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Exposing Virginal Bodies in Early Norman England

Exposing Virginal Bodies in Early Norman England

By Stephen M. Higa

University of California – Los Angeles, ‘Thinking Gender’ papers, published online in 2008

Saint Æthelthryth in a 10th century manuscript

Introduction: A hagiographer is one who composes accounts of the lives and miracles of the saints. This is a very dangerous task, for in doing so, he finds that he is playing with fire. To the medieval mind, the saints were electric; they were exceptionally powerful, potent figures precisely because they bridged the human and the divine. He who controlled their memory through narrative and story was, therefore, a powerful man indeed.

But although they reached toward the eternal, the saints and their biographers easily became entangled in worldly affairs, and in colonial contexts such as those of Norman England the saints could become pawns in monumental cultural, social, and political struggles.

Goscelin of Saint-Bertin emigrated from France to England some time around 1060, a few years before William of Normandy took the English throne in 1066. After about twenty years, during which he built his reputation as a hagiographer of skill, Goscelin visited the monastery at Ely around 1087 or 1088. It was probably around that time that he was commissioned to write the lives of Ely’s saintly women, a veritable bouquet of consecrated female virgins from Ely’s glorious past. As a French emigrant to England before the Normans overtook the native secular and sacred hierarchies, Goscelin was in a unique position, perched between his new English countrymen and the colonizers from his French homeland.


Thus, when he wrote or rewrote the lives of the native Anglo-Saxon saints, he often had two audiences in mind: the commissioning Anglo-Saxon community and the Norman ecclesiastical authorities. These authorities, who had a somewhat dubious view of the native English church, also held some ambivalence toward her saints. Goscelin’s hagiographies were, therefore, ultimately polemic. As he attempted to create texts of devotion and commemoration he also sought to prove to the new colonial authorities that the native saints were legitimate receptacles of divine favor on earth.

Click here to read this paper from the University of California – Los Angeles

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