Old English Saints’ Lives

(with special reference to women)

Mary Dzon

copyright 2000

Some caveats are appropriate in a discussion of Old English hagiographic literature. These concern the nature of the genre itself, which is traditional and conventional with regard to both style and content. The writers of saints’ lives were auctores in the sense of handing down the stories they received, usually from one or more Latin sources, especially in the case of the prose OE lives. Hence it is necessary for an Anglo-Saxonist dealing with hagiographic material to be able to study the various Latin sources. The recent book Holy Men and Holy Women, especially the introduction, is a guidebook of how to go about studying OE saints, with respect to both the MSS and the modern printed resources.

A second caveat does not concern the scholarly nature of hagiographical studies, but rather the judgment of vitae with respect to modern expectations of literature. As Rosemary Woolf admits in her essay on saints’ lives, most are not examples of "great literature," although they do have their stylistic and cultural merits. Michael Lapidge in the Cambridge Guide also emphasizes the lack of individuality on the part of the characters of saints: they were meant to embody the ideal s of Christian virtue, more than reveal unique, complex personalities. Since the writers of these texts were more concerned about universals than particular details, it might be said that the vitae have more in common with poetry than with history, especi ally those lives that verge on hagiographical romance (such as the Legend of the Seven Sleepers). At the end of his classic text on saints’ legends—which, by the way, is quite modern despite its early twentieth century date—Hippolyte Delehaye rema rks that the lives, beyond their documentary value, are even more important because of their poetic quality: "Their [the saints’] life is, in truth the concrete realisation of the spirit of the Gospel, and from the fact that it brings home to us thi s sublime ideal, legend, like all poetry, can claim a higher degree of truth than history itself" (230-1).

A good survey of hagiography in Old English is provided by Woolf, who focuses on the literary texts. Bede, she notes, was one of the first scholars on the English scene to write hagiographical material, basing his theme and style on the Latin tra dition. But his writing, like that of other English hagiographers, was in Latin prose geared toward a monastic audience, which commemorated the saints in the liturgy. Vernacular saints’ lives originated in Mercia at the end of the eighth century, in par ticular with Cynewulf’s poems, among which are Elene and Juliana. The latter poem is an epic passion in which the virgin rejects the offer for marriage from a consul, is tempted by the devil, and displays a heroic resistance to pain. It wa s probably intended for a monastery of nuns as a sort of exemplum. The pattern of the virgin martyr can also be seen in the Judith poem. Elene, despite its title, is not really about the mother of Constantine, but rather focuses on a Jewis h convert. It was probably intended for recital on the feast of the Invention of the Cross. While Cynewulf’s was a sort of substitute for heroic poetry, saints’ lives were incorporated into homilies in the late tenth century, most notably in Ælfric ’s Catholic Homilies and Lives of the Saints, which he intended for both monks and the laity. Almost all of the Old English, which displays a simple, succinct style, is a literal translation from his Latin sources. Some of his stories rela te the passion of virgin martyrs, such as Eugenia (who disguises herself as a man in order to live as a monk), Agnes and Lucy, in which virginity is idealized as the virtue necessary for contemplation.

In the Cambridge Guide, Michael Lapidge grounds his discussion in the liturgical aspects and cultural context of the genre. He underscores the earthiness of the whole saint-business: medieval people venerated saints through the physical p resence of their relics in order to obtain certain material needs, such as cures from sicknesses. The church containing these relics would profit by means of the donations made in return for favors granted. He also points out that in the Anglo-Saxon per iod there was no central process of canonization, so that the "dubbing" of a saint was very much a local, popular affair. Besides narrative saints’ lives, our knowledge of the cults of saints is based on the various litanies, liturgical calenda rs and martyrologies. These often preceded the more descriptive stories and usually provided only minimal bibliographical information. The passio or vita (commemorating a martyr and a "confessor" of the faith, respectively) was o riginally composed for reading on the saint’s feast day, and was therefore intended for institutional religious usage. We know that there were also extra-liturgical individual saints’ lives and collections by the fact that Anglo-Saxon writers treat many continental saints who do not appear in Anglo-Saxon calendars.

Interestingly, Lapidge points out, Ælfric, who is the most important later hagiographer, was more concerned with saints common to the universal Church than those of only local interest, and only those who were "approved." Thus, wh ile one might look to Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives to discern a particular English strain of piety (hence the treatment of Old English and Middle English vitae as continuous in several studies of English saints’ lives), the literature as a whole reveals the Church’s conception of "catholic" saintliness. In other words, through the window of an Anglo-Saxon vita, a modern reader may look out onto a wide panorama of time and place within medieval history, in much the same fashion as in the Legend a Aurea, the momentous thirteenth century Latin collection of saints’ lives.

From the above it is clear that OE writing about the saints assumed various literary types and that the saints were of great interest within Anglo-Saxon culture. As Woolf states, saints’ lives were the "dominant narrative kind in the Old Eng lish period." (243). This might be striking, for non-Anglo-Saxonists tend to associate that literature with heroic, secular epics, rather than with so-called "devotional" literature.

For further reading

Astell, Ann. "Holofernes's Head: Tacen and Teaching in the Old English Judith." Anglo-Saxon England 18 (1989): 117-133.

Belanoff, Patricia A. "Judith: Sacred and Secular Heroine." In Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period. Eds. Helen Damianco and John Legerle. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993. 247-64.

Bjork, Robert E. The Old English Verse Saints’ Lives: A Study in Direct Discourse and the Iconography of Style. Toronto: UT Press, 1985.

Bodden, Mary-Catherine. The Old English Finding of the True Cross. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

Bradley, S.A.J. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman: London & Vermont, 1995. This anthology provides modern English translations of the poems Juliana, Elene and Judith.

Bremmer, Rolf H., Jr. "Changing Perspectives on a Saint’s Life: Juliana." In Companion to Old English Poetry. Eds. Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit UP, 1994. 201-216.

Chase, Colin. "Source Study as a Trick with Mirrors: Annihilation of Meaning in the Old English ‘Mary of Egypt’" In Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach. Medieval Institute Publications: Kalamazoo, 1989. 23-33.

Clayton, Mary. Apocryphal Gospels of Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 26. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Clayton, Mary. "Ælfric's Judith: Manipulative or Manipulated?" Anglo-Saxon England 23 (1994): 215-227.

Clayton, Mary. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. CSASE 2. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1990.

Clayton, Mary. "Feasts of the Virgin in the Liturgy of the Anglo-Saxon

Church." Anglo-Saxon England 13 (1984): 209-33.

Clayton, Mary and Hugh Magennis. The Old English Lives of St. Margaret. CSASE 9. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1994.

Cross, J.E. "English Vernacular Saints’ Lives Before 1000 A.D." In Hagiographies. Vol. 2. Ed. Guy Philippart. Brepols: Turnhout, 1996. 413-27.

Delehaye, Hippolyte. The Legends of the Saints. Trans. Richard J. Schoeck. New York: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961.

D’Evelyn, Charlotte. Review of Die englische Heiligenlegende des Mittelalters, by Theodor Wolpers. Speculum 42 (1967): 213-7.

Donovan, Leslie A., ed. and trans. Women Saints' Lives in Old English Prose. Library of Medieval Woman. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999.

Farrar, Raymon S. "Structure and Function in Representative Old English Saints’ Lives." Neophilologus 57 (1973): 83-93.

Frederick, Jill. "The South English Legendary: Anglo-Saxon saints and national identity." In Literary Appropriations of the Anglo-Saxons from the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century. Eds. Donald Scragg and Carole Weinberg. CSASE 2 9. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 2000. 57-73

Hollis, Stephanie. Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church. The Boydell Press: Suffolk: 1992.

Lapidge, Michael. "The Saintly Life in Anglo-Saxon England." In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1991. 243-263.

Lapidge, Michael, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Blackwell: 1999. See entry on hagiography.

Magennis, Hugh, ed. The Anonymous Old English Legend of the Seven Sleepers. Durham Medieval Texts 7. Durham, 1994.

Nelson, Marie. "Judith: A Story of a Secular Saint." Germanic Notes 21 (1990): 12-3.

Nelson, Marie. Judith, Juliana and Elene: Three Fighting Saints. American University Studies. Series 4. English Language and Literature. Vol. 135. New York: P. Lang, 1991.

Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. "Cynewulf’s Autonomous Women: A Reconsideration of Elene and Juliana." In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Indiana UP: Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1990. 222-32.

Rollason, David. Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Schneider, Claude. "Cynwulf's Devaluation of Heroic Tradition in Juliana," Anglo-Saxon England 7 (1978): 107-118.

Sperk, Klaus. Medieval English Saints’ Legends. Max Niemeyer Publisher: Tübingen, 1970.

Szarmach, Paul E. "Ælfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia." In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. Indiana UP: Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1990. 146-57.

Szarmach, Paul E. Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts. SUNY Press; Albany, 1996.

Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavorima, Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing: New York & London, 1998. See entry on hagiography, pp. 333-6.

Szarmach, Paul E. "Ælfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia." In New Readings on Women in Old English Literature. 146-57.

Whatley, E.G. "Late Old English Hagiography, ca. 950-1150" In Hagiographies. Vol. 2. 429-99.

Whatley, E. Gordon. "Lost in translation: omission of episodes in some Old English Prose Saints’ Legends." Anglo-Saxon England 26 (1997): 187-208.

Wittig, Joseph. "Figurative Narrative in Cynewulf's Juliana" Anglo-Saxon England 4 (1975): 37-55.

Woolf, Rosemary. Art and Doctrine: Essays on Medieval Literature. Ed. Heather O’Donoghue. London: Hambledon Press, 1986.

Wolpers, Theodor. Die englische Heiligendlegende des Mittelalters: Eine Formgeschichte des Legendenerzählens von der spatentiken lateinischen Tradition bis zur Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts. Max Niemeyer Verlag: Tübingen, 1964.