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Speculum Spotlight: The Cerne Giant in its Early Medieval Context (Morcom, Gittos, Jansen, & Beattie)

Updated: Feb 24

The Cerne Abbas giant is a well-known figure cut into the chalk of a hillside in Dorset. Recent archaeological investigation has concluded that it had been cut in the early middle ages. Morcom and Gittos argue that he was originally carved as an image of the classical hero Hercules and that this apparently surprising date makes good historical sense. The landscape context of the giant indicates that he is best explained as marking a muster station for the West Saxon army. Although it is widely believed that the earliest written evidence for the giant dates to the seventeenth century, this study makes the case that he was referred to, albeit implicitly, in the liturgy for St Eadwold, whose relics were at Cerne. By the mid eleventh century, the monks of Cerne were re-interpreting the giant as an image of their saint. This is one of the many ways in which the saint has been re- imagined, which helps explain why he has been looked after for so long.

This episode is an installment in a special partnership with Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies. Each episode is designed to bring you behind the scenes of an article published in an upcoming Speculum issue.

Thomas Morcom is postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art, and Ideas at the University of Oslo, where he is currently working on the research project “Narrative Hierarchies: Minor Characters in Byzantine and Medieval History Writing.” His recent publications include an essay on the construction of masculinity in the homilies of Wulfstem and a narratological study of premodern character.

Helen Gittos is associate professor in early medieval history at the University of Oxford and fellow of Balliol College. Helen has a forthcoming article, “Sutton Hoo and Syria,” in the English Historical Review, and is currently writing a book on the use of English in the liturgy before the Reformation. She leads a collaborative research project on the medieval history of Cerne Abbas that hopes to uncover the abbey where Aelfric wrote his famous sermons. 

Katherine L. Jansen is a historian at the Catholic University of America whose work specializes in the history of medieval Italy, religious culture, and women and gender. Her most recent book is Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). She currently serves as the Editor of Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies

Will Beattie is a PhD candidate with the University of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute. Will's main interest lies in the function of eschatological literature during the medieval period, particularly in Anglo-Saxon England. He approaches this study from a sociopolitical perspective, investigating the ways in which contemporary events like the Scandinavian invasions of the 8th to 11th centuries influenced the use of religious language. He is also interested in the relationship between soul and body in Anglo-Saxon literature.

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