In the following essay the concept of femininity in Old English female saint’s lives will be examined and analysed. Due to the brevity of this essay, only two saint’s lives will be investigated, the Life of Mary of Egypt and Pelagia of Antioch. Both of them are often referred to as ‘harlot saints’ because of their not only promiscuous but also highly sinful lives before becoming their pious selves. (cf. Cox Miller) It is therefore very interesting that both do not only avert themselves from their previous lives, but even find religious patrons who become ardent worshippers of these women. There are two main aspects which I will focus on in this essay. Considering that women did not receive much appreciation in Old English times in general, it is even more striking that these saints were not just any women, but prostitutes of the most extreme kind. Possible reasons for this choice will be examined and analysed. The second focus will be on the representation of Mary and Pelagia in these texts, lead by the question if their femininity is actually preserved at all when they finally become pious brides of God.
Turning back to Adam and Eve, it is very simple to spot the guilty one after their expulsion from paradise. Of course it is Eve, the woman who could not resist temptation, who lead Adam on the wrong path and prevented every chance on an earthly paradise not just for herself, but for mankind. The assumption that women are not only incomplete copies of men but also the most sinful creatures on earth was a dominant one in Old English times. Among others, Herrin and Cox Miller point out that the term “holy woman” was a contradiction in terms. But if it is already hard to imagine a holy woman, how is it possible that a number of harlots have exactly reached that status, a status only ever given by men? Mary of Egypt can be seen as a prime example. She did not prostitute herself because she needed the money, she throws herself “entirely and insatiably into the lust of sexual intercourse”, her lust is “a free gift”. Yet instead of being utterly repelled, the monk Zosimas, who is actually looking for a “holy father”, seems to see a holy mother in her. (Cf. Burrus).
First of all there is to say that these holy whores were certainly the “sexiest of saints” (ibid), an aspect which simply will have helped to make people read this Saint’s Life. However, this entertainment purpose can not be the only reason for choosing such sinful ladies. Coon and Ward both emphasise the symbolic function of these harlots. Considering that everyone is ultimately a sinner, their lives remind the reader of their own sinful state. And to achieve this, you do not write about an errant male, you write about the personification of sin: a female. Hence, Mary and Pelagia are “mediators of human salvation” (Coon).
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- hagiography old english middle english saints lives pelagia mary of egypt gender misogyny feminism