12.02.07, Norris ed., Anonymous Interpolations in Aelfric's Lives of Saints

Main Article Content

Jonathan Wilcox

The Medieval Review 12.02.07

Norris, Robin. Anonymous Interpolations in Aelfric's Lives of Saints. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 35. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2011. Pp. ix +117. ISBN: 978-1-58044-163-6.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Wilcox
University of Iowa

With stories of a transvestite woman outsmarting patriarchal authority, a past-sex-addict wandering naked in the desert, and inadvertent time travelers, three of the four hagiographies under consideration here must be among the most well-read surviving Old English prose saints' lives (admittedly a subset of a rather small audience). The common link between the Lives of Saints Euphrosyne, Mary of Egypt, the Seven Sleepers, and Eustace is that all four are included in the manuscript collection known as Ælfric's Lives of Saints, London, British Library, Cotton Julius E. vii, but are not, in fact, written by Ælfric. They were probably written by different unknown authors in view of the different styles of translation, as Robin Norris shows in the introduction to this short collection of essays. The four essays here take different approaches to the four lives they discuss, in a collection conceived at the 2004 NEH Summer Institute on Anglo-Saxon England at the University of Cambridge, and partly trialed at the Kalamazoo Congress of 2006.

Stephen Stallcup uncovers anxiety about wealth in "The Old English Life of Saint Euphrosyne and the Economics of Sanctity." He focuses on the divestment of personal property by Paphnutius rather than the transvestite asceticism of Euphrosyne, thus providing more emphasis on the spiritual journey of the father than the challenge to authority and final sanctity of the daughter. "If the Life is not ultimately a critique of patriarchy," he suggests, "it does show decided anxieties about material wealth and its use" (14). Stallcup reads the narrative's "distinct anti-material bias" through the lens of the story of the rich young man in the parable of Matthew 19:17-24, perceptively opening up one thrust of the story, even as he downplays its titular heroine.

While the cult of St. Euphrosyne was minimal, Mary of Egypt was celebrated far more widely, and the Life of St. Mary of Egypt is probably the most popular of the lives considered here, both in its ample medieval circulation (on which see the studies cited in the introduction) and in its modern reception (a translation by Hugh Magennis is included, for example, in the second edition of The Broadview Anthology of British Literature [2009]). In this case, Julius E. vii is lacking a passage in mid-narrative, most likely through a missing folio in an exemplar, in which the saint levitates during prayer and begins to narrate her scandalous past. Amazingly, the lacuna is partly filled by a surviving fragment, part of The Gloucester Fragments (Gloucester, Cathedral MS 35, providing Skeat's lines 248-292), but when this, too, is lacking, Skeat has to fill in the relevant story from the Latin source text (lines 292-317). Linda Cantara's new readings of another burnt and mutilated manuscript in "Saint Mary of Egypt in British Library, MS Cotton Otho B. x" might, thus, have a lot to offer. Alas, though, the six damaged folios of Otho B. x do not provide the missing passage. Cantara reads these folios anew, one of which has not been read before (fol. 59 is not identified by Ker or used in Skeat's or Magennis's editions) through ultra-violet digital imaging. Cantara provides images and transcriptions of each page in an appendix. In her essay, she itemizes and discusses spelling variants, differences in vocabulary, and slight differences in phrasing, which are likely to be of more interest for the history of spelling than for illuminating the narrative, for which the new readings are distinctly modest. Occasionally, the variants establish an interesting textual dichotomy, as when Mary describes her past pleasures in sinful lust: "and þæt me wæs to yrmðe" (and that was misery to me) in Julius E. vii, whereas "and þæt me wæs to myrcðe" (and that was pleasure to me) in Otho B. x (36), but this is a reading already tentatively established in Skeat's variants (line 343n: "indistinct; but perhaps it is the right reading," he observes).

Eileen A. Joy sets up the boldest reading in the collection in "The Old English Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person." A wonderful introduction to the form, drawing on critics like Peter Brown, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Michael Lapidge, and illustrated by readings from Ælfric's Lives, ponders the epistemological implications of the genre's recurring obsession with, yet nonchalance about, tortured bodies. This serves as a platform for the claim that the Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers is different. Joy emphasizes how this legend plays up the emotion of the seven companions who, unusually, flinch at the prospect of martyrdom. The narrator even attributes hesitation and affection to the tormentor, while "the bulk of the narrative explores, through a type of psychological realism unique for its time, the emotional suffering of highly socialized selves being wrenched out of a world which itself mourns that untimely separation" (85). Joy does not make such a grand claim lightly but bolsters her case both by considering a historically responsible use of psychoanalytic criticism and by astute attention to the emotive language of the Old English, where Decius's reign "ungeheorte" (un-hearts) the general populace of Ephesus and where he expresses concern for the "wlitige lif" (the beautiful lives) of "ðæs caseres dyrlingas" (the emperor's darlings), who he walls up in the cave. Joy's astute reading is made harder by the Old English text's chance lack of a key passage in which God puts the seven comrades to sleep. Nevertheless, Joy makes a strong claim for this affecting and effective narrative, where the author "allows a certain sacred history the final word, while also enacting the performance of what he might have believed were the personal and individual costs of that history--he highlights, in other words, history's subjectivity, and therefore, its realism" (89).

Robin Norris turns to St. Eustace in the final essay of the collection, "Reversal of Fortune, Response, and Reward in the Old English Passion of Saint Eustace." While this romance-inflected legend has received some attention from later medieval critics since the story gets retold in the Middle English metrical romance, Sir Isumbras, the Old English version is probably the least well known of those included here. Norris considers how, in a story that out-Jobs Job and echoes Apollonius of Tyre, the translator plays down the emotion of the characters in order to exemplify the appropriate reaction to misfortune, avoiding the sin of tristitia. The Old English life, she argues, coheres around demonstrating "the homiletic notion that earthly sorrow merits reward in heaven, so long as one does not react inappropriately" (102).

Joy frames her discussion of The Seven Sleepers with a contemporary novel that is in some ways analogous for imagining the embodiedness of the afterlife and the crucial role of remembering the dead, namely Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead (2006). Contemporary novelists have, indeed, made rich use of other legends in this collection, too. Nalo Hopkinson amusingly rationalizes the legend of Mary of Egypt in one of the plot threads running through The Salt Roads (2003) that may delight those familiar with the tradition. The Legend of St. Eustace runs through the background of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic imagination of Kent (1980) which may particularly appeal to Anglo-Saxonists for its experiment with a dialect of English some two thousand years' hence.

While novelists have seized on these traditions, Anglo-Saxonists have mostly been quiet in responding to saints' lives in general and these four legends in particular, with the honorable exception of the work of Hugh Magennis, along with other occasional studies duly referenced in this volume. The collection was apparently assembled too early to incorporate some recent studies that might be of further value. Readers interested in the Ælfrician context for the collection as a whole may now usefully turn to A Companion to Ælfric, ed. Hugh Magennis and Mary Swan (2009), while The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation, ed. Aaron J. Kleist (2007) contains much of value on the context. An earlier Old English Newsletter subsidia volume gathers four essays on Mary of Egypt (The Old English Life of Mary of Egypt, ed. Donald Scragg [2005]). It is telling, though, that these lives, for all their gripping plots and cultural fascination, have not received much scholarly attention. It is much to be hoped that the present volume goes some way to stimulating further interest in such remarkable lives.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jonathan Wilcox

University of Iowa