It’s the 29th of June, and today is the feast day of St Peter (and also of St Paul). Peter is my favourite Bible person, because he’s a bit of an idiot quite a lot of the time, but he really wants to be good.
Take, for example, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Christ. In 2010, I was involved in the staging of a play of this with the Lords of Misrule theatre company in York. Every four years, a selection of the 14th-century York Mystery Plays is performed at four locations in central York, aboard farm wagons similar to those which would have been used in the Middle Ages.
The story goes that Jesus’s disciples are asking who he really is, so he takes three of them – Simon Peter, James and John – up onto a mountain where Moses and Elijah appearto them, and a voice from heaven telling them that Jesus is the Son of God. Peter’s reaction to seeing two of the greatest figures of his religion coming back to earth is to immediately start babbling about putting up three shelters – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Matthew’s gospel offers no explanation of this; Mark says that he was afraid and didn’t know what to say; while Luke says that he didn’t even know what on earth he was talking about. I think he means to say that Peter was totally starstruck and started fanboying embarrassingly around the prophets.
Simon Peter jumps off the page for me because his character is so well-drawn by the gospellists. He never does anything by halves. He is sometimes weak and unreliable, but underneath it all he loves Jesus. He is the one who tries to follow him in walking on water (and sinks). When Jesus offers to wash his disciples’ feet, only Peter refuses to let his master behave like a servant towards him – until he’s told it’s really important, when he changes his tune and insists on being washed all over. Within twenty-four hours he is pretending not to even know Jesus at all.
And this is the man whom Jesus asks to look after his followers…
… he said to him again, ‘Simon [son of] John, do you love me? He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then he said to him, ‘Keep my sheep’ …
In this passage (John 21), Peter is so excited to see Jesus on the shore that he jumps into the sea and runs to him. The other disciples take the more sensible route of taking the boat which they are already in. But despite his earlier denial, Peter really does love Jesus, and that’s why he is asked to look after the flock.
As one of the most important early Christian saints, Peter was venerated and remembered in medieval homilies and prayers. The Book of Cerne, which I have discussed in recent blogposts, includes a series of prayers to the saint. One of these is in the voice of Peter himself; the others are said to him.
I give you thanks, Good Shepherd, because the sheep which you have given to me suffer with me; I ask that they might participate with me in your grace …
Holy Apostle Peter, I ask you humbly that you might help me, an unworthy man, with your prayers; to you I bend my knee …
One of the stranger appearances of Peter in Anglo-Saxon literature is in the Lacnunga and Leechbook medical collections. Unlike some of the other healing rituals which I have written about, this remedy does not use a litany, poem or mass, but a kind of story in which Jesus says a prayer for his disciple to heal him of his toothache.
For pain of the teeth:
Christ sat upon a marble [stone]; Peter stood sad before him, holding his hand to his jaw, and the Lord questioned him, saying:
‘Why are you sad, Peter?’
Peter replied and said:
‘Lord, my teeth hurt’.
And the Lord said:
‘I adjure you migraine or malignant drop by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…’
Trans. Pettit, Lacnunga, p. 109
By reading Christ’s words of healing for one of his closest disciples, the patient receives the same healing.
I am not aware that Peter was considered to have any specific affinities with teeth; I suppose it would make for some interesting manuscript art. More usual iconography is based on his role as carrying the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Ælfwine of the New Minster in Winchester had an image of himself before the throne of St Peter copied into his prayerbook.
The Liber Vitae of Ælfwine’s own monastery, in which the names of dead monks and other people for whose souls they prayed, includes these images of St Peter before the gates of heaven, and using his key against the devil in hell.
A more heavily decorated image of the saint can be seen in the illuminated Benedictional of St Aethelwold.
Here, Peter is depicted being crucified upside-down, which, according to Christian tradition, he insisted upon so as not to imply that he was anything like as good as Jesus. This is not an event recorded in the canonical scriptures; but, to be honest, it is pretty much in keeping with the personality of the Peter who is depicted by the gospellists: committed, determined, obstinate, and just a little bit different.
Pettit, Edward , ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585, The Lacnunga. 2 vols. Mellen Critical Editions and Translations 6. Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.