The South English Legendary is a collection of saints’ lives in rhyming couplet verse, existing in over 60 manuscripts. This large group of texts seems to have been made in the west of England, at the end of the 13th century.
In total, the SEL contains around 92 lives, of saints, the Apostles, virgin martyrs, confessors and religious women, as well as narratives for Catholic feast days such as Lent and Easter. The images you can see here are from the poem devoted to the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint, St Guthlac.
‘Legendary’ comes from the Latin legenda meaning ‘something read’. The collection was probably put together so that the poems could be read aloud in church on the feast days of the particular saints. It seems to have been intended for a lay audience (i.e. people who were not ordained priests or members of religious orders).
Guthlac (674–715) was a saint from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. He was a warrior in the Mercian border lands who, after nine years of fighting, had a religious conversion and became a hermit in Crowland, Lincolnshire, where he lived in solitude on an island in the middle of a marsh. Guthlac’s cult was enormously popular: two Old English poems about him survive in the Exeter Book, as well as an Old English translation of the early Latin text about his life by the East Anglian monk, Felix; Guthlac is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Even after the Anglo-Saxon period, and long after his death, his cult still had widespread appeal, as we can see from the existence of this poem in the South English Legendary, and a beautiful illustrated manuscript roll dated to the late 12th or early 13th century.
What is surprising about the version of the story in the SEL is that some parts of the traditional story of Guthlac’s life have been changed. Rather than describing Guthlac’s early life as a soldier (as we find in the Latin Life by Felix), the text does even not mention this. In Felix’s account, we hear how Guthlac ‘adversantium sibi urbes et villas, vicos et castella igne ferroque’ [laid waste to the towns and homes of his enemies, their villages and fortresses, with fire and iron]. In the SEL, the account of Guthlac’s life fast-forwards to the moment in which he becomes a monk in Ripon: ‘þo he was of þre and twenty ȝer to Ripoun he com; / þere he let him crouny and þe habit of clerc don’ [Although he was 23 years old, he went to Ripon where he received the tonsure and donned the habit of a monk]. The account of Guthlac’s life which might have found favour in the warrior society of Anglo-Saxon England has been reframed for a different audience in the 14th century.
Elsewhere, other small details are different. In Felix’s Life, Guthlac miraculously predicts the behaviour of two jackdaws, while in the SEL the jackdaws have been changed to a heron. The main change, however, is one of length – the events described in Chapters XXXIX–L in Felix’s Life are omitted from the SEL poem.