The Medieval Review 11.03.13

Dockray-Miller,Mary. Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: Princesses, Miracle Workers, and their Late Medieval Audiences. Medieval Women: Texts and Cotnexts, 25. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. x, 476. $115 ISBN 978-2-503-52836-6. .

Reviewed by:

Amy K. Bosworth
Muskingum University

For much of the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the cult of saints represented a vital part of Christian worship and belief. The power of the holy dead to intercede, heal the ailing, punish the sinful, and protect the innocent resonated with men and women in all levels of society. These notions and associated practices came under increasing scrutiny and rebuke as the medieval world transformed into the modern. The saints remained, but, for many, with a tarnished reputation. Scholars often devalued hagiography as a source, separating facts from "superstition." Over the last few decades, however, the study of the cult of saints has undergone a change. Today many see the stories of the saints as repositories of evidence that provide insights into the religious and secular life of the Middle Ages and the beliefs and behaviors of the elite and non-elite, male and female. The holy dead are once again important. Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: Princesses, Miracle Workers, and Their Late Medieval Audience: The Wilton Chronicle and the Wilton Life of St. Æthelthryth falls into this latter tradition. Mary Dockray-Miller provides readers with the Middle English text and a translation of the fifteenth-century Lives of two Anglo-Saxon female saints, St. Edith of Wilton (d. 984) and St. Æthelthryth of Ely (d. 679), making their stories accessible to a modern audience. She also presents insightful analysis of the hagiography, emphasizing the ways in which the late medieval author and his/her audience repurposed the tales of two early medieval holy women to respond to their contemporary needs.

Dockray-Miller provides a lengthy introduction to the Lives, beginning with an overview of The Wilton Chronicle and The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth (so named in this volume). She first outlines the context for the hagiography and the era of its composition, Anglo-Saxon and fifteenth-century England respectively. The tales within the Lives each reflect "a crucial moment in English ecclesiastical history," for Saint Æthelthryth a century-long "golden age" for English women in the Church and for Saint Edith the tenth-century Benedictine Reform (2). These events helped to shape and influence both holy women. Equally important for understanding the hagiography and how audiences read it in the later Middle Ages are the events occurring immediately prior to and during the era of composition, in particular the upheavals of the Lollard Heresy and Wilton Abbey's recent financial and personnel difficulties. The latter, Dockray-Miller argues, provides clues as to the audience for the hagiography and its intended use. It is suggested that the texts were created for the "newly reinvigorated (willingly or not)" residents of Wilton Abbey, nuns and laywomen alike, who required instruction or sought to reform their vocation (7). The author of the text and how s/he accessed the sources remains illusive, although it is argued that the library of Wilton Abbey, supplemented with books borrowed from other institutions, provided all of the information necessary to complete the work.

Hagiography, at its most basic, sought to venerate the saints by recounting their lives, deaths, and miracles and encouraging the continuation of their cults. Simultaneously, it projected to a medieval audience a variety of messages about the holy dead, their followers and caretakers, and the wider political and ecclesiastical worlds. The second half of the Introduction focuses on these very nuances in the Lives of Saints Edith and Æthelthryth in relation to a female audience. Secular history plays a prominent role in both accounts. Dockray-Miller argues that, by beginning each Life with a lengthy description of English royal history and including a list of sources in both the margins and the page separating the stories, the author sought to promote the Abbeys of Ely and Wilton by situating them within a larger historical framework. The author also connected the saints and their followers to a specific and glorified era, pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon England, in an effort to shape their identity. Historiography and hagiography coexisted, creating a past for the saints and suggesting a future for the fifteenth-century community dedicated to them.

After considering shared themes, the Introduction then focuses on each work individually, beginning with the much lengthier Wilton Chronicle. This Life of Saint Edith not only created a specific historical framework for the holy woman, it also reflected the needs and tastes of the era of its composition. Dockray-Miller suggests that, while the author relied primarily on the eleventh-century Legenda Edithae by Goscelin for the holy woman's story, s/he added to and altered the source to create a work that both educated and entertained a fifteenth-century audience of religious and lay women. This was done partially through the inclusion of details about Edith's sumptuous clothing and the insistence that "a woman can simultaneously be an aristocrat and a nun" (18). She also argues that the Life presented the women of Wilton in such a light in an attempt to recruit new members. Other evidence of the author writing for a specific (female) audience include the editing out of the details of the romance between Edith's parents and the exclusion of the story of Queen Edith because of their secular themes, the inclusion of a ghost story, and the use of humor. All elements Dockray-Miller insists placed the women of Wilton Abbey in a positive and powerful light, while also promoting their community.

Dockray-Miller's discussion of The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth follows similar lines. She asserts that the main sources for the work, Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica and the Liber Eliensis, sustained major revisions by the Life's author as "the text is changed in both minor and major ways; it is dramatically cut in parts and yet dramatically expanded in others" to assert the role of men in the lives of the abbesses of Ely and to explain the "practical logistics" of certain episodes in the text (26). Although she provides some examples, a more detailed analysis of the fifteenth-century authorial alterations and The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth overall, would be welcome for a work, Dockray-Miller herself notes, is little studied by modern scholars. (In contrast, the better-known Wilton Chronicle receives almost twice as much consideration and analysis in the Introduction.)

The remainder of the volume contains the two Lives themselves (in Middle English with a modern translation), beginning with the lengthier Wilton Chronicle. Each text includes judicially selected editorial notes that add to the reader's understanding of the texts without overwhelming the page. The story of Saint Edith begins with a detailed history of England's kings, describing both political activities and their dedication to the faith. Rulers frequently provided for the Church and religious institutions benefited from their largess. Edith herself appears about a quarter of the way through the narrative. Immediately her piety and nobility become apparent in her kindness, generosity, and rejection of secular life (including marriage and rule). Miracles, both during her lifetime and performed posthumously, also surround the holy woman. In fact, The Wilton Chronicle focuses on her posthumous activities and the continuing importance of the community. The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth also opens with political narrative, providing a brief history of England's kingdoms to the time of the saint. The holy woman's regal lineage is apparent in this section, as is the family's dedication to the Church. (Her father and uncle are called martyrs and her grandfather a holy man. Her sisters also lead lives of devotion.) Æthelthryth herself appears as a woman staunchly devoted to her faith and virginity, even in the face of two marriages. Once released from secular life, she becomes a nun and, later, the abbess of Ely. As with Saint Edith (and all holy men and women), Æthelthryth performs miracles, in this case posthumously curing the sick and assisting her followers in constructing a new tomb for her remains. The author ends the Life with a miracle account dating from after the nuns left Ely and a community of men replaced them. This final tale of the wondrous emphasizes that the saint remained active in spite of the change in her caretakers.

Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: Princesses, Miracle Workers and Their Late Medieval Audience concludes with several useful appendices. Dockray-Miller includes transcriptions and translations of folios 258r-259v and 274v. The former (edited and translated by Stephen J. Harris) was inserted between the Lives in the extant manuscript and names the founders and patrons of Wilton Abbey from the ninth to fifteenth centuries then lists the sources used in the texts. The latter, placed after The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth, is probably a portion of the Liber Eliensis. These documents add to the reader's understanding of the context in which The Wilton Chronicle and The Wilton Life of Saint Æthelthryth were envisioned by the compiler. Dockray-Miller's decision to also provide of a list of English kings (each with short biography and dates), a description of each of the sources found in Appendix I, a glossary of Middle English, and "Index of Proper Names" (with corresponding biographical data) help make the hagiography more widely accessible to a modern audience.

In recent decades the study of medieval hagiography as relevant sources for social, political, and religious history, rather than as occasional repositories for facts, has allowed scholars to achieve a greater understanding of the medieval world and the men and women who populated it. Saints Edith and Æthelthryth: Princesses, Miracle Workers and Their Late Medieval Audience offers scholars and students two examples of hagiography written for fifteenth-century women and the context in which they were created and consumed. As with their medieval audience, the fifteenth-century Lives of Saints Edith and Æthelthryth provide modern readers with many messages. Their stories expand our understanding of the use of hagiography, add to the corpus of medieval women's history, and "illuminate...the history of women as consumers of literature" (2).