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LHMP #259 Zatta 2003 The Single Woman as Saint


Full citation: 

Zatta, Jane. 2003. “The Single Woman as Saint: Three Anglo-Norman Success Stories” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

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This paper looks at three female Anglo-Saxon saints, as depicted in Anglo-Norman hagiography: Osith, Etheldreda, and Modwenna. The women are doubly “other” within the texts: Anglo-Saxon lives being portrayed for a readership of Norman churchmen, and women being portrayed by and for men.

Their lives as singlewomen are significant for their temporal proximity to the audience (as compared with legends of early female saints such as Catherine and Margaret). But they’re also interesting in how these women are used to protect the claims of their associated monastic houses against the Norman religious establishment. There is a focus on their intellectual succesion: the Anglo-Saxon religious houses as the establishers of Christianity in Britain. These biographies are used to justify the legal privileges of their houses as pre-existing the Anglo-Noman church and therefore not being subject to its control. The women’s symbolic exemption from the normative female role was used to support the institution’s exemption from external control.

Of the three women, two marry and one is a “career virgin” but both of the married women resist the married state and win their freedom to serve God instead. Unlike the classical virgin martyrs who are obliterated physically by their moral victory, these women are successful socially as well as morally and live fulfilled lives of religious devotion.

The paper provides details of the manuscripts and their texts. In contrast to earlier Anglo-Saxon versions of their hagiography, which presented religious and secular lives as incompatible, the Anglo-Norman versions of the biographies use the structure of virgin saints’ lives to advance socio-political goals. In the process, the women are shown resisting male authority using “feminine” means that traditionally would be framed more negatively. The details of the biographies are interesting but not germane to the LHMP.

Summary: each finds a strategy to resist marriage (or the duties of marriage) and emerge successfully as a virgin-by-choice established in a religious life. This struggle and success is then presented as an analogy for attempts by Norman religious and secular authorities to claim power over the religious houses that they founded.

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