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Blessed Bodies: The Vitae of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints
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Blessed Bodies: The Vitae of Anglo-Saxon Female Saints Phillip Pulsiano Especially within the last decade hagiographical research has shi notably, even dramatically, away from a positivist approach toward historiography that sought to authenticate a claim for historical veracity in the establishment of a canon of saints' lives. The notion of causality and the search for empirical and verifiable data and h o w such 'facts' stand compatible with 'the seriousness of true religion'— constructions that inherently underscored the philosophical framework of Delahaye's influential analyses (although certainly he well understood the biographer as agent of mythmaking)1 — h a v e been challenged by a view of vitae as documents that operate within a different conceptual frame of narrative construction. This 1 See Hippolyte Delehaye, Les Legendes hagiographiques (Brussels: des Bollandistes, 1905; 3e ed. 1927), translated as The Legends of the Sain (New York: Fordham University Press, 1962). 2 Phillip Pulsian conceptual frame, while borrowing from and refashioning received tradition, is characterized by the generation of typology, a unique notion of what constituted the heroic (as opposed to, say, that in romance), and the presentation, not of the unique and individual, but of the saint subsumed within the communitas of the divine, as a (non-) personality functioning as a membrane through which virtus is presented in action. More recently, the saints' lives have been profitably read as gendered literary-cultural productions that reveal a developing hagiographical tradition with distinct aspects of male and female religiosity.2 Although the vitae of religious w o m e n are grounded within the conventions of sacred biography generally,3 their distinctive nature as gender-specific narratives, as Thomas J . Heffernan and others since have noted, requires treatment separate from that of their male counterparts: childbirth, food, lactation, sexual 'indebtedness,' virginity and the idea of the sponsa Christi, social forc See, for example, Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1987), and her Fragmentation and Redemption: Es on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zo Books, 1992). Other pertinent studies include Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ: Studies in Medieval Religion and (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Body & Soul: Essays on Medieval Wome and Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). See Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell, Saints & Society: The T Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000—1700 (Chicago: University o Chicago Press, 1982) y Blessed Bodies: The Vitae ofAnglo-Saxon Female Saints and boundaries distinct from male experience—all mark and shape the female religious experience in unique ways.4 Recent hagiographical study has focused, in the main, on either early saints' legends (third to sixth century, generally) or late medieval continental saints of the twelfth-fifteenth centuries. The study of Insular Anglo-Saxon saints, however, has been generally overlooked, or, at best, treated sporadically, and with attention focused primarily on selected prominent male figures, such as ^thelwold, Cuthbert, Dunstan, and most recently Oswald.5 Apart from specific collections of articles devoted to each of these figures, 4 I do not fully subscribe here to the view put forth by Thomas Heffernan (Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Ages [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988]) that such documents are 'reflective of a collective mentality' (p. 59) or necessarily 'serve as guides to behavior which exist within the popular imagination as cultural paradigms' (p. 87). Support for such a position depends greatly upon an understanding of both authorial intention and audience reception and must take into account the notion that textual meaning i s continually negotiated. One cannot speak with authority about the cultural paradigms of even the twentieth century much less the Middle Ages: the categories are too broad, the circumstances of intention, production, dissemination, and reception too vague, and our own perceptions too much the product of our own age to allow sweeping generalizations to stand. This does not mean, of course, that the lives cannot be read as literary-cultural productions through which can be charted...