Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 4881
  • Author(s)/Creator(s):
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Reading the Lives of the Married Saints in Aelfric's "Lives of Saints"
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 34, 3 (Spring 2001): Appendix A: Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies. Conference paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association of America, Washington, D.C., December 27-30, 2000, Session 16: "Editing, Interpretation, Canonization
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham- Lives of the Saints Chastity Hagiography Literature- Prose Marriage in Literature Spiritual Marriage
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10
  • Related Resources:
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations:
  • Table:
  • Abstract: Late in the last decade of the tenth century, at the request of his pious patron AEthelweard, the monk AElfric translated into Old English a collection of saints' lives and homiletic pieces today known as the "Lives of Saints." Having provided the English laity with two previous books of homilies which included stories of nationally-celebrated saints, he turns his attention in the "Lives" to those honored in English cloisters. To judge from the legendaries and monastic calendars that survive from Anglo-Saxon England, AElfric had a wide variety of saints to choose from, a fact which makes his choices for the "Lives" collection particularly engaging. Some of his choices are easier to understand than others. The many legends of military saints seem appropriate to a collection written for one of the most powerful "ealdormen" in Wessex, as do the lives of the monk-bishop Basil and the abbot Maurus, which provide prototypes for their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. More difficult to understand is AElfric's decision to include four legends of the virgin spouses, Chrysanthus and Daria, Julian and Basilissa, Cecilia and Valerian, and AEthelthryth. The purpose of this paper is to explore a few of his views on marital chastity as the background to this decision. I begin by situating AElfric's discussions of chaste marriage within the larger context of his preaching on lay virginity. "Claennysse," "chastity or purity," has a variety of definitions in the eighteen homilies touching on the subject: "claene" or chaste couples are those who "tithe their bodies" in abstinence during Lent; chastity is also a synonym for monogamy, and twice "claennysse" refers to St. Augustine's notion of chaste marriage in which a couple stops having sexual relations once the wife is past childbearing years. AElfric's most original declaration on chaste marriage appears in his sermon for Rogation Monday. Sandwiched between a surprising concession that couples who love "exalted chastity" may separate and a reminder that others should strive for the Augustinian ideal of chaste marriage is AElfric's suggestion that husbands and wives "may also hide themselves in wedlock and forgo intercourse, if God so directs them." This homily suggests that he would have wanted some couples in his audience to understand literally the legends of the married saints. For those not willing or able to adopt celibacy in so drastic a fashion, his sermons on the allegorical spiritual marriage between Christ and the Church, whose married members preserve their spiritual "claenysse" in steadfast belief and "spiritual childbearing," suggest that AElfric expected these legends to have been understood figuratively. AElfric's editorial changes to his putative Latin sources support these hypotheses. He rewrites the opening scenes of the Cotton-Corpus legendary version of Julian and Basilissa's passio to suppress any negative consequences that might be associated with the couple's decision to adopt celibacy. Julian's vision of Christ, who commands the saint to "take a wife," is no longer a justification for spiritual marriage but a dramatization of the sanctity of the idea itself. Gone is the secrecy which shrouds the couple's decision in the Latin text, as AElfric removes any hint that the saints' union would have caused dissension within the family. His alterations to the Cotton-Corpus "passio" of Chrysanthus and Daria suggest that it could be read allegorically as a model of or an inspiration for spiritual purity. When AElfric has Chrysanthus convert Daria with his "pure mind" and then credits her with being like-minded because she was constant in her faith, the audience may have drawn a parallel between this virgin pair and the virgin church, a parallel in which the conversions of the Roman people that follow signify spiritual childbearing. We might even imagine the converts to be part of the narrative's ideal audience since the Romans "read" the saints' lives as an inspiration "to a pure life," just as AElfric seems to have wanted many in his audience to do. Thus in his hands, these legends become models of a literal chastity and a figurative purity of belief that, if practiced among the faithful, could transform Anglo-Saxon England into the "holy society" he so eagerly longed to see. [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:
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2001.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
  • Material/Technique :
  • Rights: