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Ecclesiastic Discourse, Female Sexuality and the depiction of the Corporal in the “Exeter Book Riddle 10/12”, the Advent Lyrics and the CCCC Life of St Margaret

Ecclesiastic Discourse, Female Sexuality and the depiction of the Corporal in the “Exeter Book Riddle 10/12”, the Advent Lyrics and the CCCC Life of St Margaret

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Katharina Birte Wilhelm. Originally submitted for Women in Medieval Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Alice Jorgensen in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Katharina Birte Wilhelm. Originally submitted for Women in Medieval Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Dr Alice Jorgensen in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
Ecclesiastic Discourse, Female Sexuality and the Depiction of theCorporal in the “Exeter Book Riddle 10/12”, the
 Advent Lyrics
andthe
CCCC Life of St Margaret 
 There has been a tendency in criticism to regard Anglo-Saxon Englandas a “golden age” for women and historical documents show that womenat that time had rights they later lost.
1
Furthermore, Foucault in his
History of Sexuality 
tends to exempt the early Middle Ages from his analysis of thedeployment of sexuality – they appear to his reader as a golden age of theindependence of sexuality from discourse.
2
However, if we follow theFoucaultian spirit, we have to acknowledge that there has never been agolden age of women or sexuality. The sexes, their roles and theirsexuality have always been subject to social construction and thereforethe lives of women (and men) to restrictions, if not oppression.Nevertheless, discourses on sexuality and gender roles continuallymutated; hence, the Dark Ages are as likely as our own age of sexualliberation to have been darker for women than any other age.
3
Moreover,the study of medieval texts can help us to trace where, when and howmodern concepts of femininity and sexuality have originated, were formedand became naturalized; and thereby challenge them. The attempt to pinpoint Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards women andsexuality has been thwarted by the relative paucity of material availableand its lack of representative quality (literacy being limited to the clergyand the aristocracy in Anglo-Saxon times),
4
as well as by the tendency of critics to argue for a certain view (often in complete opposition to another
1
See, for instances, Fell, Christine E. Women in Anglo-Saxon England. (London: British Museum, 1984) andWhitehurst-Williams, Edith. “What’s So New About the Sexual Revolution? Some Comments on Anglo-SaxonAttitudes Towards Sexuality in Women Based on Four Exeter Book Riddles.” Texas Quarterly, 18 (1975), pp.46f. Cf. also Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing. “Before History, Before Difference: Bodies, Metaphor,and the Church in Anglo-Saxon England.” Yale Journal of Criticism
 
, 11.2 (1998). Project Muse. 14 December 2010 <http://muse.jhu.edu.elib.tcd.ie/journals/yale_journal_of_criticism/v011/11.2lees.html>, p.330
2
See Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. (New York:Pantheon Books, 1978), especially pp.115f.; and Lochrie, Karma. “Desiring Foucault.” Journal of Medieval andEarly Modern Studies, 27.1 (1997). EBSCOhost. 11 December 2010 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9705231896&site=ehost-live>, pp.3-16 for such a critique of Foucault’s work on theMiddle Ages
3
See, especially, Foucault’s criticism of “the hypothesis of a great repressive phase” on p.119 of The History of Sexuality.
4
See, for example, Lees and Overing. “Before History, Before Difference.”, p.326
 
2
critic’s) by selecting certain material and ignoring other texts. Although wewill never know for certain what Anglo-Saxons really thought, we shouldattempt to allow their texts to speak for themselves, which – especiallywhen discussing sexuality – involves shedding our own twenty-first-century preconceptions. In order to contribute to this enormous projectthis essay will analyze three Old English literary texts, which are found intwo separate manuscripts, one dating from the tenth, the other from thefirst half of the twelfth century, and whose original compositions can beroughly dated to the eighth to eleventh century.
5
As the discussion below will show, these texts present us with a pictureof Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards women’s sexuality and the female bodythat is neither sexual liberalism nor Christian doctrine demonizing womenas carnal. Furthermore, degrees of explicitness about sexual matters andthe corporal in writing and the ideas on sexuality and the body presentedin it will be seen as not necessarily correlative to each other. To begin with, readings of the “Exeter Book Riddle 10/12” will provideus with a discussion of the place of sexuality in the Anglo-Saxon mindcentring upon how to respond to the riddle’s speaking subject’s injunctionto “saga hwæt ic hatte” (l.13; “say what I am called”), that is, to fix thebodily identity of the speaker.
6
Next, the discussion of the
 Advent Lyrics
will focus on Lyric 9, which is a celebration of and an appeal to Mary as“Mediatrix” and contains the image of the closed gate that, according toBurlin, is “accorded the most lavish visual treatment of any image in thepoem.”
7
The relationship between the references to Mary’s maternal bodyand the Christian message will be closely investigated here. Last but notleast, the
CCCC Life of St Margaret 
will be analyzed for its representation
5
The Exeter Book is generally dated ca. 1000AD and the earliest date of composition proposed for at least someof the riddles, 10/12 among them, is the eighth century, see Rulon-Miller, Nina. “Sexual Humor and FetteredDesire in Exeter Book Riddle 12.” Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Ed. Jonathan Wilcox. (Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2000), pp.100f.; the
 Advent Lyrics
, which are the first text in the Exeter Book, “may also date from theeighth or ninth century”, see Clayton, Mary. The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England. (Cambridge:Cambridge UP, 1990), p.269; Clayton and Magennis date the manuscript designated as “Cambridge, CorpusChristi College 303” to the “first half of the twelfth century” and propose that the
 Life of St. Margaret 
found in it“was composed not very long before the date of the manuscript”, see Clayton, Mary and Hugh Magennis, eds.The Old English lives of St. Margaret. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), p.92 and 106
6
Quotations from the OE text of the riddle are from The Old English Riddles of the
 Exeter Book 
. Ed. CraigWilliamson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), p.74; translations are my own and aredesigned to reflect the Old English as close as possible rather than to be poetic.
7
Burlin, Robert B. The Old English Advent: A Typological Commentary. (New Haven and London: Yale UP,1968), p.147
 
3
of the relationship of body, mind and soul and their respective importancein the quest for salvation. The focus here will be on the role of virginity asecclesiastic discourse has celebrated chastity and bodily intactness inwomen as their main, if not sole, means of ensuring their salvation.
8
Interpretation of certain riddles contained in the Exeter Book has beencoloured by critics’ consternation at their tone and sexual content, whichthe modern mind considers unsuitable for a text given by a bishop to hiscommunity.
9
In particular, even a critic like Whitehurst-Williams, whoargues that “our classification of what is obscene changes from period toperiod”, cannot resist the fact that our concept of Anglo-Saxon monasticculture and its relationship to sexuality is influenced by today’s binaryopposition between Catholicism and sexuality.
I wish to suggest thepossibility that the Anglo-Saxon compilers of the Exeter Book did notregard sexuality as a taboo subject (not even in a monastery) but as oneof the social issues to be discussed by those people who thought theywere responsible for ordering society, namely the Church and politicalelite.
As discussed by Tanke, the riddle genre was a means by which theelite could create a “system of classification” which had ideological force.
 Therefore, sexuality is an issue which has just as much a place in theExeter Book Riddles as, for instance, slavery, and its depiction is asdetermined by the ideology that they are intended to promote as is, forexample, the representation of ethnicity.In a typical move for a riddle’s subject the speaker of the “Exeter BookRiddle 10/12” concludes in commanding the reader/listener to solve theriddle by giving the subject its name: “Saga hwæt ic hatte/þe ic lifgendelond reafige/ond æfter deaþe dryhtum þeowige” (ll.13b-15; Say what I am
8
See, for example, Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the HumanBody in Medieval Religion. (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p.204; and Chance, Jane. Woman as Hero in OldEnglish Literature. (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986), p.13
9
Cf. especially Whitehurst-Williams, p.47 and Rulon-Miller, pp.103f.
10
Whitehurst-Williams, p.47; her essay as a whole (pp.46-55) is rather a reaction to the labelling of these riddlesas obscene and to other modern ideas about the Middle Ages (e.g. their misogyny), than an assessment of themin their own right and context.
11
See Rulon-Miller, pp.105f. for evidence that Anglo-Saxons did not regard sexual (and scatological) topics asunsuitable in a monastic context.
12
Tanke, John W. “
Wonfeax Wale
: Ideology and Figuration in the Sexual Riddles of the Exeter Book.” Class andGender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Eds. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing.(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994), pp.21f.

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