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The Heroic Age, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)
The Sermo secundus de s. Oswaldo made the Flemish hagiographer Drogo of Saint-Winnoc (c. 1030-84) the first author who explicitly presented Oswald’s death as a martyrdom. Although previous authors had called the king a martyr, none had explained how his death qualified as a martyrdom. Drogo also seems to have been the first author to fuse the traits of a rex iustus (just king) with the virtues of a martyr by synthesizing English and continental traditions of king-saints. In the process, the sermon reveals how a saint’s cult could be simultaneously “international” and intensely local.
The fate of a saint’s cult in the Middle Ages depended on a complex set of negotiations—between memories of the saint’s life and changing saintly typologies, between existing saintly typologies and evolving interpretations of the Bible, between a saint’s promoters and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, between accounts of the saint and the demands of the society in which the accounts were disseminated and between hagiographers’ skills and audiences’ tastes. In most cases, these negotiations broke down over years or decades, and many cults ossified. In some cases, such as that of Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642), however, a cult demonstrated extraordinary longevity—an existence of at least a millenium in his case. As Clare Stancliffe (1995, 3) has noted regarding Oswald’s cult, the key to such longevity was successive revivals in different places, not intense and sustained popularity from the cult’s inception. The protean nature of Oswald’s appearance is testament to his cult’s revivals: in different places, he appeared as a martyr, a prototypical crusader, an anti-Protestant crusader and an ideal emperor (not to mention a romance hero). (Clemoes 1983, 10-12; Folz 1980, 57-60, 66-9; Thacker 1995, 97-127).