Master of Arts
Female saints and abbesses made powerful contributions to the conversion of England in the seventh and eighth centuries and to its religious life in the tenth and eleventh centuries. However, the documentary record about these women is not only sparse, but also mediated mostly through hagiographies written by men. It has been argued on the basis of these hagiographies that minimal respect was accorded to English female saints during the early medieval period. This thesis tests that assertion by studying the lives of two eminent examples from the beginning and the end of the Christian Anglo-Saxon era: Hild of Whitby (d.680) and Edith of Wilton (d.987). Reading the historical record with sensitivity to context and culture supports the view that female sanctity was honoured fairly consistently by both genders from late antiquity through to the Middle Ages.
Summary for Lay Audience
Hagiography (an account of a saint’s life written for devotional purposes) is a difficult genre to use for understanding history. By nature a hagiography is formulaic and other-worldly. Hagiographies of female saints are especially challenging when consulted to understand the lives of such women, because they were written by men. Seldom are the voices of early medieval women themselves preserved in the historical record of any kind. This thesis attempts to clarify the real lives of two particular female saints of early medieval England by studying their hagiographies. One woman is from the beginning of the period: Hild, abbess of Whitby, a monastery in northern England housing both men and women. We know about her life from the pages of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by a monk named Bede in about 731. The other is close to the end of the period: Edith, a royal young lady brought up in the Wilton convent in southern England. The Life of Edith was written by another monk named Goscelin about 1080.
The lives of these two women are examples taken from among many of the vital impact of their female gender and noble status on the religious scene of early medieval England. In some ways Hild’s and Edith’s lives were comparable, in others not so much, but it is apparent from studying the surviving records that the respect accorded to them both as women and as saints was something they had in common. In addition, it appears that while the political status of English women faded away as the centuries went by, opportunities for them in the religious sphere remained. Most interesting of all, it seems that the depiction of female sanctity in hagiographies written by men (much having to do with heroic defence of their virginity) was not objectionable to contemporary women but embraced by them. Not only in our estimation today, but also in the eyes of their contemporaries, female saints in early medieval England lived lives full of both earthly and heavenly significance.
Ferguson, Lori, "Monks Praise the Female Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: Hild of Whitby and Edith of Wilton" (2021). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 8110.