Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 4011
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Clift , Shelly Rae.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Re-Writing and Un-Writing Violent Women in the Old English "Orosius"
  • 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 334: "Alfredian Texts and Contexts."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Adaptations Family in Literature Literature- Prose Orosius, Paulus, Historian Translation Violence in Literature Women in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 9
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  • Abstract: The Old English “Orosius” is not a loose translation of the Latin “Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri Septem,” as some scholars have suggested, but a selectively edited text designed to conform to the translator's own cultural needs. In this text are signs of the translator's (and possibly Alfred's) interest in using history and writing to create and preserve social order and harmony. In this paper I examine selections from the OE “Orosius” to see how the translator's changes, his revisions and excisions of history, reveal his desires to instruct and reinforce ideals of kinship and loyalty that held his society together. These revisions are most obvious in the histories involving violent women. Book I, Chapter 8 of the Latin “Historiarum” deals with crimes of wives against their husbands. In the Old English, every crime associated with women has either been deleted entirely or rewritten by the translator, or more accurately "re-gendered" so that the women are no longer active agents of the crime. Thus, the Old English tells of sons rising up and killing their fathers rather than wives killing husbands. Other historical women, such as Medea and Procne, are eliminated from the text entirely. Is this simply due to a desire to shorten the text? Possibly. Yet all the histories of men from this same chapter, including that of Oedipus, are included in the translation. Although the crimes of women against their husbands are transformed in the Old English, the equally violent actions of the Amazons and other women are translated virtually word for word. The difference is that the Amazons seek revenge for the deaths of the their husbands. They participate in the blood-feud tradition. Here is where I see the desire of the translator to instruct and reinforce Anglo-Saxon ideals of kinship and loyalty. Women are expected to put aside their loyalty to their own blood-kin and take up loyalty to their husbands. This is the uncertain, even chaotic, element in the joining of families. In the OE “Orosius” I see a pattern forming. Women who act "unjustly" against their husbands are transformed or excised from the text. They are "un-written" from history. But women who avenge the deaths of their husbands or who rule in place of their husbands, preserving a semblance of order, remain. Written at a time when society was under attack by constant Viking marauding and other uncertainties, the translation of the “Orosius” makes cultural sense. It does the work that Augustine envisioned. It helps. Christians realize that things were worse under heathendom than under Christendom. But it also provides examples of behavior, reinforces ideals of kinship and loyalty, and reflects the anxieties of the translator in relation to his culture. When women stray into male territory--the blood feud, and family politics of honor and inheritance--chaos and death ensue. To help keep his world safe from the horrors of self-interested women, the Old English translator re-writes and un-writes their stories. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: Loyola University, Chicago
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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