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Author ORCID Identifier

Document Type

Campus-Only Access for One (1) Year

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

English

Year Degree Awarded

2019

Month Degree Awarded

May

First Advisor

Joe Black

Second Advisor

Jenny Adams

Third Advisor

Sonja Drimmer

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval Studies | Other English Language and Literature | Religion

Abstract

It is well established that Anglo-Saxon writers were concerned with a specific set of principles (chastity, wisdom and piety) articulated in monastic life. However, the representation of women’s religious lives and the exemplification of their values influencing male saint’s Lives and their authors have to date been largely overlooked. To rectify this omission, I focus on Wulfstan’s tenth-century Vita St. Æthelwoldi, in which Æthelthryth’s character plays a far more significant role than we have heretofore noticed. Apart from the traditional figurae the author uses to depict her virtuous devotion, Wulfstan’s account of Æthelthryth is a testimony of a particular approach to monastic identity propagated by the circle of Bishop Æthelwold. I argue that Æthelthryth was elided in Wulfstan’s text in order to support the Benedictine Reformers’ objectives. As a result, Æthelthryth casts light on choices writers like Wulfstan made during this period when representing important Winchester women.

Written for Winchester’s royal and ecclesiastical audience, the Vita of St. Æthelwoldi was concerned with employing inherited female religious models that would complement the story of Bishop Æthelwold. Texts by Bede and Aldhelm, as well as Classical and Latin patristics, incorporated idealized representations of female monastic life, and Wulfstan drew from these images in order to portray Æthelthryth as being in keeping with the vita’s objectives. While various sources help frame an understanding of this woman—the period, place and circumstances of her life—a depiction points to her figural qualities. Æthelthryth’s representation reflects Wulfstan’s preoccupations with images of the female monastic leader: namely, a virgin dedicated to God who is responsible for the nuns, and spiritual counselor and prudent advisor, one who provides guidance to female members of the larger Winchester Community.

I maintain Wulfstan depicted Æthelthryth’s capabilities as a divinely infused form of knowledge. She is represented as possessing nursing, visionary and motherly skills that enabled her access to both physical and spiritual realms. Æthelthryth’s character was therefore accorded a mediated role in the lives of religious and secular communities in tenth-century Winchester. A motherly virgin dedicated to God, she is a textual symbol of nurse and spiritual counselor. By fulfilling these responsibilities, Æthelthryth also prefigures the role of prudent advisor. Æthelthryth’s character provides the context for Æthelwold’s acquisition of visionary knowledge and Wulfstan’s potential to inscribe his life. The image of a monastic woman modeling divine prescience and miraculous portents, central for the life of a saint, is a rare and venerable asset; her ability to do so for an eminent male authority and his biographer is remarkable.

It is important to investigate how depictions of monastic women promoted spiritually and pragmatic refining effects for the benefit of both their own houses as well as for the larger ecclesiastical populace, demonstrating the significance of female religious devotion. Thus, Æthelthryth becomes the proper focus of development and an example of female sanctity worthy of imitation by monastics, secular, religious, and lay audiences alike. I show that Æthelthryth is a critical source for understanding the important contributions of monastic women to Anglo-Saxon culture, elucidating a new and valuable understanding of their role in religious texts.

The lives of medieval religious women have been only partially perceived by literary texts. Although ecclesiastics related to the monastic life of the period and place they lived, Wulfstan omits details about Æthelthryth’s background and ignores Nunnaminster’s history, including its founding as well as other important women associated with the house. How and what Wulfstan obscures through his depiction of Æthelthryth relates to the Reformers’ goals for control over the monasteries they were attempting to renew.

Æthelthryth’s story is larger than the Vita St. Æthelwoldi. Not solely dependent on Wulfstan’s account, I investigate Æthelthryth’s description vis-a-vis her community through multiple sources. These sources provide evidence of women’s considerable control of Nunnaminster, as well as their spiritual life and literary achievements. I offer a different perspective of this nunnery, leading up to and including the tenth century, than the male-authored prescriptive to date. Anglo-Saxon women maintained their authority in religious life far beyond their suggested depiction. Through the study of her character, Æthelthryth offers a compelling understanding of how Anglo-Saxon female religious life was portrayed in literature. Moreover, her representation exists within the context of the surrounding royal and ecclesiastical priorities, which invariably includes the priorities of such stake-holders as the bishop, the Queen, and of Wulfstan himself.

Available for download on Sunday, November 10, 2019

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