitor is struck dead when he tries to take her by force, but is then resurrected by her prayers and converted to her faith. The great prototype for such stories is the blinding of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) - the miracle that transformed a fierce persecutor of the early Christians into the great apostle, St. Paul. As those examples suggest, the king's messengers in the Frideswide legend must be converted when their sight is restored, though this point is not clear in either of the SEL accounts.

57-68 The furious anger of the king, who vows to find and seize Frideswide himself, and the angelic warning that sends her into exile would have been likely to remind a late-medieval audience not only of other saints' legends, but also of Herod's enraged pursuit of the baby Jesus and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt in order to escape him. This part of the Gospel, first related in Matthew 2:13-18, became exceptionally familiar in the Middle Ages because it lent itself so well to dramatic representation, both in Latin liturgical plays and in popular vernacular versions.

71-74 This brief miracle story is omitted from the longer SEL account.

74 hole as any fysche. Although the logic behind the simile is not obvious to a modern reader, "healthy as a fish" or "fish-hale" was a common saying in Middle English.

75-87 The sequence of events here - with the king first pursuing the saint in Oxford, then out into the woods (when the citizens of Oxford reveal that she has hidden there), then back toward Oxford - is confusing and hard to follow. The problem stems at least in part from a misunderstanding about the location of her hiding place that Blair calls "the central crux" in Latin Life A (p. 83).

88-90 The king's horse suddenly stumbles, without any apparent cause, outside the city gate, and the king's neck is broken. This punishment is harsher than those in either of the surviving Latin Lives of Frideswide, but there are many villains in other legends who are suddenly struck dead, most often while they are trying to break a martyr's will (as in the legend of St. Christina, included in this collection) or right after the martyr's execution (for example, the legends of Saints George, Agatha, and Andrew the Apostle). Here again there are Biblical prototypes - including the destruction of Pharaoh's army as they pursued Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 14) and the striking down of the King Herod who persecutes the early Christians (Acts 12).

95-110 This colorful story of demonic possession and exorcism appears in both Latin Lives A and B, but the longer SEL account chooses to omit it, emphasizing the next miracle story instead.

111-14 The story of this leper's healing is developed much more fully in Latin Life B and the longer SEL account.

117 This is a surprisingly brief and matter-of-fact reference to the saint's death. Most legends pay considerable attention to the way in which a saint prepares for death, and in this case Latin Life A supplies plenty of material that finds its way into Latin Life B and eventually into the longer SEL account, but is completely skipped in this shorter one.


Abbreviations: S = British Library MS Stowe 949, fols. 144r-145v; T = Trinity College, Cambridge MS 605, fols. 247r-248v [base text].

1 Fretheswyde. Latin Life A uses the form "Fritheswitha," which looks like a plausible Anglo-Saxon name that combines elements meaning "peace, safety" (frithu) and "strong" (swith). Most of the Middle English accounts change one or both of the th's in this name to d's, and one MS (Bodley 779) uses the reduced form "Friswide."

3 Kyng Dydan. Latin Life A calls him "Didan," king of Oxford. Latin Life B uses the term subregulus (sub-king). The name "Didan(us)" does not look very authentic, but Blair explains it as possibly "a rather corrupt Latinisation of [Anglo-Saxon] 'Dæda,' 'Dida,' or 'Dydda,' all evidenced by placenames" (p. 83). See also explanatory note to this line.

Sefreth. The form in Latin Life A is "Sefrida"; in Latin Life B, "Safrida." Either way, the name is historically improbable, as Stenton pointed out, since "Sæfrith" was a masculine name in Old English.

22 schar hure. T omits the pronoun; S: schare er.

116 T has a canceled word, no longer completely legible, between hii and neren.
























Seint Fretheswyde, that holy mayde, was of Englonde;
Atte Oxenford heo was ybore, as ich understonde.
Hir fader hete Kyng Dydan, and Sefreth hete the quene -
This were hire eldren, that hure gotten hem bytwene.
Fretheswyd, hure yonge doughter, to lettre hii setten in youthe;
So wel heo spedde in six monnthes that heo hure Sauter couthe.1
   Swythe wel heo was byloved, of hey and of lowe;
Alle hii hadde joie of hure that couthen hure knowe.
Of the hard here was hure nexte wede.
The meste mete that heo ete was worten and barly brede,2
And the cold welle water - that was hure drynke.
Now wold a knyghtes doughter grete hoker of suche sondes thynke!3
   The maide bysoght hure fadere to make hure nonne
In Seint Marie churche, that he hadde er bygonne.
Hire fadere was the furste man that lete the churche rere
That bereth the nam now of that mayde that lyth yschryned ther.
The king was glad of this chyld, that to clene lyf drowe.
He sende after a byschop anon hasteliche ynowe
Of Lyncolne that was tho4 - Edgar was his name -
To maken his doughter nonne ne thoght hym no schame.
The byschop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf
And schar hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.
   A nyght, as this mayde was huresulf alon,
In hire bedes with hire sustren slepen everechon,
The fende hadde envye therof to hire goudhede
And thoght myd som gynne of goud lyf hure lede.
To hire he cam hire to fonde, in one mannes lyche5
In goldbeten clothes that semed swythe ryche.
"My derworth mayde," he sede, "ne thynke thee noght to longe.
Tyme hit is for thy travayle that thou thy mede afonge.6
Ich am thulke that thou byst to: take now goud hede.
Honoure me here, and for thy servyse ich croune thee to mede."7
The fende hadde in his heved an croune of rede golde;
Another he that mayde bede, yif heo hym honoury wolde.
    "Fare fram me, thou foule fende with thyn byheste!"
Heo made the croys, and he fley awey with noyse and grete cheste.8
   In the holy nonnerie so longe heo lyved ther
That hure fadere and hure modere both ded were.
Algar hete the king after the king Dydan;9
He was king at Oxenford ychose - a wonder luther man.
He ofsende Fretheswyth, to habben hure to wyve.
Heo sede heo was to God ywedded, to hold by hure lyve.
The forward that heo hadde ymade, heo sede heo nolde breke;
If heo dude, wel heo wyste God wold be awreke.
"A foule," heo sede, "ich were the hey King of Hevene forsake10
For gyfte other for anythyng, and thee His hyne take."
   The messageres with grete strengthe wolden hure habbe ynome
And don the maide byfor the king anon to hym come.
Alle that weren ther woxen starc blynde;
Bynome hem was the myght the mayde for to fynde!11
The borgeys of Oxenford sore were agaste,
And this holy maide for this men hii beden atte laste,
That heo thorw Godes grace geve hem here syght;
And thennes to the king passe that hii mosten habbe myght.12
   Anon hii hadden here syght thorw hire bysechyng;
Thannes hii wende, and al that cas hii toldyn the king.13
The king therfor hym made wroth tho he herd this,
And in grete wrath swor his oth that he wold hire seche, ywys;
And that he hure habbe wolde. Faste he gan to yelpe
And swor that hure wocchecrafte scholde hure lyte helpe.
   An angel that sulf nyght to that mayde cam
And bad hire oute of the kinges syght wende, that was so grame.
The levedy wende by nyght fram hure sustren tho
With somme that heo with hure toke - tweyne, witthoute mo.
To Temese heo yede and fonde a bote al preste, thorw Godes sonde,14
And therin heo fonde an angel that broght hem to the londe.
For dred of the king heo wende, as God hit wolde,
Ne dorste heo come at non toune, to dwelle at non holde.
In a wode that Benesy yclyped ys al day
Thre wynter in an hole woned, that seylde me hure say.15
   A mayde that seve yere ne myght nothing yse
Cam to hure in the wode, and felle adoun a kne.
Hure eyghen that holy mayde wysche with water of hure honde,
And as hole as any fysche that maide gan up stonde.
   The king hym cam to Oxenford, wroth and eke wode,
And thoght to do the mayde other than goud.
So sone so he to toune cam, he thoghte for to fyght
And habbe this maide Fretheswythe with strengthe agenryght.16
He enquered ware heo was. Me told hym sone that cas:
That heo in the wode of Benysye preveliche yhydde was.
   The king rod toward the wode with hauke and with racche,
For to enserchy after this mayde yf he myght cache.
Tho this maide this yherd, anon heo bygan to fle
Priveliche toward Oxenford, that non scholde hure se;
So that heo was underyute that heo was fleynde.
After hure me wende faste; the king rod ernyng.17
The mayde scaped into the toune, as hit was Godes grace.
The kinges hors spornde witthoute the gate in a wel faire place
And felle and brake the kinges necke; and that he gan awynne.18
Nas ther non of his men tho that derst come withinne.
   The maide holde hure ther in pes fram alle hure fon.
Glad was that myght with hure speke other to hure gon.
Of hure holy lyf me told fer and eke nere,
Into alle Englonde that me wyste nas yholde hure pere.
   A wel swythe wondere cas byfelle oppon a day
Up a fyscher that in a bote with his felawes aslepe lay.19
He bygan to ravien as he awoke of slepe.
Up among his felawes, wod he gan to lepe,
So that on that ther was among hem alle he slowe;
And wan he was afalle, with his teth on hym he gnowe.
Alle that myght to hym come on hym setten honde,
And uneth with muche pyne hii teyghede hym and bonde.
Al hii wer busie that foule goste to lede
Toward that holy mayde, that heo for hym bede.
The maide fourmed that croys tofor on his heved;20
The bounden body felle adoune, as hit were ded.
The maide hete unbynd hym anon in al wyse,
And suth hym a Godes name hole and sounde to aryse.21
Hol and sounde the man aros and hered God almyght
And that mayde that hym delyvered of that foule wyght.22
   As heo yede a day in the toune, a mysel heo mette.
To hure the mysel felle adoune, and on knes hure grette,
And bysoght that lady that heo hym cusse scholde.
Heo custe hym, and he was hole, ryght as God hit wolde.
   Fele miracles by hure lyve of hure weren ycude,
And suth after hure deth; hii neren noght yhud.23
Heo wend out of this world a morwe up Lukes day.
Now God ous bringe to the blysse that He broght that may!24 Amen.
from; (t-note)
was called; (see note); (t-note)

(see note)
Very; by all classes in society

(see note)

(see note)
a nun
begun [to build] earlier; (see note)
who had the church built
name; enshrined

(see note)

seemed to him no disgrace; (see note)
command; thither
cut her [hair]; companions; (see note); (t-note)
One night; by herself; (see note)
prayers; sisters all asleep

clothes adorned with beaten gold

the one to whom you pray

on his head
promised; she; honor him
Go away; promise

(see note)
chosen; amazingly wicked
sent for; as [his] wife; (see note)
throughout her life
promise; would not

gift or; servant
force; seized; (see note)
caused; soon
became completely

citizens; sorely afraid
they begged
would give; their

their; her prayer

acted angry when; (see note)
seek [and find]
possess; Vigorously; boast
witchcraft; little
to go; furious
lady went; sisters then
some; two; more

is always called

for seven years; see; (see note)
on [her] knees
eyes; washed; from
whole; (see note)
furious; (see note)

As soon as; intended

where; Men told him; fact
secretly hidden
hawk; hunting dog
seek for

stumbled outside; (see note)

There was none; dared
herself; peace; enemies (foes)

(see note)

began to rave
one; killed (slew)
when; collapsed; gnawed
restrained him
not easily; effort; tied up
careful; evil spirit
so that; would pray

tied-up body; as though
told [them] to untie him

praised; almighty

walked once; leper; (see note)
kissed; healed; just

on the day after; [St.] Luke's; (see note)