On Cynewulf's "Elene"

I hadn't read Cynewulf's "Elene" (an Old English poem on the life of Saint Helena) until now. Mostly I avoided it because stories about Saint Helena often contain nasty antisemitism, heaping rank praise on those who display the Christian Virtue of treating Jews like shit. Byzantine iconographic portrayals of St. Helena sometimes even include pictures of her valorously torturing Jews.

But Old English Christian epics can be great, like the one on the life of St. Andrew, which twists Beowulfisc language about in fascinating ways.

So, since I'm on an Old English kick, I gave it a shot. I spent today reading the poem, and my pre-suppositions were robustly confirmed and then some. Lordy, I think this may actually be the most grotesquely anti-semitic treatment of the Life of Helena that I have ever encountered. It may be one of the most deeply anti-semitic things in all of medieval Christian literature, though there is of course vigorous competition for that title.

Shit like this is part of why I despise popular medieval nostalgia, and why Christian valorizations of mercy and kindness ring hollow when people suggest that being a Christian has anything to do with how good a person you are. The path to the True Cross is littered with Jewish corpses, and has been for a very long time.

Fuck Christian "meekness."

Fuck it now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

1 comment:

  1. At first, I thought it was weird reading a poem that was undoubtedly anti-semitic, but where the Jewish characters are much more sympathetic than the Christian characters. But it became less weird when I realized that was almost certainly unintentional.