Medieval Hagiography: Lives of the Christian Saints

The South English Legendary, Sir Owain and Saint Patrick's Purgatory

14th century, Middle English: British Museum, Corpus Christi College Cambridge | National Library of Scotland

The wheel was turning; it was huge and all ablaze like a revolving torch with hooks protruding from it everywhere.

'Someone once said that the gods of an old religion become the devils of the new,' said Miranda.

'Brian Branston,' replied Quintin. 'Like the Greek titans and the Scandinavian giants, perhaps. In ancient Greece, one of the giants was made to hold up the sky, others had multiple heads and arms, like Buddhist statues and were consigned to Hell; another was nailed to a rock to have his liver pecked out by an eagle every day and for it to heal again every night, only for the eagle to come back again the next morning and the cycle to begin again. A fitting punishment for someone who dared to believe in reincarnation, I would imagine.'

'And in the tales of many of the Christian saints as well,' said Miranda. 'There is something about the lives of English and Irish saints who lived around the time of conversion to Christianity that seems deliberately to borrow something from the old ways. One saint, in the South English Legendary, raises a storm like a druid. When Saint Kenelm and Saint Edmund the King die, the focus of each of their stories turns to an animal who guards their remains; a cow in the one case, a wolf in the other. And there is the Medieval story of Sir Owain and his descent into Saint Patrick's Purgatory. Sir Owain went through an entrance into the Otherworld which Saint Patrick is reputed to have discovered on an island in Lough Derg in County Donegal, in Ireland. Many years after Saint Patrick’s death – so the story goes – the entrance was guarded by monks and the wicked knight Sir Owain, wishing to seek forgiveness for his sins, went down through it into the ground and was immediately beset by devils.

'Sir Owain came to a wheel,' continued Miranda, turning to a text. 'It was a horrible sight! The wheel was huge and all ablaze, like a revolving torch, with hooks protruding from it everywhere. A hundred thousand souls and more had been set dangling from this horrific device by the fiends, but Sir Owain had no chance of recognising anybody on it, because the devils were making it revolve so fast. And out of the ground oozed an electrical discharge that glowed blue in the darkness and made the air stink. The crackling blue fire crept all over the wheel and burnt all the souls hanging from it to a fine powder – Al bernynge was this weol · and stinkinge of brymston · the gostes that theron honge · bernynge were echon. So can we chalk up a wheel as being part of the Old Religion?'

Story fragment recounted from: Foster, Edward E (Ed), 2004. Three Purgatory Poems: The Gast of Gy, Sir Owain, The Vision of Tundale. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Medieval Institute Publications, and: D'Evelyn, Charlotte, and Mill, Anna J., (Eds.), 1956. Reprinted 1967. The South English Legendary. Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press. The Middle English text of SIR OWAIN from National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript. The Middle English text of SAINT PATRICK from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 145.


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Sir Owain – TEAMS Middle English text with an introduction

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Complete text of the 14th century South English Legendary, edited by Charlotte d'Eveyln and Anna J Mill, 1956, reprinted 1967 (volume 1, containing the story of Saint Patrick's Purgatory, reprinted 2004) available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press

Medieval Institute Publications – Foster, Edward E (Ed), 2004. Three Purgatory Poems: The Gast of Gy, Sir Owain, The Vision of Tundale. TEAMS Middle English texts