Robertus Elgensis

From medieval

by Karsten Friis-Jensen

Robertus Elgensis (Robert of Ely) is the author of a (now almost completely lost) Vita sancti Canuti ducis, which was written during the reign of King Erik Emune of Denmark (1134-1137). Robert was perhaps originally a Benedictine monk of the cathedral priory of Ely (Cambridgeshire, England). Later in life he may have been connected with the Benedictine priory of Ringsted (Zealand, Denmark), St. Knud the Duke’s burial place. It is possible that Robert was called to Ringsted when King Erik Emune reorganized the priory in 1135 (WEIBULL 1941, 72).

Robert’s name has been transmitted together with the few preserved fragments of his Vita sancti Canuti ducis, but the evidence has been variously interpreted. The three epitomes of MS y (for the sigla see below) call the author either “Bishop Robertus Elgensis” (Biscop Robertus Elgensis a; Robertus Episcopus Elgensis/Reuerendus Episcopus Elgensis Robertus/Elgensis E) or “R. Eliensis from England” (Reuerendus Eliensis Anglicus/R: Eliensis/Eliensis A). The adjectives Elgensis and Eliensis both point to Ely in England (Elge, Elyensis insula), an interpretation supported by A’s Anglicus, whereas the sixteenth-century excerptor of E unconvincingly interprets Elgensis as meaning “from Elgin,” in Scotland. The author’s episcopal status most likely originates in a misinterpretation of the abbreviation of the name R. (= Robertus), namely R. in the meaning Reuerendus – compare the forms of A (GERTZ 1908-1912, 186). Apart from the intrinsic improbability of the author’s having been a bishop, it is a fact that after Ely became a bishopric in 1109, none of its twelfth-century bishops carried the name Robert.

Vita sancti Canuti ducis

Robert of Ely's Vita sancti Canuti ducis (Life of St. Knud the Duke) was the first biography of Duke Knud Lavard (died 1131), written as a complete saint’s life with sections on its protagonist’s life, death, and the miracles he performed after his death. Robert portrayed Knud as possessing saintly qualities long before his death, whereas his murderer Magnus and Magnus’s father King Niels were painted in the darkest colours.


None of the sources seems to transmit the original title of Robert’s work.

Incipit and explicit

Incipit and explicit are not known. Epitome E quotes a sentence from the Praefatio that may constitute part of the incipit: α inspirante incepi et opitulante ω consummaui (I have begun, inspired by Alpha, and I have finished with help from Omega), (cp. Vulg. apoc. 1,8). For a possible explicit see below.


Robert’s work was written as a prosimetrum, a mixture of prose and verse. Among the transmitted fragments, five pieces of verse can with confidence be ascribed to Robert, whereas GERTZ is more hesitant about the authenticity of a sixth (eight leonine hexameters, edited separately in GERTZ 1908-1912, 182 & 220). Besides, epitome E characterizes book 2, chapter 11 as a Cantus carnificum (A song about the murderers), possibly an apostrophe to the murderers on the part of the author. Of the five preserved poems (or fragments of poems, a total of sixteen lines), two are composed in unrhymed elegiac distichs, two in leonine hexameters, and one in hexameters with three internal rhymes (uersus trinini salientes, cp. NORBERG 1958, 66; this fragment, beginning Praesul aue, is quoted below – notice that the three words which make up the rhyme are common to the two lines, an additional artificiality).


Epitomes a and E agree that Robert’s work was divided into three books, and E specifies that it comprised a Praefatio with Prologus and Oratio, a Liber primus with eighteen chapters (about Knud’s origins, childhood and mature life), a Liber secundus with twenty chapters (on the conspiracy against Knud, his death, and the signs which followed immediately upon his death), and a Liber tertius of unspecified length (about the miracles performed by him after his death). Everything points to a work of considerable size.


  • SRD 4 (1776), 256-61.
  • WAITZ, G. 1892: MGH SS 29, 9-11, Hanover.
  • • GERTZ, M.CL. 1908-1912, VSD, 183-87 & 234-41, Copenhagen.


  • (Danish) OLRIK, H. 1893-1894: Danske Helgeners Leved, 348-66, Copenhagen.

Date and place

The protagonist of Robert of Ely’s Vita sancti Canuti ducis, Duke Knud Lavard, was killed by his cousin Magnus, King Niels’s son, on 7 January 1131 in Haraldsted near Ringsted. A spring is supposed to have appeared at Haraldsted after the murder, and to have possessed miraculous healing powers. After having seized the crown in 1134, Knud’s brother Erik Emune began to promote the cult of Knud as a saint. In 1135 Erik Emune reorganized and endowed the monastery at Ringsted in whose church Knud was buried, and Robert’s life of Knud must be regarded as another product of this campaign.

Epitome E states that the Vita sancti Canuti ducis was dedicated to King Erik Emune, and this is corroborated by two leonine hexameters which according to E belonged to the Praefatio: Rex, sine fine uale! tibi sit decus imperiale,/ Regnum, maiestas, sceptrum, diadema, potestas! (O King, remain forever healthy! May imperial glory remain in your possession, and royal authority, majesty, sceptre, crown, and power!). Consequently it is likely that Robert finished his work after the reorganization of Ringsted Priory, and before Erik’s death, i.e. in the period 1135-1137, and probably in Ringsted.

It is possible that Robert’s work carried a second dedication to a bishop, since Epitome E quotes two hexameters from book 3 that most likely were addressed to a bishop (perhaps taken from the very end, in which case it may have been part of the explicit of the entire work): “Praesul, aue! patrone, uale! pastor bone, salue!/ Semper aue! sine fine uale! per secula salue!” (“Bishop, farewell! Patron, goodbye! Good shepherd, adieu! Fare you well always! Remain forever healthy! Be well to all eternity!”). In medieval Latin, the word praesul nearly always means “bishop”, although the meaning “patron/protector” occurs from late antiquity and onwards. It is therefore not likely, but on the other hand not quite impossible, that Robert addresses the king in these lines (or perhaps the saint). We know of other works from the period containing a double dedication, for instance to a king and a bishop.

Composition and style, literary models

All the evidence we possess suggests that Robert’s Vita sancti Canuti ducis followed a well-established literary tradition for writing saints’ lives, sharing among other features the chronological narrative with subsequent sections on life, death (passion), and miracles. It is likely that Robert’s work in particular resembled a group of prosimetrical saints’ lives written in northern France and England in the second half of the eleventh century, a tradition represented in Denmark by >Ailnothus of Canterbury’s Vita sancti Canuti regis (ca. 1120, Odense). There were very close relations between the monasteries of Odense and Ringsted, so that there can be little doubt that Robert knew Ailnoth’s work. As an example of correspondence between Ailnoth and Robert it may be mentioned that Ailnoth wrote a poetic apostrophe (in forty-one leonine hexameters) to the murderers of King Knud, the people of Jutland (ch. 22), as Robert probably did to Duke Knud’s murderers. Ailnoth’s prose and verse are florid and mannerist. Well-attested fragments of Robert’s prose are very few, so that we do not really know enough to judge his prose style. However, the following paraphrase from epitome E of one of his sentences, which also reveals his interest in the literary tradition of saints’ lives, suggests that he too wrote a rather florid Latin prose:

Dicit Reuerendus Eliensis Anglicus, quod nullum genus inualetudinis in humano corpore mirifice esse curatum legisse meminerit, quod apud sanctum Kanutum non caperet medicamen, excepto quod ibi nulli mortui reuiuiscerent (The English bishop of Ely says that he does not remember having read about any kind of illness in the human body cured miraculously, which had not found a remedy with St Knud’s help, except that there no dead persons had become alive again).

However, a characteristic of Robert’s poetic style seems to emerge in the verse fragments, namely a highly developed sense of word-play, again in a mannerist direction. This was already apparent in the two examples quoted above, and a third example confirms the tendency (epitome E, an unrhymed elegiac distich from Book 3): “Nam quicumque uelit quae restant scribere cuncta,/ Lux, manus, anser, ouis, sepia deficient” (“For whoever should want to write about all the rest, he will lack light, hand, goose [i.e. goose-pen], sheep [i.e. sheep’s hide, parchment], and squid [i.e. squid’s ink]”).

Purpose and audience

Robert of Ely composed his work for a very specific purpose, as we saw, namely the promotion of the cult of Knud Lavard as a saint. Most likely the work was simply commissioned by the dedicatee, King Erik Emune, who was at the time the head of that branch of the royal family to which Knud Lavard belonged. In the dynastic struggles of the Middle Ages it was always a powerful weapon to have a saint in one’s nearest family. In this case Robert also seized the opportunity to blacken the strongest of the opponent family branches, the one to which the saint’s murderer Magnus belonged. Besides stressing the treacherous behaviour of Magnus, Robert was very outspoken about his father King Niels’s complicity. Erik Emune may have planned to let Robert’s work accompany an application to the pope for an official authorization of the cult of Knud Lavard, but we have no evidence that the king started such a procedure. Papal recognition of Knud’s sanctity was not obtained until 1169. Besides the immediate political purpose of a hagiographical work like Robert’s, it would naturally also serve more general purposes of edification, as well as providing lections for chapter-meetings and perhaps also divine service.

Medieval reception and transmission

In the late twelfth century, Robert of Ely’s life of Knud Lavard was ousted by the anonymous Vita altera of >Sanctus Kanutus Dux, composed some time after the saint’s translation in 1170. It is uncertain whether the author of the Vita altera knew Robert’s work (cf. JØRGENSEN 1931, 22-23). The same applies to Saxo’s use of Robert (cf. CHRISTIANSEN 1980-1981, I, 290, CHESNUTT 2003, 56, and FRIIS-JENSEN 2005, 229). The copy of Robert’s work possessed by the monastery of Ringsted may have been used to record new miracles performed by the saint in the period down to the early thirteenth century (see below).

There are traces of at least two medieval manuscripts, x and y:

x (probably lost): LANGEBEK (1776, 256) quotes a notice in the hand of the famous antiquarian Árni Magnússon: Robertus Elgiensis Episcopus in Scotia Vitam Sancti Kanuti descripsit satis prolixe. Vidisse se eam in Bibliotheca Cottoniana ait Chr. W. [i.e. Christen Worm, 1672-1737], et ibi locum illum, quem citat Vellejus [i.e. VEDEL 1575, 277, see below], et de valle Josaphat [Knud’s mother Bodil died on a pilgrimage to Palestine and was buried in the Valley of J., according to epitome E of Robert’s work], (Robert of Elgin, bishop in Scotland, wrote a rather detailed account of St. Knud’s life. Chr(isten) W(orm) claims to have seen it in the Cottonian Library, and to have found in it the passage to which Vedel refers, and the mentioning of the Valley of Jehoshaphat). Worm’s stay in England belongs to the 1690s. There seems to be no trace of this volume in the Cottonian Collection, neither among the manuscripts that survived the fire of 1731, nor in Thomas Smith’s catalogue of 1696.

y (lost): it is likely that the following excerpts or epitomes are derived from the same manuscript; at one time it may have been owned by Vedel:

A(1.2.3): Excerpta Arnamagnæana. Their hyparchetype was probably the manuscript Veriloquium Vetus in the University Library of Copenhagen, which was destroyed in 1728; see GERTZ 1908-1912, 185 & 187, and JØRGENSEN 1931, 22 n. 1. GERTZ and E. JØRGENSEN suggest that epitome A had specific relations with the monastery of Ringsted, since it contains a series of miracles performed by St. Knud, from the times of King Erik Emune down to the early thirteenth century. The source for the early miracles seems to have been Book 3 of Robert’s work, but the source of the later ones was most likely an official catalogue of miracles kept at the saint’s church, perhaps even in the form of additions to an authoritative copy of Robert’s work. There exist three copies of A: Copenhagen, Royal Library, Add. 90 fol., s. xvii/xviii (two copies = A1 & A2). Copenhagen, the Arnamagnæan Institute, AM 1049 4°, s. xviii in., 2r-11r (=A3).

a: VEDEL 1575, 277 (to Saxo Gramm. 13,6,7): “Biscop Robertus Elgensis, som screff tre Bøger, om Sant Knud Hertugis leffnet oc endeligt, siger at denne Sangere hed Siuord, oc handlede anderledis imod Hertugen end her fortælis”, (“Bishop Robertus Elgensis, who wrote three books about St. Knud the Duke’s life and death, says that this singer was called Siuord, and that he behaved differently towards the duke than it is told here [i.e. in Saxo’s version]”). Since the episode about a singer who warns Knud is not explicitly referred to in epitomes E and A, they cannot have been Vedel's source, which must have been more complete. There exists corroborative evidence that Vedel had access to Robert’s work in its entirety. Among Vedel’s books a volume is listed as “Knud Hertugs oc Martyris Historie” (“St Knud the Duke and Martyr's History”) (Vedel’s Promus condus, Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 2438 4°, p. 5; E.J. Westphalen’s edition, Monumenta inedita rerum Germanicarum 4, Leipzig 1745, 1587, shows the same phrasing). This book was possibly a copy of Robert’s work, in which case it must be identified with MS y.

E: Excerpta Vedeliana, series I-II: Copenhagen, Royal Library, Add. 112 8°, 6 (7) fols., s. xvi/xvii (written by Vedel or perhaps by Cornelius Hamsfort). Like Vedel in a, the excerptor of epitome E (perhaps also Vedel) comments on the relationship between Robert and Saxo, in connection with Knud’s death: “Caedes Canuti; in huius narratione uariat a Saxone Elgensis” (“The murder of Knud; in the narration of this event the author from Elgin differs from Saxo”). This remark is not specific enough to have been the source of a.


The main contribution to the study of Robert’s work is GERTZ's introduction to his edition (GERTZ 1908-1912, 183-87), but important discussions, in particular of source value and background, are found in the following works:

  • CHESNUTT, M. 2003: The medieval Danish liturgy of St Knud Lavard, Copenhagen (5, 66, 75).
  • CHRISTENSEN, A.E. 1977: in (Gyldendals) Danmarks historie I, 288 & 337, Copenhagen.
  • CHRISTENSEN, A.E. 1981: “Knud Lavard,” in DBL 8 (3rd ed.), 61-63.
  • CHRISTIANSEN, E. 1980-1981: Saxo Grammaticus, Books X-XVI. The text of the first edition with translation and commentaries I, 290, Oxford [the author states that it is likely, but not provable, that Saxo knew of Robert’s work, and refers to passages where Saxo may have used or rejected it].
  • FRIIS-JENSEN, K. 2005: (review of CHESNUTT 2003), Danske Studier, 222-25.
  • JØRGENSEN, E. 1931: Historieforskning og Historieskrivning i Danmark indtil Aar 1800, Copenhagen, 22-23.
  • NORBERG, D. 1958: Introduction à l'étude de la versification latine médiévale (SLS 5), Stockholm.
  • SKYUM-NIELSEN, N. 1971: Kvinde og slave, Copenhagen, 81-83.
  • VEDEL, A.S. 1575: Den Danske Krønicke som Saxo Grammaticus skrev, Copenhagen, 277 [the source of epitome a]
  • WEIBULL, L. 1941: “Ringstedklostrets privilegier 1135-1225,” Scandia 14, 57-73.