Stephanie Hollis

title.none: Lees and Overing, Double Agents (Stephanie Hollis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0210.002 02.10.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephanie Hollis, University of Auckland,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing. Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. x, 244. $49.95. ISBN: 0-8122-3628-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.10.02

Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing. Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. x, 244. $49.95. ISBN: 0-8122-3628-9.

Reviewed by:

Stephanie Hollis
University of Auckland

Among the issues raised in the introduction to Double Agents is the alienation of cultural history before the twelfth century by the premises of a master paradigm: 'Anglo-Saxon England [is regarded as] originary inescapably different from and often irrelevant to subsequent medieval periods' (4). This alienation, the authors suggest, is intensified by Anglo-Saxonists' lack of engagement with contemporary critical theory: 'The work of archival and material reconstruction has proceeded...without much consideration of the implications of this evidence for the theories of gender developed and used in other fields in the humanities. In consequence, neither the existing evidence nor its potential is widely known by gender specialists outside our field' (5).

Any project which seeks the re-integration of Anglo-Saxon studies into the medieval mainstream is to be welcomed, but it is unlikely that greater engagement with critical theory, on its own, will accomplish this. The isolation of Anglo-Saxon studies, already well underway before the advent of contemporary critical theory, is deeply embedded in the academy and perpetuated by the syllabus -- and it is additionally problematic that the same theorists who value cultural alterity in all forms appear to regard historical difference as synonymous with irrelevance.

Rigid conceptions of periodisation are more fundamental to the alienation of Anglo-Saxon England. The 'as yet unarticulated conversation with Middle English studies' envisaged on the cover flap by Karma Lochrie is more likely to be achieved by comparative studies of Old and Middle English texts, of early and late medieval culture and society. Above all, the boundary between the early and central Middle Ages needs to be collapsed, just as the demarcation between the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period has been. To take the Battle of Hastings as marking the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, as Lees and Overing do, despite the cultural and linguistic continuities generally regarded as extending to c.1200, only serves to enforce the isolation of the Anglo-Saxon period, to make it even more 'emphatically pre-historical' than it need be.

Lees and Overing employ what they describe as 'a feminist patristics'. The first chapter, on 'Bede, Hild and Cultural Procreation', is a revised version of their 1994 article. Hild's absence from Bede's account of C¾dmon, despite her presence in the cultural record elsewhere, prompts questions which recur in their study: 'how to square presence and absence; the liaison between representation and referentiality in this particular instance; how patristic rhetoric appropriates female agency; the relation between orality, literacy, and femininity' (11).

Chapters 2 and 3 examine recent critical focus on orality and literacy and consider how this methodology sheds light on women within the Anglo-Saxon period. The interplay of oral and literate in Anglo-Saxon riddles, which also employ metaphors of birth, prompts the authors to question the degree to which such suppression and rewriting of the feminine process parallels the "disappearance" of the oral trace. Charters 'suggest a different dynamic of literacy and orality, whereby class to a large extent determines which women witness charters and are thus made visible in the legal culture of the period' (12). Chapter 3 includes an excellent analysis of an early eleventh-century charter relating to a property dispute between an unnamed woman and her son, which records her formal declaration of her intention to bequeath all her property to her kinswoman Leoffl¾d (Robertson 78). The widespread identification of women by social category rather than by personal names is explored from the perspective of 'sacred signification and the Eucharist as guarantor of the symbolic' (12).

Chapter 4 compares the representation of female saints in Aldhelm's De virginitate and in Aelfric's Lives of Saints, as well as the anonymous Old English translation of the Life of Mary of Egypt. Lees and Overing find that, whereas the Barking nuns are 'encouraged to regard themselves as sometimes embodied and gendered sometimes male, other times female' (149), Aelfric's hagiographical body is 'a female body, a product of the separation of the sexes in both clerical and secular spheres' (149). The concluding chapter examines some of the ways in which the female body is used as the ground for patristic metaphors, with particular reference to the female personification of Wisdom in Pseudo-Bede's Collectanea and Alfred's recasting of the sex, name, and function of Lady Philosophy in his version of the Consolatio of Boethius.

The authors hold that 'women's history is characterized far more by continuity than by change'. There is, they believe, 'a danger of using the apparent decline of the status of women at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period to posit and celebrate a "golden age" for women in the early heyday of monasticism' (14), and they conclude that the 'denial, silencing, and elision of women's agency in the Anglo-Saxon cultural record at this structural level is so pervasive as to seem utterly naturalized' (172). Although they find 'dramatic change between the socio-political criteria for and representations of female saintliness' (13) in their comparison of De virginitate and the Lives of Saints, then, they resist the imposition of a developmental model from the early to the late Anglo-Saxon period: 'Where we have firm evidence, historically, for the participation of real women in the dynamics of chastity and the performance of belief, the degree of metaphorical violence sharpens upwards; where it is harder to locate the woman, the degree of narrative violence goes down -- female bodies become static icons...At the least, such evidence...argues for a more nuanced emphasis on continuity as well as change' (150).

To accept the view that (monastic) women's status declined in the century preceding the conquest does not necessarily entail an exaggerated construction of their pre-Alfredian situation. If women's history is characterized by continuous 'denial, silencing, and elision' of women's agency, this gives a correspondingly greater interest and significance to evidence of change, and it might be more illuminating to focus our attention on understanding the exceptions and differences, and even, occasionally, to celebrate them. Given the authors' commitment to establishing continuity, however, it is all the more surprising that they did not extend their study beyond the conquest in order to interrogate the view (advanced, among others, by Anne Klinck, in her 1982 study of Anglo-Saxon women and the law) that there is far greater continuity between the Benedictine Reform period and the post-conquest age than there is between early and late Anglo-Saxon England. There is, for instance, a fruitful basis for comparison in the hagiographies commissioned by Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, and by Edith-Mathilda, wife of Henry I. Directly descended from Aethelred the Unready, Edith-Mathilda, like her namesake, was educated at Wilton, and may have been brought up at Edith's court; evidently concerned to assert her connections with the Anglo-Saxon monarchy, she presumably emulated Edith in commissioning a life of her mother, Margaret of Scotland.

One of the many questions raised by Double Agents is the relationship between representation and social actuality. If the sketchy presence of women in the cultural record of the early Anglo-Saxon period -- particularly the abbesses of double monasteries -- belies the extent of their social participation and agency, can we hypothesize that, in the late Anglo-Saxon period, exclusion of women from the cultural record correlates with lack of social presence? But even assessing the extent to which women are absent from cultural record of the late Anglo-Saxon period is a complex matter. As Lees and Overing point out, the documentary evidence is both greater in volume and different in kind from that of the early period. There are no surviving Latin letters or lives known to have been written by or for nuns, and nothing comparable to Aldhelm's De virginitate. There are, however, two panegyrics commissioned by queens (Emma and Edith), which are without parallel in the early period, and Aelfric's vernacular writings include a homily on Judith written for nunnan, women pursuing a religious vocation outside the convent, as distinct from mynecenu, "monastic women"; individual nunnan are well-attested in late Anglo-Saxon wills. Where there are comparable sources -- in the lives of bishops -- the women who figure as their associates are primarily queens and non-monastic religious.

Thus, for reasons too lengthy to rehearse here, the two categories of women cultivated by churchmen in the late period have an increased presence in the cultural record, and there is more evidence of their social agency, as well as unprecedented evidence of their participation in literate culture. What survives in the way of documentation is not necessarily representative, but the relative decline in the visibility of monastic women in the cultural record of the late period probably does correlate with a reduction in their participation in literary culture and social agency, arising from the stricter enclosure of female communities. The picture is further complicated, however, by the writings of Goscelin, whose importance for the history of Anglo-Saxon women has rarely been recognized. His Life of Edith of Wilton, though dedicated to Lanfranc in c.1080, was commissioned by the nuns of Wilton, perhaps as early as 1065, and his Liber confortatorius was written for Eve, a nun educated at Wilton who left the convent to become a recluse in Angers c.1082. The combined weight of this and other evidence suggests that Wilton was exceptional as a women's educational centre, but not unique. We find, then, a recurrence of the conundrum presented by the cultural record of the early Anglo-Saxon period -- Latin literate monastic women but no lives or chronicles written by them.

Goscelin states that he based the Life of Edith on the oral testimony of the nuns; he makes a similar statement in his Life of Wulfhilda of Barking, although in this case he clearly signals the existence of other written lives. Lees and Overing's exploration of orality, literacy and women's agency offers new and illuminating ways of construing the significance of this phenomenon, but before reaching a conclusion on its implications I would first want to discover, if possible, whether Goscelin and/or the Norman bishops to whom he dedicated these lives considered that the first-hand oral testimony of both women and men had greater authenticity than a written life, and also the extent to which lives of saints whose relics were owned by female communities did exist but have not survived.

From my point of view, Lees and Overing's study obscures the differences between periods and between categories of women in the late Anglo-Saxon, and also the problematic and shifting nature of the relationship between absence from the cultural record and evidence of social participation and agency. In many cases, it seems to me, the questions they raise could be answered by empirical historical research and a more comprehensive overview of the cultural record rather than by proliferating the levels of theorization. Regarded in terms of the authors' own aims, Double Agents is an innovative and provocative study, adventurous in its choice of texts and stimulating in its lively and detailed engagement with them. The authors' exploration of the complex relation of the feminine, orality, and literacy will undoubtedly influence the direction of future critical enquiry.