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'Integritas' in Rudolph of Fulda's Vita Leobae Abbatissae No coherent picture can be painted of the expectations and limitations placed upon Anglo-Saxon religious women active during the eighth century. Historians of the subject vary in their interpretations of fragmentary evidence gleaned from diverse sources and coloured by particular ideologies: some recent readings depict a golden age of women's education, autonomy, and leadership, whereas others present an image tarnished by manipulation and subordination. One reason for such discrepancies lies in the inevitable complexities of the sources themselves. N o historical 'period' is as coherent and stable as scholarship would like it to be, and early Anglo- Saxon culture is certainly characterized by diversity and change. Any contemporary writer—Bede, Aldhelm, Boniface—must be understood as speaking from a particular position carved out in relation to other possible perspectives and in relation to his sources. 'Rudolph of Fulda's Vita Leobae Abbatissae, a Carolingian Latin text (written ca 836-838) telling the story of an Anglo-Saxon abbess and missionary (who lived ca 700-780) exemplifies the heterogeneity of such narratives. In face of cultural diversity and its own logical and narrative disruptions, the Vita Leobae intrigues through its pursuit of 'integritas'. This paper is concerned with the strategies through which the narrative constructs its own apparent wholeness and represents the 'integritas' of virginity and gender. A comparison of several statements descriptive of women's activity in the Anglo-Saxon Church illustrates agreement that nuns and abbesses had a certain degree of autonomy, but it also reveals great differences of opinion regarding the measure of their independence and authority. Christine Fell writes optimistically: i . . . in the first enthusiasm for Christianity w e not only see men and w o m e n engaging as equals in the challenge of a new religion and way of life, w e see also women specifically asked to take a full and controlling part. N o w o m e n could have been asked to take on so powerful a role as the early abbesses unless they were used to P A R E R G O N ns 13.1, July 1995 34 P. Head handling power, but Christianity is certainly not at this stage cramping their range of activity and responsibility.1 She believes that the Norman Conquest was responsible for the decline in women's status generally, and specifically in the Church. Anne L. Klinck, on the other hand, locates the beginning of the regression significantly earlier: . . . there is a much closer resemblance between the situation obtaining in late Anglo-Saxon England and post-Conquest England than there is between the early and late Anglo-Saxon period. Thus to describe Anglo-Saxon England as a time when w o m e n enjoyed an independence which they lost as a result of changes introduced by the Norman Conquest is misleading.2 Other scholars concur with this dating, expressing the view that the tenthcentury Benedictine Reform, in bringing English monastic practices into conformity with more 'orthodox' continental ones, severely limited AngloSaxon religious women's position within the Church.3 Stephanie Hollis, however, describes the restrictions as beginning two hundred years earlier still—during the conversion period, which we had come to accept as a time when the Church offered opportunities to many women, and power to abbesses: I think . . . that it might be more accurate to speak of a gradual erosion in the position of women, particularly monastic women, from at least as early as the eighth century . . . 4 The eighth century, in light of Hollis' recent rereading, becomes a time of contradiction, rather than certainty. Her interpretations of texts from four sources—Theodore, Bede, Aldhem, and Boniface—contribute to the creation of a multi-faceted picture of the status of religious w o m e n during this period. Theodore's Penitential, probably compiled in the mid eighth century but including canons ascribed to Theodore (Archbishop of Canterbury, 6691 Christine Fell, Cecily Clark, and Elizabeth Williams, Women in Anglo-Sax England and the Impact of 1066, Oxford, 1986 (first published Bloomineton IN, 1984), p. 13. Anne L. Klinck, 'Anglo-Saxon Women and the Law', Journal of Medieval History 8...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 33-51
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
N
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