The Female Saints of Anglo-Saxon England

The Female Saints of Anglo-Saxon England
with Dr Rosalind Love (University of Cambridge)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 28th November, 2015.

Æthelthryth

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                1: What made a woman saintly? – In this session we will look at the range of different kinds of women from Anglo-Saxon England who attained sanctity – queens, abbesses, widows – and also at what role models where available for women who aspired to holiness, and how they differed from male saintly role models. We will focus in particular on a treatise ‘On Virginity’ composed by one of the earliest Latin authors from among the Anglo-Saxons, Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Aldhelm addressed his treatise to a group of nuns, and as well as setting out his theories about virginity and its superiority to all other estates, he offered a sequence of exemplary saints to his readers. At least one of those women whom he addressed, an abbess of Barking, Hildelith, was later known as a saint herself: so theory seems to have translated into practice.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                2: The Abbesses of Barking – Bede, composing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the 730s, wrote about several holy Anglo-Saxon women, among them the early abbesses of a monastic community housing both men and women, established at Barking. It is interesting that Bede refers to a ‘booklet’ about these holy abbesses that he knew about, but which is now lost – perhaps a rare example of women writing about women. Later on – immediately after the Norman Conquest – Bede’s accounts of the Barking abbesses were reworked for contemporary taste, and updated with miracles wrought by the Barking saints, and a biography of an abbess from more recent times, Wulfhild, was added to the group, all the work of the most prominent hagiographer of that period in England, Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. It is interesting to compare his work with Bede’s much earlier simple narratives to see how expectations of female sanctity had evolved.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:                 3: Æthelthryth of Ely and her sister – Bede offered another model of female sanctity in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in his portrait of Æthelthryth (Etheldreda), the twice-married and ever-virginal foundress of the monastic community at Ely. Alongside Æthelthryth her sister Sexburga makes a fleeting appearance, as her successor as abbess at Ely. Sexburga was of lesser interest to Bede, it would seem, possibly because, as we learn from other sources, she was a widow when she joined the nuns at Ely. His portrait of Æthelthryth also contrasts strongly with his account of St Hild of Whitby, whom he also clearly respected, but with less gushing enthusiasm, again perhaps because she was not virginal. For Bede, Æthelthryth was a shining example and she continued to be revered in England, for example inspiring the image on the front of this booklet, from the late-tenth-century Benedictional of Æthelwold. Bede was restrained in the way he recounted Æthelthryth’s story and the way she managed to quit a marriage that had gone unconsummated, but later Ely writers succumbed to potential of the tale for more vivid retellings, as well as for using the difference between Æthelthryth’s virgin status and that of her sister Sexburga as a tool for moral instruction.

14.50 – 15.10:               Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:      4: The Holy Women of Early Kent – Our final case study examines two female saints remembered in Kent: St Mildreth, who was a descendent of the first Christian king of Kent, Æthelbert, and was abbess of the community of Minster-in-Thanet, and woman who was later remembered by the name of Eadburg, who was probably an early abbess of another foundation in Kent, at Lyminge. We do not have records of either woman that are anywhere near as early as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: both Mildreth and Eadburg were commemorated in texts from the late tenth and eleventh century and present interesting examples of how women’s lives were recorded at this time. The biography of Mildreth in particular, by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, who had also written about the Barking saints, shows how such narratives began to take on the character of later medieval romance literature

About Dr Rosalind Love:

Dr Rosalind Love is Reader in Insular Latin in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, and is currently Head of Department. She did her first degree in that Department, and also her doctorate, which focused on Latin saints’ lives written in Anglo-Saxon England. Her research interests continue to focus on the texts written to commemorate the saints of Anglo-Saxon England, but she has also published on the marginal annotations in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and on the writings of the Venerable Bede. She is currently working on a translation of his biblical commentary on I Samuel.

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading:

  1. Leyser, Medieval Women. A Social History of Women in England 450-1500 (London, 1995) [see chapter 2]

J.A. McNamara, J.E. Halborg and E.G. Whatley, trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (Durham and London, 1992) [see in particular the Life of St Radegund]

  1. Lapidge and M. Herren (trans.), Aldhelm: The Prose Works (Cambridge, 1979; reprinted) [for Aldhelm’s prose treatise De uirginitate (‘On Virginity’)]

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in one of the translations by Penguin, or World’s Classics – see particularly Book IV.6-10; IV.19(17)-20(18); IV.23(21) [on the abbesses of Barking, Æthelthryth of Ely, and Hild]

Rosalind Love, ed. and trans., Goscelin of Saint-Bertin. The Female Saints of Ely, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 2004) [partly available on Google books]

  1. Rollason, The Mildrith Legend: A Study in Early Medieval Hagiography in England (Leicester, 1982)

Rosalind Love, ‘“Torture me, rend me, burn me, kill me!” Goscelin of Saint-Bertin and the Depiction of Female Sanctity’, in Writing Women Saints in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Toronto, 2013), pp. 274-306 [available on academia.edu]