Species mentioned: One curled-up hedgehog (E. europaeus). Not aggressive.
Source: ‘Passio Sancti Eadmundi’ (The Passion of Saint Edmund) and its Old English translation.
Date of source: 985-7 A.D. Translated shortly afterwards.
Highlights: King Edmund is compared to a hedgehog. That would be an insult to most kings but Edmund was a terrible king anyway, so the author of the text tries to make him a saint instead.
King Edmund was an Anglo-Saxon king who ruled East Anglia, England, 855-869 A.D. If you’ve ever visited East Anglia you might be familiar with Bury St Edmunds, the place where the King was buried.
The most popular version of Edmund’s death is given in the ‘Passion of Saint Edmund’. The term ‘Passion’ makes it clear this text is about the life and death of a martyr. The aim of a passion text is to draw inspiration from heroic suffering and death. The original passion text is of course ‘The Passion of the Christ’, which is exactly what you remember from that Mel Gibson movie. It’s important to remember that passion texts are literary creations. They are explicitly designed to make you feel empathy for the main character. The text is not a historical depiction and you shouldn’t expect it to be.
The ‘Passion of Saint Edmund’ is an especially important text because although it was originally written in Latin, it was quickly translated into Old English so that everyone could read it. That both texts still survive today suggest that this was a medieval bestseller of the time. The writing appealed to everyone who could read.
From internal evidence we know that the text was commissioned by Ramsey Abbey and written by Abbo Fleury when he was visiting between 985-7. It was translated into English by Aelfric shortly afterward, probably in the last decade of the tenth century (Aelfric died around 1010 A.D.) (Swanton, 1975, p.97).
THE HEDGEHOG KING
Throughout the text we are reminded that Edmund was not an ordinary king. In the Old English text we are told he did not give himself airs and was a man amongst his subjects. In both the Latin and Old English it is made clear that he was a Christian first and a king second.
This is especially interesting because he lived in a very dangerous time. In 865 instead of the usual Viking raids on coastal towns, the Great Viking Army invaded Britain and ruled most of east England for almost a century. The Kingdoms of Britain for the most part were unable to fight this army and instead bribed it not to attack each year. Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria were all occupied at certain points in the decades following 865 and all had puppet kings installed.
When the Vikings invaded East Anglia in 869 we are told that, despite the urging of his bishop and advisors King Edmund refused to submit to their pagan leaders (Ivar the Boneless and Ubba). At the same time, we are told in the Old English text that Edmund refused to fight them, and threw down his weapons, following the example of Peter in ‘The Passion of the Christ’.
Shortly afterwards the Vikings went to find Edmund. They captured him, bound him and then threw darts at him. At this point both the Latin and English authors make a comparison. Edmund looks:
Entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog, just as St. Sebastian was. (OE version, Swanton, 1985, p.99).
This handily provides us with two terms for the bristles of a hedgehog (Lat: ‘spinis herecius’; OE: ‘igles byrsta’), which is unique in medieval texts.
This comparison is not original. The ‘Life of Saint Sebastian’ describes a third century Roman saint who was shot full of arrows and said to resemble a hedgehog. The significance of this depiction lies in how different it is from ordinary royal comparisons.
When kings and princes are compared to animals they are ordinarily compared to large, charismatic mammals or birds. Usually they are compared with wolves, wild boar, lions, stags or bulls in their bravery. Occasionally they are described like warriors. Warriors are frequently described like eagles, falcons or hawks, especially in Welsh.
Medieval saints on the other hand are different. With barely any exceptions they are praised for their holiness, justice and mercy. Often they are described like lambs or doves. They are never described as wolves but sometimes they are said to be so gentle that they will not eat until God sends an animal to feed them or help them work. Unlike kings who are violently carnivorous, saints often become vegetarian or pescetarian.
By comparing Edmund to a hedgehog the text firmly supports the perception of him as a holy martyr rather than a violent king. Hedgehogs may be insectivores rather than vegetarians but they are generally imagined to be small and gentle. They do not fight back against aggressors but curl-up into a defensive ball.
It is worth briefly commenting on the accuracy of this text before we finish. Our text presents a sympathetic image of Edmund as a true Christian stalwart who would die before he surrendered to a pagan. Some parts of the text even support the interpretation of Edmund as an early wise pacifist; one who wouldn’t die or be killed for his dynasty. Unfortunately neither of these images are reliable:
Edmund was the very first English king to capitulate to the Great Viking Army. The army initially landed in East Anglia, and King Edmund paid them off as soon as they arrived, giving them horses which helped ensure their success in other countries. Nor is Edmund a pacifist. Even in the Old English ‘Passion’ he is presented as ready to fight the Vikings. He only stops when he is told that he has no army and no chance of victory. In the near-contemporary account of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ it is made clear that Edmund fought with them but was defeated and killed, perhaps dying on the battlefield.
The real story is probably that the text helped support national pride. This must have been a humiliating era for the pride of the Kings of Britain in general, and England in particular. The Great Viking Army’s campaign led to a series of stunning victories for the Vikings. The leaders received capitulation or propitiation from almost every kingdom in Britain except Dál Riata in the north and the Kingdoms of Wales in the west. The Danelaw area which was founded on their victories was mainly based around East Anglia, King Edmund’s kingdom.
The author of the ‘Passion of Edmund’ found a way to assuage national pride. Edmund was presented as both refusing to give in to a heathen, and yet also refusing to fight at all. He did not submit to the Vikings but he didn’t lose to them either. He was not killed for being inferior in battle, he was killed for being superior in spirituality.
This represents a radical and brilliant revision of history. It must have helped Anglo-Saxon pride enormously to consider the conversion of East Anglia into the Danelaw as due to the heathen and treacherous ways of Vikings rather than their defeat by a superior force.
The success of this shameless propaganda can be judged by how few people are comfortable, even today, with the opposite view: considering Edmund as a weak King who helped ensure the success of the Great Viking Army. It’s important that we move beyond this feeling. It has now been over a millennium since the story was written and ancient battles do not need to be a sense of pride or of shame for us today.
This is another example of a piece of imagery which undercuts our expectations. Kings are usually described as the largest apex predators or fierce mammals but Edmund is describe as a mere hedgehog. This immediately aligns him more with the great saints than with the great kings.
To some extent this simile might have been an excuse on the part of the author of the text. The loss of East Anglia to an army of heathens, and the capitulation or propitiation of all of the other Kings of England must have affected Christian pride. A fierce lion or bull-king might have resisted the Vikings better. The author might be suggesting that the reason East Anglia was lost to the heathens is because it had a gentle hedgehog-king on the throne. We have previously discussed how, 400 years earlier, Taliesin excused a defeat by explaining that the warriors were like seagulls. Implicitly he suggested that if the warriors were like the hawks and eagles warriors should be, they would not have been defeated.
However there is an important distinction to make here. Seagulls are lower on the hierarchy of birds than hawks and eagles. Taliesin’s excuse is actually a not-so-subtle insult to the surviving warriors. ‘Not too well did they fight around their king / To lie would be bad’. There is no straight-forward hierarchy of mammals like there is of birds. Holy hedgehogs kings are just as good as brave lion kings, they are just different. King Edmund didn’t lose because he was a bad king, he lost because of who he was and the situation he was in. If the Vikings weren’t so treacherous he would not have been defeated.
Swanton M (1975) Anglo Saxon Prose. J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. London