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15.10.41, Szarmach, ed., Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England

The Medieval Review

15.10.41, Szarmach, ed., Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England

Paul Szarmach has drawn on conference papers that he sponsored as well as invited contributions to produce this, his fourth book as editor in a series of Old English prose texts on women saints' lives, to which he himself contributed an essay. This rich volume presents fresh essays by outstanding Old English scholars in the continuously developing field of Anglo-Saxon feminine sanctity. Drawing on different approaches and methodologies, the writers make important contributions to an area of increasing interest.

The first two chapters appear under the heading "Old English Martyrology." Christine Rauer leads off with "Female Hagiography in the Old English Martyrology," a late eighth- or early ninth-century compilation of 200 prose entries describing important details of the saints' lives and martyrdoms, intended as a reference work. Contrary to Sarah Foot's opinion, Rauer argues that the martyrologist is not particularly fixated on female monasticism but more on the literal translation of his direct sources, such as Bede, not adding any substantial information. The entries for both male and female saints indicate that both were central to the compiler's endeavor. In contrast to Rauer, Jacqueline Stodnick argues in "Bodies of Land: The Place of Gender in the Old English Martyrology" that the gender distribution in the OEM is disproportionately masculine, with references to posthumous miracles limited to the relics of male saints and an association of male saints' burial sites with honor and miracles, while female saints are simply honored for their saintliness, with the result that these genre norms "limit and direct the narrative possibilities for male and female saints" (37). This observation seems particularly important in the context of her earlier observation that saintly worship was "resolutely local, converging upon particular death sites and cult centres" (30).

The second section, "Form and Genre," has five entries. The first, by Tracey-Anne Cooper is "Why Is Margaret's the Only Life in London, BL, Cotton MS Tiberius A.iii?" She points out that this biography appearing uniquely in the manuscript fits thematically with the fifteen homilies that follow it, which all display the interests of the community that produced it (80). In "Æthelgifu's Will as Hagiography," Mary Louis Fellows challenges the stark differentiation scholars typically draw between the late Anglo-Saxon saints' lives concerning holy men and those concerning holy women" (82). (This stands in contrast to Stodnick's contention in the second essay that women's sanctity is limited to their sexual probity.) She then relates the spiritual literature with wills as joint statements of Christian search for life after death. The chapter draws parallels between the will, Ælfric's second Life of Martin, and his Life of Eugenia, which have less to do with suppression of desire than with transcendence of the physical to attain disembodied spirituality (83). For example, Fellows compares gender and chastity in Ælfric's saints' lives with details in Æthelgifu's will. Æthelgifu "wears" her husband's wealth in the way Eugenia wears the robe of a monk--like Martin. Stephenson, in "Assuming Virginity: Tradition and the Naked Narrative in Ælfric's Homily on the Assumption of the Virgin," contends that Ælfric in this homily centers on Mary's role as heavenly queen, and "has taken the veneration of the ruler reflected in the Marian and Christological programs of the reform and repositioned it solely on Mary without reflecting any light on the Anglo-Saxons' temporal rulers" (120). The title of the next chapter, "Genre Trouble: Reading the Old English Vita of Saint Euphrosyne," by Robin Norris, meaningfully plays on Judith Butler's book Gender Trouble by investigating the transvestite saint motif. The two examples of the theme in Old English, those of Euphrosyne and Eugenia, are distinct because the former is of a confessor and the latter of a martyr. Norris treats seriously the plot that strikes a modern reader as ludicrously sensational. (Ælfric in his judiciousness omitted from his Lives of Saints this life as well as the following fantastic one.) After an orderly analysis Norris concludes: "Despite her disguise as a eunuch, Euphrosyne's female identity is hidden and revealed, but not effaced"; dying as a confessor instead of a martyr "becomes the saint's most transgressive act" (139). The last item in this section is editor Paul Szarmach's "More Genre Trouble: The Life of Mary of Egypt." Since he points out that an excellent edition of the Life by Hugh Magennis already exists as well as numerous articles on the work, Szarmach's essay consists of comments on this "sensational novelette," as Rosemary Wool has called it, and explores the bizarre depiction of the repentant harlot and her old admirer Zosimus. Szarmach concludes his detailed 24-page analysis by noting that other themes suggested by the Life would require a monograph.

The next section, "Mothers," has two chapters. In "'Nutrix Pia': The Flowering of the Cult of St Æthelthryth in Anglo-Saxon England," John Black examines details about Æthelthryth's Life, in the writings of Stephanus, Bede, the Old English Martyrology, Aldhelm, Ælfric, and The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, with special attention to the evolution of the saint's cult from that of virgin-martyr to an emphasis on her as a model of Christian devotion because of her "spiritual generativity of steadfastness" (187). Bede's hymn in Æthelthryth's honor along with the translation taken from the Colgrave-Mynors edition of the History is appended on 188-90. In "The Kentish Queen as Omnium Mater: Goscelin of Saint-Bertin's Lections and the Emergence of the Cult of Saint Saxburgh," Virginia Blanton notes that Goscelin's elaboration of Bede's brief biographical elements probably drew on some Ely document, since in his other writings Goscelin does not invent factual details (211). One example is Goscelin's presentation of Seaxburh's leaving Kent for East Anglia that redirects attention to Ely's importance in its long-lasting service to the English Church. An appendix (213) gives an outline of Goscelin's eight lections for Seaxburh's feast.

The final section of the book, "Virgin Martyrs," offers three essays. The first, by Rhonda McDaniel, is about "Agnes among the Anglo-Saxons: Patristic Influences in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-Saxon Versions of the Passio of St Agnes, Virgin and Martyr." From Ambrose to Pseudo-Ambrose, Aldhelm, Bede, and Ælfric, the legend spread from purely monastic observance to the laity with a vernacular translation under the patronage of laymen (245-46). An appendix (247-48) presents the hymn In natali S. Agnetis (without informing the reader on 245 and 248 that it is falsely attributed to Bede), along with McDaniel's translation. Renée Trilling's "Heavenly Bodies: Paradoxes of Female Martyrdom in Ælfric's Lives of Saints" explores and explicates the paradox of "the use of violence, sex, and spectacle to reinforce ideas of peace, chastity and virtue" (249).

In the final essay of the volume, Rosalind Love takes the imperative "Torture me, rend me, burn me, kill me!" from Goscelin of Saint-Bertin's Life of Mildreth of Minster-in-Thanet as the title for her essay about his depiction of female sanctity (275). Although Love remarks that it is a "ridiculous eye-catcher title," it does remind one of John Donne's exuberant imperative in Holy Sonnet 14, "Bend / your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new." Love explores the "almost comic quality"(276) with which Goscelin hypes the biography, describing Goscelin's exalting the martyrs with over-the-top hagiographic verve "sweeping his audience along on waves of emotion" (305). Mildreth "is shown at the end of her life, in the vigorous passion of her longing for union with Christ in death" (306). Love is supreme in her lively account of both Mildreth and her exuberant biographer.

This review, though necessarily brief, should manifest that this recent work by Szarmach as editor makes a major contribution to Anglo-Saxon scholarship and to the larger field of feminist studies.