Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England
Female and male saints were not separated into rigid gender categories. Saints were considered to be mystically one with each other which transcends gender. They were the intermediaries between humankind and God.
There were two types of saint’s lives recorded by hagiographers: the passio and the vita. The passio was the literary form used for the martyred saint. That was the saint who sacrificed their life for the faith. The vita applied to those who gave impeccable service to God. Passios and vitas were not divisible by gender categories.
However, there was one important rule for women saints: they must be virgins. So married women, widowed women and ‘disreputable’ women (like dancing girls) were excluded from sainthood because they, presumably, had sexual intercourse, but marriage and virginity were not necessarily incompatible. For example, a popular woman saint, Etheldrada (d. 679) was married twice. Etheldrada apparently remained a virgin through both marriages. She left husband number two when he demanded sexual intercourse and she made a choice to enter monastic life as an Abbess. In all likelihood she had money and property from her first husband or from the dowry and used her wealth to open a double monastery. Her service to God is shown by her gracious acceptance of divine bodily punishment in the form of neck tumours, which she believed were a scourge for wearing necklaces. The reward for benign, stoic acceptance of worldly suffering was sainthood. However, this was only part of the standard needed in order to achieve sainthood.
Many of the women saints were very powerful during their lifetimes. One person ruled the double monasteries of the monks and nuns: the Abbess. Over half the women saints were royal church leaders and the rest derive their sainthood from miracles involving royal women. The king and his household were usually converted to Christianity before the general population. A missionary effort was needed to unify the faith of the royal household with the faith of the masses. Women were encouraged by the church and kings to found monastic communities, which served to spread Christianity and train priests and nuns. Men could not fulfill the demands of the new religion because of complex kinship and loyalty demands by the warband. Women of the royal court were not passive members. They had important diplomatic duties to perform. They negotiated marriages that would merge powerful families. A woman who married into a royal court became the diplomat between that court and her homeland. The widows of the royal court transferred these diplomatic skills to a similar role in the monastic institution. She mediated the path of conversion for the community and was the intermediary between the king and the church. It was these women who mainly became saints, even though they were widows. The rules for becoming a saint varied from region to region so the mandatory virginity rule was probably set aside for many women, especially those women saints who had the wherewithal and the diplomatic expertise to build large monasteries. The claim of virginity was enough. If a woman wanted to enter monastic life and bypass the virginity mandate altogether then there were options for her.
There were a number of women saints who dressed as men. They were considered holy because their act of transvestism was used to preserve their chastity and their deeds were exemplary. The cross-dressing allowed them unlimited access into a male world. Although gender may be transcendent for saints, in the material world gender lines exist. For example, St. Euphrosyne lived as a man in a monastery for thirty-eight years and converted her father to the ‘good and moral life.’ Some scholars believe this area of female sainthood is a Christianized form of homage to Aphrodite and Hermaphrodite. Other scholars call the holy transvestites monstrous or an attempt by women to achieve the ‘rational status of men.’ Yet another faction believes the male attire is indicative of a communion with Christ. However, the blurring of sexual differences would seem to bring the mystical transcendence of gender into the material realm. As St. Euphrosyne says, she is not male or female.
The modern concern and preoccupation over gender can take historical periods out of their context. For an ailing Anglo-Saxon who lived through Viking raids, pestilence and the occasional famine the debate over male and female roles was immaterial.
For Further Reading
Arvind, Sharma, ed. Women Saints in World Religions. Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
Fell, Christine. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. London: British Museum Publications, 1984.
Godden, Michael and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Herbison, D.I.C. The Legacy of the Christian Epic: A Study of Old English Biblical and Hagiographical Poetry. Diss. Queen’s University of Belfast, 1997. Abstract. IT 46 (1997) : item 9258.
Hollis, Stephanie. Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church: Sharing a Common Fate. Woodbridge ENG: The Boydell Press, 1992.
Lapidge, Michael, et al, eds. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo Saxon England. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500. London: Methuen, 1995.
Szarmach, Paul .E., ed. Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saint’s Lives and Their Contexts. Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Wilson, Stephen, intro. and ed. Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Connor, Nancy Lynne. Body and Soul: Sexuality and Sanctity in the English Lives of Women Saints, 800-1500. Diss. Brown University. DIA, 1993.
Donovan, Leslie Ann. The Old English Lives of Saints Eugenia and Eufrosina: A Critical Edition. Washington: U of Washington P, 1993.
Hotchkiss, Valerie. Clothes Make the Man: Female Transvestism in the Middle Ages. Diss. Yale University. DIA, 1990.
Lees, Clare .A. "Engendering Religious Desire: Sex, Knowledge and Christian Identity in Anglo-Saxon England." JMEMS 27 (1997) : 17-45.
Pulsiano, Phillip. "Blessed Bodies, The Vitae of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints." Parergon 16.2 (1999) : 1-42.