Chastity in Ælfric’s Agnes, Agatha, and Lucy

14 Jan

Ælfric’s versions of the lives of female saints Agnes, Agatha, and Lucy, and his version of the biblical story of Judith, all focus on sexuality as the centre of feminine spiritual purity. The repetition of this theme seems to indicate that Ælfric’s society had concerns about female sexuality; and, from this it is reasonable to suppose that these concerns were driven by widespread, real-life examples of failed chastity. After all, if everyone behaved chastely, there would be no need to argue so strenuously for the virtue of chaste living.

Yet chastity in and of itself, though laudable, is not Ælfric’s sole focus. When St. Agnes is taken to the harlots’ house, she is indeed protected by a shining angel of God (ll. 148-149). But this protection is not due to her chastity alone; rather, it is the result of her chastity expressed as devotional purpose: fidelity to her bridegroom, Christ, as she expressed when she says, “Ic hæbbe oðerne lufiend […] He gesette his tacn on minum nebbe / þæt ic nænne oðerne ofer hine ne lufige” (ll. 27, 34-35). The protection afforded to Agnes proceeds not only from her chastity, which is itself a virtue, but also from the object of her chastity: Christ.

The story of St. Agatha reverses the narrative order of temptation and protestation, but the concept of chastity as devotion is still present: when Quintianus questions her, she replies, “Ic eom godes þinen / and mycel æðelborennys bið þæt man be cristes ðeow” (ll. 45-46). Here, chastity is a worshipful act of voluntary servitude to God, the which may not be expressed towards any man. Similarly, St. Lucy also refers to herself as a servant (“Ic eom þæs ælmihtigan þinen”), who will have no other bridegroom, in fulfilment of a divine vision expressing, “þe þu gearcodest criste on þinum clænan mægð-hade / wynsume wununge” (ll. 73, 32-33). She, too, is threatened with rape in the harlots’ den, but God intervenes and prevents her being carried away (ll. 81-82, 97-99). Once again, it is chastity-as-devotion which Ælfric presents to his readers.

On closer inspection, Ælfric’s purpose seems to be two-fold: though sexual purity and inviolability initially appears to be the proximate cause of virtuous suffering, it is only presented so when that purity comes about as a result of Christian devotion—a conclusion supported by the anti-Christian, pagan contrast afforded by the male villains in each of the three tales. It is his impurity and impiety which is the reverse of the virtuous example presented in the three female saints: virtuous not because of their chastity, but through it.

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Posted by on 14 January 2014 in Essays


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