Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8631
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Gulley , Alison.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Icon or Subversive? : The Role of Aelfric's Virgin-Martyr Legends in Early English Society ["Lives" of Agatha, Agnes, Cecilia, Eugenia, 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 Hagiography Literature- Prose Virginity in Literature Women in Literature Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10-11
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  • Abstract: Œlfric compiled his saints' lives to honor the saints and their miracles as well as to "getrymminge to mannum," for the encouragement of people. Scholars argue that hagiography also functioned sociopolitically, reinforcing medieval conceptions of order and strengthening links between the govered and the governing. Stories about saints, then, create and reinforcce a community of their audience. In this paper, I examine the virgin martyr legend, which honors and models Christian behavior supposedly appropriate to both sexes, as a cultural artifact within a community in which women were second-class citizens. Because a Women's Status depended largely on whether she was married, a virgin, or a member of a religious order, I focus on Œlfric's treatment of chastity and sexuality in the stories of Agatha, Agnes, Cecilia, Eugenia, and Lucy. In these tales, heathens attempt to force the heroine to renounce her virginity, and thus symbolically renounce Christ. The focus of the subtext, however, is that the virgin must deny her "womanly" lascivious nature. Herein lies a potential threat. Considerable critical discussion explores the political threat of later medieval holy women whose threat was tangible because these women were real people directly affecting those around them. Yet little has been written regarding the equally important threat posed by the saint's life as a social and cultural phenomenon. The female saint's life posed a more ideological, and so less recognizable, threat. Male emulation of the modeled behavior was considered difficult but possible. And such behavior would strengthen the social structure because it reinforced patristic anti-feminist claims that men were more capable of purity and holiness than women, who often bore responsibility for any male sexual weakness. In contrast, female emulation would question these very beliefs. Furthermore, because women were thought capable of chastity only within the convent or withing wife- and motherhood, the emulation of women whose lives questioned claims about female sexuality posed a threat because it weakened a link in the medieval social order in which the family provided a microcosm of the relationship between people, the Church, and God. In short, the female saint's life had a subversive quality precisely because it questioned much of the basis for a Women's Status and proposed that women could live holy lives outside traditional roles [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 North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1996.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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