Monstrous Conversions: Recovering the Sacramental Bodies of The Passion of St. Christopher–By Arthur J. Russell

This article examines the monstrous attributes of the dog-headed St. Christopher and his struggle to convert the pagan king Dagnus in the Old English Passion of St. Christopher. In section one, Monstrous Bodies, I will look at the saint’s multiple monstrosities as they are represented in the text and analogous sources in order to revisit and redress questions of contemporaneous reception and modern critical interpretation. Section two, Monstrous Rites, explores the text’s first baptismal scene, a baptism of fire, and how it functions as confirmation and commissioning of the saint’s body to fulfill his evangelical calling. In the final section, Monstrous Conversions, I look at the second of the text’s baptisms, a baptism of blood, and argue that through this baptism the monster functions as a temporary site of conversion through which the king must pass through to receive eternal salvation. This article considers how the physical and ideological monstrosities embodied by St. Christopher preserve and project an idealized vision of the early conversion era Church in Anglo-Saxon England.

Monstrous Bodies

Saint Christopher’s body is a monstrous body unlike any found in the Beowulf-Manuscript. True to its hagiographic form, The Passion of St. Christopher is a narrative reliant upon stark dichotomies—good versus evil, sinner versus saint—and their inversions. The narrative’s greatest inversion comes in the form of a dog-headed giant, Christopher, who assumes the side of the good, of the hero, and subsequently, as a saint, the side of his Christian audience. Throughout the text, Christopher’s physical monstrosity appears to have been eclipsed by his virtuous acts, and nearly all memory of the saint’s monstrous makeup has faded. In fact, because the text of the manuscript begins imperfectly, the only indication of Christopher’s atypical physiognomy is derived from the accusatory words of the heathen king, Dagnus, when the king calls Christopher the ‘wyrresta wilddeor’ [worst wild beast] (ll. 37-38).[1] The king’s literal reading of Christopher overlooks the intrinsic virtue hidden beneath the dog-man’s horrific exterior. In this moment, Dagnus sees exactly what Christopher is—a monster and a threat to his way of being. The king’s words capture the full extent of Christopher’s alterity, recalling his grotesque form and reflecting the strangeness of his Christian virtue in a pagan land. Not only is Dagnus unable to overcome the monster, but he must also partake of the saint’s monstrosity to gain eternal life. Saint Christopher’s body is a body unlike any other because it challenges normative cultural values.

Scholarship treating The Passion of St. Christopher is scant, and what little there is tends to focus on the recuperation of the saint’s beastly body.[2] The text begins imperfectly and the missing opening lines, approximately 300, are where the saint’s monstrous heritage was likely addressed.[3] Current scholarship has reconstructed the missing lines from analogous sources, primarily the Latin analogs and The Life of St. Christopher preserved in the Old English Martyrology.[4] The Martyrology states that Christopher came “of þære þeode þær men habbað hunda heafod ond of þære eaorðan on þære æton men hi self” [from the nation where men have the head of a dog [sic] and from the country where men devour each other] (66-67).[5] As the narrative continues, in addition to having “hundes heafod,” we learn that “his eagon scinon swa leohte swa morgen steorra ond his teð wæron swa scearpe swa eofores tuxas” [his eyes shone as brightly as the morning-star, and his teeth were as sharp as boar’s tusk] (66-67). And perhaps most interestingly, we also learn that as part of Christopher’s monstrous nature, even after his conversion, “he ne mihte sprecan swa man” [he could not speak like a man] (66-67). Christopher is only granted speech after he prays for it; a man in a white robe breathes words into his mouth.[6]

Christopher’s hybridity challenges critical notions of medieval classification. The cynocephali (dog-headed ones), as Joyce Tally Lionarons notes, “cannot be dismissed as mere animals.”[7] Bestial attributes need not detract from one’s ability to be considered human, especially if those traits, like Christopher’s canine head, are related to one’s physical, and not behavioral, nature. To be fully human, according to the Augustinian definition, is to be “animal rationale mortale” [a rational and mortal being].[8] Following this line of reasoning, the gift of speech granted to Christopher is the first of many divine acts that suggest that Christopher is, at the very least, human enough to necessitate and receive salvation. Augustine’s theological justification may address salvific concerns for his soul, but it fails to answer the teleological questions raised by the monstrous appearance of his body.

In his seminal study, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffery Jerome Cohen argues that monsters are “an embodiment of a certain cultural moment–of a time, a feeling, and a place.”[9] Cohen continues: “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy [. . .] The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read.”[10] Scholars drawing on Cohen’s work tend to read monster bodies as negative cultural constructions. Accordingly, monsters are set up in any given text to be feared and overcome by internal heroes and external audiences. From Dagnus’s perspective, these sentiments hold true. From the audience’s perspective, however, the picture is skewed. What in any other text might be considered a monster, a dog-headed giant, is here the champion. The physical monster in The Passion of St. Christopher is not a cultural projection of fear or anxiety, but one of hope and desire. Christopher is a romanticized image of how the emerging evangelical culture wishes to view itself: a marginalized institution predestined for greatness. A microcosm of the evangelical church, Christopher is the site of the sacramental practices constituting the conversion process.

Monstrous Rites

The Passion of St. Christopher may be read as a conversion narrative in which the monster represents the salvific message of the Church. The slow and painful conversion of Dagnus rests on two sacramental scenes invoking rites of baptism: the first is Christopher’s baptism of fire; the second is a baptism of blood in which Christopher and Dagnus are momentarily conjoined. The first scene is a test of the monster’s body, a dramatization of the ritual act of purgation when Christopher is condemned to be publically burned. Unscathed by the fire, Christopher’s monstrous form is consecrated and commissioned to convert the pagan peoples. The second baptismal scene, the baptism of blood, evokes the institutional mechanisms of conversion and initiation. Washed in the blood of the dog-man, Dagnus is healed from his physical blindness and granted spiritual sight. Through contact with Christopher’s consecrated body and blood, Dagnus is permitted entry into the fold of Christian believers. In both scenes, the sanctified monstrous body is a liminal site through which Dagnus, and his kingdom, are brought into contact with the divine source of salvation, Christ. Christopher should not be read as a Christ-figure in the strictest sense, however, but rather as a “Christ-bearer,” a microcosm of the evangelical Church, God’s earthly agent of reconciliation.

The first of the sacramental scenes in the Passion of St. Christopher occurs when Dagnus commands Christopher to be placed in the fire. After being tortured with iron rods, the stalwart Christopher refuses to denounce his God or withdraw from the king’s presence; rather, the saint calls for more, claiming the tortures are “swettran þonne huniges beobread” [sweeter than the honey of honeycomb] (ll. 13-14). Enraged, Dagnus takes drastic measures and orders his soldiers to bind Christopher to an iron bench and set a fire beneath him. Dagnus then calls for ten jars of oil to be poured into the fire to make the flames “reðre” [more fierce] (l. 21) and “ablæstre” [more furious] (l. 21). The fierce fire does not consume Christopher as the king had hoped, but instead emboldens him. From the middle of the fire the monster-saint prophesies the impending destruction of Dagnus and his kingdom. What is more, amidst the flames, Christopher’s monstrous body is the site of a divine miracle:

And mit ty þe he þis cwæð se ine on middes þæs fyres mænigo se scamull him wæs geworden eall swa geþywed weax. Þa geseah Dagnus se cyningc þone halgan Cristoforus on middum þam fyre standende 7 he geseah þæt his ansyn wæs swylce rosan blostma. (ll. 27-32)

[And after the holy man from the middle of the fire said this to the crowd, the bench had become fully pressed to him like wax. Then King Dagnus saw the holy Christopher standing in the middle of the fire and he saw that his face was like the bloom of the rose.]

Jill Frederick suggests this scene be read as “wonderful, if temporary, transfiguration.”[11] As Frederick’s argument progresses, it becomes clear that here she has in mind Christ’s transfiguration atop the mountain; her reading draws from Christ’s “momentary” revelation of his “true” divine nature to his most trusted apostles.[12] Accordingly, Christopher’s transfiguration is thus seen as a moment when “his external appearance has come to mirror his interior nature.”[13]

Frederick’s reading of this scene assumes the phrase “þæt his ansyn wæs swylce rosan blostma” [that his face was like a bloom of a rose] (ll. 31-32) is a literal transformation.[14] While Frederick’s reading of the scene is not incorrect, it is limited. Insistence upon a physical “transfiguration” mistakenly downplays the significance of the monster’s body in this moment, implying that Christopher’s head has temporarily taken on a more acceptable form. Moreover, Christopher’s changed countenance not only reflects his interior faith, as Frederick suggests, but also, and perhaps more importantly, intensifies his monstrous exterior. Consider the awestruck king’s response:

Myt ty þe he þæt geseah he wæs on miceles modes wafunga 7 for þæs eges fyrhto he wæs swa abregda þæt he gefeol on eorðan 7 þær læg fram þære ærestan tide þæs dæges oð ða nigoþan tide. (ll. 32-35)

[When he saw (Christopher’s face), he was in wonder of a great heart and because of this awe and fear he was so frightened that he fell to the earth and lay there from dawn until dusk.]

The idea of “transfiguration,” as Frederick employs it, does not fully account for the king’s incapacitation at the sight of Christopher’s transformed state. What is more, the king rebukes Christopher, calling him the “wyrresta wilddeor” [worst wild beast] (ll. 37-38), after he regains his composure. The threat Christopher poses to Dagnus appears to have intensified. Thus, whatever Dagnus saw, Christopher now appears to be more monstrous than he seemed before the miracle.

Just a few lines after the fiery scene, Christopher makes a passing reference to his baptism. After the saint is again asked to sacrifice to the pagan gods, he replies: “Symle þine goda ic laðette 7 him teonan do, forþon þe minne geleafan ic unwemne geheold þone þe ic on fulwihte onfeng” [I will always hate your gods and reject them because I held my faith unblemished which I received in baptism] (ll. 55-56). Here, Christopher’s baptismal reference certainly refers back to the extra-textual moment of his initial baptism by water. It may also, however, explain the significance of the event having just occurred. The adjective “unwemne” [unblemised] (l. 56) and the verb “geheold” [held] (l. 56) suggest the possibility of a second baptism, a baptism of fire. The adjective unwemne holds great theological importance for the meaning of the passage, as it qualifies the state of the saint’s faith. As it is written, Christopher’s “geleafan” [faith] (l. 56) is acted on by the two verbs geheold and “onfeng” [received] (l. 56). The construction indicates that the monster’s faith was first imparted to him unblemished through his baptism by water, and that he has continued to hold (or had held) it unblemished.

The verb geheold denotes the completed past action of the verb gehealdan [to hold]. It is unlikely that the saint would have “held” his geleafan momentarily, unless the author is capitalizing on the verb’s double sense. According to Bosworth-Toller, gehealdan can mean, “to hold,” “to keep,” “to grasp,” “to retain,” “to restrain,” and the list goes on.[15] These few possible meanings capture both the verb’s tactile and conceptual senses. It is, therefore, equally possible for us to say that Christopher both holds his faith in his heart and held his faith in the fire.[16] By accepting a reading of geheold in the tactile sense it is possible to read the fire miracle as an ordeal instituted by Dagnus, and a baptism by fire ordained by God.

Under Anglo-Saxon law, hot-iron ordeals were appointed to settle disputes between two contesting parties. According to the “Decree Concerning Hot Iron and Water,” an “isen” [iron] was to be heated over embers and at the said time the accused was required to pick it up with either one or both hands.[17]The accused’s hands were then bound together with the hot iron and after three days his hands were inspected. If no infection was found on the site where the iron was set, then the accused was declared innocent.[18] As described above, Christopher is fastened to an iron bench prior to the fire being set beneath. The hagiographer is careful to note the bench’s size in relation to the saint’s body: “Se cyningc þa het bringan isenne scamol se wæs emnheah þæs mannes upwæstme þæt wæs twelf fæðma lang 7 he hyne het asettanon onmiddan þa ceastre” [Then the king commanded that an iron bench, which was equally high to the stature of this man, that was 12 fathoms long, be brought and he commanded it to be set in the middle of the town] (ll. 14-15). The heated iron bench is symbolic of the implements used in hot-iron ordeals. Spanning the entire length of the Christopher’s body, the iron bench is the instrument by which Dagnus intends to condemn saint’s grotesque form, quite literally placing the burden of proof on the monster’s buttocks. Although the description of Christopher’s ordeal is ambiguous—whether it was the iron bench or the monster’s flesh that melted like “weax” [wax] (l. 29) in the fire-the narrative is elsewhere consistently careful to preserve and affirm the monster’s body. And, as we have already seen, Christopher’s transformation amidst the flames only serves to intensify his already suspect form in the eyes of the king. In the light of the saint’s intensified state then, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the iron bench, and not the monster’s flesh, melted like wax when joined in the fire. When heated and pressed into the backside of saint, the instrument of the ordeal loses its power to condemn as it melts away, leaving no imprint of guilt on the body of the accused. In a supernatural turn of events, the mock-trial serves to vindicate Christopher’s suspect body.

The miracle of the fire is as much a legal justification of the monster-saint’s body as it is a theological justification of his soul and his evangelical calling. Just as the flames intensified his physical form, Christopher’s resolve to preach conversion is also amplified in what seems to be a type of fire baptism reminiscent of Pentecost: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3). In light of the Pentecostal tongues of fire, the flames once intended to harm Christopher are symbolically transposed into an agent of spiritual empowerment. The heaven-sent fire at Pentecost is imagined as the commissioning of the missionary Church. To be sure, Christ issued the Great Commission before his ascension, but the ability of the apostles to execute his charge to “go into the world and proclaim the good news” did not come until after the Holy Spirit descended like fire over their heads.[19]

In his tenth-century homily, the learned monk—and future abbot of Eynsham— Ælfric articulates the significance of this biblical passage to the evangelical calling of the Church:

[A]nd se Halga Gast ða heora ealra mod, þe ðær-inne wæron, þæt sindon, an hund manna and twentig manna, swa onbryrde and onælde, þæt hi cuðon ælc gereord þe on middanearde is, and hi ðurh ðone Halgan Gast ealle ða bec and ðone wisdom awriton and asetton ðe Godes þeowas rædað geond ealle ðas woruld; and hi wæron swa gehyrte, þæt hi him ne ondredon naðor ne hæðenra cyninga þeowracan, ne nanes cynnes pinunga, ac æfre hi bodedon þam folce rihtne geleafan.[20]

[And the Holy Ghost then so stimulated and fired the minds of all those who sat therein, that is, one hundred and twenty men, that they knew every tongue which is in the world, and, through the Holy Ghost, they wrote and established all the books and the wisdom which God’s servants read throughout all this world; and they were so animated that they dreaded neither the threats of heathen kings, nor torments of any kind, but they ever preached to the people right belief.]

Ælfric’s exegesis is a helpful example of contemporary interpretations of symbolic fire of Pentecost and its significance for The Passion of St. Christopher. According to Ælfric, the minds of the apostles were illuminated, imparted with knowledge of all languages, and given a new sense of clarity and boldness all through the baptism of fire. In his own version of the baptismal fire, Christopher is also called to be a conduit of God’s salvific message. Like the apostles, the monster-saint is given an authoritative voice to proclaim the “good news” of heaven to the heathen kings of this world. Christopher’s bold proclamations from the middle of the fire attest to his evangelical calling: “Nu git micel folces mænio þurh me gelyfað on minne Drihten Hælende Crist 7 æfter þon þu selfa” [Now a great crowd of people shall yet through me believe in my Lord Holy Christ and after that you yourself (will also believe)] (ll. 41-43).

Christopher’s speech rightly implies that his own words will not have any effect upon the stiff-necked king, and extraordinary action must follow. Dagnus’s reply to Christopher equally affirms the saint’s prophetic declaration. To counteract the threat Christopher poses to his pagan practice, Dagnus vows to censor the saint:

Is þæs wen þæt ðu me swa beswican mæge þæt ic þinne god gebidde 7 minum wiþsace? Wite þu þonne þæt ðys mergenlican dæge æt þisse sylfan tide is wrece minne teonan on þe, 7 ic gedo þæt ðu byst forloren 7 þin nama of þys gemynde 7 of þyssum life adilgod, 7 þu scealt wesan ealra bysen þara þe ðurh þe on ðinne god gelyfað. (ll. 44-50)

[Is the hope this: that you are able to so deceive me that I pray to your god and forsake mine? Know you that tomorrow at this same time I shall avenge my injury on you and I will make it so that you are destroyed and your name from this memory and from this life be blotted out and you shall be an example to all who through you believe in your god.]

The king’s threat is full of irony. On the one hand, he is right to believe that he must eliminate all memory of the saint and censure his monstrous body. On the other, in executing his plan, the king will unwittingly allow Christopher to memorialize the events of the Passion.

Monstrous Conversions

Through a series of subtle allusions, invocations, and literary conflations, Christopher’s Anglo-Saxon hagiographer goes a long way toward establishing the monster’s body as a mechanism for, and site of, conversion. To achieve this, the hagiographer draws from a number of biblical and apocryphal episodes from the life of Christ. Of particular interest is one narrative treating the institution of the sacraments: the legend of Longinus. The implications of the Longinus legend for the Christopher narrative are not immediate but subtle and episodic. Nevertheless, they are available for readers/listeners to extract and explore in support of the theological trajectory set by the narrative. While the function of the lore lies buried beneath the tale’s thin plotline, Dagnus’s relation to Longinus is essential to the meaning of the text.

The name “Longinus” is not found in any of the four Gospels, but is first recorded in the apocryphal Evangelium Nichodemi of the fifth century.[21] As it stands, Longinus is a conflation of two distinct Roman soldiers from the gospel stories.[22]The first is the soldier who, according to John, pierced the side of Christ.[23] The second soldier, documented by both Matthew and Mark, is the centurion who after the earthquake confessed faith in Christ: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Matt. 27:54).[24] The only known account of the life of Longinus in Old English survives in Ælfric’s homily “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.”[25] The version found therein includes the most significant aspects of the Longinus legend:

Swa milde is se hæled þæt he miltsian wolde his agenum slagum gif hi gecyrran woldon and biddan his miltsunge, swa swa heora mænig dyde, swa swa se hundredes ealdor, þe hine hetelice stang on his halgan sidan and siððan him to; se hundredes ealdor hatte longinus. He geseah ða sona hu seo sunne aþystrode fram mid-dæge oð non, and eall middan-eard bifode, and stanas toburston, þa beah he to criste sleande his breost, and secgende hlude: Vere, filius est hic—Soþlice þæs is godes sunu.[26]

[The Savior is so merciful, that He would have mercy upon His own murderers if they would turn and pray for His mercy, as many of them did, as, for instance, the centurion who wickedly pierced Him (Christ) in His holy side, and afterwards turned to Him; this centurion was named Longinus. He saw then how suddenly the sun became dark from midday until noon, and all middle earth trembled, and rocks burst asunder; then he turned to Christ, smiting his breast, and saying loudly, Vere Filius Dei est hic—Truly this (man) is the Son of God.]

Ælfric positions the legend at the close of his sermon as an exemplary tale of forgiveness and conversion. As the account progresses we learn that Longinus becomes a model Christian: distributing his wealth to the poor, living in purity, preaching to the heathen, putting down idolatry, and performing the occasional miracle.[27]

The legend of Longinus presents the founding moments of the sacramental system after the death of Christ. Longinus is first in a long line of converts to experience the fullness of Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). Piercing the “halgan sidan” [holy side] of Christ, Longinus is bathed by the water and the blood spilling from the sacrificial Lamb. The water is symbolic of the initiation rite of baptism, and the blood the elements of the Eucharist. Central to Longinus’s encounter at the cross is the fact he is converted there. Prior to his confession of faith, Longinus was the enemy of God, his torturer, and murderer. This type of dramatic conversion at the Crucifixion is echoed in The Passion of St. Christopher.

Christopher’s hagiographer begins the assent to the climactic finale, the monster-saint’s martyrdom, with a generic allusion to Christ’s crucifixion:

Se cyningc þyder þa het bringan unmætre micelnesse treow þæt wæs efnheah þæs halgan mannes lengo 7 he hit het asettan beforan þære healle 7 he hyne het þæron gefæstnian. (ll. 57-60)

[Then the king ordered a tree of immense size that was as equally tall as the holy man to be brought there, and he commanded it to be set before the hall, and he commanded that he be fastened thereupon.]

Bound to a tree, Christopher’s impending torture is cast in imitation of the Crucifixion. As the narrative progresses, the hagiographer seems to allude to, albeit quite subtly, the particular moment in the salvific drama when Longinus pierces the Savior’s side:

[B]ebead þæt ðry cempan hyne scotedon mid hyra strælum oð þæt he wære acweald. Þa cempan hyne þa scotedon fram þære ærestan tide þæs dæges oð æfen. Se cyningc þa wende þæt ealle þa strælas on his lichaman gefæstnode wæron ac ne furþon an his lichaman ne gehran, ac ðurh Godes mægen wæron on ðam winde hangigende æt þæs halgan mannes swyðran healfe. (ll. 60-67)

[He [Dagnus] ordered that three warriors should shoot [Christopher] with arrows until he was killed. The warriors then shot at him from dawn until dusk. Then the king believed that all the arrows in his body were fastened, but indeed not one did touch his body, but the might of God was in the wind hanging at this holy man’s right side.]

On the surface, Christopher’s miraculous circumstances here seem to have little in common with the grotesque bloodletting scene of Christ’s passion: the spear is replaced by arrows; the dog is quick, the Lamb was dead; Christ is pierced, Christopher was spared. The only similarity between the two scenes, save the “treow” [tree], is the threat to Christopher’s “swyðran healfe” [right side]. Taken together, the image of the treow and the swyðran healfe suggest that Christopher’s passion be read as a positive corollary of Christ’s. The many differences between the two scenes paradoxically serve the same end, as they maintain that Christopher is merely a conduit of, and not a substitute for, the salvation afforded by Christ. Christopher rhetorically emphasizes this same distinction–through me and in him–across the text. Consider, for example, his prophetic speech to Dagnus: “Nu git micel folces mænio þurh me gelyfað on minne Drihten Hælende Crist” [Now a great crowd of people shall yet through me believe in my Lord Holy Christ] (ll. 41-43). The allusion to Christ’s pierced side sets into motion a process in which Christopher becomes a sacramental agent: a site for conversion and confession, a liminal space through which Dagnus will eventually be reconciled to God.

Unable to perceive the presence of God “on ðam winde hangigende” [hanging in the wind] (l. 66), Dagnus chastises the bound saint, asking why his God had not saved him. In an instant, Christopher is vindicated and two arrows, having been suspended in mid air, turn and puncture the king’s eyes and blind him. These sudden events move the king to rage, and he then commands that Christopher be killed once and for all. Christopher, knowing that death is his reward, welcomes this news, thus setting the stage for the last of the sacramental miracles. Before Christopher is killed he instructs the king as to how he might restore his sight after the saint’s death:

Cum þonne to minum lichaman 7 nym þære eaorðan lam þe ic on gemartyrod wæs 7 meng wið min blod 7 sete on þine eagen; þonne gif þu gelyfst on God of ealre heortan þære sylfan tide þu bist gehæled from þinra eagen blindnesse. (ll. 82-86)

[Come then to my body and take the clay from the ground which I was martyred on and mix it with my blood and place it on your eyes. Then, if you believe in God with all your heart, at that time you will be healed from the blindness of your eyes.]

Here Christopher establishes himself as a mock-Eucharistic site, a temporary of altar at which Dagnus may encounter and receive the forgiveness of God. Dagnus’ blindness, physical and spiritual, places him on par with Longinus: an enemy of God on the edge of conversion.

To regain his sight, Dagnus must partake of the monster’s blood. Applying the clay and blood to his eyes Dagnus makes his confession of faith: “On naman Christoforus Godes ic þis do[m]” [In the name of Christopher’s God, this I believe] (ll. 119-20). Here, in this simple confession, the tale comes to its climax, as the king’s eyes are miraculously healed. It is important to take note of the timing of the king’s confession and miracle. Dagnus did not proclaim his faith after he was healed but, rather, before. The application of the blood to the king’s eyes, taken together with his creedal confession, symbolically brings Dagnus to the foot of the Cross with Longinus. Effectively, like Longinus, Dagnus is the spiritual beneficiary of his own misguided act of violence, finding salvation through the body and blood of the man he wrongly deemed monstrous.

The two baptismal scenes found in the Anglo-Saxon Passion of Saint Christopher depict the spiritual evolution of both the dog-headed saint and the heathen king. Through the baptism of fire, Christopher is consecrated as a divine site in preparation for the text’s second baptismal scene, a baptism of blood. In this first baptismal scene, it is evident that Christopher is the sole beneficiary of the sacred rite. In the second baptismal scene, however, there appear to be two initiates. For Dagnus, the baptism of blood signifies the king’s public confession of his newfound faith and his initiation into the institutional Church. For Christopher, the baptism of blood signifies his elevation to sainthood, confirmed by his first posthumous miracle¬: healing the king’s eyes. When Christopher and Dagnus are temporally conjoined in the final sacramental scene, the monster-saint’s blood functions as the contact relic through which the king is restored not only physically, but spiritually. Thus, Christopher’s body and blood can be read as conduits of the salvific body and blood of Christ. In The Passion of Saint Christopher the monster’s body is the body of the Anglo-Saxon Church.

Arthur J. Russell

Arthur Russell is working on his MA in Medieval Studies at the Medieval Institute atWestern Michigan University. His research interests include medieval religious culture, hagiography, and manuscript studies. He is currently working on a project exploring the form and function of the text/image complex in the Arma Christi roll, Scottish Catholic Archives, MS Blairs 9, in the context of penitential practices in late medieval England.

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Monstrous Conversions: Recovering the Sacramental Bodies of The Passion of St. Christopher by Arthur J. Russell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. “The Passion of St. Christopher”, edited by Phillip Pulsiano. In Early Medieval English Texts and Interpretations: Studies Presented to Donald G. Scragg, edited by Elaine Treharne and Susan Rosser. (Tempe: ACMRS, 2002), pp. 167-199. All citations from The Passion” are from Pulsiano’s edition, hereafter cited as PSC; all translations of the text are my own.
  2. See Jill Frederick. “‘His ansyn wæs swylce rosan blostma’: A Reading of the Old English Life of St. Christopher.” In “Proceedings of the PMR Conference” 12-13 (1998): 137-48; Joyce Tally Lionarons.“From Monster to Martyr: The Old English Legend of Saint Christopher.” In “Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations”, eds. Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger. Studies in Medieval Culture XLII (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002), pp. 167-82; and Andy Orchard. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. (Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 1995), pp. 12-18. For further consideration of Christopher’s monstrosity and its function in the “Beowulf” Manuscript, see Kathryn Powell. “Meditating on Men and Monsters: A Reconsideration of the Thematic Unity of the “Beowulf” Manuscript.” The Review of English StudiesNS 57:28 (2006): 1-15. And for a general history of Christopher and the cynocelphi, see Robert Bartlett. “Dogs and Dog-Heads: The Inhabitants of the World.” In “The Natural and Supernatural in the Middle Ages” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 71-110; and Scott G. Bruce. “Hagiography as Monstrous Ethnography: A Note on Ratamnus of Corbie’s Letter Concerning the Conversion of the Cynocephali.” InInsignis Sophiae Arcator: Essays in Honor of Michael W. Herren on his 65th Birthday, ed. Michael W.Herren, Gernot R. Wieland, Carin Ruff, and Ross Gilbert Arthur (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), pp. 45-56.
  3. Kemp Malone. “Introduction.” In “The Nowell Codex: British Museum Cotton Vitellius A.xv, Second MS. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 12 (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1963), pp. 114.
  4. Orchard, pp. 12-18.
  5. George Herzfeld, ed. and trans. An Old English Martyrology. EETS 116 (London: Trübner & Co., 1900), pp. 66-67.
  6. Compare to the New Testament passage, Jn. 20:22, for the allegorical significance of this passage. Subsequent similarities will be noted by references to the New Testament in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. [http://]
  7. Lionarons, p. 174.
  8. Augustine of Hippo. De Civitate Dei. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 48 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955), 16.8, p. 508.
  9. Jeffery Jerome Cohen. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffery Jerome Cohen. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 4.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Frederick, p. 141.
  12. Compare Matt. 17:1-9, Mrk. 9:2-8, Lk. 9:28-36.
  13. Frederick, p. 141.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Joseph Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Based on the Manuscript Collections of Joseph Bosworth (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 517, s.v. “gehealdan.”
  16. In search of clarity, Pulsiano glosses geheold as a present indicative verb. I think that this is a somewhat narrow choice as it constrains the playful possibilities of the passage; see Pulsiano’s glossary in PSC, p. 196.
  17. Appendix I, “Decree Concerning Hot Iron and Water.” In The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ed. F.L. Attenborough. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), pp. 172-75.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Compare Matt. 28:16-20.
  20. Ælfric. “Sermon on the Lord’s Ephiphany.” In Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church Vol. II: The Sermones Catholici or Homilies of Ælfric, ed. and trans. Benjamin Thorpe. (London: Richard and John E. Taylor, 1846), pp. 44-45.
  21. Thomas N. Hall. “The Euangelium Nichodemi and Vindicta saluatoris in Anglo-Saxon England.” In Two Old English Apocrypha and their Manuscript Source: The Gospel of Nichodemus and The Avenging Saviour, ed. J.E. Cross. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 19. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 36-81, at p. 42.
  22. See Rose Jeffries Peebles’ detailed account of the origins and history of Longinus in The Legend of Longinus in Ecclesiastical Tradition and in English Literature, and its connection with the Grail (Baltimore: J.H. Furst Company, 1911).
  23. Compare Jn. 19:34.
  24. See also Mrk. 15:39.
  25. Ælfric, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” In Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, ed. Walter W. Skeat. II. (London: Trübner & Co., 1900), pp. 145-59. In the larger Anglo-Saxon tradition, Longinus also appears in Bede’s Latin martyrology, see PL XCIV: 859; and in the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, see, Fredrick M. Biggs et al., eds. Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture 1. (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), pp. 297-98.
  26. Ælfric, pp. 155-57.
  27. Ibid., p. 157.

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