Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in English



First Advisor

Lindy Brady

Second Advisor

Sarah Baechle

Third Advisor

Mary Hayes

Relational Format



This thesis examines how the bodies of kings in medieval Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse literature demonstrate sacral kingship, a theory which links the prosperity of a people to the strength of the king’s relationship with the divine. I argue that the practice of collecting the heads of English kings as relics, particularly the Northumbrian warrior-kings Edwin and Oswald, is due to an understanding of the king's bodies as a source of power and "luck." I put the dispersal of the heads of Kings Edwin and Oswald in conversation with the work of Andrew Reynolds on deviant burial customs in Anglo-Saxon England. In Irish literature, there are a number of examples of kings and heroes using prostheses, both mechanical and magical, to circumvent the physical standards required of Irish kings. Irish kingship understood physical wholeness as a mark of divine favor and pointed towards one's status as a "true" king. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the kings Midir and Nuadu are badly injured and their physical wholeness is compromised, which disqualifies them from further rule. They both successfully use prostheses to correct the injury and continue in the role of king. The use of prostheses by kings is a result of resourcefulness, well-connectedness, and material wealth, which could prove one's reversal of fate. Sacral kingship in the Old Norse Heimskringla is evidenced by the expectation that a king be marked by “luck” or a sense of being blessed by fate. A king’s “luck” appears to manifest in the ár ok frið, or “abundance and peace,” that he is able to procure for his kingdom. The lack of these benefits is understood to mark a critical flaw in the king's ability to be a mediator. This chapter focuses on a few prominent examples of kings, including the kings Domaldi and Halfdan the Black, who represent contrasting examples of failed and successful sacral kings. Analyzing the cultural attitude towards medieval kingly bodies in early Northwestern literature aids our understanding of medieval ideas of kingship and disability.



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