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Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend

Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend

Antonina Harbus
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Helena of Britain in Medieval Legend
    Book Description:

    St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and legendary finder of the True Cross, was appropriated in the middle ages as a British saint. The rise and persistence of this legend harnessed Helena's imperial and sacred status to portray her as a romance heroine, source of national pride, and a legitimising link to imperial Rome. This study is the first to examine the origins, development, political exploitation and decline of this legend, tracing its momentum and adaptive power from Anglo-Saxon England to the twentieth century. Using Latin, English, and Welsh texts, as well as church dedications and visual arts, the author examines the positive effect of the British legend on the cult of St Helena and the reasons for its wide appeal and durability in both secular and religious contexts. Two previously unpublished 'vitae' of St Helena are included in the volume: a Middle English verse 'vita' from the 'South English Legendary', and a Latin prose 'vita' by the twelfth-century hagiographer, Jocelin of Furness. ANTONINA HARBUS is a Research Fellow in the Department of English, University of Sydney.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-006-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    St Helena’s fame during the Middle Ages was assured both by the historical circumstance that she was the mother of Constantine the Great, and also by the legendary attribution to her of the finding of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. Through accretion, her status was further elevated: she was considered to have actively participated in the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and thereby to have played a considerable part in the recognition of Christianity as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. These excellent credentials for renown span both the secular and religious spheres and must have been...

  6. I Helena in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
    (pp. 9-27)

    Legendary Accounts of Helena’s life and achievements arose during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the absence of reliable contemporary records. Despite her imperial status as Augusta, mother of the emperor Constantine, most of the details of her biography are obscure. There are two reasons for this: her humble origins, and Constantine’s control over information concerning the imperial family. Helena’s early life is unrecorded because she was simply socially unimportant until she made a liaison with a high-ranking Roman soldier and official, Constantius ‘Chlorus’;¹ and her later life defines her in terms of the achievements of her son, Constantine....

  7. II The Legend in Anglo-Saxon England and Francia
    (pp. 28-51)

    Finding a beginning to the British Helena legend is impossible, as it most probably grew in oral rather than in scribal circumstances. There is no doubt, however, that the legend was already widely known, if not wholly believed, well before the Anglo-Norman writers Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth popularised the story in the early twelfth century. There is certainly sufficient evidence to show that Henry and Geoffrey were developing rather than creating mythological narratives of a British Helena. Earlier references to Helena suggest that her legendary origins as a British princess (as well as other legendary and historical...

  8. III Magnus Maximus and the Welsh Helena
    (pp. 52-63)

    The welsh tradition adopted and transmitted the British Helena legend with substantial local modifications, incorporating a new set of associations. The Welsh version of this tale depicts a woman called Elen as the progenitor of the race, leader of hosts, builder of roads, and wife of another Welsh appropriation from Roman history, Magnus Maximus. Because all the extant manifestations of this legend are relatively late (i.e. tenth century or later) and belong to literary fiction or the rhetoric of nationalism, the Welsh contributions to the development of the narrative are distinctively and extravagantly creative. Tony Curtis provides a convincing context...

  9. IV Popularisation in the Anglo-Latin Histories and the English Brut Tradition
    (pp. 64-90)

    During the middle ages, new legendary Helenas had been constructed in Francia and Wales with two biographical elements in common: her alleged royal origins and local birth. Her actual status as Augusta in later life and the documented or alleged associations between members of her family and these regions must have made narrative developments like these credible. Within this context of legendary accretion, she was successfully appropriated by both Altmann and the Welsh genealogists and refashioned to reflect local tastes and individual rhetorical needs within both the hagiographical and historiographical traditions. This fluid regional association continued to characterise the depiction...

  10. V Late Medieval Saints’ Legendaries
    (pp. 91-118)

    Despite the interest in Helena in the Brut tradition, she was never a popular subject of religious literature in England, yet her role in the Inventio legend continued to be recounted widely textually and iconographically. Helena is not often found in English saints’ calendars before the fifteenth century,¹ and features in only one genuine vita, by Jocelin of Furness (see below), in England prior to the sixteenth century.² The Middle English verse St Elyn, discussed below, can hardly count as a vita, since, despite its manuscript title, it deals with the cure and conversion of Constantine by St Silvester rather...

  11. VI The Legend Beyond the Middle Ages
    (pp. 119-141)

    Geoffrey of monmouth’s version of the history of Britain continued to dominate throughout the late Middle Ages, though some doubts concerning his reliability were beginning to be heard.¹ These views, however, constituted a minority. Social and political circumstances of the fifteenth century, particularly the pro-British mentality fostered by the continuation of the Hundred Years War, created the ideal environment for suspension of disbelief in Geoffrey’s fantasies and the active encouragement of British history. In this political milieu, Constantine was cited as a royal ideal, and Gregory of Tours’ use of the expression ‘New Constantine’ as praise of Clovis was reiterated...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 142-148)

    Evelyn Waugh’s Helena is outstanding as the first and only representation to draw an explicit causal connection between her legendary British origins and her success in finding the Cross. In this regard, his is the most extreme deployment of the legend within patriotic discourse. Waugh was working with his own fictional and theological agendas, but the way he embraces and elaborates the portrait of a British Helena illuminates the rhetorical power of this image when it integrates hagiographical and historiographical traditions with floating narrative elements from popular tales. Waugh is also the first redactor of the legend to concentrate on...

  13. Appendix 1 The Vita sancte Helene of Jocelin of Furness (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 252)
    (pp. 150-182)
  14. Appendix 2 The Anonymous Middle English Verse St Elyn (London, Lambeth Palace, MS 223)
    (pp. 183-192)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-210)
  16. Index
    (pp. 211-215)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 216-216)