Love, Ecgburg | by Mary Wellesley


The writer Marie de France, who lived in England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, pictured in a collection of poems in old French, from an illuminated manuscript
Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal/Bibliothèque nationale de FranceThe author Marie de France, who lived in England within the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, pictured in a group of poems in outdated French, from an illuminated manuscript copied in Paris circa 1285–1292

Sooner or later between 776 and 786, an English nun within the Bavarian monastery of Heidenheim wrote 4 strains in a secret code within the house between the tip of 1 Latin textual content and the start of one other. She was the writer of each—accounts of the lives of Saints Wynnebald and Willibald—however had left them nameless, describing herself firstly of 1 as not more than an “indigna Saxonica” (“unworthy Saxon lady”). The code was deciphered solely in 1931, by the scholar Bernard Bischoff. Decoded and translated from the Latin, the road reads, “I, a saxon nun named Hugeburc, composed this.” In A Room of One’s Personal, Virginia Woolf noticed that “Anon…was typically a girl.” Generally Anon was hiding in plain sight.

Hugeburc’s authorship would possibly strike you as shocking. Studying sure literary histories, you might be forgiven for pondering that girls didn’t do any authoring till newer occasions. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1985 version of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Ladies: The Traditions in English dismissed the medieval and early fashionable interval as “the Darkish Ages” of “the feminine creativeness.” However as Diane Watt, a professor of medieval literature on the College of Surrey, makes clear in Ladies, Writing and Faith in England and Past, 650–1100, the historical past of English girls’s literature is older than popularly thought. It’s as outdated because the historical past of “overwriting”—a sort of medieval textual mansplaining, whereby girls’s contributions have been erased or refashioned by male authors.

Watt’s research is an excavation. She uncovers proof of feminine patrons, sources, and authors by forensically inspecting texts. Hugeburc’s cipher, stitched into the be part of between two texts, has supplied Watt an invite to look intently at each the areas between texts and the areas round them, whether or not the manuscript web page or the abbey setting. She turns her gaze on well-known materials, just like the Outdated English elegies or Bede’s Ecclesiastical Historical past of the English Folks, in addition to lesser-known and fragmentary works, like a Lifetime of Saint Mildrith. Notably, she examines texts produced in England earlier than the Norman Conquest of 1066 alongside these written in Europe by pre-Conquest English missionary nuns or abbesses. That is uncommon; these texts, as a result of they’re deemed “Continental,” are most frequently written about by historians of the Carolingian period—the period of Charlemagne (748–814) and his descendants.

However such synthetic divisions fail to account for the interconnectedness of English and Continental literary and spiritual tradition within the early medieval interval. Regardless of fashionable myths of British exceptionalism, Britain has at all times been intently aligned to Europe. A lot materials from Britain, nonetheless, has been misplaced—destroyed throughout Viking raids, the Norman Conquest, and the dissolution of the monasteries throughout the English Reformation—so together with the Carolingian sources provides us a broader sense of the mental sophistication and the lived experiences of early medieval English girls.

The place does the historical past of English girls’s writing start? Some would level to figures like Julian of Norwich, whose late-fourteenth-century Revelations of Divine Love was, it’s believed, the primary female-authored textual content in English, or Margery Kempe’s Ebook, written within the early fifteenth century, which describes the writer’s life, travels, and visions of Christ. However the notion that Julian and Margery have been among the many earliest feminine English writers possible stems from a fetishization of writing within the English language and dangers seeing the previous as monolingual. (And this view skirts dangerously near a nationalist interpretation of literary historical past.) If we’re in search of girls who wrote in English solely, we’re going to be disenchanted. Two thirds of the surviving corpus of Outdated English poetry (that written earlier than the Norman Conquest), which represents roughly 600 years of literary tradition, survives in 4 bodily books. The scholar Roy M. Luizza known as the stays of Outdated English literature the “flotsam and jetsam of a vanished world.”

The primary English lady to have written a full-length literary work was Hugeburc, some seven hundred years earlier than Julian of Norwich. Her Hodoeporicon (Itinerary) of Saint Willibald describes the ten years the saint spent touring to the Holy Land and past within the 730s. Within the Latin textual content, which she prefaced along with her coded strains, Hugeburc states firstly that she heard Willibald’s account “from his personal lips.” She describes herself as “corruptible by the female frailty of the delicate intercourse” however provides—to present the account an authority that she, as a girl, doesn’t have—that she heard it “within the presence of two deacons who will vouch for [its] fact.”

But studying the Itinerary we see without delay that the voice of Willibald has been wrapped in Hugeburc’s literary casing. The textual content is bookended by elegant appeals to the reader, by which the nameless Hugeburc displays on the character of her job. Right here the sentences are lengthy, the metaphors elaborate. Within the opening we discover an expression of the author’s humility, a typical rhetorical system in medieval discourse: “it appeared to me absolutely shameful {that a} human voice ought to, in mute tenacity and with sealed lips, preserve silent about this stuff our Lord deemed worthy to disclose.” She writes that she is like “an inexperienced youngster…plucking a number of issues…from many leafy and fruitful timber with a wide range of laden flowers.” These horticultural metaphors seem once more on the finish when she describes how Willibald “with a number of laborers…tilled the large and spacious fields for the divine seed, sowing and cultivating them till harvest-time” like a “busy bee.” There’s a refined resonance in the best way she describes her authorial job and the “black traces of my pen which have ploughed by means of the white plains of the fields,” which means the manuscript pages.

Hugeburc’s Latin is tough. It has been described as “considerably flawed,” though some critics have known as it “formidable.” Watt notes that “what is known as proof of extra restricted linguistic competence by one reader could be interpreted as innovation and experimentation by one other.” It’s clear, regardless, that Hugeburc was extremely educated and never the “inexperienced youngster” she claimed to be.

Against this, the central part of the textual content—the half supposedly from the lips of Willibald himself—reads like clipped reportage. After touring by means of “the nation of the Samaritans,” Willibald and his companions (who embody “an Ethiopian with two camels, who led a girl on a mule”) meet a ferocious lion, “able to seize and devour them.” The Ethiopian says, “Don’t have any worry—allow us to go ahead,” and the lion decides to not eat them. This near-death expertise shouldn’t be mirrored on. There are different moments—like an outline of some cattle with “longo dorso et brevis cruribus, magnis cornibus” (“lengthy again, brief legs and huge horns”) or an account of passing the evening “between two fountains” and ingesting bitter milk given them by a shepherd—that additionally seem to return from Willibald. These episodes really feel too incidental and particular to have been added by a hagiographer. We sense Hugeburc’s want to report precisely slightly than reframe or refashion the phrases of her supply.

Willibald’s seeming tendency to not embellish the occasions which have taken place and Hugeburc’s studiedly noninterventionist strategy to reporting them result in moments of unintentional comedy. In a city known as Emesa, Willibald and his companions are arrested by “pagan Saracens,” or Arabs, and imprisoned. A kindly service provider then takes pity on them; he frees them from jail every day and takes them to the market, the place the residents of the city “come frequently to take a look at them, as a result of they have been younger and good-looking and clothed in lovely clothes.”

Hugeburc’s late-eighth-century work is the primary prolonged piece of writing by an English lady, however Watt additionally discusses a gaggle of earlier, shorter texts: ten letters in Latin, composed by a gaggle of English nuns and abbesses, which date to the early to mid-eighth century. They’re a part of the so-called Boniface Correspondence—a group of 150 letters written by and to Saint Boniface (circa 675–754), a missionary bishop despatched from England to Germany. The ten girls’s letters are all addressed to Boniface and his follower Lul (circa 710–786). These missives are filled with discovered allusion and present a formidable diploma of scholarship; some include poetry. However greater than that, they provide us glimpses of the hopes and terrors, in addition to a few of the prosaic day by day realities, of girls in eighth-century Europe. All of them seem in a single manuscript in Vienna, by which they occupy an necessary place, evidently valued as fashions of letter-writing (the remainder of the codex, which is made of 4 separate models, consists of biblical books, poems, and authorized materials). That is one thing not mirrored in fashionable editions of the Boniface Correspondence, which have tended to sideline the ladies’s letters; some editions and translations simply embody the boys’s letters, and a few of the girls’s correspondence has solely not too long ago develop into accessible in translation.

The letters to and from the ladies point out how far folks traveled within the medieval interval—opposite to the favored notion that journey was uncommon—they usually additionally present the ache of being removed from residence, associates, and information. They reveal bonds of intimacy between missionaries and their correspondents, and the respect that Boniface and Lul had for this group of extremely educated girls. One letter, written by a nun named Ecgburg and addressed to Boniface, is filled with vivid metaphors. She writes of feeling “disadvantaged” of Boniface’s “bodily presence” and the way she needs to “ever clasp your neck in a sisterly embrace.” Reeling from the dying of her brother, she tells Boniface that she holds him in “affection above nearly all different males,” that when she thinks of him her “very inmost soul is stuffed with a sweetness as of honey.” She begs Boniface to “set me up upon the rock of your prayers; for you’re develop into my hope, my tower of energy in opposition to my foes inside and with out.” The supply of her struggling turns into clear after we notice that not solely has her brother died however her “dearest sister Wethburga” has “vanished.” That is, she writes,

a brand new wound and a brand new grief; she with whom I had grown up, whom I adored and who was nursed on the similar mom’s breast…in all places was grief and terror and the dread of dying. Gladly would I’ve died if it had so happy God from whom no secrets and techniques are hid, or if slow-coming dying had not deceived me.

Ecgburg describes this separation as “nonetheless extra bitter” than dying, one which left her sister “the happier and me the sad one to go on, like one thing solid apart, in my earthly service.” She writes that Wethburga is “reported” to be dwelling as an anchoress in a cell in Rome. Bemoaning her “unmeasured sorrow,” she beseeches Boniface to “quiet the waves of my grief,” writing that “greater than the storm-tossed sailor longs for the harbor, greater than the thirsty fields want rain, or the anxious mom watches by the shore for her son, do I lengthy for the sight of you.”

Ecgburg’s cries of anguish carry throughout the centuries. Studying them in lockdown, I too felt the toll that isolation takes. The ache of her bodily separation is expressed on the finish of the letter, the place she begs Boniface for “a holy relic or no less than a number of written phrases,” each tangible and intangible reminders of her pal. Most of the letters to and from the ladies of Boniface’s circle describe such worldwide gift-giving. These items took completely different types—typically they have been items of prayer, whereas in one other case Abbess Cneuburg of Inkberrow close to Worcester was requested to ship two not too long ago freed slaves to affix the Christian mission in Germany.

One of the well-known letters within the Boniface Correspondence is from Boniface to Eadburg, the abbess of Wimborne in Dorset. In it, he asks her to make “a duplicate written in gold of the Epistles of my grasp, St. Peter the Apostle, to impress honor and reverence for the Sacred Scriptures visibly upon the carnally minded to whom I preach.” It’s hanging that Boniface particularly requests Eadburg’s penwomanship. A manuscript was not merely a repository of textual content however an embodiment, in visible and bodily type, of the sacral energy of Scripture. Such an artifact couldn’t be created by simply anybody.

It was maybe in recognition of her standing as a celebrated scribe {that a} additional letter states that Lul despatched Eadburg a silver stylus. (He additionally despatched her incense and cinnamon.) Scribes made ephemeral notes with styli in wax tablets earlier than honest copies of texts have been written on parchment. Styli would have been used too for administrative functions (tallying and accounting, maybe), however writers could have additionally made first drafts of texts with them.

One other letter, dated to the early 730s, means that Eadburg may need composed poetry along with her silver stylus. It was written by Leoba, a nun from Wimborne (the place Eadburg was abbess), and reads like a sort of eighth-century cowl letter. In it Leoba introduces herself to Boniface, noting their shared kinship. She says that she has discovered the artwork of poetry from Abbess Eadburg and features a poem, which she says she wrote “solely to train my little skills and needing your help.” This makes Leoba the primary named English feminine poet. And regardless of her humble entreaties, her letter was efficient. Boniface subsequently invited her to journey to Germany. There he “entrusted her with main the nuns in his mission,” and he or she later turned the abbess of Tauberbischofsheim.

Leoba shouldn’t be the one poet within the assortment of girls’s letters. Berthgyth, the daughter of certainly one of Boniface’s correspondents, additionally wrote verse in her mournful letters. In certainly one of them, she begs her brother, Baltheard, to go to her: “O brother, o my brother, for what cause are you able to afflict my thoughts with grief, tears and disappointment…day and evening by means of the absence of your love?” Watt reads Berthgyth’s letters alongside two well-known female-voiced elegies written in Outdated English that seem solely in a manuscript in Exeter Cathedral Library. These poems—editorially titled “Spouse’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”—are enigmatic texts describing exile and loss. Each contain feminine audio system (indicated by feminine grammatical endings) separated from their family members. Who these family members are and why they’re separated from the audio system has elicited a lot scholarly debate, partly as a result of the poems’ polysemous language makes them exhausting to translate. (The opening line of “Wulf and Eadwacer” incorporates a phrase that may be translated as “battle,” “sacrifice,” or “present”—every lending a very completely different which means to the road.) The “Spouse’s Lament” seems to explain a girl who’s separated from a lover or husband, who had earlier set out over the “tossing waves.” After his departure she was made an outcast by her beloved’s kin, pressured to dwell beneath an oak tree in an “eorðscræfe” (earth-cave) amid darkish valleys tangled with briars, the place she meditates on all she has misplaced.

In “Wulf and Eadwacer” the speaker is separated from “Wulf,” whom she addresses as “Wulf min Wulf” (“Wulf, my Wulf”), echoing Berthgyth’s “O brother, o my brother.” The identification of this Wulf stays unclear, although we’re instructed that he goes on lengthy journeys and that the rareness of his visits has made the speaker sick, a lot as Berthgyth was bothered by her brother’s absence. The speaker is on an island and guarded by “bloodthirsty males.” Within the remaining strains of the poem she asks, “Gehyrest þu, Eadwacer?” (“Do you hear me, Eadwacer?”) Eadwacer means “property-watcher.” It could possibly be a reputation, or it could possibly be a nickname. Is that this the girl’s husband, who is ready up in opposition to the lover, Wulf? Or is it the identical particular person as Wulf, who could possibly be her husband? Or is Wulf her youngster?

The poem ends, enigmatically, “þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs,/uncer giedd geador” (“which may be simply separated which was by no means certain,/the music of us each collectively”). These mournful strains strike a much less hopeful word than a line from certainly one of Berthgyth’s letters by which she tells her brother, “many are the congregations of waters between me and also you, but allow us to be joined in love as a result of real love isn’t divided by the borders between locations.”

The “Spouse’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer” are vernacular poems, written within the alliterative meter attribute of Outdated English verse. They describe a secular setting—what seems to be a bloodstained society held collectively by bonds of patriarchal kinship. The anguish of their audio system is completely different from the anguish of missionary nuns. Watt doesn’t explicitly argue for the feminine authorship of the Outdated English poems, however studying the letters and the elegies facet by facet would possibly embolden us to see the elegies as female-authored too, though we’ve to be cautious that the definition of “writer” in such instances is a slippery one. These vernacular texts possible circulated orally for a while earlier than they have been copied down, maybe centuries later, most likely in a monastic setting. And as Watt repeatedly notes, authorship within the premodern interval was typically collaborative.

A number of the most complicated and essentially speculative dialogue in Watt’s research is in her exploration of “overwriting,” whereby female-authored texts have been basically plagiarized by male authors. Overwriters’ intentions, she argues, have been typically benign. At occasions they merely needed “to protect slightly than obliterate, to modernize slightly than to silence.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical Historical past, accomplished in 731, incorporates the lives of three early abbesses. In them the “Venerable” Bede filleted out what he wanted from his supply materials, shaping the abbesses’ tales right into a type that suited his goals. He glides over the twelve sexless years of the saintly Æthelthryth’s married life, preferring to focus as a substitute on her cloistered existence and to current her as a mannequin of chastity.

In every of those accounts he most likely used sources that originated in these abbesses’ personal establishments and that have been both female-authored or based mostly on feminine testimony. However this supply materials isn’t cited, most likely as a result of he felt it lacked authority. When he describes the invention of Æthelthryth’s divinely preserved corpse, he doesn’t cite the testimony of her sister Seaxburh—who was by then an abbess and who had ordered the physique to be disinterred; as a substitute the phrases of Bishop Wilfrid and the doctor Cynefrith are taken as final affirmation of the miracle. Simply as Hugeburc didn’t want to embellish the spare account that the saintly Willibald gave her by inserting her personal doubtful feminine interventions, so too Bede appears to have feared that solely male accounts could possibly be trusted.

In her dialogue of those three abbesses from Bede, and elsewhere in her research, Watt paints an image of the feminine spiritual homes of early medieval England as communities of extremely educated, intellectually engaged girls. She factors to the earliest model of the nameless Lifetime of Gregory the Nice, which was commissioned by Abbess Ælfflæd of Whitby Abbey and will have been authored by a girl or, certainly, a number of girls. Feminine-authored or not, the textual content reminds us of the contributions of girls as patrons of texts, and the significance of spiritual homes as textual breeding grounds. These have been locations that usually nurtured the reminiscence of their foremothers, gathering testimony that was utilized by later male authors, as within the case of Goscelin of St. Bertin’s Legend of Edith, which was commissioned by the nuns of Wilton Abbey. Goscelin would little question have relied on feminine testimony or earlier female-authored accounts.

Watt’s work is thrilling as a result of it asks us to look afresh at surviving materials, but it surely additionally reminds us how a lot has been misplaced. Across the yr 705, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, devoted a treatise to Abbess Hildelith and her nuns at Barking Abbey. The prologue of the work describes the vigorous correspondence Aldhelm had with the Barking group. He describes their letters’ “wealthy verbal eloquence and the harmless expression of sophistication,” and imagines them “roaming extensively by means of the flowering fields of Scripture” and “scrutinizing with cautious software the hidden mysteries of the traditional legal guidelines.” Sadly, just one facet of the correspondence survives: the letters of the nuns are misplaced.

Ladies’s contributions to medieval literary tradition have been obscured for complicated and numerous causes, and misconceptions stay about their involvement in literature within the premodern interval in Europe as each creators and shoppers. Watt’s research ends in 1100, however misconceptions govern all the medieval interval. There’s a frequent assumption, for example, that the primary girls authors have been nuns who, educated in Latin at a convent in an effort to learn scripture, discovered to put in writing solely in an effort to write about God. This isn’t the case; Julian of Norwich could have been a nun earlier than she turned an anchoress—a self-imprisoned hermit—however the proof suggests she was not. Students stay unsure about what degree of formal schooling she had acquired earlier than she was completely enclosed in a cell to dwell a lifetime of prayer and contemplation. Margery Kempe was a vowess (somebody who took unofficial spiritual vows) however was subjected to trials and interrogations by ecclesiastical authorities.

Watt’s research explores medieval spiritual homes as locations that nurtured literary manufacturing, but it surely helps to dispel the parable that medieval feminine authors have been all nuns or wrote solely about God; definitely many have been linked to faith indirectly, however not all. We all know nearly nothing in regards to the author Marie de France, who lived in England within the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries and wrote in Anglo-Norman, the language of the educated elite in post-Conquest England. She may need been a nun or a noblewoman, however her verse shouldn’t be confined to non secular topics; she wrote about love and intercourse and beasts, actual and magical. Then on the very finish of the medieval interval in Britain, the Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain—who was a girl of the gentry—wrote spiritual verse but in addition addressed secular topics, together with home violence and misogyny. Probably her greatest work is the ode she wrote to the vagina, by which she assaults male poets for the “fruitless reward” they heap on girls’s hair, eyebrows, and breasts, all whereas failing to commend the “comfortable vagina…tender and beautiful,” the “lady’s thicket” discovered beside a “lavish arse.”

A page from the English nun Hugeburc’s accounts of the lives of Saints Wynnebald and Willibald, circa 776–786
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MunichA web page from the English nun Hugeburc’s accounts of the lives of Saints Wynnebald and Willibald, circa 776–786. The fourth by means of seventh strains embody a code figuring out her because the texts’ writer.

If we take a wider European view, we’ve a bunch of additional examples: a gaggle of feminine troubadors (trobairitz) together with the early thirteenth-century noblewoman Garsenda, Countess of Provence, and the late-twelfth-century Comtessa de Dia. Within the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century we’ve Christine de Pizan, a poet on the courtroom of Charles VI of France, who wrote verse in an effort to help her household after the dying of her husband. Her Ebook of the Metropolis of Women, accomplished in 1405, was written as a rebuttal to the misogynistic depiction of girls in Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Roman de la Rose. In her Ebook, a dream-vision, Christine is visited by three personified virtues—Cause, Rectitude, and Justice—who inform her to construct a metaphorical metropolis to accommodate a listing of well-known, worthy girls from historical past. Her phrases are the bricks that construct a metropolis to guard girls from assault.

One other widespread false impression is that solely medieval girls hooked up to non secular orders have been literate. There may be, nonetheless, proof that royal and noble girls within the early medieval interval could have been in a position to learn. In his biography of King Alfred (871–899), Asser tells a narrative about how the king’s mom, Osburh, provided a ebook of English poems to whichever of her youngsters might be taught them quickest. Alfred gained. From this it appears possible that Osburh might learn; how else would she confirm the winner? It additionally suggests she could have performed a component in educating her youngsters. A surviving checklist from Wissembourg Abbey, in France, dated to the identical interval as Alfred, particulars books lent out to a number of feminine debtors, a few of whom look like lay girls. And within the earliest surviving will written by an Englishwoman (from the primary half of the tenth century), the testator—Wynflæd—bequeaths her books to her daughter, which means that they have been each in a position to learn. Later, within the thirteenth century, the chronicler Matthew Paris lent copies of his works to a sequence of aristocratic girls, recording the loans in his personal hand in a duplicate of his Lifetime of Saint Alban.

Feminine literacy drastically expanded from across the fifteenth century onward, when lay literacy normally expanded. We’ve got to be cautious, nonetheless, about what “literacy” means. Ladies could have been taught to learn however not write (the “Paston Letters” of the fifteenth century include a cache of letters by Margaret Paston, who might learn however needed to dictate all her communications to scribes). Some girls may need solely been taught to learn their Latin prayerbooks. Others might learn the vernacular with various ranges of competence. However being illiterate was no obstacle to composing literature: Margery Kempe dictated her work to a number of scribes. Addressing these misconceptions shouldn’t be a part of Watt’s sensible research, however tackling them exhibits us that the literary previous is usually richer and extra attention-grabbing than we think about.

Ladies’s contributions have additionally been obscured due to the actual methods by which we perceive and valorize authors. Watt’s research attracts consideration to the fickle methods they arrive to be remembered or forgotten. Right this moment we fetishize the concept of an writer—the only (typically male) inventive genius. However authorship within the medieval interval was continuously collaborative and, in fixating on the concept of the writer, we neglect the contributions of girls as, in Watt’s phrases, “patrons and commissioners of works, as scribes and archivists, and as recipients and readers.”

Feminine writers have additionally been sidelined due to the character of manuscript transmission. Have been it not for her cipher, Hugeburc’s texts would most likely have remained nameless, like so many texts from the medieval interval. She would have been ceaselessly anonymous, not more than a self-described “indigna Saxonica.” It was solely by embedding a clue to her identification in her textual content that her identify has survived. When manuscripts have been copied, there was no assure that an writer’s identify, which might seem in a rubric on the head of the textual content, can be carried over to subsequent variations. Once we open a contemporary, printed ebook as we speak we’re greeted by an array of extratextual materials that situations our studying expertise. A medieval particular person opening a manuscript typically had few of those hints: no titles, no authors’ names, nothing like a writer or place of publication. Studying a medieval manuscript could be like watching a film once you don’t know something in regards to the movie’s title, style, or actors.

The nameless eighth-century Lifetime of Gregory the Nice tells readers that in the event that they discover errors within the textual content, they need to not “nibble with crucial tooth at this work of ours which has been diligently twisted into form by love slightly than information.” I considered these phrases typically studying Ladies, Writing and Faith in England and Past. It’s an formidable and refreshing work that can nonetheless stay shapely after in depth nibbling, infused as it’s with scholarly information and a love for English literary “foremothers.”



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