Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 8532
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Horner , Shari.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: The Violence of Exegesis: Reading the Bodies of Aelfric's Saints [Thirtieth International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 1995. Thirtieth Symposium on the Sources of Anglo- Saxon Culture, co- sponsered by the Institute and CEMERS, Binghamton University. Session 247.]
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 28, 3 (Spring 1995):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Ælfric, Abbot of Eynsham Body Hagiography Literature- Verse Violence in Literature
  • Award Note:
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 10-11
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations:
  • Table:
  • Abstract: This paper studies the representations of violence against the female body in Œlfric's Lives of Saints Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes, by applying Œlfric's own exegetical theories to scenes of hagiographic violence. Œlfric, like Augustine, warns against reading literally. admiring only the beauty of the letters without comprehending the spiritual truths they contain. Œlfric's exegesis is controlled by corporeal metaphors: reading "literally" means reading "bodily," "lichamlice." Readers must not focus on "pa nacodon word," but rather must read for the spiritual ("gastlic") meaning within these words. Like a text, the saint's body, too, contains spiritual truth, but is consistently misread (i.e., read only literally) by her torturers. The saint's body thus acts as a text which violently displays the tensions between literal and spiritual reading. Œlfric's Lives of Saints Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes demonstrate these hermeneutic principles, and thereby naturalize scenes of corporeal violence to women. The hermeneutic utility of virgin martyr lives exists precisely on the border of literalism and allegory; the virgin body, repeatedly subjected to violent assault, occupies that liminal site. True to hagiographic conventions, Œlfric's Lives describe saints whose virginity is violently threatened, but who heroically maintain their bodily integrity. My paper offers close readings of the violence done to these female bodies and demonstrates that Œlfric's hermeneutic theories attempt to rewrite sexual violence as spiritual exegesis. To be sure, male and female martyrs alike are tortured in medieval hagiography. My paper, however, focuses on the lives of female saints in order to isolate those characteristics which are conditioned by late Anglo-Saxon perceptions of femininity and the female body. Medieval hagiography in general shows an intense interest in female bodies, even as it denies that those bodies should interest readers. Reading the lives of Saints Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes in the context of Œlfric's hermeneutics, I argue that these texts negotiate this seeming contradiction by representing graphic scenes of torture in the name of hermeneutic truth [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: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973