08.05.07, Blanton, Signs of Devotion

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Melanie Heyworth

The Medieval Review 08.05.07

Blanton, Virginia . Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Aethelthryth in Medieval England, 695-1615. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 347. ISBN: 978-0-271-02984-9 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Melanie Heyworth
University of Sydney

Signs of Devotion is a volume that has much to offer the scholar or student of St Æthelthryth and her cult. The wealth of information on those topics that it accumulates between its pages is laudable--from Bede's version of Æthelthryth's Life in the eighth century to seventeenth century literary and artistic depictions of her--and, undoubtedly, Signs of Devotion is the most thorough study to date on the cult and life of Æthelthryth. Particularly significant is the contextualisation that arises from such a comprehensive study across time: rarely are we afforded the opportunity to examine the development of a cult over a millennium. However, one pervasive issue limits the appeal and effectiveness of Signs of Devotion: this is a monograph that wears its theoretical underpinnings emblazoned on its proverbial sleeve (recall the title, Signs of Devotion) and yet it rarely engages with that theory in any depth or at all. That this book often appears to be expository rather than argumentative is at least partly a product of its fleeting and superficial engagement with the theory that (notionally) informs it. The very first sentence of the Introduction asserts that "medieval hagiography is rich with cultural signs" (1), but Blanton never satisfactorily defines what she means by "cultural signs;" what does it mean when Blanton says, for example, that conjugal chastity is a "cultural sign," a "signification" (4), or that cults of saints are "religious systems of signification" (15)? The fundamental questions of what Blanton understands a sign to be, and what she means by the theoretically-laden term signification, are never addressed. Those who know something of semiotics, or of theories of "signs," will be frustrated by this lack of engagement; those who have not been exposed to these theories previously will be unenlightened, and, in all likelihood, confused. For the most part, the Introduction consists of repetitive assertions of what Blanton intends to say, but not the theory or the methodology of how she intends to do so.

Chapter One, "Cicatricis uestigia parerent: The Mark of Virginity in Bede's Ecclesiastical History (ca. 630ca. 731)," focuses on the two accounts of Æthelthryth's Life in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. Initially, Blanton compares Bede's prose account of Æthelthryth with his account of Abbess Hild, concluding that Bede used these women to "demonstrate acceptable religious behaviour for aristocratic women" (25). Bede, Blanton contends, constructed Hild as a mother figure, while Æthelthryth became a paradigm for female sanctity in virginity. Blanton's close analysis of Bede's prose Life demonstrates that through Æthelthryth, Bede developed a "new model of virginal behavior, one that imitated and transformed the lives of early Christian virgins" (27). Blanton's point, well made, is that Bede writes Æthelthryth's story to incorporate all of the conventions of an archetypical hagiography of a universal saint. Bede's emphases on Æthelthryth's tumour, its lancing, and its subsequent post mortem healing, then, are "demonstrative of a particular need to locate sanctity within the emerging Christian community in England, and the visual evidence of body and scar are important symbols of God's provenance there" (13). Thus the "healed wound becomes the locus of authenticity in this entire narrative, a multivalent sign of inscription" (42). Blanton's argument is sometimes stretched: I remained unconvinced by her reading of Æthelthryth's scar as "an indication that Æthelthryth's body is sealed, that the vaginal opening is forever closed" (45). Nevertheless, although the point is unnecessarily laboured, her fundamental argument--that the tumour and scar are sites of locational memory and virginity--is insightful. Blanton returns to her point that Bede is deliberately positioning Æthelthryth as a universal saint in her (much shorter and, consequently, more successful) analysis of Bede's hymn for Æthelthryth.

In Chapter Two, "Æðeldryð wolde ða ealle woruld-þincg forlætan: The Ideology of Chastity and Monastic Reform (ca. 970 998)," Blanton moves onto Æthelwoldian and Ælfrician devotion to Æthelthryth. She reads Æthelwold's and Ælfric's accounts together to "situate Æthelthryth as a cultural symbol--one that specifically represented the politics of chastity and monasticism during the tenth century Benedictine Reform" (65-66). Initially she examines Æthelwold's epigraph to Æthelthryth, arguing that this text venerates a saint who "maintained her will in the face of secular demands" (66) and suggesting that its purpose was to encourage the laity "to adopt a monastic career" (66). A concise outline of the history of Ely between Bede's era and Æthelwold's successfully underlines Æthelwold's personal devotion to, and patronage of, it and Æthelthryth, and allows Blanton to situate convincingly Æthelwold's veneration of Æthelthryth within the Benedictine Reform agenda. Blanton concentrates primarily on the Benedictional of St Æthelwold and specifically on its benediction to and illuminated miniature of Æthelthryth. Ultimately, her reading and discussion are heavily informed by Robert Deshman and Richard Gameson, and Blanton does not present anything substantially new here. Her examination of how the miniature and the inscription work together to provide Æthelwold's audience with "a model by which his followers might maintain chastity in their monastic profession" (89) and "to encourage chaste monasticism" (92) is comprehensive, but not especially innovative. More compelling is her summary of the developments in the litany tradition by which she clearly demonstrates Æthelwold's hand in the rise in popularity of Æthelthryth's cult and in Æthelthryth's increasingly pre-eminent status. Blanton's final section on Ælfric's Life of St Æthelthryth again relies on previous arguments (principally those of Peter Jackson and Robert Upchurch), particularly in her contextualisation of Æthelthryth's Life against the other native and married saints' lives in Ælfric's Lives of Saints collection. Her conclusion that Ælfric chose to include Æthelthryth in his collection as "a model for leadership within monasticism" and "to recruit noncelibate priests and married aristocrats into the monastic communities" (114) is well evidenced and furthers our appreciation of Ælfric's Life.

Chapter Three, "Tota integra, tota incorrupta: The Inviolable Body and Ely's Monastic Identity (1066-ca. 1133)", explores "how the cult was used to protect the monastery at Ely during the Norman invasion" (13) and analyses the Liber Eliensis (LE) chronicle to this end. Blanton convincingly demonstrates that in the LE "the saint's virginal body became a symbol for the autonomy of the island community" (14). This chapter is easily the strongest of the entire volume: not only does it attempt more than anywhere else to engage with its theoretical constructs (Blanton explicitly incorporates her theory into her argument here), but it is also far shorter and its argument tighter and more persuasive for that brevity. Her analysis of three discrete episodes in the LE persuasively demonstrates how "the narrative carefully negotiates the difficult line between inviolability and invasion" (139) through "the alignment of the monastic body with the saint's body...at moments of crisis" (139). Her claim that the LE is "a rhetorical document that establishes the saint's body and shrine as multivalent symbols designed to elucidate the monks' situation" (139) is realised in these analyses which benefit from nuanced readings in which the Anglo-Saxon monks' use of Æthelthryth's body--as the inviolable virgin--is contrasted with that of the Norman monks--as virago and masculinised miles Christi. Nevertheless, I have some hesitation in accepting all of her conclusions since she introduces the first of the three episodes, categorically, as "a story of sexualized violence" (147) and yet a few pages later concedes that "Ecgfrith's sexual intentions are not clearly articulated" (151; my emphasis); the circularity of this (admittedly small part of her) argument to some extent undermines what is otherwise a persuasive thesis.

The final two chapters of the monograph document the shift away from monastic production and reception to that for and by aristocratic women (in chapter four), and for and by the laity (in chapter five). In Chapter Four, "La gloriuse seint Audree/Une noble eglise a fundee: Chastity, Widowhood, and Aristocratic Patronage (ca. 1189-1416)," Blanton moves to the vernacular Anglo-Norman poetic La Vie Seinte Audrée, written by a woman and for women. Blanton examines "how Æthelthryth's story was appropriated by aristocratic women to define their own lives" (14) and how the author of the vie made "a concerted effort to help the audience connect with Æthelthryth as a person with a lived experience" (174). "In effect," argues Blanton, "the Vie Seinte Audrée seems to be crafted specially to induce aristocratic patronage by women who had the means to imitate Æthelthryth's governance of her wealth and the social position to adopt the authority that underscores acts of religious patronage" (174). This vie, then, emphasises Æthelthryth's lay patronage and her marital chastity over her role as abbess and her miraculous virginity (183) and is remarkably distinct from the LE (from which it is drawn) in its expansion of Æthelthryth's life story and daily life and in its downplaying of specifically monastic concerns (such as monastic land claims). The vie "appeals to a female audience" of wives, mothers, or widows and "establishes behavioral codes for aristocratic lay and religious women" (178); it emphasises Æthelthryth's "agency and active participation" (194) as a patron of religious space. Blanton's account of the potential audience for the vie is compelling, and she effectively weaves together details of the manuscript in which the vie is extant with those of Campsey Ash priory to construct a possible audience for the vie consisting of the wealthiest aristocratic nuns and lay women. Nevertheless, her account of the wealthy vowess, Isabella Ufford, Countess of Suffolk, and her exploration of the possibility that Isabella lived in "imitatio Ætheldredae," however suggestive and evocative, is overly detailed and arduous, particularly given that, in the end, it is purely speculative and based on circumstantial evidence.

Chapter Five, "Abbesse heo was hir self imad after þe furste ȝere / And an holi couent inow heo norisede þere: Clerical Production, Vernacular Texts, and Lay Devotion (ca. 1325 ca. 1615)" focuses on three vernacular versions of Vitae Ætheldredae produced in late medieval England in Middle English. Regarding the epitome in the South English Legendary, Blanton argues that the author characterises Æthelthryth primarily as an unusual wife and as a maternal nourisher of a religious community and of virgins. Turning to the verse life from Wilton Abbey, Blanton argues for a "diverse lay and religious audience" (257), highlighting the performance-oriented presentation of the text, which is filled with entertaining dialogues between characters, is concerned with reading and writing, and which gives Æthelthryth an active, autonomous and ultimately didactic voice aimed at spiritual edification. Blanton's suggestion that these dialogues side-step the "conjugal problem" between Ecgfrith and Æthelthryth in that the latter becomes "the persuasive voice of spiritual authority regarding marriage and purity" (252) and "the writer shows us how the married pair negotiate their impasse" (253), is excellent and convincing. The final vernacular text which Blanton discusses only very briefly is a prose translation in CUL, Add. MS 2604, one of a collection of lives in the manuscript that "create a vernacular legendary of both British and universal [mostly female] saints" (259). Blanton finally closes the chapter and the book by turning to the material evidence for lay devotion (particularly in the form of roodscreens, ornamented and maintained by lay parishioners). Here, Blanton examines the pictorial representations of Æthelthryth, especially those that cluster around Norwich in Norfolk. In these, Æthelthryth is depicted as a Benedictine abbess, with a habit, crozier, open book and crown, and most often grouped with the virgin martyrs: she is represented as abbess, as a local embodiment of virginity (a type of virgin mother), and as an authorial, teaching figure. Blanton concludes that "the parishioners' active engagement with the varied depictions of Æthelthryth demonstrates that lay devotion to the saints was not a passive ritual but one that augmented, and in this case transformed, the clerical narratives that undoubtedly contributed to lay interest in this cult" (287).

This monograph is, in many places, laboured and over-length but one of its strengths is Blanton's skilful inclusion of art historical comparisons. In her Introduction, Blanton identifies her main purposes as "to uncover the ways in which a regional female saint's body operates as a cultural signifier in several different historical periods, among quite divergent audiences, using a variety of data" (5), and to reveal "how medieval people actively adapted cults to their own purposes, and...to consider the complex ways in which devotional figures could be utilized for both religious and nonreligious reasons" (7). She is far more successful in the latter than the former. In terms of the latter, Signs of Devotion is a book about Æthelthryth across chronological, contextual and generic boundaries. Blanton does convincingly demonstrate the ways in which the purpose of Æthelthryth and her sanctity was manipulated over time to suit particular contexts and purposes. Any serious scholar of Æthelthryth and her story in any of its manifestations is well rewarded by reading this book, and its importance in this respect should not be dismissed or diminished. However, the limitations of this monograph, as noted above, rest in Blanton's unexplained use of terms like "cultural signifier." Signs of Devotion might have been a profound and important book, beyond its information on Æthelthryth: it might have introduced hagiographers to a very productive relationship with semiotics. Blanton had the opportunity to bring semiotics into the theoretical purview of hagiographers, and to increase her potential audience dramatically. She misses that opportunity.

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Author Biography

Melanie Heyworth

University of Sydney