Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 1887
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Blanton-Whetsell , Virginia.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: St. Aethelthryth's Cult: The Anglo-Saxon Liturgical Evidence [argues that the saint was appropriated by Benedictine monastics as a model of male chastity].
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 29, 3 (Spring 1996):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham- Lives of the Saints Æthelthryth of Ely, Queen of Northumbria, Saint Hagiography Literature- Prose Liturgy Women in Literature Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10-11
  • Related Resources:
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations:
  • Table:
  • Abstract: Late Anglo-Saxon representations of Œthelthryth, who founded a double house at Ely in 672, demonstrate her singularity as a woman and a saint. In many lilurgical lexts, she appears not only as the female exemplary of Anglo-Saxon sanctity, but also as the representalive saint for Anglo-Saxon England during the tenth-century Benedictine Reform. Michael Lapidge observes in his "Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints" that often Œthelthryth is the only female English saint catalogued in early litanies and, occasionally, she is the unique English saint honored in these lists. Other texts depict her singularity as well. In "The Benedictional of St. Œthelwold," written at the request of Bishop Œthelwold of Winchester who refounded Ely in 970, Œthelthryth's miniature is the only depiction of a female English saint and the most highly decorated of the surviving illustrations. Œlfric, Œthelwold's student, provides another instance of her singularity in his "Lives of the Saints" where, once again, Œthelthryth is the only Anglo-Saxon woman veneraled. In these texts, she operates as an exemplum of virginal behavior: the East Anglian princess and later Northumbrian queen who, in spire of two marriages, maintained her virginity. Tenth-century liturgical veneration offers a textual body for the edification of clerical audiences. The Ely cult, which promoted these liturgical texts, originates at Winchester under Œthelwold. His interest in Œthelthryth centers on her virginal body and her will to preserve it. Œthelwold's episcopal benediction asks that God give strength to those who burn with lustful desire just as God fortified Œthelthryth so that Œthelwold's congregation might live chastely and deserve a place in her heavenly company. Bishop Œthelwold's refoundation program links each of the liturgical representations. His student Œlfric wrote the first vernacular life, and the surviving litanies that include Œthelthryth stem from a Winchester scriptorium. Thus the cult centers around Œthelwold and his community at Winchester, and Ely operates as an extension of the Winchester program when Œthelwold places Winchester monks there at its refoundation. The visual and literary texts illustrate a malleable body appropriated by the Benedictine reformers for the education of male religious. Œlfric demonstrates this purpose in his translation of Bede's Latin life of Œthelthryth. Œlfric's narrative, which closely follows Bede's, diverges at the end, with the story of a thegn who first fathers three children, lives in a chaste marriage for thirty years, and then enters a monastery. At his death, angels escort the man to heaven, praising his chastity. Œlfric's exemplum illustrates chastity for a decidedly male audience by changing the emphasis from female virginity to male chastity following propagation and monastic profssion. Œthelthryth's virginal sanctity is a difficult position to attain, yet Œlfric's story demonstrates how her life can be appropriated by laymen who become monks. In his narrative, the thegn's wife also lives chastely, but she is not honored for her participation - an attitude that equates male chastity and female virginity, even as it encourages monastic life. Œlfric negates the wife's chastity and her choice by excluding her from the narrative, and by extension, he suggests she, a woman and mother, has no association with the virginal Œthelthryth. Œlfric's depiction of the thegn who imitates Œthelthryth's behavior promotes appropriate sexual behavior for men and for women: chastity for men; virginity for women. Yet Œlfric's clerical audience is male, and he establishes Œthelthryth's singularity specifically for them. Other liturgical texts reinforce this program by emphasizing the Ely saint's exemplary behavior as previously noted. In a time of monastic refonns, when double houses previously ruled by an abbess were refounded as Benedictine monasteries for men only, and when nuns were regulated within strict boundaries and refused participation in Church leadership, the elevation of Œthelthryth demonstrates the impossibility of women's achievement in the face of an emerging domination by male religious. Œthelthryth becomes an icon for clerical worship and veneration - a symbol of a woman who can be textually read and whose behavior newly-converted monks can imitate. The singularity of her experience and of her veneration establishes a wide gulf between the experience of the thegn's wife and the most important female saint of Anglo-Saxon women. These texts deny women's sexual experience as they construct a narrative that claims that the female body must be erased - in the case of the thegn's wife - and reconstructed as an emblem of singular perfection as demonstrated by the litanies, lives, and benedictions [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation: Binghamton University
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
  • Material/Technique :
  • Rights: