Making Sense of Suffering: The Old English Life of St. Margaret

The Old English Life of St. Margaret is a martyr narrative—an echo of Christ’s passion, (resurrection), and ascension. The text (Cotton Tiberius version) begins with the narrator, Theotimus, establishing the setting as a time when many martyrs were suffering. Some prevailed and endured, achieving eternal rest, while others were led astray by the devil’s teachings. So we take suffering for granted and begin as participants—witnesses—to how Margaret herself came to gory glory.


Violence, to the point of death, is reframed as passion—exaltation—to spiritual “transfiguration,” as Sontag puts it in Regarding the Pain of Others (126).

“When she had thus prayed, the executioners beat her tender body so that her blood flowed on the ground as water does from the purest spring” (119). Margaret’s loss of blood, of life force, is transfigured as flowing spring water—which promises an upwelling of life.

She is enveloped by a dragon,“swallowed”(123). Then Margaret makes the sign of the cross and pierces the dragon from within its belly, rending the dragon in two, and emerging unscathed. Meanwhile, when the devil tries to pierce Margaret’s resolve in reparte, she declares him unfit to hear her voice—she who wants to “hear and reveal God’s commands” (129). Neither does she want to “hear one more word from (his) mouth”(129). “Be silent now”! she orders him. On her command, “immediately[,]” and “in terrible fashion[,] the earth swallowed up the cruel devil”(129).

This final enveloping is greater even than Margaret’s bodily dominance over the devil. Just as Margaret’s captor/aggressor the prefect Olebrius says he will ‘test’ Margaret’s body and break her bones, “The holy margaret […] grabbed the devil by the hair and threw him to the ground and she put out his right eye and shattered all his bones and she set her right foot over his neck and yelled at him.

This shows how bodily clashing is worth enduring and violence is worth inflicting—but that command, the righteous word of Margaret (who serves God) as an extension of God’s word, takes even greater precedence.

The victor of the period of suffering—the passion—is the enveloper—she whose voice is heard and whose narrative is seen, writ, and heard.


Tragedy is another genre that promises pain and gives it a context. In Poetics, Aristotle says “Tragedy […] is an imitation of an action that is serious and complete, and which has some greatness about it. It imitates in words with pleasant accompaniments” and enacts a cognitive catharsis, as much as an emotional one, that teaches us about ourselves, gives us gained understanding of the same troubling emotions we encounter in our own lives (Poet. 1449b21–29, via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Aristotle’s Rhetoric and the Arts:

Margaret welcomes the harm. And she remains reticently in-tact. Devoted completely to God, with all of her soul, matters of her body become secondary, and she remains ontologically whole despite assault and I don’t mean simply because of her virginity, though it is reflective of what is most important—her devotion —so that, ranked above any matters of her body she not only remains ontologically in-tact but even becomes purified as she both resists succumbing to the forces of evil and lets go of fear, giving herself away to God.

Each scene of Margaret’s resistance to evil and preservation in the face of violence is something we must behold as sensuous spectacle, for it the witnessing of her narrative by which we contribute to the expansion of her influence—the contribution to social agreement that constitutes collective power—her(one’s) voice. She puts out the devil’s eyes and the earth swallows him up on her word. She takes away his sight and his voice for she has the power of maintaining her pride in a sense—in maintaining the sanctity of her body and veracity of narrative.

Each time Margaret endures it is a testament to the strength of her words and the veracity/efficacy of directing one’s voice and ear to her God. Furthermore, the reader is told that even bearing witness to her story—listening to it, reading it, writing it down—all of these things are righteous acts that can wipe clean one’s sins; before her final execution, she says “hear my prayer that whoever writes my passion or hears it read, may from that time have his sins blotted out …” (132-133). And God grants her this. This hagiographical martyr narrative is a vindicating force, designed to inspire passion in belief, and to make sense of things.


Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in tragedy can obviously help us come to grips with the violence that Margaret endures and perpetrates; the narrative helps the audience reconcile and illuminate negative emotions in a meaningful context.

It was with this in mind that I took great issue with what I consider the story’s largest unresolved confusion over violence: the suicide of Malchus. Wouldn’t  unresolved confusion over violence undermine the Aristotelian angle?

For context, approaching the end of the text, Margaret orders herself to be executed, for “indeed,” she has “overcome this world” (135). She delivers this order to the executioner, Malchus. Malchus resists, saying “I will not carry out the sentence nor will I put God’s holy maiden to death. God spoke to you in front of me.” (135) But the holy Margaret replies that “if you do not do it you will not share with me in paradise”(135).  So Malchus swings the blade, executing Margaret and just as quickly, turns around and pierces himself—dying and falling beside her. His death seems arbitrary.

Why does he kill himself?

Why does he have to be the one to kill Margaret?

Why can’t it be the next guy in line to be executioner? Someone who doesn’t believe?

If it is someone who believes, then, by executing her they are carrying out her will and not their own—they are ceding power. His suicide could be seen as an act of desperation, or an act of reverence.

Whatever we make of it—Malchus’s suicide is a nexus for doubt.

There is also no mention of what becomes of Malchus’s soul. . .

So how does Aristotle’s theory extend to the doubt we are left with regarding Malchus?

We, the audience, are left with doubt about Malchus, and that might undermine Aristotle’s point about coming to a greater understanding (or purification) of negative emotion—such as pity, fear, and doubt—but in the context of a story of divinity…

Maybe the point is that Malchus’ grim end does not dim the bright light of Margaret’s victory . It does not disturb the sense and joy of Margaret’s narrative and the incredible healing gifts she still provides for those who are in need and believe. The story is all the more powerful because a lack of understanding about Malchus’ s death doesn’t alter the prevailing narrative. He still did his part, executing her as she commanded. Those who beheld her and touched her body and spread her word were still saved. The narrative itself isn’t undone by doubt.

In fact, as a skeptic, the more I tried to figure out what to make of Malchus, the more I examined the other scenes of violence and the more I came to appreciate the earnest, reticent, assuredness of Margaret—emerging from scalding water like a steamy bath, stomping on the devil, anointing her body, trusting, enduring. There is a rhythm to the text, the earth that shakes and quakes, the thunder that breaks to meet Margaret’s prayers. The strength of Margaret’s narrative made Malchus’ suicide or sacrifice seem small. The violence that might not be necessary or purposeful is rendered inconsequential—which offers its own solace. If sense is not made of the suffering we endure and we do not see how it contributes to our own journey; if we falter in our devotion, we may nevertheless take comfort within the powerful drive of Margaret’s narrative—we can bear witness and let confusion wash over us and allow ourselves to be released from the particular earthly concerns of our own. We accept the uncertainty. We welcome it. It is part of the greater whole. Thus, the (cathartic) clarification of our understanding is a broader one; the endurance of doubt is not only consistent with, but harmonious with belief.



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