Early Medieval English saints' lives and the law

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This dissertation examines the relationship between secular law and Old and early Middle English hagiography in order to illustrate important culturally determined aspects of early English saints’ lives. The project

This dissertation examines the relationship between secular law and Old and early Middle English hagiography in order to illustrate important culturally determined aspects of early English saints’ lives. The project advances work in two fields of study, cultural readings of hagiography and legal history, by arguing that medieval English hagiographers use historically relevant legal concepts as an appeal to the experience of their readers and as literary devices that work to underscore the paradoxical nature of a saint's life by grounding the narrative in a historicized context. The study begins with a survey of the lexemes signifying theft in the 102 Old English saints’ lives in order to isolate some of the specific ways legal discourse was employed by early English hagiographers. Specialized language to refer to the theft of relics and moral discourse surrounding the concept of theft both work to place these saints lives in a distinctly literal and culturally significant idiom. Picking one of the texts from the survey, the following chapter focuses on Cynewulf’s Juliana and argues that the characterization of the marriage proposal at the center of the poem is intended to appeal to a specific audience: women in religious communities who were often under pressure from aggressive, and sometimes violent, suitors. The next chapter addresses Ælfric of Eynsham’s Lives of Saints and discusses his condemnation of the easy collaboration of secular legal authorities and ecclesiastics in his “Life of Swithun” and his suggestion in the “Life of Basil“ that litigiousness is itself a fundamentally wicked characteristic. Lastly, the project turns to the South English Legendary’s life of Saint Thomas Becket. Rather than a straightforward translation of the Latin source, the South English Legendary life is significant in the poet's inclusion of a composite version of the Constitutions of Clarendon, demonstrating the author's apparent interest in shaping the reception of legal culture for his or her readers and emphasizing the bureaucratic nature of Becket's sanctity. In sum, the study shows that the historicized legal material that appears in early medieval English hagiography functions to ground the biographies of holy men and women in the corporeal world.