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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.2 (2002) 227-267

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Tota integra, tota incorrupta:
The Shrine of St. Æthelthryth as Symbol of Monastic Autonomy

Virginia Blanton-Whetsell
Marist College
Poughkeepsie, New York


Ibi est unum feretrum sub quo clauditur vas marmoreum continens sancte Æeldree corpus virgineum, versus altare proprium, sicut precellens domina, tota integra, tota incorrupta, quiescit in tumulo, quod Dei iussione angelicis ei, ut credimus, parabatur manibus. 1
[There is one shrine, within which the marble sarcophagus containing the virgin body of St. Æthelthryth is enclosed, turned in the direction of her own altar, just as the exalted lady, entirely whole, entirely uncorrupted, rests in the tomb which, we believe, had been prepared for her at God's command by the hands of angels.]

This description of the shrine of Æthelthryth, Anglo-Saxon queen and abbess, comes from an inventory list assembled in 1134 and documented in the Liber Eliensis, which is a compilation of deeds, charters, privileges, and estate litigation designed to recount the history of the Benedictine monastery at Ely, England. This chronicle begins with a book-length vitaof Æthelthryth, who is the house's founder and patron saint, and it features, interspersed throughout the collected documents, a number of miracle stories associated with the twice-married virgin and her shrine. 2 In effect, the compilation highlights the life of the monastery's royal patron and documents the significant events at Ely subsequent to her death. The story of Æthelthryth's life and of the entombment of her incorruptible corpse figure largely in this monastic narrative, for the shrine—as a material extension of the founder's preserved corporeality—is invoked as the organizing symbol for the community's identity. In describing the shrine as an enclosure, one [End Page 227] that protects the incorrupted body of the saint and one over which the monks swear oaths of allegiance (and thus form a collective body), the chronicle indirectly associates the shrine with the architectural space of the monastery, even as it suggests the imagery of enclosure for the spiritual body represented by the group of monks. As a symbol of permanence and purity, the dead saint's corporeality is manifested in the materiality of her resting place, for the shrine carries the multivalent attributes associated with the woman's life—she is royal, chaste, monastic, abbatial, sovereign—and the values directly tied to her postmortemphysicality—the body is pure, virginal, incorruptible, inviolable, impenetrable, immutable.

Drawing upon the work of cultural anthropologists, Sarah Beckwith has argued forcefully for an understanding of how symbols are culturally contingent, "signifying devices which provide the communicative context through which social worlds are imagined, invented and changed." 3 Her analysis of the ambiguity of meaning associated with Christ's body in the late medieval period provides a theoretical framework for investigating how Æthelthryth's incorrupted corpse is situated as a prominent symbol in the Liber Eliensis. As Beckwith illustrates, symbols help us to understand how social relations are embedded in texts. In the Ely narrative, the monastic community utilizes the image of Æthelthryth's royal and abbatial position to define itself as a sovereign body. In repeatedly underscoring the elements of royalty, chastity, inviolability, and immutability, the chronicle's description of the enshrined body establishes a recurring symbol of power through which the monks assert their sovereignty over the Isle of Ely and their autonomy in the monastery's governance. Using this imagery, the monks challenge anyone who might take advantage of them, a warning that suggests a significant monastic anxiety about the community's vulnerability. Thus, the construction of the chronicle not only draws on the institution's traditions to present an image of the saint in which the monks glory, it also illustrates how the monks want themselves to be understood. At times, they indicate that the saint risks violation because of her purity; at others, they illustrate how her sovereignty affords her the right to defend her properties, even through violence. By aligning themselves with the royal saint, whether she is...