Get Thee to a Nunnery: Unruly Women and Christianity in Medieval Europe
By Sarah Elizabeth Wolfe
Master’s Thesis, East Tennessee State University, 2017
Abstract: This thesis will argue that the Beowulf Manuscript, which includes the poem Judith, Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, and the Old-Norse-Icelandic Laxdœla saga highlight and examine the tension between the female pagan characters and their Christian authors. These texts also demonstrate that women’s power waned in the shift between pre-Christian and Christian Europe.
Introduction: This thesis will argue that the Beowulf manuscript, which includes the poem Judith, Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, and the Old-Norse-Icelandic Laxdœla saga highlight and examine the tension between the female pagan characters and their Christian authors. These texts demonstrate that women’s power waned in the shift between pre-Christian and Christian Europe. I chose this particular time-period because the early medieval age to the middle of the tenth century was an important era to analyze and study. The female characters discussed in this thesis as well as one actual queen, are unusual because there are not many studies written about them.
The first chapter will explore the Beowulf manuscript, and I will use it as a backdrop for the other texts in this thesis. The women in Beowulf are though-provoking and vibrant characters as they each embody a specific form of Queenship in the Anglo-Saxon period. I will use Leslie W. Rabine’s essay “Love and the New Patriarchy: Tristan and Isolde” to demonstrate that the women in Beowulf are static as an overall structural form. Their power as women is completely different during this period than what Leslie Rabine examines in her essay with the figure of Isolde.
The second chapter will analyze the poem Judith, which is in the same manuscript as Beowulf. Judith demonstrates that Anglo-Saxon queens used the figure of the eponymous heroine as an example for a strong and active ruler. Even though Christian elements in Beowulf are tailored and uneven, Judith directly relies on God to aid her and save her people from the onslaught by the Assyrians. After she beheads Holofernes, Judith is given both earthly and heavenly glory for her reliance on God.
The third chapter examines Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum and the figure of the unruly Princess Alfhild. Alfhild changes from a meek and chaste young woman into a fierce pirate until she is married to her pursuer Prince Alf. After her marriage, Alfhild bears a daughter and is erased from the storyline as an unusual figure of a pirate and shield-maiden. Although she is erased in the text after she is married and bears a daughter, Alfhild is considered a remarkable female character by critics and readers.