Cover image for Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England, 695–1615 By Virginia Blanton

Signs of Devotion

The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England, 695–1615

Virginia Blanton

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368 pages
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16 b&w illustrations/2 maps
2007

Signs of Devotion

The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England, 695–1615

Virginia Blanton

“Hagiography is no longer the exclusive bailiwick of church-affiliated scholars but draws others from fields such as women’s studies, social history, and the politics of literary production. Disciplinary boundaries between art history, literature, and the history of religion have all been breached in the new studies of saints’ cults. . . . Signs of Devotion is an exemplary demonstration of how fruitful such interdisciplinarity can be.”

 

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Winner of the 2008 Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship Best First Book Prize

Signs of Devotion is the first longitudinal study of an Anglo-Saxon cult from its inception in the late seventh century through the Reformation. It examines the production and reception of texts—both written and visual—that supported the cult of Æthelthryth, an East Anglian princess who had resisted the conjugal demands of two political marriages to maintain her virginity. Æthelthryth forfeited her position as Queen of Northumbria to become a nun and founded a monastery at Ely, where she ruled as abbess before dying in 679 of a neck tumor, which was interpreted as divine retribution for her youthful vanity in wearing necklaces. The cult was initiated when, sixteen years after her death, Æthelthryth’s corpse was exhumed, the body found incorrupt, and the tumor shown to have been healed posthumously.

Signs of Devotion reveals how Æthelthryth, who became the most popular native female saint, provides a central point of investigation among the cultic practices of several disparate groups over time—religious and lay, aristocratic and common, male and female, literate and nonliterate. This study illustrates that the body of Æthelthryth became a malleable, flexible image that could be readily adopted. Hagiographical narratives, monastic charters, liturgical texts, miracle stories, estate litigation, shrine accounts, and visual representations collectively testify that the story of Æthelthryth was a significant part of the cultural landscape in early and late medieval England. More important, these representations reveal the particular devotional practices of those invested in Æthelthryth’s cult.

By centering the discussion on issues of textual production and reception, Blanton provides a unique study of English hagiography, cultural belief, and devotional practice. Signs of Devotion adds, moreover, to the current conversation on virginity and hagiography by encouraging scholars to bridge the divide between studies of Anglo-Saxon and late medieval England and challenging them to adopt methodological strategies that will foster further multidisciplinary work in the field of hagiographical scholarship.

“Hagiography is no longer the exclusive bailiwick of church-affiliated scholars but draws others from fields such as women’s studies, social history, and the politics of literary production. Disciplinary boundaries between art history, literature, and the history of religion have all been breached in the new studies of saints’ cults. . . . Signs of Devotion is an exemplary demonstration of how fruitful such interdisciplinarity can be.”
“By judiciously choosing her materials and detailing their social, religious, and political contexts, Blanton clearly conveys the trajectory of Æthelthryth’s cult and provides insight not just into that cult but into devotional life in medieval England. The book is richly illustrated and includes a useful apparatus of tables, maps, and genealogies as well as an appendix listing evidence of Æthelthryth’s cult, from surviving images and artifacts to references to guilds, fairs, and church dedications.”
“Blanton has produced a thorough, valuable study of interest not only to specialists in medieval English church history but also to scholars interested in the reception of saintly cults in general and of female saints in particular.”

Virginia Blanton is Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

Introduction

1. Cicatricis uestigia parerent: The Mark of Virginity in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (ca. 630–ca. 731)

2. Æðeldryð wolde ða ealle woruld-pincg forlatan: The Ideology of Chastity and Monastic Reform (ca. 970–ca. 998)

3. Tota integra, tota incorrupta: The Inviolable Body and Ely’s Monastic Identity (1066–ca. 1133)

4. La gloriuse seint Audrée / Une noble eglise a fundee: Chastity, Widowhood, and Aristocratic Patronage (ca. 1189–1416)

5. Abbesse heo was hir self imad after þe furst zere, and an holi couent inow heo norisede þere: Clerical Production, Vernacular Texts, and Lay Devotion (ca. 1325–ca. 1615

Conclusion

Appendix: Imagines Ætheldredae (970–1550)

Bibliography

Index

Introduction

In analyzing these miracle narratives as semiotic entities we must simultaneously attend to three aspects of the texts; we must see them as rhetorical structures (a set of internally related signs), as historically contingent constellations of signs, and as sign systems designed to have historical agency.

—Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn

Medieval hagiography is rich with cultural signs. The stories of holy figures are embedded with ecclesiastical ideologies, cultural values, institutional tensions, and political dynamics, to name but a few. The production of these semiotic narratives, therefore, is of particular interest, because focusing in this direction allows us to examine the ways saints and their bodies are used to shape meaning. Important too are the target audiences for whom these vitae are produced and the secondary audiences who also have access to them, for their participation in interpreting or decoding the significations is integral to the continued viability of these signs. Investigations of production and reception also require an awareness of mediation, or how texts were transferred from writer to audience. The epigraph, taken from Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy, illustrates how Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn have situated themselves as modern readers of the medieval miracle stories of Saint Foy. They assert that hagiographical writings are rhetorical texts, ones that are crafted and shaped for particular audiences with specific purposes. In drawing on semiotics, they remind us that a sign does not exist in a vacuum but has multiple associations, relationships to other signs or sign systems. Any given saint’s life or miracle story of that saint, therefore, is connected to the larger system of hagiographical writing, even as it has a relationship to the written and oral sources on which it is based, the liturgical or devotional rituals that it supports, the theological ideas that it represents, the historical and political events surrounding its production, and the religious and lay communities that it addresses, or the audiences who experience it.

I begin this book, Signs of Devotion, by considering what the rhetorical field of hagiography offers about medieval religious culture. In the past, religious scholars unquestioningly embraced saints’ lives as sacred texts, others discounted the historical value of hagiographical texts, and still others derided them as second-rate literary exercises that revealed little about language and poetics. Important work has begun to shift these attitudes. The acceptance of saints’ cults as a legitimate form of academic study rests in large part on the wealth of data these narratives provide about underrepresented and underprivileged groups (such as women and laborers), cultural values and expectations, medieval reading practices, and devotional behavior. The study of saints is inherently a multidisciplinary enterprise, and this has afforded scholars a means to interrogate the complexities of medieval religious life that was not bound by disciplinary rules. That hagiography has achieved a central place in modern academic work is demonstrated by a number of publications. Influential studies have revealed the significance of a single cult to a specific community, where others have demonstrated how a cult was celebrated in various places and in distinct historical moments. In addition, some have shown how groups of saints, particularly the virgin martyrs, are revelatory about medieval attitudes regarding gender and ideology, while other specialists have investigated the generic relation of hagiographical writings to historical or literary texts. Scholars have used a variety of approaches, focusing their work on hagiographical sources, disciplinary objectives, or theoretical understandings of the past and present. All, in some form or other, have provided an entrée into the culture of medieval religious devotion. In effect, scholars are reshaping our understanding of medieval religiosity by investigating the ways in which the cult of saints “makes meaning” for devotees.

The great majority of this scholarship focuses on universal saints, particularly when attention has been focused on late medieval English devotion. Native saints, those who are venerated only in the locality or region where they lived, or where their remains were interred, have received some attention, as books on the Anglo-Saxon cults of Mildrith, Cuthbert, and Swithun attest. Still, there is a great deal of evidence regarding insular devotional practice, both before and after the Conquest, that has not been assessed, and still less regarding early cults that survived or were reinvigorated post-Conquest. Toward this end, I have focused this study on Æthelthryth of Ely (d. 679), who was the most important native female saint in England and one of the most significant of all native English saints. Spanning a nine-hundred-year period, her cult boasts a mass of evidence to document this saint’s popularity, and this collection permits us to examine the reasons that Æthelthryth became such an important signifier for medieval communities from vastly different time periods and social classes.

Hagiographical narratives, monastic charters, liturgical texts, miracle stories, estate litigation, shrine accounts, and visual representations collectively testify that the story of Æthelthryth was an important part of the cultural landscape in medieval England. The abbess was made famous by Bede, who relates that she was an East Anglian princess who had resisted the conjugal demands of two political marriages to maintain her virginity. The early eighth-century historian quotes eyewitness testimony regarding Æthelthryth’s chastity within marriage before recording that she divorced her second husband, King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, and forfeited her royal position to become a nun. After her profession, Æthelthryth founded a monastery at Ely in 672/3, where she ruled as abbess for six years before dying of a tumor. A translation—a ceremonial exhumation and reburial—of her corpse, which included an exhumation and reinterment, revealed that her body had not decayed after sixteen years and that the surgically lanced tumor had healed. Her inviolability after death was read as proof that she had maintained virginity despite her marriages and had received God’s favor. A number of miracles, which were associated with the original shroud and coffin in which she was buried, provided further proof of her sanctity.

Æthelthryth’s story contains a series of cultural signs—royal asceticism, political marriage, conjugal chastity, monastic patronage, bodily incorruption, maternal nourishment—that deserve examination. Narratives about the saint are fixated on embodiment: the body as a physical object, the wondrous body, the virginal body, the chaste body, the perfection of the body, the healing of the body, the body as metaphor, the body as empirical proof of holiness, the body as place, the body as referent. Moreover, each of these significations relates to historically specific concerns, such as the developing Anglo-Saxon church, the ideological project of the Benedictine Reforms, and institutional sovereignty during the Norman Conquest. Æthelthryth’s body also does cultural work as a site of vanity, pollution, disease, confession, and transformation. These are but a few of the ways the body operates as a signifier in the texts produced to honor her memory, be they written, aural, or visual. In truth, the extensive history of textual production of this cult illustrates the complex ways the imagery of the saint could be recrafted, depending on social or political circumstance. Thus, the methodology that underpins Signs of Devotion demonstrates how we can organize resources from various disciplines to highlight the responses and attitudes toward saints in widely divergent historical moments, and how these can be charted as a means of recording venerative practices and religious belief over time.

While Signs of Devotion is hugely indebted to other investigations of sanctity, virginity, and religious practice, it is distinctive within the field of hagiographical research. This monograph is the first longitudinal study of an early Anglo-Saxon cult, providing critical analyses of both written and visual texts dating from the early eighth century to the destruction of the saint’s shrine at the Reformation. In examining the production and reception of texts, I demonstrate how one national figure provides a central point of investigation among the cultic practices of several disparate groups over an extended period of time—religious and lay, aristocratic and common, male and female, literate and nonliterate. This study finds that the figure of Æthelthryth became a malleable—indeed, a multivalent—image that could be readily adapted by a variety of medieval groups, but, more important, it reveals the particular devotional practices of these groups. My intent here is similar, to uncover the ways in which a regional female saint’s body operates as a cultural signifier in several different historical periods, among quite divergent audiences, using a variety of data: vitae, miracle stories, liturgy, and visual representations. By centering the discussion around issues of textual production and reception, these chapters provide illustrative commentary on English hagiography, cultural belief, and devotional practice.

<Table 1 about here, or in next paragraph>

Begun after the elevation and translation of the saint’s body in 695, the cult developed because of Bede’s investment in presenting Æthelthryth as a central figure of the emerging Anglo-Saxon church. (See Table 1 for a historical overview of the cult.) After waxing and waning during this turbulent, early period, the cult flourished after the Norman Conquest and was well supported until the dissolution of the monasteries in the early sixteenth century. Few English cults survived long enough to support the type of inquiry taken up in this book, and far too many scholars have been bound by the periodic division that separates Anglo-Saxon studies from late medieval scholarship. It is significant that the cult of Æthelthryth is particularly suited to a chronological and multidisciplinary study, in no small part because the saint was venerated for more than nine hundred years. The Saxon cult was invigorated by the support of influential figures, such as Bede in the early eighth century and Bishop Æthelwold and King Edgar in the late tenth century. Once the cult was adopted by the Normans in the late eleventh century, the Isle of Ely became an important locus of institutional power, and as such the monastic center promoted its own political and economic interests using stories and architectural programs to illustrate the saint’s power, agency, and autonomy. In addition, we find throughout parish churches iconographical survivals that demonstrate the influence of this cult in lay communities of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The collective textual and visual evidence, which is abundant, illustrates how devotion to the saint was changed or modified over a significant period of history: at one moment, Æthelthryth is characterized as a model of chastity that Anglo-Saxon lay men could emulate; at another, she is presented as the patron who wreaks vengeance on those who abuse her properties during the Norman Conquest; and at still another, she is the pious aristocratic woman who successfully negotiates the social demands of marriage, even as she uses her dower properties to support the development of nunneries. Through these portraits, we learn a great deal about the producers and consumers of this cult—and, by extension, we can examine the changing nature of English devotional practice over time. In effect, Signs of Devotion reveals how medieval people actively adapted cults to their own purposes, and these revelations allow us to consider the complex ways in which devotional figures could be utilized for both religious and nonreligious reasons. What is more, this approach suggests that while saints were perceived as intermediaries between petitioners and God, they could also be recast as intelligible signs that devotees used to negotiate the social, economic, and political aspects of their daily lives.

Longevity alone does not account for the value found in studying this English cult. Several other factors contribute to its selection as a model for multidisciplinary study. First, Æthelthryth was categorized in several ways: queen, widow, virgin, abbess, and saint. Each role provided multiple audiences with a means to identify with her life. Where the Ely monks valued the image of their protector saint and produced collections of miracles during the twelfth century to reclaim properties appropriated during the Norman invasion, aristocratic lay women seemed far more invested in Æthelthryth’s conduct as wife and patron. A vita, written in Anglo-Norman in the early thirteenth century by an aristocratic woman, seems to have been produced specifically for women who had been married before adopting a religious career. The proverbial statements included therein are framed to help a female audience imitate Æthelthryth’s choices as a patron of religious institutions. The differences between the Ely monks and the aristocratic females as promoters and as consumers of the cult illustrates well how easily this holy figure was appropriated and used to mitigate the behaviors of disparate audiences.

<comp: insert table 2 approximately here or in the paragraph below>

Second, Æthelthryth’s accessibility might well account for the large number of vitae, or saints’ lives, that survive about her. At least twenty-five versions exist, and the differences between them hint at the various groups who embraced this cult. Table 2 offers a chronological overview of the vitae associated with this cult, and it indicates the author of each, if known, the manuscripts or modern edition in which it can be found, and the language and form in which it is written (prose is assumed unless otherwise indicated). The existence of so many narratives, all deriving ultimately from Bede’s account, is evidence of the significance of this cult from its inception through the Reformation. Some lives were written in Latin, clearly for monastic audiences, while others were composed in Old English, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English. The vernacular texts appear to have been produced alternately for clerical consumption, for the edification of nuns, and for lay devotional reading. For instance, the discussion of Bishop Æthelwold’s refoundation of Ely during the Benedictine Reforms focuses on a mass blessing that accompanies a full-page miniature of the saint in the bishop’s lavishly decorated benedictional (BL, Add. MS 49598). When examined alongside an Old English life translated by Æthelwold’s student Ælfric and presented to an aristocratic lay audience, we see how Æthelthryth became the iconographic symbol of Benedictine chastity, an image of monastic piety that induced lay men to put aside their wives and join the monastic life of celibacy and piety. A comparison of these materials in tandem shows that Æthelwold was actively promoting a particular image of the saint and using her story as a means to advance the reformers’ ideals. Signs of Devotion examines, therefore, several important vitae and the context under which they were produced. Comparing the variations among these texts, moreover, allows us to see exactly how Æthelthryth was reimagined for new audiences, even as we consider why late medieval groups had such an investment in maintaining the cult of an early Saxon woman.

Third, dedications to Æthelthryth (of parishes, chantries, guilds, and altar lights) indicate how this regional saint was received as a national saint, particularly by those who had little or no access to devotional reading material or to the promotional documents of the cult center. Cultural literacies have been the focus of much scholarship, and, as many have argued, literacy is defined by one’s ability to interpret the community’s signs. Because saints were featured prominently in ecclesiastical ornamentation, they provide an avenue to examine the issues of literacy; religious rituals of devotion demonstrate how these saints were received and understood as cultural icons. My investigation of the iconography of the virginal, female body is not, however, concerned with the emblematic attributes that identify a saint. Instead, iconography here is also understood as part of the semiotic system that is the medieval cult of Æthelthryth. Locating the transformations of these images also demonstrates that there are sociohistorical and sociopolitical concerns that are uniquely linked to the context in which a narrative text or visual text is produced. The large number of surviving images in parish ornamentation, for example, illustrate that laity throughout southern England embraced Æthelthryth and, in at least one circumstance, included her in a complex narrative about virginity and purification. This portrait, which is presented on the parish roodscreen at Ranworth, Norfolk, illustrates the saint as a local incarnation of maternal virginity, an abbess who teaches about the virtues of virginity. The image of Æthelthryth as abbess and mother exists in direct counterpoint to another of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women. The two virgin saints’ portraits are bookends that frame the elaborate screen, containing its meanings and forcing viewers to draw the images into a collective narrative about women’s sexuality and virtue. The Ranworth roodscreen indicates that some knowledge about Æthelthryth’s role as abbess circulated among lay audiences in East Anglia. In Signs of Devotion, I am especially concerned with examining the transmission of narratives and the exchange of representation between cult center and locality, even as I focus on the ways in which laity adapted the saint’s biography for their own ends. My aim, therefore, is not to study the representations of Æthelthryth as a set of static patterns, but rather to uncover the multivalent representations of this female’s body over time.

The cult of Saint Æthelthryth, as I have suggested, provides a dynamic lens through which we can examine changing religious behaviors in early and late medieval England. The various groups who showed devotion to the saint were male and female, lay and religious, aristocratic and bourgeois. The actions and reactions of these medieval people demonstrate how the figure was appropriated and transformed in different periods and in different milieux. Tracing the cult over an extended period enables us to document how religious devotion moved from an arena controlled by monastic production to one in which laity produced and challenged the clerical tradition with their own forms of religious devotion. The results of this inquiry add to the body of scholarship that has been concerned with the role of laity in religious practice in the later Middle Ages, for the evidence provided here indicates that parishioners did not simply receive the narrative produced by the cult center but rather adapted it to meet their own needs. Signs of Devotion emphasizes the complex intersections between clerical and lay devotion, even as it highlights the very different responses presented by religious and lay devotees. Each of the chapters outlined here demonstrates, moreover, that textual production and historical context are inextricably intertwined with issues of language, author, audience, and location. What is more, each individual representation of the saint is connected to the others, so that the chapters, which can be read as discrete entities, are interrelated and show collectively a larger system of signification. While I proceed here chronologically, simply to build on the existing historical context, each of the following chapters should be considered in light of the others and in light of the semiotic analyses provided in all, for only in this comparison will the nuances of any given production become pronounced and specific.

Chapter 1 analyzes the first hagiographical record about Æthelthryth, included in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (ca. 731). Bede’s presentation of Æthelthryth emphasizes how the saint’s body is tested (by marriage and asceticism), how the body is punished (by the tumor, which is lanced by a surgeon), and how the body is perfected (by God’s intervention). Specifically, this chapter discusses the wound made on Æthelthryth’s neck by the surgeon when he punctured the tumor in an effort to save her life. The wound was found healed, marked only by a scar, when the body was translated. Bede’s emphatic discussion of this scene and the miraculous healing of the body underscores the mark’s importance as a signifier. The scar not only positively identifies the holy body but also provides visual evidence of Æthelthryth’s perfection post mortem: the mark indicates how the saint’s body has been literally closed by God as evidence of Æthelthryth’s purity during her life. I argue that Bede’s rhetorical presentation of the scar as evidence of the perfected body is demonstrative of a particular need to locate sanctity within the emerging Christian community in England, and the visual evidence of body and scar are important symbols of God’s provenance there.

Where the first chapter engages the origins of the cult, Chapter 2 focuses on late tenth-century devotion to Æthelthryth, which Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester encouraged during the Benedictine Reforms as a means to promote monasticism and clerical chastity. Because Æthelthryth had abdicated her throne in favor of a monastic life, she became the perfect symbol of chaste monasticism. Æthelwold’s benedictional (BL, Add. MS 49598), an elaborately decorated service book made for his personal use, includes a full-page miniature of Æthelthryth in her habit and an inscription that reads “Imago sanctae Æ_<thorn>eldry_<thorn>ae abbatissae ac perpetuae virginis” (The image of Saint Æthelthryth, abbess and perpetual virgin). The inscription emphasizing her virginity accompanies a blessing that stresses how those who hear Æthelwold’s prayer read aloud can emulate the life of Æthelthryth by avoiding carnality and adopting the monastic life. Later, Æthelwold’s student, Æflric, translated Bede’s life and added a short anecdote to illustrate how lay men could also adopt Æthelthryth’s choices, even after marrying and producing children. Read together, these liturgical documents illustrate a deliberate presentation of the saint’s body, one in which lay men could identify with the twice-married queen who abdicated her elite social position in favor of a spiritual vocation.

In Chapter 3, I explore how the cult was used to protect the monastery at Ely during the Norman invasion. The Liber Eliensis, the monastic chronicle, describes the saint as an avenger who actively threatens those who abuse her properties, her monks, or her church. The miracle stories included in the chronicle, clearly intended as a means of self-presentation, demonstrate how the saint’s virginal body became a symbol for the autonomy of the island community; in effect, any attempt to seize the monastic properties was read as a metaphorical rape of the saint’s purity, which would always be thwarted by God’s intervention. The imagery of intrusion was used to resist Norman appropriation of the Isle of Ely, and William the Conqueror’s attack was read as an attempted rape of the communal body of the saint. That the saint’s body was never transgressed is important, and a scene of preservation in the face of rape became so important that the monks later inscribed the cathedral fabric with an image of the saint successfully evading the advances of her royal husband. Despite the passivity illustrated in this visual image, the monastic chronicle makes clear that Ely’s patron is not a passive victim who awaits God’s intervention. Instead, Æthelthryth is also presented as an embodied virago who will take vengeance on any who transgress against the monastic community and its holdings.

An important change in signification can be seen in a verse translation of the Latin vita offered by the monks, which is the focus of Chapter 4. La Vie Seinte Audrée was written in Anglo-Norman between 1179 and 1250 C.E., likely for an aristocratic, female religious audience. Found in only one manuscript—a fourteenth-century codex held by the wealthy nunnery at Campsey Ash, Suffolk—this vita indicates how Æthelthryth’s story was appropriated by aristocratic women to define their own lives. The account, which is drawn from the Liber Eliensis, expands the story at several significant junctures to highlight the connections between the saint’s life and the lived experience of thirteenth-century aristocratic women. In particular, the narrative includes proverbial statements that call attention to the audience’s experience as married women, statements that allow the audience to imitate Æthelthryth’s patronage of religious institutions. The historiated initial that begins this life, moreover, illustrates the saint in a new way; instead of her customary emblems, Æthelthryth holds a miniature replica of her church and gestures at it as she recounts her story from a book on the lectern. In effect, the image shows Æthelthryth teaching other aristocratic women about her life, even as the narrator of this life encourages these women to adopt the saint’s choices. This chapter ends with a discussion of the imitative practices of one aristocratic woman, Isabella Beauchamp Ufford (d. 1416), who likely heard this text read aloud at Campsey Ash Priory after she made a vow of chastity there and who may well have read the signs of foundation and patronage provided by Marie’s vie.

Chapter 5 extends the discussion of Marie’s Vie Seinte Audrée by examining the circulation of texts written in the vernacular and the production of visual texts that complemented these narratives. Focused on accounts written in Middle English—specifically those included in the South English Legendary (mid-thirteenth century), an anonymous vita written in quatrains and associated with the nunnery of Wilton Abbey (early fifteenth century), and The Kalendre of the Newe Legende of Englande (printed in 1516)—this chapter discusses the ways in which the cult was presented to the religious and lay devotees in late medieval England. Of primary importance here are the connections between vernacular narratives and nonaristocratic lay responses, for this chapter considers how secular readers had access to these narratives and why these texts were deemed important for lay consumers. Evidence of lay knowledge comes from the visual texts produced by parishioners to honor the saint. In the Appendix, I provide a list of the known visual images of Æthelthryth, which number well over one hundred. Commissioned by laity for use in communal and private devotions, most of these images are found in the naves of parish churches. The late fifteenth-century painting of Æthelthryth at Ranworth, in particular, reveals that parishioners had some access to the content of these vernacular narratives, for the parish incorporated a lesser known detail from Bede’s account into a larger narrative about women’s sexuality. Chapter 5, therefore, examines this visual text alongside vernacular redactions of Bede and demonstrates that lay devotion to the saint as maternal nourisher both mimicked and challenged, and at times transformed, the presentations offered by clerical writers.

These chapters collectively demonstrate the iconic and symbolic values of Æthelthryth in medieval culture. Because Æthelthryth was the most important native female saint, an analysis of her cult offers a useful commentary on English devotional practices and the importance of regional figures to native audiences. I would not claim that the cult is representative of those produced for native saints or that the representations of her are a means to understand the cults of native women, but I do contend that this study complicates our understanding of medieval religiosity and broaches a discussion about the differences between devotion to universal saints and veneration of native figures. While it would be too easy to attribute the medieval interest in Æthelthryth to a sense of nationalistic pride (though this is in evidence in all of the texts), we need to consider why native cults were so important in England and how they, as religious systems of signification, were utilized in daily life. As Jocelyn Wogan-Browne asserts, those of us who study hagiography must be aware of the gaps between authors and their texts, authors and their audiences, and the texts and ourselves. These gaps complicate our ability to read medieval texts outside the historical place and time in which they were produced, but in focusing on hagiographical writings as ones structured to provide meaning and as ones that convey meaning regardless of the producers’ intentions, we are better able to assess the iconic relations of these cultural signs, their correlations, and their associations with other sign systems.

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