The Clerics and the Critics: Misogyny and the Social Symbolic in Anglo-Saxon England

  • Clare A. Lees
  • Gillian R. Overing
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


“The Clerics and The Critics” explores the evidence for debates about gender in Anglo-Saxon textual culture, arguing that different forms of gendered knowledge are at work in this period as contrasted with later medieval periods.


Female Body Medieval Period Double Agent Woman Question Gender Knowledge 
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  1. 1.
    Clare A. Lees, “Engendering Religious Desire: Sex, Knowledge, and Christian Identity in Anglo-Saxon England,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27.1 (1997): 1–29 (at p. 1).Google Scholar
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    For all these issues, see Alcuin Blamires, Karen Pratt, and C. W. Marx, eds., Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), and Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    For examples, see The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus, ed. James E. Cross and Thomas D. Hill (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), and the poetic Solomon and Saturn I and Solomon and Saturn II, ed. Robert J. Menner, The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1941). Also related are the monastic debates in both Latin and Old English used as classroom exercises; see, for example, G. N. Garmonsway, ed., Ælfric’s Colloquy (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1978), and Scott Gwara, ed., Latin Colloquies from Pre-Conquest Britain (Toronto: Pontifical Institute, 1996). For an introduction to the literature that clusters around the tradition of debates between the body and the soul, see Stanley B. Greenfield and D. G. Calder, A New Critical History of Old English Literature (New York: New York University Press, 1987), pp. 235–7.Google Scholar
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    This is an area much in need of further research, but see Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture: “Grammatica” and Literary Theory, 350–1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) for a mapping of monastic textual culture in this period.Google Scholar
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    For Maxims I, see The Exeter Book, eds. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), pp. 156–63; for Maxims II, see The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, ed. van Kirk Dobbie, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 6 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942), pp. 55–7; and for Beowulf, see Father Klaeber, ed., Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd ed. (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Co., 1950). All translations are our own unless otherwise stated.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Cf. Maxims I, lines 125–6, where gold is described as fitting jewelry for a queen. For analysis of the relation between Wealhtheow and the world of objects—cups and treasures—in Beowulf, see Gillian R. Overing, Language, Sign, and Gender in “Beowulf” (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), pp. 42–67.Google Scholar
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    For discussion of Wealhtheow’s behavior at this point in the poem, see Overing, Language, Sign, and Gender, pp. 91–101. For an important analysis of the many roles of a queen, see Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), esp. pp. 55–64.Google Scholar
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    The wife’s activities are described as “charming” by Christine Fell, Women in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), p. 70.Google Scholar
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    This point about the need for redundancy as a means of maintaining knowledge in traditional societies was best made by Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), pp. 31–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The laws of Alfred (871–99), 18.1–18.3, quoted from Dorothy Whitelock, ed., English Historical Documents c. 500–1042 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955), p. 376.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    From the penitential of Theodore of Tarsus, conveniently translated in Medieval Handbooks of Penance, trans. John T. McNeil and Helena M. Gamer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938, repr. 1990), p. 197, sections 25, 26. When we broaden the context to include sections 24 and 27, we see how Theodore is staking out the differences between homicide and abortion with these proscriptions.Google Scholar
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    For discussion, see Overing, Language, Sign, and Gender in “Beowulf” pp. 68–107, and “On Reading Eve: Genesis B and the Readers’ Desire,” in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), pp. 40–51, and Lees, “At a Crossroads: Old English and Feminist Criticism,” in Reading Old English Texts, ed. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 146–51.Google Scholar
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    R. Ehwald, ed., Aldhelmi Opera, Monumenta Germaniae Historica 15 (1919), p. 138.Google Scholar
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    Translated by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier, Aldhelm: The Poetic Works (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), p. 89.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    See The Exeter Book Riddles, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979), p. 71.Google Scholar
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    See Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England, chap. 5, for a fuller discussion. For the Collectanea, see Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae, eds. Martha Bayless and Michael Lapidge, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae XIV (School of Celtic Studies: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998); all references are to this edition and translation, by item. For the vexed issue of the dating and provenance of the Collectanea, see the introductory (and sometimes contradictory) essays.Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    We are fully aware of Susan Reynold’s contestation of the term “feudalism” in Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). We chose to continue to use the term in its broad Marxist sense (for which see Reynolds, pp. 1–16).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clare A. Lees
  • Gillian R. Overing

There are no affiliations available

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