Victorious Virgin; Accursed Appetites: The Wages of Scopo-philia in the Lives of St Etheldreda of Ely

This essay considers at three versions of the life of St Etheldreda. Bede’s A History of the English Church and People, in Latin and completed in 731, is the earliest written source for the events, written fifty years after the saint’s actual words, acts and death in 679. Bede’s account was reworked by Ælfric in Old English during the years 992 to 1002 in his Old English Saints’ Lives (Natale Sancte Æþeldryþe Uirginis). A Latin verse life of St Æthelthryth, De Vita et Gestis Beatae Aedeldrydae Virginis, written by Gregory of Ely between 1083 and 1170, appears in Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 393.i Although these vitae follow the conventional hagiographic pattern—origins, birth, adoption of religious vocation, catalogue of the saint’s virtues, miracles, visions and prophecies, the final illness, the premonition, death and burial, the miracula and the translatio (Schulenburg 296)—each reveals a close inter-relationship with the theological and social context of its period; each has become increasingly more distanciated—Ricoeur’s term (132)—from the concrete reality of that life and so produced a text with contemporary significance; and each portrays the saint as a virgin even after two marriages. This paper examines the significance of Etheldreda’s choice of virginity, seen particularly against the background of patristic theology, and the essence, in the light of current feminist thinking, of three posthumous miracles, induced by what Gregory calls the ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ for gold,ii in which the saint swiftly and violently punishes those who threaten her purity and violate the sanctity of her shrine and the holiness of her feast day. It concludes that, whereas the saint depicted in Bede’s text cannot be seen as a feminist heroine, a feminist reinterpretation of Gregory’s thirteenth-century verse Life reveals the saint’s posthumous confrontation and rebuttal of phallogocentric, post-Benedictine ecclesiastical politics.
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