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The Smith, the Devil, and Jim Crow: Medieval Hagiography, Victorian Popular Culture, and the Legacy of Slavery in Edward G. Flight’s The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2024

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Summary

Introduction

In London between 1852 and 1871, Edward G. Flight (1803?–71) published multiple editions of a narrative poem entitled The Horse Shoe: The True Legend of St. Dunstan and the Devil. With illustrations by well-known artist George Cruikshank (1792–1879), this text introduced significant innovations into the medieval legend of the English saint Dunstan, a Benedictine monk, Archbishop of Canterbury, and clever opponent of Satan. Flight's Victorian poem uses Dunstan, an important figure of the nation's past, to contain and limit the dangerous potentialities of the trickster Devil by forcing him into a role as “Jim Crow,” who famously sang and danced on American and English stages in the mid-nineteenth century. The ambiguities of both Jim Crow and the Devil are neutralized through Dunstan's torment and containment of his adversary in a “true” account Flight carefully distinguishes from his medieval sources. In The Horse Shoe, Flight aligns the encounter between Dunstan and the Devil with both the complex history of minstrelsy and the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, deploying medieval hagiography to navigate rapid socio-economic change and complex racial politics in nineteenth-century Britain.

Like all legends of Dunstan, Flight's account reworks a smorgasbord of folktale types and motifs, including “the smith [who] outwits the Devil,” 330 in the Arne-Thompson-Uther index of tale types. Flight's saint, like the smith of folklore and the Dunstan of the medieval vitae, pretends to cooperate with the Devil and cunningly plots to seize and punish him with his blacksmith's tools. The Devil in Flight's version is also forced to sign a written contract at the end of the poem, a reversal of tale type ATU 756B, “the Devil's contract.” Unlike Dunstan's medieval vitae, Flight's poem, though it ostensibly provides an origin tale for the horseshoe as a talisman against evil, casts the smith-saint himself in the role of a cruel master who forces his captive to dance the “Jim Crow,” integrating Dunstan's legend with racist tropes that persist to the present day. To support this argument, I will first assess Flight's adaptation of Dunstan's legend. Then I will situate Flight's representation of the Devil and his reference to Jim Crow within the context of popular Victorian literature, particularly Richard Harris Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and the Jim Crow plays and minstrel shows so popular in British theaters between 1830 and 1870.

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Studies in Medievalism
(En)gendering Medievalism
, pp. 217 - 246
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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