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Why St. Edmund is my Favorite Saint (and why I quit academia while I was ahead)

St. Edmund. Dudes, what’s not to like? The guy was pious and generous to such an extend that he was sanctifiable (is that even a word?) and my god, did he ever have a colorful martyrdom. Though to be fair, most martyrs do.

Edmund, though, man, Edmund and his martyrdom are very dear to my heart, partly if not wholly because I got to read aloud in class the part of his story where the search party went out looking for his head. In Old English. Old English, as best scholars have been able to reconstruct it, sounds kind of like a fusion of German, Klingon, and catarrh. Fix an approximation of what that would sound like in your mind, because this will be important later on.

Edmund’s martyrdom, from an abridged, irreverent, and frankly sick perspective, goes as follows:

Edmund’s kingdom was beset by raiding Vikings, who did as Vikings do, and pillaged the shit out of the place and shook down its residents for whatever they could. Edmund started praying and calling to God for the strength to deal with this indignity. The prayin’ just torqued off the leader of the Viking raiders who tied old Edmund to a tree and told his crew to beat the stuffing out of him. A beating commenced, and Edmund called out to God even more fervently, which pissed off the Main Viking even more, so he told his men to shoot him up. They filled him so full of spears or arrows (translations don’t agree on which) that he bristled like a hedgehog, just as did the martyred St. Sebastian. Then the Main Viking lopped off Edmund’s head with one stroke of the sword and the raiding party took away the head with them to spite Edmond’s peeps.

Apparently, the Vikings got sick of toting this head around, so they ditched it in the woods in a bramble thicket and vamoosed.

So, when the coast was clear of Vikings, Edmund’s posse decided to venture out and see if they could track down his missing head. The search party went tramping through the woods, looking for a head, and calling out “where are you?” I don’t know about you, but I think if I were looking for a severed head, I’d save my breath, because disembodied heads aren’t traditionally that sassy. This one, however, bucked the usual rules of conduct for severed heads and replied, “here! here! here!” THIS is the juncture at which I hope you will recall the approximate sound of Old English. “Here” comes out sounding a little like a cat horking up a hairball, and bit like the word “hair” itself. Three exclamations of that same word sound a bit like an asthmatic crow having a total hissyfit.

So, the hollering head lead the search party to itself. When they arrived, they were confronted by the sight of a large, ravenous and greedy wolf who was holding the head between his front paws, but dared not taste of the head on account of God. The wolf relinquished the head to Edmund’s cronies, and they toted it back to the monastery where they re-joined it with the body & buried their slain leader. On the way back to the monastery, the wolf accompanied them (and the head) as though he were a tame animal carrying out his last charge of guardianship.

Years later, they got together the scratch to build a great church & a fitting tomb for their heroic and beatific leader, so they exhumed him in preparation for a more stately burial. What they found was an intact and perfectly preserved body. Restored, in fact! The head and neck had fused themselves back together, with just a thin red line like a thread denoting the fact that the two had once been cloven in twain. He remained resolutely dead, however.

So the main reason that Edmond is my favorite saint is because he was pretty freakin’ awesome – at least in the death department. We’ve got talking severed heads, benevolent wild animals, a miraculous re-capitation, and Viking marauders. It’s hard to top all that if you ask me.

And one of the main reasons that I am no longer involved in academia lies buried in that irreverent, blasphemous, frivolous, flippant, and long-winded recounting of the death of St. Edmund. I couldn’t make myself take my work seriously. While I was pursuing my MA, I found the majority of what I read, studied, researched, and wrote to be cockeyed, up-fucked, and deeply ludicrous. I’d be reading the Bible looking for references to miracle-cures to tie in with some saint’s relics’ miraculous healing powers and find myself just beside myself with incredulity at the utter humbug of it all. The humbug of the whole miracle and healing racket, and the humbug of my studying it and writing it up in a sense of seriousness. It seemed like a wholly foolish thing to spend my time on, writing about made-up stories proving the sanctity of guys who might not even really have existed, about exploits they could never have done, and miracles which could probably be chalked up to co-incidence and accidental use of substances which had antimicrobial or antibacterial properties.

Basically, I started subconsciously “calling bullshit” on my entire course of study, my specialty, and on my prospects after earning this degree. I lost confidence in what I was doing, and gained serious doubt as to the merit of doing it at all. I realized that I had no patience for the jargonistic doubletalk that makes up the majority of academic writing. I had no patience for the self-referential, insular, hell, practically incestual world of academia. Everyone is sniffing everyone else’s butt, metaphorically speaking, and while they all think it stinks, nobody will own up to that conclusion. There were a lot of idiotic power-plays, a lot of clandestine sabotage, and a lot of just plain petty skullduggery that made up the machinations of the system, and I knew I’d end up in a fistfight in some hallowed hall somewhere down the line, if I forced myself to stick around.

I decided to cut my losses after the MA (and that was a circus enough to complete) and get on with life after my own manner. I might (and occasionally still do) read up on nerdy historical stuff, I retain my ability to recite in Old English as a party trick, and I keep a copy of my MA dissertation on my hard drive as a reminder of the crazed fucking hard work I put into that feat of folly. But I’m more than satisfied to have that all behind me. While I will probably always have doubts about what I am doing, simply because I am an irreverent and smartassed person who tends to overanalyze things then make fun of them, I am a lot more comfortable with the stability I have wrought for myself in a non-academic field.

Oh, and in case anyone was interested in the text from which the St. Edmund story comes, it was Æfric’s life of Ædmund, which can handily be found in hypertext format here. Eadmond gets tied to the tree at line 205, so that’s a fair enough starting place. “Gebundon” means “bound to.” “Flotman” are Vikings. For a fairly literal translation of this text this site from Fordham University is excellent.

3 Responses to “Why St. Edmund is my Favorite Saint (and why I quit academia while I was ahead)”

  1. sgazzetti says:

    It is indeed a most excellent and thorough martyring. And it is ‘hogwash’ like this story, taken all literally, that makes it hard for me to take the whole religion thing at all seriously. In such context, the idea of a benevolent airborne pasta-based creator is not farfetched.

    The “jargonistic doubletalk” you mention had a special name in the office I shared with a few other grad students when it came to writing papers: The Steaming Pile. We would purposely make edit our text to be as incomprehensible as possible. The more obtuse, the higher the grade. Come to think of it, Steaming Pile comes pretty close to admitting that “everyone is sniffing everyone else’s butt… and…they all think it stinks”.

    Academia does suck. But Aedmund obviously rules, even if not over the flotman.

  2. meetzorp says:

    Oh yes, the Steaming Pile. I don’t think we had an official name for it, but some of us from the CMS used to get drunk and make shit up that sounded kind of erudite (basically we said “epistemology” and “dichotomy” a lot) and threaten to integrate our drunken raving into our next papers.

    Drink is the great equivocator, eh?

  3. Alex says:

    What do you mean threaten? I’m sure I managed to get a few of them in there – not to mention “liminality” that was the buzz word for a while wasn’t it?!

    Hmmmm… don’t think I took it seriously enough either – the nonsense was half the fun.

    That and drinking lots, prancing around in silly costumes, drinking more and getting to swear in an OE/ME accent!

    Sorry I’ve not been in touch in forever – life is crazy! Email is on its way – promise! Oh and huge congratulations!

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