Dirty Words: Ancrene Wisse and the Sexual Interior

  • Lara Farina
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Christ I shows us how Anglo-Saxon devotion could weave a network of erotic relations out of the bodies of its praying communities. The “erotic body” scripted by this Old English text is a complex one: familiar boundaries dissolve in the communal body of Christ’s Church, yet further ones are drawn around a mysterious feminine interior. Whereas Christ I’s enveloping of bodies within other bodies may elide some distinctions between subject and object, and between masculine and feminine, its performance ultimately does alight upon some degree of gender difference; its readers’ relation to divine bodies terminates at the “gilded gates” that render the feminine a secret. In this quality, the lyric sequence bears a similarity to what Karma Lochrie and others have identified as “Secrets” literature, a later medieval genre in which discourse about the “secrets of women” underscores masculine initiation into an esoteric discipline.1 In Secrets literature, male writers offer to male readers a carefully guarded knowledge about the mystery of women’s bodies. Lochrie notes that “the withholding of secrets produces a desire between the knowers and seekers of knowledge. The secret introduces an erotic element into the field of knowledge. It impassions the discourse of knowledge.”2 The eroticization of knowledge is a homoerotic practice in Secrets literature: men share knowledge about women, and become united by their mutual possession of knowledge denied to others, including women themselves.3 If the body of Mary is the secret in Christ I, then we may well see the lyrics’ seekers of knowledge as the disciples in a masculine homoerotic drama.


Thirteenth Century Twelfth Century Silent Reading Advent Lyric Parish Church 
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© Lara Farina 2006

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