Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 3538
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Anderson , Rachel.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Sinful Contracts in AElfric's "Life of St. Basil"
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000): Paper presented at the Thirty-Fifth International Congress on Medieval Studies, The Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 2000, Session 110: "Ælfric's Saints."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham- Lives of the Saints- Life of Basil Contracts in Literature Literature- Prose Miracles Sexuality in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10
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  • Abstract: This paper examines two of St. Basil of Cappadocia's miracles as portrayed in Ælfric's Life of St. Basil, his translation of an eighth-century apocryphal text. Both miracles concern contracts; in the first a man, like Goethe's Faust, contracts his soul to the Devil in return for a woman's favors. The second contract is more literally sin-full: St. Basil instructs a woman, who repents her exciting life, to enumerate her sins on a paper. In both episodes the power of miracle negates the written word; the contracts are reversed and in the latter the miracle the words are literally blotted out - they become illegible. This study examines these two blotted contracts not only as symptoms of a continuing and developing anxiety about the authority of the written word in the Anglo-Saxon period, but also as indications of a more specific ecclesiastical conversation about the authority of “newly found" charters that came out of the late Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform movement. Broadly speaking, the function of contracts in a society is a measure of the authority of literacy. In both texts, the power to place agreements into writing and the binding authority of the subsequent contract reveal a locus of anxiety: what happens when the Devil learns how to write? When is the authority of a contract not valid, and when (and how) can God's power validate proper contracts, and negate improper ones? Although these two miracles in the Life of St. Basil illustrate this anxiety from different directions, both create situations where God's power over the written word manifests itself in the same way, namely, by his blotting out of improper words and acts. This narrative move both illustrates the text's method of reducing anxiety about improper writing and gains societal significance when placed in the context of the current monastical practice of forging charters. Ultimately, I show that Ælfric's text, steeped in the late-tenth-century Benedictine Reform movement that was fostering the creation of "lost" charters, perhaps unconsciously supported this practice by disseminating narratives of how God deals with "proper" and "improper" contracts: a proper contract is obviously one that exists without effacement. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: Indiana University
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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