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  • Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe
  • Justin Haar
Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press 2012) 296 pp.

Stealing Obedience opens with a scene from Wulfstan of Winchester’s Vita of St. Aethelwold, in which the saint orders Aelfstan, a monk of Abingdon, to feed the monastery’s craftsman. Aelfstan performs the task with the diligence of two men, but then Aethelwold, visiting Aelfstan in the abbey’s kitchen, notes how well he has obeyed the order, accuses Aelfstan of stealing his obedience, and orders him to put his hand into a cauldron boiling nearby and take a morsel out of the bottom. Aelfstan manages to perform the feat unscathed, but the narrative is striking for how it handles obedience. O’Keeffe poses the question of how such an incident might actually be intended to make Aethelwold out as a good monastic saint. In Stealing Obedience, O’Keeffe aims to answer this question by examining the precepts of obedience in reformed English monasticism through the lens of agency. She argues that Anglo-Saxon narratives of monastic obedience, both in their surface constructions of obedience and the tensions that appear to underlay them, show the connections between monastic identity and agency, an agency which O’Keeffe argues is quite different from modern understandings. Her central frame is the discipline of obedience, where she contends the interconnection between monastic identity and the expression of agency that drives it can be found. O’Keeffe’s volume is not a history of obedience in English monasticism, but a study of the discourses of obedience. Obedience, she argues, is paradoxically considered by monastic authors both a sacrifice and a freedom. Further, it is intimately connected to choice: the men and women of her sources must interpret their superiors’ wills before exercising their own in obedience. It is in the space of interpretation, she contends (8), that agency appears.

O’Keeffe frames her study with questions of agency and agent action in narratives about religious life in the reformed Benedictine communities of later Anglo-Saxon England. She defines “agent action” as the nexus of will and obedience. She uses “agency” broadly to refer to the pragmatic ability of an actor to act within their cultural structures. Her major theoretical underpinning comes from critical critique, which she argues is a useful lens for examining the [End Page 309] questions of how religious men, women, and children represented agent action through their own cultural lenses. Stealing Obedience is, given O’Keeffe’s complex questions, not intended to prove a single argument but to unpack a series of case studies through her questions and interpretive stance. She intends “an inquiry about a world long gone and about languages of inquiry—Latin and Old English—whose analytical terms, words like ‘freedom,’ ‘will,’ and ‘choice’ sound comfortably familiar but on examination stake out a territory that is strange and at times contradictory.” With her deft close-readings, O’Keeffe delivers: throughout Stealing Obedience, the readers’ assumptions are challenged through a careful unpacking and challenging of notions of obedience, agency, and agent action.

The introduction, which sets the tone of the volume, is a long theoretical discussion of the interplay of agency and obedience in monastic texts, most notably those of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose texts she uses to argue a theory of free will and obedience in late Anglo-Saxon England which, while not as rigorous as Anselm’s later work on the issue, nevertheless represents a distance from the Augustinian lenses which have often been applied to the period. Her first chapter explores Osbern of Canterbury’s rewritten version of the Anglo-Saxon Life of Dunstan by B, arguing that Dunstan’s resistance to an unfree vow of obedience demonstrates Osbern’s attempt to add freedom of choice to the tropes of obedience prevalent in hagiography. O’Keeffe’s second chapter explores the issues inherent in Aelfric’s Colloquy when he tells the monastic children under his charge to “be what you are,” a command she argues is paradoxical...


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pp. 309-311
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