Pardon my long delay in writing about this poem. It had nothing to do with the poem itself, which is the shortest and perhaps the most uplifting. It’s theme squares completely with the theology of Pearl, and draws from the legends of the Church Fathers. In the poem, a body of a long deceased person is discovered incorrupt. Bishop Erkenwald of London–the successor of Bishop Wine (what a name!)–arrives on the scene to investigate the miracle. Yet another miracle occurs when the soul comes back to the body for a short time in order to explain his story.
The translator of this work, Casey Finch, has an excellent introduction, where he rightly notes that a similar story concerning St. Gregory the Great forms the basis for this poem. Essentially, St. Gregory remembers the many virtues of the Emperor Trajan and sheds tears over the fact that he died a pagan, because he was such a just man. Finch writes that St. Gregory’s prayers were successful, but declines to give the whole story: Trajan is released from the pains of hell, but not permitted to enter paradise, while St. Gregory receives a punishment for praying for a damned soul. (This is the version of the story found in The Golden Legends by Jacobus de Voragine.)
However, the corpse in Saint Erkenwald explains that he lived over four thousand years ago and was beloved as a just judge. So loved was he by the people for his justice, that they outfitted his corpse as if he were a king; yet, his justice availed naught without the blood of Christ. Therefore, at that moment, he suffered in hell. Erkenwald felt such an effusion of pity that he sheds tears over the body. The next moment, the judge thanks Erkenwald because his tears counted as a baptism and resulted in him ascending to heaven.
As much as I love the idea of Christ snatching one more soul from hell, I wonder whether such a soul would actually go to hell. St. Catherine Emmerich’s vision of the harrowing of hell showed three places in the underworld: 1) The fiery hell where the reprobate dwelled, 2) Abraham’s bosom, which contained the souls who awaited the coming of Christ in order to open the gates of heaven for them; and 3) a kind of purgatory, which held righteous pagans ignorant of the true Faith whom God slowly releases from that place. Saint Erkenwald is more legalistic in its vision in that one needs to be baptized in order to be saved. But, the catechism does say that God is not bound by His sacraments and may apply the fruits of His Passion to whomever He pleases. At the same time, baptism is more sure. Though we hope that very many pagans before the time of Christ were saved, we cannot know for certain which ones were.
But, there is a fundamental difference between Trajan and the judge. The judge lived remote from the time and place of Christ, while Trajan lived during the Christian Era and held Christianity to be a capital crime. (Though, he did tell authorities not to seek out Christians, but to respond only to denunciations and to test whether they were credible.) Trajan had a chance for conversion that the judge never had. And for this reason St. Erkenwald’s tears were more efficacious–though, I do not believe that the judge was in hell, but rather he thought that he was in hell.
Dressing the judge in gold and fine clothing for his virtues was perhaps the nicest touch in the poem. This shows that human praise stands far less in value than the praise we must seek from God. Yet, at the same time, the judge’s strict adherence to justice moved God to give him the opportunity of receiving mercy shortly after the conversion of England.
Stay tuned for an article on the Pearl-Poet’s most famous work: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight!