Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 3267
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Grossman , Janice.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Tropes of Femininity and Monstrosity in Old English Poems [Thirtieth International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 1995. Thirtieth Symposium on the Sources of Anglo- Saxon Culture, co- sponsered by the Institute and CEMERS, Binghamton University. Session 244].
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 28, 3 (Spring 1995):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Beowulf, Old English Epic Gender Judith, Old English Poem Juliana, Old English Poem Literature- Verse Power
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8-9
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  • Abstract: This essay examines some literary implications of modifications in the metaphor of "Mili Christi" in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Stephanie Hollis has recently argued that the theologi- cal image of warriors for atrist, frequently employed in the early years of the conversion to represent Christians of either gender, became over time increasingly identified with masculinity, and female religious increasingly described by tropes of wifely fidelity and submission. Hollis then traces various consequences for monastic women of this conceptual shift and resulting bifurcation; she says little about literature. Indeed, the usual attribution of Old English poetry to an early period tended to preclude consideration of the ways in which poems like "Judith," "Juliana," and "Beowulf" might enact such relatively late shifts in the cultural conception of gender. I argue, however, that the inscription of these poems in manuscripts which date from no earlier than the late tenth century suggests the continuing social relevance of their depictions of femininity; that these manuscripts are products of a scribal culture which does not (and cannot) share our modem ideas of textual fixity also leaves open the possibility that these poems were continually (albeit perhaps unconsciously) reshaped in response to contemporary cultural difficulties. In either case, Old English poetry reveals a pervasive anxiety regarding the depiction of female warriors. In the poems which now bear their names, both Judith and Juliana manage to perform successful feats of physical violence; each woman appears motivated to do so, at least in part, by the private desire to preserve her own bodily or spiritual integrity. In each poem the heroine's power is quickly brought under masculine control, enlisted to support broader nationalistic or religious enterprises, and recon- ceptua1ized as intercessory rather than directly potent. In "Beowulf" the redefinition of female power, an operation depicted here as violent struggle, becomes more explicitly problematic but is, for that, no less complete. Grendel's mother does not subsume her private and familial concerns beneath a nationalist agenda, nor does she (any more than does her son) seek out non-violent or intercessory means to achieve her ends. Far from celebrating her unruly aggression, however, the poem figures it as monstrous, socially isolating and ultimately impotent. By acknowledging the possible threat of unregulated female aggression only in order to demonize and quell it, the poem accomplishes a number of goals: it legitimizes the restraining of female power; it assists the bifurcation of genders by constructing a difference between male and female exercises of aggression, the former portrayed as orderly, public, and successful, the latter as chaotic, private, and impotent (in so doing the poem may also respond to the problems of over-similarity raised by the earlier battle between Beowulf and Grendel); it provides a cautionary counterpoint to positive depictions of appropriately limited female power in "Judith" and "Juliana" [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: Hamilton College
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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