Duke University Press
  • Engendering Religious Desire: Sex, Knowledge, and Christian Identity in Anglo-Saxon England

Thinking about sex

Anglo-Saxon England is not a promising place to think about sex. Students and teachers are famously aware of this, regularly trotting out the so-called pornographic Old English riddles as our only evidence. Critical literature on these riddles suggests discomfort—or embarrassment—with the thought that a culture dominated by monasticism might have had sex, pleasurable and violent, on its mind once in a while. 1

Embarrassment aside, critical attitudes toward sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England contain a half-truth worth developing. Few indeed are the representations of sexual behavior in the corpus of vernacular materials, but the association of sex with knowledge is not unique to the riddles. Nor is Anglo-Saxon culture bereft of a language of love. In addition to the homosocial bonds of the heroic literature and the estranged heterosexual relations of the female-voiced elegies, there is also the complex relation between man and God, woman and God. Allen J. Frantzen has recently assessed the regulation of homosexual acts in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials and highlights the heterosexual social codes operative in them. 2 I complement his study by beginning an exploration of the parameters of sexual representation in vernacular culture. One stumbling block to such an exploration has been the assumption that medieval religious desire is necessarily distinct from an erotics of pleasure and/or pain. 3 I argue here, however, that Anglo-Saxon religious desire can use sensual knowledge in the service of worship. Knowledge of the senses is linked to Christian knowledge of, and desire for, God.

As I discuss later, the accounts of creation in Genesis A and B indicate that worship is the occasion for a sensuous poetry that renders sexuality immaterial. 4 Religious desire for knowledge of self and God finds sensuous [End Page 17] expression in Christian philosophy in Alfred’s translation of Augustine’s Soliloquies. 5 Similarly, Christ I explores systematically the relation between divine and human desire in a poem which worships the maternal body of Mary, the Annunciation, and Incarnation. 6 The spiritual, gendered, and sometimes erotic relations between the human and the divine in Christ I are also found in the prose female saints’ lives included in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints. The genre of the prose female saints’ lives is, in fact, central to our understanding of the cultural significance of sex in religious discourse. 7 Finally, the late-tenth-, early-eleventh-century translation of the prose Apollonius of Tyre is the first heterosexual love narrative in English, in spite of the conventional wisdom that Western love is a post-Conquest phenomenon. 8 Complete with the first Anglo-Saxon blushing hero, the first Anglo-Saxon heroine to fall in love, and the incestuous behavior of King Antiochus, no account of Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward sex and desire can afford to ignore this apparently anomalous work.

As these examples suggest, however, there is no unified discourse of the sexual in Anglo-Saxon England. Sexual representation in an age before the formation of modern notions of sexuality is a product of other more culturally dominant discourses, whether literary or social. 9 Evidence for sexual representation accordingly crosses generic boundaries in the writing of the period, notably between secular and spiritual works. That such representations are found in genres like hagiography, riddles, poetry, and philosophy indicates a more general cultural attitude toward sexuality and its representation. Negative evidence also helps define the cultural boundaries of sexual representation. Heroic literature, for example, is well known for its restrained disinterest in sexual matters. For Freud, beyond the always regressive pleasure principle lies reality and death. 10 In heroic literature, too, pleasure appears antithetical to the great issue of heroism’s encounter with death.

Anglo-Saxon representations of sexuality can thus be seen as governed by Freud’s reality principle, which restrains pleasure and operates at the level of culture, although many contemporary historians of sexuality would disagree. Influenced by Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, such historians argue that repression produces that which is repressed, namely discourses of sexuality. Foucault’s hypothesis, located at the moment (or rather moments) in Western history when the domain of the sexual takes over the domain of the religious, anchors the constructionist position, wherein representation produces the sexuality it claims to represent. 11 Jonathan Dollimore, however, argues that both the Freudian and the Foucauldian position converge on and elucidate the category of the perverse. 12 The same may be said of a concept [End Page 18] such as restraint, which similarly intersects the psychological and the discursive by operating at the level of the individual and the cultural. 13

In Anglo-Saxon culture, a high premium is put on restraint generally in both heroic and Christian circles. In the elegies, speaking out is tempered by holding in. Restraint governs not only speech, however, but also representations of violence and sexuality. 14 Silence and restraint, moreover, do not imply ignorance but rather a cultural attitude toward the significance of speech, sex, and violence. In Anglo-Saxon texts, silence is broached in speech, and the slender evidence for sexual representation in the secular works is balanced by some remarkable examples in the spiritual. For these reasons alone, where sex does and does not get represented and what it produces—desire and knowledge—are well worth studying.

Regulatory literature on sexual practices in the penitentials and laws provides another dimension of the cultural construction of sex by focusing on interrelated social formations such as the church and marriage. Regulatory and representational practices, however, are part of a more complex cultural matrix of the body. Governed largely by the doctrines of chastity and sin, Anglo-Saxon discourses of the body embrace more than the sexual, although it is through an understanding of the cultural significance of the body that we can begin to cast light on the significance of sexual representation. 15

This essay, therefore, surveys representations of the body and their relation to sexuality and eroticism in Anglo-Saxon vernacular literary culture. Although I begin with a brief consideration of proscriptive materials, I concentrate largely on the examples of sexual representation in the Genesis poems, Alfred, Christ I, the female saints’ lives, and the Apollonius. I am guided by the insight that Anglo-Saxon culture is characterized by restraint but that restraint does not imply only regulation and repression. Anglo-Saxon writing manifests an attitude toward sexuality that has a precise cultural logic. This logic, a product of clearly differentiated gender relations, a martial ethos, and Christian belief, certainly does not overvalue pleasure (sometimes sexual, sometimes erotic, often violent) but neither does it ignore it. An attitude toward pleasure in the secular realm best described as restrained according both to Christian and heroic beliefs facilitates its displacement into the spiritual realm. The process is a simple one of metaphoric substitution or translatio, which can be seen in this context as the linguistic counterpart to sublimation. In the spiritual realm, transferred pleasure may indeed be “erotic” in twentieth-century terms, as in the examples from Alfred and Christ I, but that eroticism is cathected to Christian desire. Even when imaged as a release from the constraints of the body, sexual desire [End Page 19] is largely associated with the feminine in the vernacular literature. In a culture dominated by masculinism, an understanding of the nature and limits of sexual representation helps to define the precarious position of women, whose contributions to culture within the heroic milieu are minimal and within the Christian milieu firmly controlled. Lives of female saints therefore offer careful (and worrying) stagings of the struggles of desire that are inseparable from the triumphs of female sanctity.


For Bede, the origin of regulatory literature in the Anglo-Saxon Church is synonymous with the Conversion, as is illustrated by the Libellus Responsionum. Inserted toward the end of the first book of the Historia Ecclesiastica, the Libellus comprises Gregory’s replies to Augustine’s questions about institutional and social conflicts that surfaced during the conversion of Kent. For the student of the cultural construction of sexuality, it is immediately apparent that discussion of sexual practices in the Libellus focuses on two bodies in relation to the rituals of worship: that of the woman, and that of the man and cleric. 16 Augustine’s eighth question addresses the sexed, maternal, and menstruating female body in relation to sacred space and ritual: how soon after menstruation or childbirth can a woman approach the altar; when can a married couple resume sexual relations after childbirth? His ninth question addresses the moral dilemma confronting men as a consequence of impure dreams in relation to a similar concern with sacred practices, whether those of the man about to receive the sacrament or the man about to administer it. 17

The Libellus reminds us that Christianity brings not only a religion of the book but of the body to Anglo-Saxon England. That body is sexually differentiated and gendered. The rituals of approaching the altar and the Mass in Augustine’s eighth and ninth questions emphasize that Christianity has a repertoire of practices centering on the body in relation to sacred space and liturgical rite. Hence the emphasis on the literal and spiritual cleansing of the female body after birth and on the purification of the male body after an impure dream. These familiar rituals of the body, which are central to Christianity, are not constructed by an explicit ideology of sexuality, however, but by the doctrines of cleanliness and uncleanliness: chastity and sin. Sin and chastity bind body and soul together in a paradox: the pure body is only pure because it embodies denial, because it denies the flesh. 18 Stephanie Hollis suggests that the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England brings with it a [End Page 20] “new erotic consciousness”: this erotic consciousness is a product of a consciousness of the body in relation to Christian desire. 19 Eroticism has remained undetected by students of Anglo-Saxon culture precisely because Christian desire encompasses more than sexuality.

Not just about sexuality or even the body, the Libellus addresses marriage, kinship, law, and the regulation of the emergent institution of the church. Gregory’s replies, moreover, urge restraint, tolerance, and flexibility about the implementation of Christianity, paving the way for the distinctively syncretic model of English Christianity that is the hallmark of Anglo-Saxon culture. The delicate balance between restraint and proscription in Gregory’s Libellus, however, shifts in favor of the latter in the later Anglo-Saxon regulatory literature, although it is impossible to gauge the extent to which the Anglo-Saxon penitentials modified practice, within and without the church. 20 Nevertheless, the discourse of the later penitentials is similar to that of the Libellus, moving freely between subjects now considered as theoretically distinct as theft, heresy, drunkenness, marriage, and, of course, sexual behavior. In the penitentials, the sins of the flesh provide an epistemology of sex closely connected with social formations such as class and gender, but chastity, and Christian behavior in general, is a practice regulating desire, of which sexuality is but one expression. 21

Anglo-Saxon laws also make regular provision for the regulation of sexual transgression, including adultery and rape. Marital status—that is, sexual status as virgin, wife, or widow—combines with rank to provide Anglo-Saxon women with legal identity. Legal definitions parallel theological discussion of female status in the vernacular preaching materials. 22 The regulation of sexual behavior, in other words, is one expression of the often conflicting social practices centered on the family in both secular and spiritual domains, as is witnessed by the fairly extensive Old English vocabulary for cohabitation, marriage, concubinage, polygamy, and spiritual marriage. 23 In such binary, heterosexual examples, it is hard to escape the suggestion that sexuality is identified with women. Anglo-Saxon women have sex and rank; men have rank and weapons, as the common terms for male and female indicate: wæpned and wif. 24

Penitentials and laws provide us with a language of sexual pleasure characterized by prohibition that implies practice. We cannot assume, however, that Christianity alone is responsible for the repression that regulation demands just because the regulation of sexual desire forms one aspect of the social stratification of Anglo-Saxon society. Although the proliferation of sexual transgressions within the regulatory literature merits a detailed analysis [End Page 21] in its own right, equally important is an analysis of representation. The purchase of regulation on representation is never total: proscription invites transgression, even in a society as gendered and restrained as that of the Anglo-Saxons. The warrior is the subject of the heroic literature, which emphasizes the male aristocratic groupings of kin and comitatus, and is notable for its reticence about matters of women, family, and sexuality. The wif is the subject of the female prose hagiography and, by contrast with the heroic literature, is notable for its emphasis on the family, marriage, and virginity. The female prose saints’ lives are thus positioned at one intersection between regulation and representation. Boundaries between genres in Anglo-Saxon England are fluid enough to argue against any rigid distinctions, however, and both secular and nonsecular genres help define the rules of representation governing sexuality, as we shall see in the Apollonius of Tyre.

Representation and restraint

In a reformulation of one of Freud’s fundamental insights, Peter Brooks emphasizes that our experience of the body is a primary, if not originary, source for symbolic thought. The sexual, in this broadest sense, is thus intimately linked to the cultural via narratives of the family, and cultural expressions of the body offer us relatively precise ways in which to explore the relation between sexual desire, the desire to know, and the various forms this desire can take in any culture. For Brooks, desire in modern narrative most often takes the form of desire for, or the desire to look at, another body. 25 In Anglo-Saxon culture, desire is most often represented as heroic or saintly, and rarely sexual: as a desire for God and death.

When we think of Anglo-Saxon culture, we tend to think of two cultural traditions: Germanic, heroic, tribal life, and Christian Latin culture. Unravelling the essentialist thinking that underpins this binarism, which assumes “that ‘Germanic’ and ‘Christian’ are unified concepts, referring to two separable realities competing for Anglo-Saxon society,” James W. Earl urges Anglo-Saxonists instead to pay attention to the “living synthesis of their traditional culture and their new religion.” 26 Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward the body and the sexual form a specific aspect of this cultural dynamic.

Syncretism yields an ambivalent attitude toward the body remarkably consistent in both Christian and non-Christian contexts. This ambivalence might be roughly characterized as a firm insistence on the material presence of the body and an equally firm insistence that this materiality must [End Page 22] not be overvalued. In heroic contexts, ambivalence about the body translates into realism in the face of death. The heroic body chooses death, the inevitability of which makes the ethical insistence on silence in the heroic poetry comprehensible. In Christian contexts, the dual emphasis on the death of the body and on its material resurrection offers the gift of spiritual life, which can only be expressed metaphorically. 27 In both cases, the act of looking at the material body is rigorously controlled precisely because it acts as a site for cultural knowledge. The pleasures of the gaze are thus harnessed to the processes of cultural insight. The passage of the body into writing, into the symbolic, whereby it becomes the locus for a variety of often contradictory cultural meanings, provides evidence for this distinctively Anglo-Saxon dynamic.

The great heroic poems of the period celebrate the male body as a conflicted locus of violence, division, and male homosocial bonding in ways which we are only now beginning to appreciate. 28 Warriors fight, then embrace, or embrace while fighting; the elegies explore separation and alienation; and marriage is a matter of kinship politics (and women are accordingly marginal, insofar as they appear at all). The “other” is expelled, often as monstrous, from a milieu in which the male body signifies heroism, rank, and often death, and where heterosexuality—though naturalized—is not as normative as homosociality. Other representations of sex, it seems, are for barnyard animals, vegetables, the lower classes, and/or the Welsh.

Seen in relation to the riddles, however, the psycho-sexual investment of the warrior in battle, the bonds between man and lord, and the repression of affect expressed by the erotic love-longing of some of the elegies remind us of the breadth of any definition of pleasure, even when it is bound to cultural representations of heroic life or to the pervasive socio-cultural metaphor of exile. That these attitudes are in part the artifacts of a masculine, martial, aristocratic ideal should not distract us too much. Heroic literature participates in a broader cultural agreement about the boundaries of representation throughout the period, which transcends unwieldy critical arguments about the division of audiences into those with a taste for the heroic and those with one for the Christian. Anglo-Saxon art does not take as its subject the human body, let alone sexuality. Anglo-Saxon writing hardly celebrates human love. Most of the literature in fact steers away from dwelling on the ostensible pleasures of human life; it is not accidental that the critical cliché of this period is “doom and gloom.”

Given this ambivalence, there are few cultural symbols that might unify the various uses to which the body is put in Anglo-Saxon writing. [End Page 23] There are few detailed descriptions of the body in Old English to match Einhard’s rhetorically brilliant description of Charlemagne, for example, and there is no culturally dominant image of the body of Christ, which Sarah Beckwith has so persuasively analyzed for the later medieval period. 29 The Dream of the Rood offers us instead a complex icon of a triumphant, divine hero—Christ—on a suffering, vocal Cross. 30 As is the case with Beowulf, the heroic body is minimally and ideally represented; humanity and bodiliness, associated here with violence, are projected onto the personified Cross. Metaphor is the route that the body most often takes on its passage into the symbolic. As is the case with the supremely metaphoric riddles, the Cross in The Dream of the Rood is the inanimate symbol of the animate, and Christ, animate symbol of the transcendent. Desire for Christ is expressed as the desire to venerate the Cross.

Representations of the body are not wholly absent from this culture, however: we see instead an emphasis on the body part, whose stubborn physicality thereby comes into sharper focus. The great social rituals of Old English heroic literature—war, drinking, feasting—offer a simple demonstration of this insight. Although these rituals hardly dwell on their physical nature, traces of the material body abound. Think of the sudden materialization of Beowulf’s arm as he wrestles with Grendel, or of Grendel’s bloody arm that dominates our vision of the feasting at Heorot: these instances suggest first that the language of the body is simultaneously material and metaphoric, and second that the body part can be used to symbolize violence and death. 31

The body part as metaphor is also illustrated by the fact that the body is itself a part, a container for the spirit, or soul (sawulhus, feorhhus, for example); correlatively, the body is the site of temporality, sin, and death rather than birth or creativity (hence, for example, the great struggles between the soul and the body). While the material body is often associated with death, life is associated with God, as in Ælfric’s favorite expression of the lifigende God, 32 or with inanimate or nonhuman subjects, as in the speaking Cross of The Dream of the Rood and the riddles. Within Christian contexts, the relation between bodies and body parts is extremely complex. The body signifies material death and spiritual life—the saint’s dead body, for example, can revive and heal, witnessing the power of the spirit within a temporal world governed by death. In an age before papal canonization, the uncorrupt body is an important witness to sanctity, and possession of the dead saint—the struggle for control and ownership—comprises a virtual politics of the body in Anglo-Saxon England. 33 [End Page 24]

A popular example of the many cases of the healthy-though-dead bodies that witness sanctity occurs in Ælfric’s Life of Æthelthryth. Troubled by a tumor below her neck shortly before she died, Æthelthryth’s physician excises it. When her body is subsequently translated by Seaxburg, the wound has miraculously healed, leaving only a thin red scar to mark it. 34 Æthelthryth’s scar provides an instance of how the inscription of the body accompanies its passage into cultural signification: of how this body, when looked at, acquires meaning.

In hagiography, death is the boundary that guarantees life: the struggles of the body are with death; and the body is an ever-present sign of death. Hence too, perhaps, the dominant cultural image of the armed warrior—the body defended against death while simultaneously inviting it—and the pervasive images of loss that haunt the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus. Life is elsewhere. Representations of physical pleasure—joy, laughter, the poignant physical embrace of Hrothgar and Beowulf, for example—are produced in contexts such as feasting and battles, which underline their transitory nature in the face of death. Christianity capitalizes on this general cultural attitude, since death forms the site of a dense metaphoric transfer of the body, whose images thereafter signify the embodied life of the spirit. The translatio of a saintly body like Æthelthryth’s enacts the process of metaphorization, of translatio, at the level of Christian discourse: dead bodies heal; living bodies signify death. This general medieval process of translatio—so widespread that Curtius long ago remarked that the patristic metaphors for the body would fill an entire book—becomes distinctively Anglo-Saxon in its ambivalent stance toward both the materiality of the sign and its referent. 35

Sex, metaphor, and spirituality

Creation offers an extreme case of this cultural ambivalence toward the materiality of the body and its relation both to sexual representation and to spirituality. In Genesis A and B, creation is an already interpreted act and not simply because these poems are translations. The body is explicable only in terms of God’s divine acts, whereas sexuality, a consequence of creation and fall, is hardly a subject that matters. Presented through the filter of patristic metaphor and commentary, creation is weighed against the temporal associations of human reproduction. Eve’s creation from Adam’s liodende ban (“living bones”) in Genesis A without pain, sorrow, and blood (lines 176-83a, an extension of Scripture), is a moment for divine not human [End Page 25] pleasure. The Anglo-Saxon prelapsarian paradise, a poetry of consciously fallen language, is necessarily gendered—the created couple are immediately described in the familiar Anglo-Saxon terms of wif and wæpned (line 195)—long before the Fall. Gender takes precedence over sexual differentiation, and the body is a proleptic sign of the Fall.

One consequence of this general process is to render the materiality of the body and its sexuality immaterial. There is little physical distinction to be made between Adam and Eve that does not provide the occasion for metaphorization in either Genesis A or B. The Anglo-Saxon view might be said to be voiced by Ælfric, who, in another context, distinguishes only between the angels, who don’t have bodies, and man (in the generic sense), who does. 36 Distinctions in the Genesis pictorial cycle complement the poems. The differences between Adam and Eve are hardly coherently made on the basis of visual anatomy. This appears to be the point: the visual dynamics of illustrations do not invite us to look at the body so much as recall interpretations of it. 37 Whenever the body enters the Genesis poems, it is immediately the object of metaphor, as in the example of the richly suggestive description of Eve and the apple in Genesis B, or in the word-play on blæd meaning “blooms” or “fruits” as well as “glory” in Genesis A (lines 875–902). 38 This latter moment of the Fall and the opening of the eyes of the first couple is dealt with as an initiation into knowledge and shame. The commonplace association of shame and knowledge with looking and sexuality is not made by the Anglo-Saxon poet of Genesis A, who glosses over this key event in a manner quite unlike the abandonment to lust that we find in Paradise Lost.

As these poems suggest, the Creation and Fall are not aligned with physicality or sexuality but with worship and knowledge. Creation is always the occasion for poetry, metaphor, and ritual in Anglo-Saxon culture, where what is made signifies the power of the maker. Fallen language does not simply repress and censor human pleasure as a sign of sin as in the example of eating the apple in Genesis B: pleasure is redirected into worship and understanding, as the opening of Genesis A insists, and the burning love of the first couple for God underlines (lines 1–3, 190–91). Creation is a spiritual event, redefining the associations of the body with the sins of the flesh (and thereby temporality) by the use of metaphor and poetry. Desire is sublimated into worship, and its evidence is sensuous spirituality.

In religious texts, only when the body is presented as wholly metaphoric or symbolic can it be represented as erotic. By contrast with the Genesis poems, examples from Alfred’s version of Augustine’s Soliloquies and [End Page 26] Christ I indicate that knowledge can be explicitly linked to sexuality, thus offering a religious parallel to the metaphoric play on knowledge and sex in the nonreligious, sexual riddles.

Alfred’s version of the Soliloquies often substitutes the material image for the abstract in order to render more accessible Augustine’s abstruse philosophical points—a common feature of his translations in general. Understanding of the self (that is, the soul) and God—“god ic wold(e) ongytan, and mine agene saule ic wolde witan” [I would understand God, and would know my own soul] (56/18–19)—for Alfred takes the road of Augustinian Neoplatonism, whereby sensual knowledge strives toward spiritual. Yet Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon phenomenology sometimes strains Augustine’s Neoplatonism. The first indication of this perhaps is the insistent equation between the mind’s eye and material sight, which in the Alfredian work becomes the dominant metaphor for the process of intellection. Later, however, sight yields to touch. Reason in the Old English explains how those who love wisdom desire to touch, contrasted with Augustine’s emphasis on the desire to see (and thereby to grasp) wisdom:

Hu ne wost eu nu tæt ælc tara manna te oterne swiee lufae, tæt hine lyst bet taccian and cyssan eone oeerne on bær lic, tonne ter tær claeas beotweona beoe? Ic ongyte nu tæt (tu) lufast tone wisdom swa swiee, and te lyst hine swa wel nacode ongitan and gefredan tæt tu noldest tæt ænig clae betweuh were. ac he hine wyle swiee seldon ænegum mæn swa openlice ge(e)awian. On eam timum te he ænig lim swa bær eowian wile, tonne eowae he hyt swiee feawum mannum. Ac ic nat hu tu hym onfon mage mid geglovedum handum. Du scealt æac don bær lic ongean, gyf eu hine gefredan wilt.


[Do you not know that each person who greatly loves another, it pleases him better to caress and kiss the other on the bare body, than where clothes are between? I understand now that you love wisdom very much, and it pleases you so well to understand and feel it naked that you do not wish that there were any cloth between. But it will very seldom so openly reveal itself to any person. At those times when it will show any limb so bare, then it will show itself to very few. But I do not know how you can receive it with gloved hands. You must also put the bare body against it, if you will feel it.] [End Page 27]

As Ruth Waterhouse has observed, desire for spiritual knowledge is developed here into an Alfredian metaphor explicitly sexual and erotic (a pleasant contrast to Asser’s dour portrait of Alfred on the eve of his marriage!). 39 Unlike Augustine’s text, which carefully contains the sexual reference by stressing chastity, Alfred’s evocation of kissing and embracing naked bodies and of ungloved hands makes the desire for unmediated wisdom an explicit, and quite beautiful, act of sexual pleasure. The effect is all the more startling to the modern reader for whom wisdom or truth is so often represented as the semiveiled or naked female body upon whom we look but do not touch. These Alfredian bodies are not explicitly gendered, or necessarily male in spite of the use of man (in the following lines desire for wisdom becomes desire for woman or wif, 76/5). In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, knowledge and heterosexuality are frequently linked, so too in later medieval examples of Neoplatonism, but this early example is unique in Anglo-Saxon England.

Moreover, Alfred sharpens Augustine’s Neoplatonic metaphor of an unmediated desire for God by insisting that the embraces are unclothed and by emphasizing touch rather than sight. In sum, Alfred insists that the sensuous pleasure of sexual knowledge is analogous to that of spiritual knowledge, and he gives equal weight in the metaphor to both. The material world is not diminished by its relation to the spiritual but endorsed and enhanced by it. As a result, I am reminded of the passage in The Wanderer, which evokes the past pleasures of the bond between lord and thane in similarly sensual terms. In the kiss and the embrace, touch rather than sight dominates: 40

tincee him on mode tæt he his mondryhten clyppe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge honda ond heafod.

[it seems to him in his mind that he his liege-lord embraces and kisses, and on his knee places hands and head.]

In both of these cases, physical pleasure summons metonymically an entire system of cultural belief: for The Wanderer the lost joys of the male-dominated hall life, expressed by a ritual of fealty; for Alfred, the pleasures of Christian wisdom.

In the creation accounts of the Genesis poems, eroticism is metaphorized as worship; in the Soliloquies, erotic metaphor is subsumed by [End Page 28] Christian philosophy; but in Christ I, erotic spirituality is integral to the poem. The human and the divine, the material and the metaphoric, creation and worship come together in the figure of Mary and the Incarnation.

Christ I (also known as the Advent Lyrics or Advent) is one of the most sophisticated poetic acts of worship, of the desire for God, in the Anglo-Saxon canon. Its subject is worship and the Incarnation, as is made clear by poem’s intimate connection with the great antiphons (monastic and secular) of the Advent season. 41 Yet this very intimacy, the poem’s virtuosity in transforming patristic commentary into poetry, and its thematics of embodiment make it difficult for critics to imagine an audience for the poem. The poem’s promise of liberation from human exile is accomplished via the Annunication, explicitly imaged as the inner space of Mary’s body, though no one to my knowledge has explored this representation. The critical silence is oddly deafening given that sacred sensuality has always had its place in Scripture in The Song of Songs, which is one of the sources for the poem’s metaphors.

Julia Kristeva’s comments on The Song of Songs offer a critical language for the eroticism of Christ I. Meditation on the sensuality of The Song of Songs leads directly to what Kristeva calls the “problematics of incarnation”:

As intersection of corporeal passion and idealization, love is undisputably the privileged experience for the blossoming of metaphor (abstract for concrete, concrete for abstract) as well as incarnation (the spirit becoming flesh, the word-flesh). Unless incarnation is a metaphor that has slipped into the real and has been taken for reality? A hallucination that is assumed to be real on account of the violence of amorous passion, which is in fact the ordinary manifestation of an alienation that confuses the fields of representation (real-imaginary-symbolic)? 42

No vernacular work in the Anglo-Saxon period explores the relation between love and worship, metaphor and incarnation, quite so exhaustively as Christ I, and I certainly cannot do justice to it here. I concentrate on Lyric IX (lines 275–347), the poem’s celebration of Advent itself, the Annunciation and Incarnation of Christ, which explores Mary’s role as mediatrix between divine and human.

Mary is hymned in the familiar images of Mariology of the medieval and patristic periods in this lyric: queen of queens (domina, Regina coeli), bride of Christ, porta coeli, virgin, and mother. Mary stands outside [End Page 29] time (284–85) as the poet deliberately conflates the historic (literal) with the typological, and anagogical. In the process of the transformation of these images into poetry, however, something happens. Out of these conventional conceits, the poet fashions one final one, equally conventional in medieval terms though apparently rare in Anglo-Saxon art, as “we” are invited to gaze on the image of Mary nursing her child:

Sittan we mota[n] anmodlice ealle hyhtan, nu we on tæt bearn foran breostum stariae.


[Then we may with one mind all rejoice now we gaze on that child at (your) breasts.]

Representations of nursing mothers are rare indeed in Anglo-Saxon culture, 43 yet the female body, which shadows the entire lyric, is the ground of this image, offering the conditions whereby it becomes comprehensible. What we see, in short, is and is not a female body. Mary is re-presented as an image of the real, save that this is a fantasy, or “hallucination” in Kristeva’s terms; a rich confusion of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. In the poem, this final concrete image is explicitly a means of transcending death (343–44), drawing on the role of Mary, life-giver, as mediator. The image of Mary is eroticized by the gaze of the implied audience, and passion for the feminine is incorporated into worship for the divine, thus opening up a space for erotic pleasure within spirituality.

The route to this re-presentation of Mary is via metaphors derived from scriptural images of woman as door or gate (archetypal images also explored in The Song of Songs as well as the Anglo-Saxon riddles). As Kristeva suggests, divine love, poised between the flesh and the ideal, blossoms into metaphor; the poem manipulates translatio, nourished by a poetic vision of Anglo-Saxon syncretism. Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple, a prophecy of the Annunciation and a reworking of earlier images of the Germanic hall in the poem, is mapped onto synchronous moments of conception and birth in the image of the Temple/door/vagina/womb, which Burlin states dryly is “examined with an eye for physiological detail that would do justice to a ‘metaphysical poet’”: 44

Du eart tæt wealldor, turh te Waldend Frea æne on tas eorean ut sieade, ond efne swa tec gemette, meahtum gehrodene, [End Page 30] clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig; swa ee æfter him engla ¼eoden eft, unmæle ælces tinges liotucægan bileac, lifes Brytta.


[You are that walldoor, through which the ruler and lord journeyed out once into this earth, and in that same way found you, adorned with virtues, clean and chosen, Christ Almighty who afterward implored by angels, giver of life, locked you with a physical key, unmarked by any thing.]

No Anglo-Saxon vernacular literature comes close to the erotic spirituality expressed in these examples of Mary’s breast and body. The poem’s elaborate use of metaphor and symbol invites an erotic gaze yet also insists that this eroticism is symbolic. The implied audience is invited to use sensuality as a means of exploring spiritual knowledge of Mary and the Incarnation.

The passages from Alfred and The Wanderer are eroticized, I think, by circumventing the dynamics of the gaze by the dynamics of touch: in Christ I, the gaze is wholly metaphoric. If looking, scopophilia, is equated with the desire to possess (sexual) knowledge, that knowledge is rarely presented as explicitly sexual in Anglo-Saxon works. The eroticized body acts as a cultural metaphor, encoding the rituals of heroic life or Christianity while insisting on the necessity of the material world and the materiality of the sign. The body, whether spoken about or looked at, is therefore a cultural construct treated with considerable ambivalence and restraint in Anglo-Saxon literary culture, and for good reason. When libidinal energy is channelled into a desire for death and/or God, as in Anglo-Saxon culture, representations of the body are translations, transformations, or rather metaphorizations—evidence of sublimation.

Sex and female sanctity

When the life of the spirit is more sensuous than that of the body, when the sensuous body is Mary’s, for example, knowledge of the human body and its sexuality presents a special problem. This is clearly seen in the Old English saints’ lives. Sainthood is a spiritual drama played out on the physical body and addresses the problems of the flesh with particular clarity. Consonant with early medieval Christianity and with the social gendering of the sexes, the relation between the body and sexuality is focussed on the female (the [End Page 31] wif) in Anglo-Saxon culture. Female saints confront and overcome the dead liness of their bodies and the deadliness of their sexuality time and again. In representing the desire to replace the pleasures of the sexed body with those of the spirit, Anglo-Saxon Christianity demonstrates an intimate acquaintance with the problems of the flesh, its desires and vicissitudes. The eight female prose lives in the late-tenth-century collection of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints (two of which are not by Ælfric) negotiate in representation the doctrines of chastity and sin governing regulation, offering the most distinctively English expression of this genre. 45

Hagiography centers on death, passion, whereby the saint transcends his or her body. Predicated on the imitatio Christi, not all transcendences are the same, however. Ælfric’s male saints take many paths to that imitatio; the female saints in the collection, however, live lives of the sexed body, centering on their virginity and chastity, whether as brides of Christ (Agatha, Agnes, Lucy), monks (the two transvestite saints, Eugenia and Euphrosyne), chaste wives (Æthelthryth, Cecilia), or as ascetics (Mary of Eygpt). The transformation of sexuality is the prime component of the female saint’s life. Women have sexuality where men don’t, and women who become saints redirect it toward God. Thus the repeated motifs throughout the Lives of Saints are the brothel scene, the attempted seduction scene, the torture scene, and so on. The problem that transcendence offers the female saint and her hagiographers is delicate, therefore. Sexuality is what matters in the female saint’s life, but as a source of temptation it must be seen to be understood and therefore denied. 46

Critics and hagiographers alike seem aware of this danger. In an insight that few have bothered to explore, Rosemary Woolf nearly three decades ago commented that female poetic lives such as Juliana and Judith might offer a model of identification for Anglo-Saxon nuns:

While no Anglo-Saxon nun need expect to endure such persecutions, there was a model for them in Juliana’s rejection of a prosperous lover and committal of her virginity to God. The pleasures to be derived from the text are perhaps equally obvious. In the description of the tortures there was certainly an element of the sensational. 47

Woolf’s linking of pleasure, sensation, and torture provides an intriguing point of departure for an analysis of readerly identification with hagiography, even though the issue of who read (or listened to) Old English poetry [End Page 32] is controversial. The Lives of Saints collection, however, offers us some slightly clearer parameters of audience.

Saints are not the subjects of their stories; sanctity is, and sanctity is the product of the relationship between the saint and the perception of saintliness. In demonstration of this point, saints’ lives offer internal evidence for the monitoring of audience and reception. The Life of Agnes (Skeat VII) is followed by two exempla about Constantia; that of Agatha (Skeat VIII) inspires Lucy (Skeat IX), and Lucy her mother; Eugenia’s example (Skeat II) inspires her mother, Claudia, her two eunuchs, Protus and Iacinctus, and Basilla; Cecilia (Skeat XXXIV) is charged with the conversion of her husband, Valerian, and his brother Tibertius; Æthelthryth (Skeat XX) remains improbably chaste through two marriages and ends her life as abbess to a female community; Euphrosyne’s story (Skeat XXXIII) is a lesson both for her literal father (Pamphnutius) and her spiritual father, the abbot; and Mary of Eygpt (Skeat XXIIIB), the archetypal “fallen” woman, is the object of Zosimus’s quest for spiritual perfection. Negative examples are also proferred: the seductress, Melantia, in the case of Eugenia; the prostitute, Aphrodosia (sic), and the tyrannical Quintinianus in the case of Agatha. The embodied spiritual struggles of the female saint transform familial and marital relations around her, sometimes political life, and often religious life itself, since many of these saints found or preside over female communities.

External evidence, in the form of Ælfric’s Preface to the collection, also fills out our sense of reception. Dedicated to his aristocratic, male, lay patrons, Æthelweard and his son, Æthelmær, the Preface states quite clearly that Ælfric is translating into English those lives commemorated in monastic circles (Skeat, 1:2/5–9, 4/41–45). Continuing his plan to extend the purchase of monasticism into secular circles (which first began with the Catholic Homilies), Ælfric is also aware of the dangers of this move, stating he has suppressed certain elements of these lives for fear of lay misunderstanding (2/9–14). 48 While he does not explicitly refer to the female lives as a locus for such misreadings, their repetitive staging of key scenes testifies to Ælfric’s general concern. What is at stake in hagiography is the meaning of the saint, as the Preface suggests. This meaning is bound particularly to the female saint’s sexuality, which has to be transformed in order to offer an exemplary life: the transformed body, not the sexed one, is the exemplar.

As a result, Woolf’s suggestion that women (or men) would identify with the sensational tortures of these saints requires modification. The tortured saint offers an ideal that is highly defended against. The saint inspires others but not to emulation. Never are the struggles of the sexed [End Page 33] saintly body a focus for imitation; Constantia learns from Agnes, her exemplar, to resist marriage but does not endure her agonizing death (Skeat VII, 1:186–94). The act of looking at the saint is also carefully censored: sexual knowledge is a dangerous matter. Consider the nakedness of Mary of Eygpt, protected from the eyes of Zosimus (Skeat XXIIIB, 2:14/204–20), or the nudity of Agnes, concealed miraculously by her hair and then by an angelic light that protects her from sight and touch in the brothel:

Hi tugon ea tæt mæden to tæra myltestrena huse. ac heo gemette tær sona scinende godes encgel. swa tæt nan man ne mihte for eam mycclum leohte hire on beseon. oeee hi hreppan. for tan eet hus eall scean. swa swa sunne on dæg. and swa hi hi gearnlicor sceawodon. swa scimodon heora eagon swieor.

(Skeat, 1:178/148–53)

[They dragged that maiden then to the house of prostitutes, but she at once found there shining an angel of God, so that no man was able to look at her because of the great light, or touch her, because the house all shone, like sun in day, and the more eagerly they looked at her, the more their eyes were dazzled.]

So too the cases of Eugenia and Euphrosyne, each of whom assumes male disguise rather than stand trial as a Christian woman.

Uncannily aware of the process whereby the sexed body is presented so as to be re-presented, hagiography is at pains to make sure that what we see is what we should see. The point is made succinctly by Agatha’s breast. The first reference to her breast is metaphoric: no attempt to alter Agatha’s will can modify the faith that resides in her breast (Skeat VII, 1:196/ 30-31). The second is to her literal breast, which is cut off by her torturers, and which prompts Agatha’s comment on her spiritual wholeness:

. . . Eala eu arleasosta ne sceamode te to ceorfanne tæt tæt eu sylf suce. ac ic habbe mine breost on minre sawle. ansunde. mid tam ee Ic min andgit eallunga afede. (202/124–27)

[Oh you most wicked, are you not ashamed to cut off that which you yourself have sucked? But I have my breast in my soul, whole, with which I shall completely feed my understanding.] [End Page 34]

In a miraculous gesture, an angel heals her alone in her prison cell in a blaze of light that blocks the gaze of her torturers (1:204/144–48). As a sign of her faith, Agatha’s breast is thus re-literalized but remains defended from sight. It is essential that the interiorization of the breast be rendered accessible as a sign for others, but the careful screening of the body part from sight stresses that her breast is a sign not of the flesh but of its conquest. Similarly, the two transvestite saints, Eugenia and Euphrosyne, both of whom remain in monasteries undetected for many years, are finally revealed as women: on each occasion, the woman-as-man is unveiled, unclothed, her flesh on view against her will, not as a sign of fallen humanity but of the redeemed sexed body (Skeat II, 1:38/232–36; XXXIII, 2:354/313–20). The act of looking, always problematic in Anglo-Saxon culture, is indeed a potent moment in these lives, with the acquisition of correct knowledge its correlative: even when naturalized by the ideology of spiritual love, the dangers of the unspiritual gaze, the pleasures of eroticized scopophilia, sadism, and masochism lurk everywhere. 49

The renunciation of her material, sexual body is therefore emphatically the privilege of the female saint and no one else. Saintly bodies are cleansed and purified from filth (a common motif, but particularly literalized in rites of washing in the Life of Æthelthryth, Skeat XX); interiorized (as in the peculiarly dramatic case of Agatha’s breast); or sex-changed (as in the case of the transvestite saints). Female desire is transformed into spiritual discourse (the Life of Agnes, for example, opens with a lengthy, deeply sensual rejection of her suitor that is modeled on The Song of Songs and echoed by her follower, Constantia, Skeat VII, 1:170/25–172/62, and 188/330–32); or rewritten as texts (as with the miraculous inscription that instructs Zosimus about where to bury Mary’s body, Skeat XXIIB, 2:50/748–54; and the golden message that confirms, or rather consumates, the chaste marriage of Cecilia and Valerian, Skeat XXXIV, 2:358/56–360/68). But there is a catch. These saints, seemingly represented as not-sexual, not-women, even not-human, in fact remain female, sexed, and human, especially at moments of transcendence: Agatha’s breast remains a sign of her sex. 50

Virginity and marriage

In contrast to the view that saintly transcendence is a process that subsumes sexual differentiation, these examples indicate that it is essential that female saints remain representations of the feminine. 51 Fulfillment of the theology of virginity is often fulfillment of the theology of marriage as well. Virginal [End Page 35] saints such as Agnes resist non-Christian marriage, while others from the same collection live out the doctrine of spiritual or chaste marriage: Cecilia (Skeat XXXIV) and Æthelthryth (Skeat XX), Julian and Basilissa (Skeat IV), and Chrysanthus and Darius (Skeat XXXV). We see in such examples the use of the female body as a resource for both sanctity and marriage.

Dyan Elliott notes how the benefits of spiritual marriage—the extension of marriage beyond death, the tentative freedom of the woman from the realm of secular marriage politics in which she features largely as an object for exchange, the insulation of the male from the dangers of sexuality—often conflict with the Church’s teaching on secular marriage and chaste procreation. She suggests that Anglo-Saxon England is particularly enamoured of the concept of spiritual marriage, basing her comments on the earlier period of monasticism (particularly Bede) and on the later Latin cults of royal women. 52 Ælfric’s treatment of spiritual marriage, indeed his attitude toward marriage in general, has yet to receive detailed examination. In general, however, it is clear that Ælfric favors clerical, monastic, and saintly chastity (male and female), praising those virginal saints, monks, and clerics who avoid women at all cost and also those who practice more sociable forms of mixed sex cohabitation. 53 He recommends chastity in the secular realm, too, and insists on the sacrament of marriage. The Life of Æthelthryth, for example, concludes with an exemplum about a secular couple who, having fulfilled their procreative duties, adopt chastity within marriage for thirty years, after which the husband enters monastic orders (Skeat XX, 1:440/120–35). Rightful marriage gets a fuller exposition in his later tract, De Doctrina Apostolica, which also stresses that a marriage should not be abandoned where the woman is infertile. 54

These female lives are written at a time when clerical hostility towards women is increasing across Christendom, and when religious women were being enclosed in their convents, while their monastic brethren, by contrast, were extending their influence in the secular world. 55 In a culture wary both of the body and of women, the female body is a double threat, to be guarded against and contained, but Ælfric may also be commenting obliquely on more specific marriage practices within his culture. There is some evidence, as I suggested earlier, that marriage embraced forms of cohabitation broader than those of the Christian couple, particularly in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period and perhaps Germanic in origin. Syncretism may explain why evidence for concubinage and serial polygamy surfaces from time to time throughout the period in spite of (or perhaps because of) an emphasis in the clerical material on the moral duties of the Christian couple. In the tenth [End Page 36] and eleventh centuries, syncretic practices become intriguingly concentrated on the royal dynasties. Serial polygamy and concubinage seem to be the prerogative of the ruling family of the West Saxons, Pauline Stafford points out. The vexed marital histories of Edgar and his three wives (Æthelflæd, Wulfthryth, and Æthelthryth), or Æthelred II (the Unready) and his two wives (Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored of York, and Emma), or Cnut and his two wives (Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Emma), provide a useful context for Ælfric’s emphasis on monogamy, chaste marriage, and chastity. Ælfric’s interest in marriage is in part a tightening up of monastic and clerical chastity in the period of the Benedictine reform, but it is not improbable that it is also a comment on the behavior of his rulers. 56

It is into this cultural context that I would insert the apparently anomalous Apollonius of Tyre, whose celebration of the long-lasting and long-tested marriage of Apollonius and Archestrate contrasts with the better-known, resolutely single hero, Beowulf. Often dismissed as “only” a translation, the fact that Apollonius is a translation is precisely the point. As a translation, the Apollonius is not fully present in Anglo-Saxon vernacular culture: it dwells instead between absence and presence, its Latin translated and thus silenced, but also Englished and thus voiced. It is only via the process of translatio that the pleasures and dangers of sexuality can be explored in Anglo-Saxon culture, as I have already suggested. In the final analysis, the female saints’ lives, too, are only translations.

The Apollonius is an English version of a late classical romance in a resolutely pagan context, a genre otherwise unknown in English writing of this period. Although only a fragment of the story survives (effectively the beginning and the end in comparison with Latin sources), there is enough to indicate the different nature of this work. The Apollonius is structured around an initial episode of paternal incest that threatens rightful marriage and that is subsequently resolved with the love story of Apollonius and his long-estranged wife, Archestrate, and their daughter, Tharsia. Like the genre, the content, too, is unusual in Anglo-Saxon writing, with the language of affect particularly striking. Archestrate, who schemes to win the approval and consent of her father, Archestrates, for her beloved stranger, Apollonius, has the familiar sleepless nights of later romance heroines (Criseyde comes to mind), and is seduced by his music: ta gefeol hyre mod on his lufe. 57 Apollonius weeps after reporting his tale of pursuit and shipwreck (24/14), and blushes when Archestrate’s intentions are revealed: his andwlita eal areodode (32/30). We are a long way from the world of Beowulf, or the narratives of Christian desire in the female saints’ lives. [End Page 37]

But only initially. The manuscript context suggests a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon reception of the work. Apollonius is found in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 201, a manuscript associated with the sermons, penitentials, and laws of the Benedictine reformers, in particular Wulfstan. The preceding item in the manuscript is in fact an extract from Wulfstan’s Polity, and the Apollonius is followed by a list of English saints and their resting places. 58 In short, the translation of the pagan Apollonius finds its place among the many regulations of Christian law: we can speculate therefore that its theme of lawful marriage appealed both to the translator and the compiler. So too its use of sexual metaphors for knowledge. Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon version announces a dual subject, that of Apollonius of Tyre and the ungesæligan (“wicked” or “unblessed,” 2/1) King Antiochus, who fell in love (“ta gefeol his agen mod on hyre lufe,” 2/9–10) with his daughter through unlawful desire (unrihtre gewilnunge, 2/10). It is Apollonius, naturally, who is the focus of the riddle that Antiochus poses in order to protect his desire from the suitors for his daughter. The riddle presents the chaos that ensues among family relations from incest: “Scylde ic tolige, moddrenum flæsce ic bruce” [I suffer guilt, I enjoy maternal flesh]; and “Ic sece minne fæder, mynre modor wer, mines wifes dohtor, and ic ne finde” [I seek my father, my mother’s man, my wife’s daughter and I find not] (6/10–15). Apollonius solves only the first part of the riddle, revealing Antiochus’s guilty incestuous desire; the second is never explicitly solved, though it is resolved by the end of narrative when Archestrate and her daughter are safely restored to Apollonius, and he to his kingdom. 59

Both Archestrate and Tharsia are associated with the goddess of chastity, Diana. Unlike Antiochus, Archestrate loves from wisdom, not lust (38/10), thus offering a pagan parallel to the ideology of chaste marriage offered by Ælfric. The parallel with Alfred’s metaphor for Christian wisdom is even more pointed, since in both cases knowledge is uncovered via sexuality. The use of the riddles here, too, is consonant with a culture fascinated by the genre, a form which emphasizes the desire for knowledge. Finally, the combination of romance, marriage, chastity, and incest in Apollonius resonates with the main themes of the Anglo-Saxon female lives of saints. I read Apollonius, therefore, as an emergent genre in Anglo-Saxon culture, looking to the better established cultural genre of hagiography in its emphasis on chaste marriage and to the celebration of secular love in post-Conquest Romance. 60 What the Apollonius offers Anglo-Saxon culture is a rare moment of explicit sexual representation and regulation in the secular literature: Antiochus transgresses the fundamental law of incest, articulated in Anglo-Saxon [End Page 38] England from the Conversion onwards; Apollonius reveals the connection between sexuality and knowledge.


Cultural representations of sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England remind us that there is no coherent discourse of the sexual in this period. In the examples that I have discussed, sexuality—most often identified with the feminine—is a product of other cultural discourses: those of the body, desire, chastity, and marriage. These discourses are familiar to students of the later medieval period, but are also culturally specific. In comparison with the practices of later female saints, Anglo-Saxon lives of saints are notably restrained in their depictions of scenes of sexual violence and torture, and do not overindulge the impulse toward eroticization. 61 This restraint is a feature of Anglo-Saxon representation in general and an expression of a cultural ambivalence about the body. What Anglo-Saxon writing captures is the paradox whereby the passage of the body into writing, into culture, is a passage into signification that renders the material body absent. But Anglo-Saxon culture does not emphasize only the reconstruction of the body in language; it insists both on its cultural significance and on its materiality.

In the examples I have discussed, Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward sexuality are profoundly ambivalent. Sexuality is constantly displaced, sometimes into spiritual eroticism: it is recognized and denied, desired and feared, revealed and concealed, spoken and silenced. In short, sexuality is a powerful and empowering form of knowledge, and for these reasons it is also dangerous. To put it another way, because Anglo-Saxon England is not a promising place to think about sex, it is precisely the place that we should.

Clare A. Lees
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon


1. For a recent discussion see John W. Tanke, “Wonfeax wale: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book,” Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections, ed. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 21–42.

2. Allen J. Frantzen, “Between the Lines: Queer Theory, the History of Homosexuality, and Anglo-Saxon Penitentials,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 26 (1996): 255–96.

3. As is argued by Caroline Walker Bynum in Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); for a vigorous counterargument, see Kathleen Biddick, “Genders, Bodies, Borders: Technologies of the Visible,” Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism, ed. Nancy F. Partner, Speculum 68 (1993): 389–418.

4. “Genesis A”: A New Edition, ed. A. N. Doane (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978); The Saxon Genesis: An Edition of the West Saxon “Genesis B” and the Old Saxon Vatican “Genesis, ed. A. N. Doane (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). All references to the Genesis poems are to these editions.

5. King Alfred’s Version of St. Augustine’s “Soliloquies, ed. Thomas A. Carnicelli (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 75–76; the text will be cited by page and line numbers.

6. The Christ of Cynewulf, ed. Albert S. Cook (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1900). All references to Christ I are to this edition, in consultation with the editions in The Exeter Book, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, vol. 3 of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), 1–15; and The Old English “Advent”: A Typological Commentary, ed. Robert B. Burlin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

7. Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, ed. Walter W. Skeat, vol. 1, EETS 76 and 82 (1881, 1885; repr. London: Oxford University Press, 1966); vol. 2, EETS 94 and 114 (1890, 1900; repr. London: Oxford University Press, 1966). References to specific saints’ lives are to Skeat’s numbering, and in some instances to volume, page, and line numbers.

8. The Old English “Apollonius of Tyre, ed. Peter Goolden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958). The view that Western love is a post-Conquest phenomenon was reiterated most recently by R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 8–9.

9. For important theoretical discussions of sexuality and its historical construction, see Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” and David M. Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?” both of which are reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3–44, 416–31.

10. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, vol. 18 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 1–64. Useful extracts are included in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1989), 594–626.

11. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978). Frantzen usefully summarizes the debate about the history of sexuality and related issues in “Between the Lines,” 256–58. Judith Butler offers the most sustained analysis of the constructionist position and of the performativity of gender in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993). Both representation and construction, however, elucidate the practice of translatio and its relation to cultural notions of desire. I discuss the limits of the constructionist position in my introduction to Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), xvii–xix.

12. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

13. Frantzen also emphasizes the role of discretion in the pententials, see “Between the Lines,” 281–82.

14. For a discussion of the ethics of silence see James W. Earl, Thinking about “Beowulf” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 174–75.

15. I do not argue that the construction of sex is coterminous with that of the body, however, but that the slender evidence for sexual representation in the nonreligious literature may be related to a more general cultural concern or restraint about bodily matters. I also argue that the construction of sex in the religious materials is related to that of the body, through the doctrines of sin and chastity. The Anglo-Saxon construction of the body is an area yet to be studied, although it is quite clear that such a study would involve much more than either the construction of sex or chastity. For a theoretical overview of the distinctions between sex and the body, see Gayle S. Rubin’s “Thinking Sex.” For the Anglo-Saxon penitentials, see Frantzen, “Between the Lines,” and his earlier study, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

16. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), Book I, chap. 27.

17. Bede’s version of the Libellus does not explicitly mention the act of ejaculation as a consequence of impure dreams but the problem that such “illusions” present for defining sin and chastity. For similar discussions of what is more often known as nocturnal pollution, see James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 80–81, 109–10, 214, 400–401.

18. Sarah Beckwith makes a similar point in her discussion of the later medieval Ancrene Wisse, “Passionate Regulation: Enclosure, Ascesis, and the Feminist Imaginary,” South Atlantic Quarterly 93 (1994): 803–24.

19. Stephanie Hollis, Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church: Sharing a Common Fate (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 1992), 11.

20. Hollis offers a useful discussion in Anglo-Saxon Women and the Church, 27–40. See also Frantzen, “Between the Lines.”

21. See the related discussions by Frantzen in “Between the Lines,” and more generally, in The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England.

22. For the laws, see Mary P. Richards and B. Jane Stanfield, “Concepts of Anglo-Saxon Women in the Laws,” New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 89–99. Ælfric is careful to insist in his Catholic Homilies that the three estates (virginity, marriage, widowhood) apply equally to men and women; see, for example, his sermon on the Purification of Mary, The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church: The First Part, Containing The Sermones Catholici, or Homilies of Ælfric, 2 vols., ed. Benjamin Thorpe (London: Ælfric Society, 1844–46), 1:148. Later, however, he refers explicitly to women; see, for example, De Virginitate, in Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, ed. John C. Pope, 2 vols., EETS 259 and 260 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967–68), 2:804.

23. Margaret Clunies Ross, “Concubinage in Anglo-Saxon England,” Past and Present 108 (1985): 3–34. See also Andreas Fischer, Engagement, Wedding, and Marriage in Old English, Anglistische Forschungen 176 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1986); and Julie Coleman, “Sexual Euphemism in Old English,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 93 (1992): 93–98.

24. Although the gender continuum for men is much broader in the pentitential literature, as Frantzen points out in “Between the Lines,” 273–80.

25. Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 1–27.

26. Earl, Thinking about “Beowulf,” 106.

27. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, Lectures on the History of Religions, n.s. 15 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995) is an important study of the phenomenon of material continuity of the body after death, although she excludes the early medieval period from her analysis. Anglo-Saxon homilists, however, regularly stress the materiality of the resurrected body; see, for example, Ælfric’s Sermo de Initio Creaturæ from his First Series of Catholic Homilies, ed. Thorpe, 1:16: “Se lichama is deadlic turh Adames gylt, ac eeah-hwæeere God arære eft eone lichaman to ecum eingum on domes dæg” [The body is mortal through Adam’s sin but nonetheless God will raise again the body on doomsday]. This and all other translations in this essay are my own.

28. Relevant essays are Joseph Harris, “Love and Death in the Männerbund: An Essay with Special Reference to Bjarkamál and The Battle of Maldon,” Heroic Poetry in the Anglo-Saxon Period: Studies in Honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993), 77–114; and Lees, “Men and Beowulf,” in Medieval Masculinities, 129–48.

29. Einharti Vita Karoli Magni, ed. G. Waitz, Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum, vol. 25 (Hanover, 1880), Book III; see also Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969), 76–77. See also Sarah Beckwith, Christ’s Body: Identity, Culture, and Society in Late Medieval Writings (London: Routledge, 1993); and Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast.

30. The Dream of the Rood, ed. Michael Swanton (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1970).

31. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. Fr. Klaeber, 3rd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1950), lines 745–53a and 833–36. Seth Lerer examines Beowulf as a poem of the body and its dismemberment in “Grendel’s Glove,” ELH 61 (1994): 721–51.

32. For a brief discussion, see N. M. Robinson, “The Living God in Ælfric’s De Falsis Diis,” Words and Wordsmiths: A Volume for H. L. Rogers, ed. Geraldine Barnes (Sidney: University of Sidney, 1989), 77–84.

33. A useful introduction is David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).

34. Skeat XX, 1:434/49–438/95. Ælfric’s source is Bede; see Colgrave and Mynors, Book IV, chap. 19.

35. Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1953), 137.

36. See, for example, Natale Omnium Sanctorum, in the First Series of Catholic Homilies, ed. Thorpe, 1:538: “Godes halgan sind englas and menn. Englas sind gastas butan lichaman” [God’s saints are angels and men. Angels are spirits without bodies].

37. For the illustrations, see Israel Gollancz, The Caedmon Manuscript of Anglo-Saxon Biblical Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927); for discussion, see Thomas H. Ohlgren, “The Illustrations of the Caedmonian Genesis: Literary Criticism Through Art,” Medievalia et Humanistica 3 (1972): 199–212.

38. For discussion, see Gillian R. Overing, “On Reading Eve: Genesis B and the Readers’ Desire,” Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 35–63; and “Of Apples, Eve, and Genesis B: Contemporary Theory and Old English Practice,” American Notes and Queries 3 (1990): 87–90. See also Eric Jager, The Tempter’s Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 176–88.

39. Ruth Waterhouse, “Tone in Alfred’s Version of Augustine’s Soliloquies,” Studies in Earlier Old English Prose, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 69–70.

40. The Wanderer, ed. T. P. Dunning and A. J. Bliss (London: Methuen, 1969), lines 41a–43.

41. Mary Clayton offers a good introduction to the poem in The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 179–206.

42. Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 95.

43. As Clayton notes, The Cult of the Virgin, 201.

44. Burlin, The Old English “Advent,” 148.

45. The relevant lives are: Skeat II (Eugenia), VII (Agnes), VIII (Agatha), IX (Lucy), XX (Æthelthryth), XXIIIB (Mary of Egypt), XXXIII (Euphrosyne), and XXXIV (Cecelia). Skeat XXIIB (Mary of Egypt) and XXXIII (Euphrosyne) are assumed to be anonymous works on stylistic grounds, although they are included in the main manuscript witness to the collection, London, British Library, MS Cotton Julius E.vii. For discussion, see P. H. Zettel, “Saints’ Lives in Old English: Latin Manuscripts and Vernacular Accounts: Ælfric,” Peritia 1 (1982): 17–37; Hugh Magennis, “On the Sources of Non-Ælfrician Lives in the Old English Lives of Saints, with Reference to the Cotton-Corpus Legendary,” N&Q n.s. 32 (1985): 292–99; and “Contrasting Features in the Non-Ælfrician Lives in the Old English Lives of Saints,” Anglia 104 (1986): 316–48. For analysis of individual lives, see Paul E. Szarmach, “Ælfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia,” New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 146–57; Allen J. Frantzen, “When Women Aren’t Enough,” Studying Medieval Women: Sex, Gender, Feminism, ed. Nancy F. Partner, 445–71 (for Eugenia and Euphrosyne); and Gopa Roy, “A Virgin Acts Manfully: Ælfric’s Life of St Eugenia and the Latin Versions,” Leeds Studies in English n.s. 23 (1992): 1–27. These lives, like Anglo-Saxon vernacular lives in general, are rarely considered in general studies of medieval sanctity, as is illustrated by the classic study by Donald Weinstein and Rudolph Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christianity, 1000–1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). They are also largely neglected by Anglo-Saxon literary historians, as I argue in “Whose Text Is It Anyway? Contexts for Editing Old English Prose,” The Editing of Old English, ed. D. G. Scragg and Paul E. Szarmach (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 1994), 97–114. A consideration of this period of sanctity would modify considerably the parameters of the discussion of sanctity, femininity, and sexuality now concentrated on the later medieval period.

46. Simon Gaunt emphasizes the sexuality of sanctity in his analysis of Old French hagiography, “Straight Minds/’Queer’ Wishes in Old French Hagiography: La Vie de sainte Euphrosyne,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1995): 439–57. Anglo-Saxon female lives, however, do not so much scrutinize the saint’s sexuality, as Gaunt suggests of the French material, as radically defend it from scrutiny.

47. Rosemary Woolf, “Saints’ Lives,” Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanley (London: Nelson, 1966), 45.

48. The best discussion remains Mary Clayton, “Homiliaries and Preaching in Anglo-Saxon England,” Peritia 4 (1985): 207–42. Ælfric’s Prefaces have been recently edited and discussed by Jonathan Wilcox, Ælfric’s Prefaces, Durham Medieval Texts 9 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994).

49. For discussion of homoeroticism in the Life of Euphrosyne, see Gaunt, “Straight Minds/’Queer’ Wishes”; and Frantzen, “When Women Aren’t Enough,” 457–67. For a different emphasis, see Gopa Roy, “A Virgin Acts Manfully.”

50. For a related discussion, see Lees, “Whose Text Is It Anyway? Contexts for Editing Old English Prose,” 110–12.

51. As Szarmach argues in “Ælfric’s Women Saints,” for example.

52. Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 16–131; see also Susan J. Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

53. In addition to the lives of Julian and Basilissa (Skeat IV) and Chrysanthus and Daria (Skeat XXXV), Ælfric praises Basil’s chastity, for example, and comments favorably on the cohabitation of Athanasius, the priest, with a chaste virgin (Skeat III); he also insists on clerical chastity in his account of Peter (Skeat X), and on lawful marriage in his sermon on the Memory of Saints (Skeat XVI).

54. De Doctrina Apostolica, Homilies of Ælfric, ed. Pope, 2:625–28.

55. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, “Women’s Monastic Communities, 500–1100: Patterns of Expansion and Decline,” Signs 14 (1988–89): 261–92.

56. Pauline Stafford, “The King’s Wife in Wessex, 800–1066,” in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 56–78.

57. Goolden, ed., 26/22 (citations by page and line numbers). Anita S. Riedinger discusses the construction of the female heroine in “The Englishing of Archestrate: Woman in Apollonius of Tyre,” in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, 292–306.

58. N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), art. 49. For a brief discussion of the manuscript, see also Roger Fowler, Wulfstan’s Canons of Edgar, EETS 266 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), xi–xiii.

59. For discussion of the Old English riddle and later versions, see P. Goolden, “Antiochus’s Riddle in Gower and Shakespeare,” Review of English Studies n.s. 6 (1955): 245–51.

60. An interesting parallel to the romance genre of Apollonius is in fact Ælfric’s Life of Eustace (Skeat XXX).

61. Hugh Magennis comes to a similar conclusion about the anonymous Life of Margaret in “‘Listen Now All and Understand’: Adaptation of Hagiographical Material for Vernacular Audiences in the Old English Lives of St. Margaret,” Speculum 71 (1996): 27–42, which he argues downplays mystical eroticism. Roy also emphasizes Ælfric’s restraint in “A Virgin Acts Manfully.” For discussion of later lives, see Gaunt’s “Straight Minds/’Queer’ Wishes”; Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “The Virgin’s Tale,” in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature, ed. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson (London: Routledge, 1994): 165–94; and Gayle Margherita, “Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana,” The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994): 43–61.