- Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England ed. by Paul E. Szarmach
In his short introduction to this volume, Paul E. Szarmach explains its genesis: it arose in part out of his 1996 edited collection, Holy Men and Holy Women (State University of New York Press), and in part out of a 2006 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar of the same name. Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England has, then, had a long gestation (almost twenty years). In a reversal of the transition from women’s studies to gender studies witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic in the late twentieth century, Szarmach identified within the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar “a core of participants” whose primary focus was specifically on female hagiography. In the ensuing decade, women saints have continued to be a significant focus of interest in medieval studies more broadly, and in Anglo-Saxon studies in particular.
Szarmach subdivides the volume into four sections. The first two section titles, “Old English Martyrology” and “Form and Genre,” do not obviously speak to a concern with women, but the essays themselves place female sanctity at centre stage, and thus anticipate those in the third and fourth sections, entitled “Mothers” and “Virgin Martyrs.” Texts discussed in the volume include anonymous works, such as the Old English Martyrology, which Christine Rauer acknowledges could have been written by a man or a woman (although she refers to the author as “he” throughout). However, male hagiographers, such as Ælfric of Eynsham and Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, inevitably, and appropriately, figure significantly. Women’s participation in the literary culture of the Anglo-Saxons, as patrons, readers, or authors, is not given as much consideration as might be expected given the title of the volume, but it is by no means overlooked. One particularly fascinating essay is “Æthelgifu’s Will as Hagiography” by Mary Louise Fellows, which adopts an innovative approach in reading the will of a late tenth-century widow alongside a comparative analysis of the gendering of sanctity in Ælfric’s second life of St. Martin and his life of Eugenia, in order to demonstrate how the widow represents herself in her final testimony as one who transcends gender in her imitation of Christ.
Szarmach has done an excellent job in bringing the work of leading researchers in the field, such as Virginia Blanton, Renée R. Trilling, and Rosalind Love, into contact with essays by emergent scholars, but dialogue between the contributors is largely absent. Szarmach contends in his introduction that “[f]inding point and counterpoint in this volume is the best way to read it.” The responsibility for finding connections between the essays lies with the reader. The volume is not underpinned by a single theoretical approach, although feminist thinking clearly informs [End Page 396] some essays. Yet despite a nod to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) in the titles of two essays (including Szarmach’s own contribution on Mary of Egypt), queer approaches to Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives get short shrift. For example, in his introduction Szarmach asserts that “in its interest in queer sexuality and the transgression of gender boundaries, current scholarship has defeminized” Saint Euphrosyne, one of the so-called transvestite saints (a term that itself seems archaic and at times unhelpful insofar as it lumps together a range of different categories of expression and experience, from cross-dressing and same-sex desire to transgender and intersex).
I recommend Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England to other scholars and students working in this area. There is much research still to be undertaken on early female sanctity, and the essays in this volume offer the reader a variety of approaches and foci. From the legends of Margaret the dragon-slayer to those of Mary of Egypt, from the putative lost life of Hild of Whitby to the extant hagiography of Edith of Wilton, this is a rich and rewarding field of study.