The Trouble With Trajan

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The Golden Legend’s life of Gregory demonstrates how the story of Trajan’s salvation is really two stories, the episode of the emperor and the widow and the historically distinct and distant intervention of the pope. The pairing dates from the earliest life of Gregory and recurs in almost every later version of the story, and this ongoing concern for recording a particular, evocative instance of Trajan’s righteous dealings rather than some generalized reputation for justice and truth is striking for the way it creates a balance in the tale between Gregory’s act and Trajan’s, in which the former’s act of pity echoes the latter’s act of justice.1 Nancy Vickers, writing about Dante’s use of the Trajan story in the Purgatorio, describes how Trajan’s function is thus doubled: “[O]n one level, the emperor, acting like God, hears and answers the importunate request of the widow; and on another, God, acting like God, hears and answers the importunate request on Gregory’s behalf.”2


Faculty Psychology Roman Emperor Early Church Secular Discourse Doctrinal Orthodoxy 
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  1. 1.
    See Introduction, n.15 above, and Gordon Whatley, “The Uses of Hagiography: The Legend of Pope Gregory and the Emperor Trajan in the Middle Ages,” Viator 15 (1984): 27–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jim Rhodes, in a fine close reading of the last section of the poem, takes this notion of stage management yet further by suggesting that the miraculous salvation “cuts off dialogue prematurely,” silencing the pagan “at a moment when he has leveled his most devastating remarks…at the very doctrine that purportedly has saved him, and at a point when he has exerted his most profound effect on the audience, having moved them all to tears.” This observation may point us to the true nature of Erkenwald’s “conservatism,” which could be said to lie not in its sacramental theology but in its willingness to use the sacrament in the service of an exceptional salvation; we know from Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, for example, how effectively the spurious harmony of a happy ending can terminate a threat to the ideological status quo. See Rhodes, Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the Pearl Poet (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2001), pp. 157–58, and also 163–65.Google Scholar
  39. 60.
    They are, of course, looking in the wrong place, searching regal chronicles rather than legal records. T. McAlindon (“Hagiography into Art: A Study of St. Erkenwald,” Studies in Philology 67 [1970]: 338) points out that most English legends involving uncorrupted bodies of saints did feature kings, Bede’s St. Cuthbert being a notable exception. For a sophisticated account of the poem’s meditation on death and the labor of memory, seeGoogle Scholar
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  42. 66.
    For the solution to Conscience’s riddle in Piers, see Andrew Galloway, “The Rhetoric of Riddling in Late-Medieval England: The ‘Oxford’ Riddles, the Secretum philosophorum, and the Riddles in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 70 (1995): 68–105, esp. pp. 86–90. Galloway’s convincing argument that Conscience’s “þe myddel of a Moone” refers to a Latin riddle whose solution is cor, that is, a conversion or transformation of the human heart, suggests that the pagan judge’s line “Als ferforthe as my faithe confourmyd my hert” represents another allusion to Piers Plowman, and an extremely sophisticated one (maybe one too sophisticated to be likely).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Frank Grady 2005

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