Article: a PhD thesis.
Holy harlots : authority, gender, and the body in medieval English hagiography
Université de Lausanne, Faculté des lettres
Faculté des hautes études commerciales (HEC)Université de LausanneUNIL - DorignyInternef - bureau 317CH-1015 LausanneSUISSE
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This doctoral dissertation aims at describing the representation of holy harlots (Mary Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, Pelagia, Thai's, Afra of Augsburg) in medieval English hagiography. These saints are unique representatives that combine both extremes of the feminine in the medieval imaginaire: she is both, as a saint, the Virgin Mary, the pure and virtuous woman, and, in her past as a prostitute, Eve, the evil female tempter who led all mankind to destruction. The initial question of this thesis is how did hagiographers negotiate the representation of a formerly sinful, sexually active, long- living woman as an authoritative saint? This thesis aims at finding elements of answer to this question, investigating the intersections between gender and authority in the saints' lives of repentant prostitutes in all the vernaculars of medieval England: Old English, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English. It posits that the portrayal of holy harlots' authority and gender is dependent upon social, religious and literary shifts during the medieval period. My contention is that the harlot's gender portrayal changes over the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, due notably to the rise of affective piety and the important influence of the romance genre over hagiography. In Anglo-Saxon England, the harlot's gender changes with the saint's conversion: a woman beforehand, her gender is portrayed after her repentance as ambiguous in order for her to become a saint. Her authority derives from her own sanctity in this case. From the twelfth century onward, however, the harlot, now often turned into a beautiful and landed romance lady, is more and more represented as a woman throughout her life, and becomes after her conversion a Bride of Christ. In this way, the dangerously free woman who roamed the streets and prostituted her body becomes less threatening after her conversion, being (re-)inscribed within the male dominated institution of marriage. She now draws her authoritative stance from her gendered intimacy with Christ: although she submits to Christ as his bride, she also gains greater authority than before by way of her privileged relationship with the Savior.
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