St Oswald’s Temperamental Raven

Search online for “St Oswald”, and you won’t have to look too far before finding an image of the saint holding a raven. The raven generally belongs in the continental Oswald tradition, but it has become a fairly standard part of his iconography, as you can see from the following images:

St Oswald's church, Durham Coat of Arms of Altmannsdorf, Vienna St Oswald's Way

The images are, respectively, a window from St Oswald’s Church, Durham, the coat of arms of Altmannsdorf in Vienna, and the symbol for the St Oswald’s Way path.

When I wrote my article on post-death conversion in the Munich Oswald and St Erkenwald, it wasn’t the right forum to discuss the rather hoity-toity raven who enables (and then disappears from) the narrative. I did, though, have the opportunity to think about the raven just over a year ago when I presented a form of this post as a paper to the Medieval German Seminar in Oxford. This is not detailed analysis, but rather a summary of the raven’s appearances, and intended to trigger discussion, rather than to provide the answers.

Before looking at Oswald (Munich or otherwise), there are a few points I’d like to raise about ravens more generally. There’s something quite mysterious about ravens, and they have all sorts of associations, from the mystical to the mundane, even today. There’s the story, for example, that if ravens leave the Tower of London, then it will fall, which is probably a Victorian invented tradition, rather than anything earlier.[1] The same range of associations was also present in the Middle Ages – on the one hand, for example, in Noah’s Flood, which is probably originally early fifteenth century, the ravens, as lowly scavengers, are amongst the last birds to get onto the ark. On the other hand, ravens appear frequently in hagiographical legends – St Oswald isn’t the only saint to be associated with ravens. Dominic Alexander, in his book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, has surveyed the appearances of ravens, identifying Elijah being fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6) as having a particularly strong influence on hagiography. Ravens, though, have some less savoury connotations, and Alexander notes that other creatures often take their place – in the Vitae Patrum angels, rather than ravens, tend to bring food.[2] The association with angels, as it happens, has some relevance to the Munich Oswald. For some less helpful ravens, Alexander recounts an episode in the anonymous life of St Cuthbert, which dates from around the end of the seventh century: they take material from the roof of his house for themselves, and are banished in the name of Jesus, but after three days, they beg forgiveness and bring Cuthbert lard as a gift, and are allowed to stay.[3] The Legenda Aurea records ravens protecting the corpse of St Vincent of Saragossa from being eaten by vultures. And on a non-Christian note, Odin is associated with two ravens who brought him would fly out and bring him news.

So we have ravens as scavengers, which is connected particularly with their tendency to scavenge on battlefields. They are therefore often associated with battle and bloodshed. We have ravens as messengers. And we have ravens who do God’s will with regard to saints. All of those are to some degree relevant to the tradition of St Oswald.

There are distinct traditions about Oswald’s connection with the bird. The English tradition, based on Reginald of Durham’s Life of Oswald, concerns a raven carrying Oswald’s arm away from his mutilated body on the battlefield.[4] We can’t pin down the German origins of the raven so easily – while we know that Oswald was venerated in southern Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we don’t know for certain that Early Middle High German versions of the legend existed. It’s likely though, that there was some kind of twelfth century original for the later texts we do have. These survive in fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscripts, but can probably be traced to the fourteenth century. The two most important Oswald texts are the Munich Oswald and the Vienna Oswald – which is about half the length of the Munich Oswald. I’m focusing on the Munich Oswald,[5] which is named after its principal manuscript, but was probably written in Regensburg sometime between the 12th and 15th centuries. The raven, it has to be said, fulfils a rather different function in the German tradition, particularly in this example!

To summarise the Munich Oswald, then, King Oswald embarks upon a quest (divinely inspired, naturally) for the hand and conversion of the daughter of the pagan king Aron, who lives in a distant eastern land. His drawn-out mission is aided by a series of miraculous events and a vain and touchy raven, who has conveniently learned to talk, and acts as an emissary to the princess, at one point getting itself imprisoned. Ultimately, the raven succeeds in converting the princess and getting her to agree to marry Oswald, and she entrusts a ring for Oswald to the raven. Oswald, though, still needs to free her from her father. He sets off to do this, accidentally leaving the raven behind. The raven is furious, and sulks at home in England for over a year, until an angel comes to remonstrate with it. Eventually the angel tricks the raven into going to Oswald’s aid, and it miraculously flies to the king in four days. Upon arrival, it resumes its position carrying messages to the princess, and acting as a look-out. Oswald is ultimately successful in carrying off the willing princess, but is pursued by Aron’s men and forced to do battle. At this point, the raven drops out of the narrative. Having killed all of his opponents, other than Aron, Oswald demands that Aron convert – but is met with a blank refusal. The conversion is ultimately achieved after a series of increasingly dramatic miracles, including the resurrection of the entire pagan army and the production of water from a rock. After this, everyone is baptised, and then the pagan army dies again. But that’s not the end! Jesus subsequently comes in disguise to Oswald’s court, requiring him to prove his generosity, and – as if that were not enough –commands the king to maintain a chaste marriage. He provides a useful tip for this – namely that Oswald should keep a cold bath by his bed, and spring into it whenever he is feeling lustful. The final touch is that Oswald is then informed that he will shortly die.

The raven is a rather comic figure, as well as one of the driving figures in the text, and I’d like to point out some of his ‘greatest hits’. As I mentioned, the raven conveniently learns to talk, and it is this which enables the whole narrative – the word ‘conveniently’ was not (entirely) facetious. The context is this: a pilgrim has come to the court to suggest the bridal quest, and explains that sheer force won’t win the princess for Oswald, but there is another way. He has a raven, which could be used as a messenger:

du hast erzogen ainen edlen raben:
den soltu zuo poten haben.

(ll. 351-52)

The reason that it would make such a good messenger is that it has learnt to speak:

daz dein rab ist redent worden

l. 357

Oswald finds this understandably hard to believe – he has had the raven for twelve years, during which time he never heard it speak:

ich kainer schlacht stimme
von im nie pin warden inne

(ll. 363-64)

The king decides to summon the bird, but the impudent bird (‘rab vermessen’, l. 377) is sitting on a tall tower, and can’t be reached. The pilgrim tells Oswald that God will summon the raven, and so he does. The bird perches on the table and his first words are overtly Christian. He says to the pilgrim:

du solt mir gotwilchomen [gottwilkommen] sein

(l. 406)

This brings to light one of the raven’s most important characteristics – he is a Christian. But there is plenty more to him – I rather like Marion Gibbs’ and Sidney Johnson’s description of his character: ‘He is a Christian, likes to eat and drink, is easily offended and needs to be mollified; he plays chess and displays a very courtly manner while providing a certain amount of comedy for the story’.[6]

Oswald gives the raven a message to take to the princess, and he sets off. His voyage is filled with dangers, from starvation, to capture by mermaids who mistake him for an angel. This is a particularly amusing episode, for even the mythical mermaids, who live under the sea and eat bread rolls and venison, and drink wine, are confused by what the bird represents. This is where the angelic connection comes in, for the mermaids debate whether he is an angel, or simply a wild bird. One suggests that he is an angel, sent by our saviour in heaven, and should therefore be received with honour. Another mermaid thinks that she’s talking nonsense, and that they are simply faced with a wild bird. Neither, of course, is quite correct:

daz mag wol ein engel sein!
der himlisch hailant
hat in uns her gesant:
durch den himlischen fursten her
süll wir im erpieten grosse er.”
do sprach ein ander merweib:
“die red laß beleiben,
wann ez mag kain engel gesein,
daz hab auf die treue mein;
ez ist nür ein wilder vogel.

(ll. 670-80)

When he speaks, they are so impressed that they bring him a feast – but they are not keen to let him leave. In order to escape, the raven then tells them that the apocalypse is on its way, and flies off in the confusion.

Once he arrives in King Aron’s court, he ingratiates himself. When making his bid for the princess, though, he makes the mistake of mentioning salvation and the grace of Our Lady as an incentive for Aron to marry Oswald’s daughter:

du solt im dein tochter geben gern!
und wirt dein tocher sein weib,
so ist auch hälig ir paider leib:
si choment aus aller schuld
und erwerbent unser frauen huld.


This does not go down well. Aron immediately tries to have him captured, despite earlier assurances that this would never happen. During this sequence, the raven is treated very much as a human, and the king even threatens to have him hanged (‘so wil ich in hahen pald’, l. 1035), apparently oblivious to the impracticalities of attempting to hang a bird.

Despite the threats of execution, the raven secures the princess’s conversion and her promise – sealed with a ring. He sets out on his return journey, during which he is beset by gales, and drops the ring, but encounters a hermit who tells him that he knows of him and his quest, and that he has been commanded to pray for Oswald. The raven, though, is despondent, and says that he can never return to England, for he has failed in his task. Fortunately, a miracle is at hand. The hermit prays and a fish leaps out of the water with the ring (a familiar topos). After this, the raven returns to Oswald’s court without further incident, and gives instructions for the journey to claim the princess, including the instruction to bring a golden stag: ‘ainen ubergulten hirsch muostu haben’. The stag is part of a rather convoluted plan to free the princess. It is used as a distraction – Aron and his men are sent off to hunt it, while Oswald and his men (who have been pretending to be goldsmiths for some time) help the princess to escape from the castle. The stag miraculously escapes the pursuing heathens and comes back to Oswald’s men.

There is one final major episode including the raven. After sailing for a year, Oswald finally lands in Aron’s country. Only now does he realise that he has left the raven behind, and he is distressed, as he had been intending to send it to the princess once more as a messenger. God sends an angel to the raven to persuade it to follow Oswald and help him out. The raven is – perhaps understandably – rather annoyed. Oswald has, after all, failed to notice his absence for a year, and has only realised it once the raven is of use. The raven is also unimpressed that Oswald remembered his advice to bring a gilded stag, but failed to remember the source of the instruction. The raven and the angel have a debate, and the raven makes it clear that he has no intention of flying to Oswald, whose disregard for the raven has led to its going hungry during the king’s absence, as the servants have refused to treat him as a member of court, telling him to eat with the dogs. As a result, even if he wanted to go, he is in no state to fly:

von hunger lait ich grosse not.
mein gevider ist mir zerzerret ser
meinen herren chan ich nicht gehelfen mer

(ll. 1865-67)

Eventually, though, the angel tricks the raven into flying to Oswald. He says that if the raven is unable to maintain a certain height (three spears), but falls back to earth, he will have proven his loyalty, and will be off the hook whatever happens to the king and his army. The raven attempts to prove his point, but has failed to think through the implications of accepting a challenge from an angel. The angel makes him rise to the height of twelve spears, and refuses to let him land, with the result that he has to fly to his king – something he miraculously achieves in four days:

der engel den raben des betwang
daz er sein gevider hoch erschwang
und flog hin uber daz wild mer
und eilet zuo sand Oswalts her
und cham an dem vierden margen

(ll. 1887-91)

When it arrives, the raven airs its grievances about its treatment at home since the king left, specifically naming those members of staff who were of particular annoyance (the cook and the steward, predictably).

ich muoß dir also vil clagen
uber den choch und den chelner

(ll. 1961-62)

Oswald doesn’t have much time for the raven’s complaints, though, and he is rapidly enlisted once more as a messenger, and sent off to contact the princess.

The episode raises a number of interesting points. Of course it’s amusing to witness a raven debating an angel, especially in the context of the mermaid who thought that the raven was an angel. But the episode also outlines the raven’s importance to the mission, his jealousy over the stag and his expectations about where it should eat – that is, not with other animals.

After this, the raven essentially fades out of a narrative to which he has been crucial. But he has left his mark. Readers (especially modern readers, given to detailed analysis) are left to consider what it means for the raven to be a Christian. This is a story about conversion and salvation, but we never find out whether the raven’s Christianity extends as far as his being endowed with a soul. Equally, while the raven is a particularly visible example, there are various other animals in the text, all loaded with symbolism of their own: the fish which finds the ring, the golden stag, the dogs with whom the raven is expected to eat. There are also the mermaids – they are of course not animals, but they are not in a dissimilar category to the raven. They are, just as he is, on the borders of human society, and have both an awareness of the divine … and a preoccupation with food.

[1] The Guardian

[2] Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2008), p. 25

[3] Dominic Alexander, p. 46

[4] For more about the raven and the English Oswald tradition, see this blogpost

[5] All quotations are from: Michael Curschmann, ed., Der Münchener Oswald (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1974)

[6] Marion Gibbs and Sidney Johnson, Medieval German Literature: A Companion (New York and London: Routledge, 1997, repr. 2000), p. 112