Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Stories of St Dunstan, 4: Dunstan and the Devil


According to legend, St Dunstan had a number of encounters with the devil. The most famous story, which entered popular folklore, tells how he pulled the devil by the nose (as depicted above in a twelfth-century Canterbury manuscript!).

While he was living as a hermit in a cell at Glastonbury, after leaving the royal court as a result of the events in yesterday's post, he continued to occupy himself with his various crafts, including metalwork. One day, as evening was coming on, an old man appeared at his window and asked him to make a chalice for him. Setting aside what he was working on, Dunstan agreed to the request and set to work. But as he was working his visitor began to change shape: one moment he was an old man, then a young boy, then a seductive woman.

Dunstan realised that his guest was a devil; but, pretending not to notice, he went on with his task. He took up the tongs from among his tools and laid them in the fire, waiting until they were red-hot. Then, pulling them out of the fire, he turned round and seized the devil by the nose with the tongs. The devil struggled and screamed, but Dunstan held on until at last he felt he had triumphed. Then he threw the devil out of his cell and it fled, running down the street and crying "Woe is me! What has that bald devil done to me? Look at me, a poor wretch, look how he has tortured me!"

Many people heard and saw this, and the following day they came to Dunstan and asked him what had happened. He said to them, "These are the tricks of devils, who try to trap us with their snares whenever they can. But if we remain firm in the service of Christ, we can easily defeat them with his help, and they will flee from us in confusion." And from that time he dwelt safely in his little cell.


On another occasion, when Dunstan was praying alone, the devil appeared to him in the likeness of a wolf with a gaping mouth, snarling and baring his teeth. Dunstan would not be distracted from concentration on his prayers, so the devil suddenly changed himself into a little fox, trying to get Dunstan's attention by jumping about, contorting himself and trying to get Dunstan to laugh at him. But, smiling a little, Dunstan only said, "You are revealing how you usually behave: by your tricks you flatter the unwary so that you can devour them. Now get out of here, wretch, since Christ, who crushed the lion and the dragon with his heel, will overcome you by his grace through me, whether you're a wolf or a fox."

Dunstan draws and the devil tries to distract him (source as above)

The episode with Dunstan nipping the devil by the nose is perhaps the best-known story about the saint. It first appears as told above in the late eleventh century, in the Life and Miracles of St Dunstan written by Osbern, precentor of the cathedral church at Canterbury. Osbern, who as a child had witnessed and been involved with several miracles attributed to St Dunstan, had a great personal devotion to the saint. He tells of a visit he made to Dunstan's cell at Glastonbury, and how deeply moved he was to touch the saint's own writing implements: he says that he wept copious tears, "for I remembered how often he had heard me when I called upon him in danger, and how mercifully he had helped me; and so I neither wished to restrain my tears nor to leave the spot". A writer and a musician himself, perhaps he saw in Dunstan a kindred spirit as well as a fatherly patron.

Dunstan had already been the subject of a fairly extensive Vita at the end of the tenth century, but Osbern rewrote it and provided the saint with a plethora of lively miracles - some of them reworked from the earlier rather dull Vita, some of them arising from a century of posthumous cures at Dunstan's tomb, but all of them testifying to Osbern's ear for a good story. There are a few Dunstan vs. the devil stories in the earlier hagiography (I considered why that might be here) but Osbern's are the first ones which are actually funny. And so, the story of how Dunstan nipped the devil by the nose became a popular legend and a regular part of the iconography of Dunstan in the later Middle Ages and beyond.


The story was of course retold in other forms, as here in playful fashion in the South English Legendary:

þe deuel he hente bi þe nose & wel faste drou;
He twengde & ssok hure bi þe nose þat þe fur out blaste.
þe deuel wrickede here & þere & he huld euere faste,
He 3al & hupte & drou a3en & made grislich bere.
He nolde for al is bi3ete þat he hadde icome þere!
Wiþ is tonge he strok is nose & twengde him euere sore,
Forte it was wiþinne ni3te þat he ne mi3te iseo namore.
þe ssrewe was glad & bliþe inou þo he was out of is honde
And flei & gradde bi þe lift þat me hurde into al þe londe:
"Out, wat haþ þis calwe ido? wat haþ þis calwe ido?"
In þe contreie me hurde wide hou þe ssrewe gradde so.
As god þe ssrewe hadde ibeo habbe ysnut atom is nose,
He ne hi3ede namore þuderward to tilie him of þe pose.

[He seized the devil by the nose and pulled very hard; he tweaked and shook him by the nose so that fire burst out. The devil wriggled here and there, and he still held fast. He yelled and hopped and pulled away and made a horrible commotion. He wished for all the world that he'd never come there! With his tongs Dunstan yanked at his nose and nipped him very sore, until night came on and he could no longer see. The villain was glad and happy indeed that he was out of his hands, and fled and cried out so it was heard all over the land: "Alas, what's this bald one done? What's this bald one done?" It was heard far around how the wicked one cried out. The villain had got such a good tweaking of his nose, he never hurried back there again to heal his cold!]

Here are some examples of the popularity of the story, including this rhyme:

St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

('þat me hurde into al þe londe', indeed!) There's a great description of a 1687 pageant (!) of the scene organised by the goldsmiths of London, and Dickens refers to the story in A Christmas Carol:

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then, indeed, he would have roared to lusty purpose.

(It occurs to me that Dickens and Osbern would have got on well.) In the 1840s, R. H. Barham, in his cheerily absurd 'Lay of St Dunstan', claimed the story of Dunstan's devil-pinching was too well-known to relate:

St Dunstan stood in his ivied Tower,
Alembic, crucible, all were there;
When in came Nick to play him a trick,
In guise of a damsel passing fair.
Every one knows
How the story goes:
He took up the tongs and caught hold of his nose.

So Barham makes up his own story, which I recommend to all medievalists who want to know what rhymes he finds for 'witangemot', 'Elgiva', 'Saxon', and 'Reginald Heber'.

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