The Humourous Later Life of St Aethelthryth

So, my attempt to make Arthurian fudge cookies isn’t going so well. When the recipe says ‘refrigerate for an hour’, but your fridge is full, covering the mixture and putting it outside for a while will only be a suitable substitute if you live somewhere where winter is actually COLD.

And on with the later life of St Aethelthryth! If you recall, we left her two weeks ago, newly proffessed as a nun at Coldingham. One week ago, we looked at her image in the Benedictional of St Aethelwold, in which she appears the right holy sourpuss.

After only a year as a nun, Aethelthryth was appointed abbess at Ely, which, if I recall correctly, was a new foundation at the time. Aelfric tells us she was a mother to many nuns- Mecthild Gretsch, in her book ‘Aelfric and the Cult of Saints’, writes as if everyone knew that Ely in Aethelthryth’s day was a double monastery, but how everyone comes by this information I’m not sure. (It could be Aelfric’s use of the term ‘mynstre’, but I don’t know what the word for convent would be if it were a distinct term…) I also read a theory once- and this was back before I had any idea how to spot a crackpot Anglo-Saxon theory when I saw it- that Ely before Aethelwold refounded it was never a ‘real’ monastery, but a house where Aethelthryth and her sisters and their women retired to live chastely (not unlike the ‘nunnan’, not nuns but consecrated widows, a distinction Sarah Foot makes in her several-volume work, ‘Veiled Women’).

Regardless of the formal arrangements at Ely, Aethelthryth continued to be on her best saintly behavior. She fasted, eating only one meal a day, except for feast days; she prayed alone; she wore woollen clothes. She took a bath only on high feast days, and then only after first bathing everyone else in the convent with her own hands.

Eight years on, she grew a ‘swelling’ under her jaw- variously accounted for as a tumour, swollen glands, and a leftover plague buboe. As you do, if you’re a saint, Aethelthryth thanked God for sending her an ‘affliction in her neck’, concluding that it was punishment for having worn necklaces adorning said neck in her youth. ‘And now’, she said, ‘me thinketh that God’s justice may cleanse my guilt, since I now whave this swelling, which shineth instead of gold, and this scorching heat instead of sparkling gems.’ (Trans. in Skeat, which is not, as it turns out, by Skeat, but by Skeat, Gunning and Wilkinson, the two latter ladies having done all the grunt work and Skeat the revision.)

A leech was called to ‘shoot’ the swelling, and shoot it he did, ‘and there came out matter’. In spite of this helpful leech, Aethelthryth ‘gloriously departed to God’ on the third day after his ministrations.

Strangely, dying of a tumour qualifies her for an entry in Bede’s Martyrology- the only Anglo-Saxon saint therein, in fact-, which interesting piece of information I found via Michelle of Heavenfield.

Having carked it, Aethethryth was buried in a wooden coffin and remained quiet for sixteen years. After sixteen years, her sister Sexburh, now abbess, decided Aethelthryth belonged inside the church itself, and ordered the brethren- (ah, that’s where the double monastery thing comes in)- off into the fens to look for a nice big stone to make a sargophagus out of. Off they went, rowing their way to Grantchesteter, where they found a coffin-ready made, standing against a wall, made out of white marble. The brethren nicked off with the coffin, declaring it a miracle. This explanation seems to have been acceptable, and no one asked who the coffin might have belonged to in the first place.

Next stop: the graveyard. They pitched a tent over Aethelthryth’s grave and dug her up, singing hymns all the while. Lo and behold, she lay there as if asleep. The leech who had tended her was there, and gave assurance that she looked exactly as she did the day they buried her, save that the wound he had made was healed, and all her clothes were freshly pressed and laundered. Despite this last fact, Sexburh took out the body, had it bathed and dressed in new clothes, and interred in the church, where, conveniently, the new marble coffin was found to fit her body exactly and to have a hollow in the pillow just the right size for her head. Aethelthryth’s shrine, her first shroud and her first coffin all went on to be mighty potent in the way of healing miracles, and it was generally agreed that between the incorrupt body and the miracles, we had definite proof she had been a lifelong virgin.

Ely Cathedral- which did not exist in Aethelthryth’s day but is neverthless very pretty.

Aelfric doesn’t go into any great detail about Aethelthryth’s posthumous miracles, as he did with St Edmund. Instead, he goes on to a little appendix, beginning ‘In like manner have laymen also, as books tell us, preserved often their chastity in the marriage-state, for the love of Christ’, and proceeding with a short story adapted from the Vita Patrum, about an upstanding citizen who lived with his wife in ‘claenysse’ (chastity, purity, continence- the same word Aelfric uses for the virgin Aethelthryth, but not limited to absolute abstinence), had three kids and then abstained, lived a virtuous life and finally entered a monastery. There have been all kinds of speculations about this appendix- a good summary of which you can find in Peter Jackson (not the director)’s article in Anglo-Saxon England for the year 2000, entitled ‘Aelfric and the purpose of Christian marriage’. Suffice it to say, Aelfric seems to have had nearly as much trouble with Aethelthryth’s obstinate abstinence has he did with Judith, who used her sexual attractiveness to manipulate men. (Aelfric wrote a homily/letter on Judith, which can be found in an eddition by Assman or in an online edition by Lee.) In the case of Judith, he carefully wrote out all hints of sex from the narrative, but it’s not really possible to rewrite Aethelthryth as a good wife and queen, when her whole sanctity rests on her virginity. Instead, throughout the Life Aelfric refers back to Bede and his judgement of Aethelthryth; he also shifts power off Aethelthryth and onto God, as he does with Judith; and finally he appends this example of marital ‘claennysse’ appropriate to the layity. In my humble opinion, it’s the word eac (also) which is crucial here. Laymen also have often preserved their chastity, Aelfric announces, implicitly setting Aethelthryth appart from the laity even though she lived most of her life as a laywoman. Aelfric certainly didn’t like sex much, or want anyone to enjoy it, but he did understand that the laity had to marry and reproduce; if anyone, male of female, was going to neglect their conjugal duties in imitation of Aethelthryth, he, Aelfric, wasn’t going to be responsible for it.

So that’s St Aethelthryth for you. Next week… who knows? Maybe something really odd, like the Seven Sleepers.


Don’t Mess with Norse Women

Humourous Hagiography will be late this week- I’ve packed up Skeat in preparation for trundling off to Awesome’s place to cat-sit for a few weeks.

Instead, have a cross-dressing Norse tale, courtesy of the Goblin:

I have read about sorceresses, and shape-shifters. I learned about preterite-present verbs and how to hate them. I have read of women who murder their children in order to avenge their brothers and women who sleep with their brothers in order to avenge their fathers and (other) brothers.

I have learned not to mess with Icelandic women. Hoo boy.

Guðrun Osvifursdottir, the protagonist of Laxdœla saga, is my very favourite example of this. She has four husbands over the course of the narrative, becomes the first nun of Iceland and achieves great literary fame. She is also a stone-cold bitch when she has to be, even if she is not on the same scale as the other figures named Guðrun in Icelandic sagas.3 The story I want to show is that of her second husband, Thord Ingunnarson. Guðrun gained Thord after she divorced her first husband -using Thord’s advice- and he divorced his wife on Guðrun’s. Thord’s wife Aud does not take kindly to losing her husband.4

The manner in which this is laid out is very amusing. The story should of course be read in context to be fully appreciated, but we shall start with Guðrun’s first husband, Thorvald. Following rumours that Guðrun is having an affair with Thord, Thorvald slaps Guðrun during a fight. After responding that he has given her what every woman wants- good colouring, Thord arrives. She asks him how to respond to the insulting slap:

Thord smiled and said, “I have a good solution for this. Make him a shirt with such a wide neck opening that by wearing it he gives you grounds for divorcing him.

Cross-dressing was illegal in early Icelandic law, and was grounds for divorce. A wide-opened shirt was for exposing…well. You’ve all seen bad fantasy movies. You get the idea.

Of course, poor Thorvald has to wear a shirt his wife made for him, and winds up divorced. One can’t help but think he is better off; Guðrun might be beautiful, but she never liked him.

Later on, Guðrun opens a conversation with Thord along similar lines:

“Is it true, Thord, that your wife Aud always wears breeches with gores in the crutch, like a man’s, and cross-garters almost down to her shoes?

He said he had not noticed it.

“There can’t be much truth to the story, then,” said Guðrun, “if you hadn’t noticed it. But why, then, is she known as Breeches-Aud?”

We can see where Guðrun is headed here. Soon enough:

One day Thord Ingunnarson asked Guðrun what the penalty was for a woman who always wore breeches like a man’s.

Guðrun replied, “The same penalty applies to women in a case like that as to a man who wears a neck-opening so wide that his nipples are exposed: both are grounds of divorce.”

Oh, Guðrun.

Of course, Thord divorces Aud then and there, and Guðrun and he go off and get married. Their marriage is very happy, apparently.

Aud takes her abandonment…bitterly, singing a brief poem. But she does not sit on her hands, because one does not mess with Icelandic womenfolk. She sends a shepherd boy to find out how many men are at Thord’s farm- upon disovering that it is only Thord and Guðrun’s father Osvif, she goes after her ex-husband:

…a little before sunset Aud mounted her horse, and she was certainly wearing breeches then. The shepherd rode the other horse and could scarcely keep up with her, so furiously did she spur her horse. […] She went into the living-room and over to the bed-closet in which Thord lay sleeping. […] She went into the bed-closet; Thord lay on his back, sound asleep. She woke him up, and he turned on his side when he saw that a man had come in; Aud drew a short-sword and lunged at him with it, wounding him severely; the sword caught his right arm and gashed him across both nipples. So fierce was the thrust that the sword stuck fast in the bed boards.

Osvif offers to go after her, as Thord is too weakened by loss of blood. However:

Thord would not hear of it on any account, saying that she had only done what she had to do.

She had only done what she had to do. Thord knew that which we should all learn: do not mess with Icelandic women. They will cut you.===

3: You should all read the poem Atlakviða and the Völsunga saga. Guðrun Gjukadottir is amazing.
4: All quotes are from Laxdœla Saga, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1969. The chapters in question are 34-35, pp. 124-128.

Hum. And now, I shall trundle off to the library at this late hour, to take back overdue interlibrary loans…