Studies in Early Medieval Honor-Shame Dynamics: Aidan’s Tears at King Oswin’s Humility

This is another analysis of an early medieval text which reveals (I think) the dynamics of honor-shame culture, written as part of my book in the works: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. (Previous one about the feud between Sichar and Chramnesind.)

On the Dangers of Compassion: Oswin and Aidan’s Tears, ca. 642

In such the struggle between warrior, lord, and peasant (in which many warriors also worked the land), compassion was a liability.  Only the ruthless ruler survived.  The History of the English Church, by the monk Bede, offers us counterpoint to Gregory of Tours’ tale of Clovis’ ruthlessness: Oswin, a “king” whose sincere adoption of Christian principles of compassion and humility proved fatal. “King” of Deira (king has a fungible meaning at this point, with England populated by at least a dozen), the Saxon Oswin had received the Celtic missionary, Aidan in his court.[1]

[Oswin] had given an extraordinarily fine horse to Bishop Aidan, which he might either use in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though he was wont to travel ordinarily on foot. Some short time after, a poor man meeting him, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal furniture, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as is were, the father of the wretched.

Aidan, true to his Christian calling, was probably embarrassed by the gift.  He, like a later disciple, walked on foot “after the manner of the first apostles.”[2] So at the first occasion, he gave the valuable gift, probably a warhorse, to a beggar.  The inappropriateness of the gift – an insult to Oswin who had given him a sign of his favor – is like giving a Rolls Royce to a street person asking for some “spare change”: he can’t maintain it, he probably can’t even drive it.

This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the bishop, “Why would you, my lord bishop, give the poor man that royal horse, which was necessary for your use? Had not we many other horses of less value, and of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, and not to give that horse, which I had particularly chosen for yourself?” To whom the bishop instantly answered, “What is it you say, O king? Is that foal of a mare more dear to you than the Son of God?”

We have a classic confrontation here between a “genuine” Christianity – the compassionate Aidan who places all people above matters of status and wealth – and a tribal warrior chief whose power derives in no small part from the trappings of power that he both wears and gives out to those whom he wishes to favor.[3] One can only imagine how Clovis would have responded to a public rebuke like this (or if any of the Christians “teaching” him would have had the temerity to rebuke him publicly).  But Oswin was an unusual man.

Upon this they went in to dinner, and the bishop sat in his place; but the king, who was come from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire. Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and in a hasty manner fell down at the bishop’s feet, beseeching him to forgive him; “For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what, or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.”

Oswin takes Aidan seriously, accepts his rebuke rather than smarting over his scolding, and publicly shows his commitment to changing, to renouncing his “old way” of thinking.  Aidan, one might expect, should be quite thrilled at his disciple’s aptitude.  But no, he is not; and in his anomalous response, we get a glimpse of the dissonance that dwelt in the soul of any missionary to the tribes.

When the bishop saw this he became greatly alarmed/agitated (pertimuit); he got up immediately and raised the king to his feet, declaring that he would be perfectly satisfied if only the king would banish his sorrow and sit down to the feast.  The king, in accordance with the bishop’s entreaties and commands, recovered his spirits, but the bishop, on the other hand, grew sadder and sadder and at last began to shed tears.  Thereupon a priest asked him in his native tongue, which the king and his retainers did not understand, why he was weeping, and Aidan answered, “I know that the king will not live long, for I have never before seen so humble a king.  Therefore, I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.”

In other words, Aidan did not expect – did not want – the king to understand and adopt “real” Christianity.  In the world of ruthless power-struggles that marked the “kings” of Anglo-Saxon Britain, where “face” meant authority, any warlord who threw himself meekly at the feet of a foreign pedestrian who could not defend his honor since he did not shed blood, and promised not to question his insults – giving so magnificent a royal gift to a beggar! – would not survive.[4]

Even if Aidan intended to teach Christianity to the commoners in his ministry, he did not want the king to take it nearly as seriously.  He needed someone far more proud and ruthless in order to impose royal authority over these rambunctious warriors and survive their resistance. Royal power was the preparatio evangelii, the preparation for the spread of the gospel; the king’s task was to impose the kingship, to break the olives for pressing, and that meant everyone – warriors as well as commoners.

And of course, Aidan was right in his assessment.  Oswin’s neighboring king and cousin, Oswy, picked a fight with him and Oswin could not raise an army to defend himself.  Who would fight for a warlord who abased himself? The victorious Oswy had his cousin Oswin murdered.  And this same Oswy – a ruthless, belligerent, and ambitious warlord on the model of Clovis – played a key role in the victory of Roman Catholicism in England, calling the famous Council of Whitby some fifteen years later (5863/664).  Here he truly played the role of English Constantine, unifying the liturgical commemoration of Easter for the church, deciding once and for all in favor of the Roman practice over the Celtic.  The Church needed the ruthless to create the prime divider in which they could thrive.

[1] Bede, History of the English Church, 3,14. What Bede means by “king” at this point is unclear; there are several in England alone.  It probably refers to an intermediate stage between the temporary tribal commander and king, a kind permanent strong man.

[2] Bede’s description of Chad, one of Aidan’s disciples, Historia, 3.28.

[3] For a good discussion of the issues of pride, power, and status recognition in this tale, see Mayr-Harting, Coming of Christianity, p. 97. For an analysis of the relationship of Christianity to pride and honor, see below, chapter ***.

[4] See the similar dynamic in the case of Louis the Pious, below, chap. **.

6 Responses to Studies in Early Medieval Honor-Shame Dynamics: Aidan’s Tears at King Oswin’s Humility

  1. Sérgio says:

    Wasn´t also the bishop quite consistent in respecting the typical christian division of labor between the temporal and sacred? That was the strategy of early christians in order not to provoke the wrath of the roman rulers. And this tension was to be a constant theme in christian Europe, with pope and emperor clashing for supremacy, which eventually led to the separation of state and church. That explains why christianity was “domesticated” while islamism probably never will: Islam is totalitarian by definition.

  2. Greetings, Richard:

    Having only this post to go by, may I suggest that your reading of Aidan’s tears:

    In other words, Aidan did not expect – did not want – the king to understand and adopt “real” Christianity

    may not be the only way those tears can be understood. Aidan may have been pleased indeed by the depth of Oswin’s conversion and yet astute enough at “reading the tealeaves” to know that that depth also portended the king’s death: that his kingdom was no longer “of this world” (John 18.36).

    Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

    But I must wait for your forthcoming book to read your chapters on Louis and on the relationship of Christianity to pride and honor — either or both of which might influence my thinking here…

  3. Richard Landes says:

    another commenter at mediev-l reacted similarly. i may have overstated the case. it’s about ambivalence. obviously he wants the king to be a good christian, he just a) doesn’t expect that commitment to so override his understanding of and ability to play by the rules of warrior honor-shame. as a “real” christian, he’s no longer useful to Aidan as the “king-bee” that will help the whole tribe convert.

  4. A few disjointed musings:

    1. Some of Christ’s disciples seem to have been somewhat similarly disappointed when their hoped for victorious messiah king offered himself as a messianic oblation instead, no? That’s one of the things that makes me wonder about Gov. Perry…

    1a. Chakravartin or Buddha – it seems a theme that runs deep and wide:

    Five days after the birth the name-giving ceremony was held to which a number of brāhmans were invited. All, except Koṇḍañña, foretold: either the child would be a great Emperor (Cakkavatti Rājā) or an Enlightened One, a Buddha. Koṇḍañña, however, said quite decisively that the boy would be a Buddha.

    2. I don’t have access to my copy of The King’s Two Bodies, so I don’t know how far back in time Kantorowicz reaches – but this “ambivalence” could be viewed as the paradox that follows from the conversion of a king in person without the corresponding conversion of his body politic? And we’re still very far (even farther?) from Augsburg and cuius regio, eius religio.

    3. I can imagine St Francis understanding Aidan’s tears very differently from St Bernard of Clairvaux, and see both as being fully within Christian tradition.

  5. I’m neither a medievalist or Christian, but I’d read Aidan’s conclusion in an entirely different way. When he says “this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler,” he is not casting aspersions on Oswin, but on the unChristian society which Aidan is trying to civilize, but which will not yet support a properly Christian leader.

  6. abuyussif says:

    hmm, seems to me that any plain reading of the new testament calls true believers (as opposed to philosophical believers) to be witnesses of messiah and , therefore, be fellow partakers of his sufferings, and not any sort of warrior/king – it’s an incompatible idea, textually. the writings of paul, epistilary authors, and the gospel writers cast no aspiration for a believer to rule, but instead to be a persecuted (for the sake of the gospel) minority wherever they are. history may teach otherwise, but that sort of proves my point.

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