Gengulphus in the UK: England

Item, a tooth of S. Gengulphus, good for the falling sickness, in a small ivory pyx…

[C14th inventory, Durham Cathedral]

A popular devotion to St Gengulph did not establish itself in England. There are various reasons for this. In the first place Gengulph was pre-eminently a Carolingian saint. According to his Vita I he was a military leader during the reign of Pépin the Short – the first member of the Carolingian dynasty to assume the royal power. His cultus spread most vigorously during the Carolingian period, and the geographical extent of his cultus remained firmly within the boundaries of the Carolingian empire.

Secondly, given the political situation in England during the C9th and C10th it is difficult to conceive of a channel through which, on a practical basis, a popular devotion to St Gengulph might have been introduced – there were few dynastic marriages with Carolingian princesses, for example, and no prominent Burgundian clerics were advanced to high office in the English church during this unsettled period of English history.  William of Normandy’s accession to the English throne did nothing to bring about a devotion to St Gengulphus in the British Isles, as Normandy was, and remains, a region of France in which little if any sign of his cultus can be traced.

We do not, therefore, find the name of St Gengulph among the dedications of English parish churches, and we will look in vain for representations of him amongst the figures depicted on rood screens or in stained-glass windows. His name, however, is not utterly unknown in England; and this leads us to the consideration of various curiosities:  The Lay of St Gengulphus by the Revd Richard Harris Barham; the not entirely unrelated question of whether the once popular English exclamation By Jingo! has any connection with the saint; and the poem Whoever has heard of St Gingo by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

The Lay of St GENGULPHUS by THOMAS INGOLSDBY (Richard Harris Barham)

The Saint’s head is recovered from the well (from the Lay of St Gengulphus)

Full many a day hath he been away,
   Yet scarce had he crossed ayont the sea
When a spruce young spark of a Learned Clerk
   Had called on his Lady, and stopped to tea.
[The Lay of St Gengulphus v2]

The Revd Richard Harris Barham (1788 – 1845) was a priest of the Church of England, a wit, and a writer of humorous verse. He is more widely known by his nom de plume of Thomas Ingoldsby.  His Ingoldsby Legends – a collection of burlesque metrical and prose pieces based largely on folk-tales and on the lives of saints – first appeared serially in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany which made its first appearance in 1837.  They were instantly received with great delight, and such was their popularity that they were republished in book form in 1840 and 1843, and remained enormously popular throughout the C19th.

Although he was a Minor Canon of St Paul’s, Rector of the City living of St Mary Magdalen with St Gregory, and Priest in Ordinary to the Chapel Royal, Barham was able to devote ample time to studies of an antiquarian nature. His Ingoldsby Legends, although based on genuine legendary material, are usually deliberately humorous parodies, characterized by comical and unexpected rhymes and ludicrous enjambements. The best known poem in the collection is the Jackdaw of Rheims, about a jackdaw who steals a cardinal’s ring and is made a saint.

The Lay of St Gengulphus appears in the first volume of this collection, having originally appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in the spring of 1837. It is a substantial poem of some three hundred lines in which Barham tells, in a bowdlerized and highly distorted form, the story of the adultery of Gengulph’s wife, her discovery, the saint’s murder, and (coyly modified) the wife’s punishment.

A résumé of the Lay of St Gengulphus

The action is transferred to an unidentified part of northern Europe.  Gengulphus, portrayed here as a pilgrim rather than as a warrior, returns to his castle after a long absence in the Holy Land sporting a large beard. His wife, during his absence, has been enjoying the company of a young Clerk, whom she is presently entertaining to a lavish supper. The pair are caught unawares by Gengulphus’s unexpected return, and hastily hide the evidence of the meal under the sofa. The Clerk hides in the closet.

The wife greets Gengulphus rapturously and plies him with gin. When he is stupefied the pair lift him onto the bed and suffocate him. They then use a knife and sugar-nippers to dismember his body. After removing his beard – which they stuff into a cushion – they hide the head in a well, and the other limbs in an osier bed.

The following day a Prince Bishop coincidentally invites a number of people to dine at his palace that evening. One of the guests, feeling heated, asks for some water. A maid goes to fetch some water from the well, draws up Gengulphus’s head, and rushes in alarm to tell the company.

Gengulphus’s head, however, follows her, bounces onto the table, and politely asks for his legs. The legs, and the other limbs duly make their entry, and the animated corpse is reconstituted before the astonished company. To the excitement of the European press a murder enquiry is launched, and notices requesting information are posted up.

Meanwhile the body of Gengulphus begins to perform miracles, and a great variety of diseases are cured.

The wife’s two maids begin to tell their mistress about these miracles, but she dismisses them with incredulous contempt, saying that Gengulphus could no more perform miracles than the chair that she is sitting on. In saying this she forgets that her cushion is stuffed with Gengulphus’s beard, the hairs of which immediately stand on end like a porcupine’s quills, and fix the cushion painfully and permanently to her backside.

The author remarks that he is unaware what happened to the Clerk, but supposes that he did not go unpunished.

The Revd Richard Harris Barham
(Thomas Ingoldsby)