Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8542
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Horner , Shari.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Da nacodon word: Corporeal Hermeneutics in Aelfric's "Lives of Saints" [Saints Agatha, Agnes, and Lucy].
  • 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 Body Hagiography Literature- Prose Sexuality in Literature Violence in Literature Women in Literature Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10-11
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  • Abstract: This paper examines Œlfric's theories of exegesis in such texts as the "Sennones Catholici" and the "Preface to Genesis," and applies those theories to the representations of female virgin martyrs in the "Lives of Saints." Like Augustine, Œlfric argues that sacred texts can be read properly (i.e., spiritually) only by the initiated; these veiled texts contain sacred truth. And like Augustine, Œlfric warns against reading literally, cautioning readers against admiring only the beauty of the letters without comprehending the truth they contain. Œlfric's exegesis is controlled by corporeal metaphors: reading "literally" for Œlfric means reading "lichamlice," "bodily," even "carnally." There is danger for readers who concentrate exclusively on "pa nacoden word"; rather, readers must learn to read for the spiritual, "gastilic," meaning within the beautiful letters. This project investigates Œlfric's hermeneutics by analyzing his use of corporeal metaphors - what I call his corporeal hermeneutics - in the "Lives of Saints," concentrating on Saints Agatha, Agnes, and Lucy. Is it possible "not" to read the bodies of virgin-martyrs "lichamlice," when in fact their "bodiliness" pervades these texts? In the "Lives of Saints," I suggest the saint's body functions as a text which enacts the tensions implicit in the practices of reading literally or spiritually. Like a sacred text, the saint's body contains spiritual truth, bound within a literal "vessel," usually of great beauty. Her body is typically "misread" by her pagan suitor-torturers; as literal "readers," their futile attempts to access the saint's inner truth lead to bodily rupture. Thus the female saint is inevitably sexualized; the torturer's sexual attraction to her, often attempted rape, is a key plot device. The saint's resistance usually results in another kind of violence: the female virgin martyr might be stripped, hung naked in public, have her breast cut off, be forced into a brothel. Yet, Œlfric would maintain, readers must not think about the literal meaning of the words, but about the spiritual truth contained within the narrative. How can we read this paradox? In the life of St. Agatha, for example, the torturer Quintianus orders the saint's breast to be cut off in the belief that physical rupture will destroy her spiritual strength. Agatha, however, confirms that her true breast is "sound in [her] soul" and will "feed" her understanding. Agatha's spiritual reading of her own body depends upon the corporeal metaphor. As with a sacred text, spiritual truth exists "allegorically" within the literal; the mistake made again and again by the pagan torturers is their belief that such truth can be accessed (and destroyed) by literally rupturing the saint's body. I propose that Œlfric's hermeneutic theory attempts to rewrite sexual violence as spiritual exegesis; graphic scenes of torture are rewritten, reinterpreted as hermeneutic truth. This focus on Œlfric's corporeal hermeneutics in the "Lives of Saints" will help us to isolate those characteristics specific to female virgin-martyr lives which are conditioned by late Anglo-Saxon perceptions of femininity and the female body; thus this study both builds on and re-evaluates previous studies of women and gender in Old English literature and culture [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: University of Nebraska,Kearney
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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