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Sex and the single saint physicality in Anglo-Saxon female saints’ lives

Saint Æthelthryth of Ely from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, illuminated manuscript in the British LibrarySex and the single saint physicality in Anglo-Saxon female saints’ lives

Elliot, Winter Suzanne

PhD Dissertation, The University of Georgia (2004)

Abstract

This study examines the treatment of the female body in several Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives. Sexuality, and sex, are integral to the construction of the female saint, and virginity is not the only manifestation of that sexuality. The saint is often emphasized as the subject of others’ – commonly male, though not always – desires, but she is also aware of her body and the power it can command over members of secular society. Consequently, Anglo-Saxon female hagiography suggests dual and complementary views of the female body. Most obviously, the lives of female saints suggest a practical ability to control and command that body, a faculty that simultaneously integrates the saint into patristic teachings and alters their effect upon the woman and her place in society. More subtly, the lives also suggest a reciprocal relationship between the almost entirely male hagiographic writers and their subjects and audiences. Surprisingly, the body of the female saint is almost never portrayed as intrinsically sinful or immoral; rather, it is the gaze, the action, and reaction, of the viewing public that holds the certain seed of evil.

Introduction: In the last few years of the eighth century, Alcuin asked the famous question, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”. Despite Alcuin’s implicit – and elsewhere explicit – scorn for Germanic pagan traditions, Ingeld’s relationship with Christ in Anglo-Saxon literature, especially religious writings, is both obvious and undeniable. The heroic sagas and traditions represented by Ingeld thoroughly influenced the presentation of Christian ideals and saints. As Mayr-Harting observes, “At many a turn the world of heroic saga coloured the presentation of saints’ lives, and this in its turn influenced the actions of those who aspired to sanctity”. In The Dream of the Rood, for example, Christian and Germanic traditions are simultaneously embodied in the person of Christ. The Conversion begun in 597 with Augustine’s arrival did not take place in a social vacuum, a fact allowing Fulk and Cain to observe that “For literary purposes the defining characteristic of Anglo-Saxon culture is its fusion of two contrasting strains, the military culture of the Germanic peoples who invaded Britain in the fifth century and the Mediterranean learning introduced by Christian missionaries from the end of the sixth”. Ingeld’s place in Anglo-Saxon literary history is thus assured.

A modern reader of Bede, Aldhelm, and Ælfric among others might phrase Alcuin’s question quite differently, asking instead, “What has woman to do with Christ?” While modern scholarly movements, considerations, and interests, particularly those affiliated with feminist or queer studies, have gone a long way towards remedying previous centuries’ neglect of women in general and the literary woman in particular, it is possible that, in the zeal to rectify a perceived wrong, scholars have gone too far – especially in the critique of the female presence in Medieval literature. It has become commonplace to regard the Middle Ages, and indeed all periods through the present time, as characterized by generally uncontested patriarchy and commonly accepted misogyny. In Medieval literature, it has been easy to see Eve’s phantom presence shadowing the presence or absence of all women, and equally simple to take the frequently misogynist rhetoric of patristic and Medieval theologians and writers to heart, accepting their words and images of women without much consideration of context or audience. This is nowhere more evident than in the consideration of the religious woman in Anglo-Saxon literature.

Click here to read this article from The University of Georgia


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