Ælfric’s Sources and His Gendered Audiences

Ælfric’s Sources and His Gendered Audiences

Klein, Stacy S.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 13 (1996)


Ælfric’s prose adaptation of the apocryphal story of Judith, written ca. 1000, is one of the few Old English texts for which we have information about both its contemporary audiences and its intended functions within Anglo-Saxon culture. According to the comments which Ælfric himself appended to the text, Judith is meant to function as an exemplar of chastity for “nunnan þe sceandlice libbað tellað to lytlum gylte, þæt hi hi forlicgon” (“nuns who live shamelessly and consider it a small fault that they commit fornication”). However, “wayward nuns” comprise only one of Ælfric’s intended audiences for the Judith story. He also sent the text to his friend Sigeweard, urging this nobleman and any other men whom the text might benefit to take Judith as an exemplum of military prowess, a model of how these noblemen “might defend (their) land with weapons against the attacking army” (“þæt ge eower eard mid wæmnum bewerian wið onwinnendre here”). How the Judith narrative might have served these two very different audiences and didactic functions is the central problem this paper examines. I argue that while Ælfric did intend his text to be understood on different hermeneutic levels, that is, typologically and tropologically by the nuns and literally and tropologically by the noblemen, he also meant to provide both audiences with a more general lesson, namely that chaste and virtuous living is indeed possible and often necessary outside the monastic setting. My intention is to show how such a lesson would have been relevant to both religious and lay audiences and then to sketch out the portrait of gender politics which emerges as Ælfric offers both women and men the same female exemplar.

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