Agents unto Themselves: Reconstructing the Narrative of Women’s Roles in the Anglo-Saxon Conversion
The legacy of Christianity in Britain is unique, as that region is one of very few known to have converted to the Christian faith twice. The conversion of Britain’s Anglo- Saxon newcomers demonstrates a confluence of three different religious cultures: the traditional Germanic paganism of the Saxons, the Roman Christian belief system introduced from the continent, and the unique brand of Christianity practiced by the Irish. In the midst of this competition among faiths, how did women exercise their agency to assert their beliefs and influence others? Recent studies have demonstrated how instrumental women were in the original proliferation of Christianity in the Roman world, and early chronicle sources seem to hint that they might have played a similarly significant role in the conversion of the Anglo- Saxons. Nevertheless, many of these early monastic authors utilized a practice of narrative enplotment to frame their female “characters” in a manner that was consistent with their own theological worldview. A close reading of these early Anglo-Saxon sources is necessary to draw out the relevant clerical perspectives and present a more nuanced analysis of the role of women in the Saxon conversion. Combined with a synthesis of recent scholarship in the fields of Anglo-Saxon religion and gender issues, this analysis will establish a framework for reconstructing the lost narrative of these influential medieval women. The issues that will be discussed in this paper will include how elite women served as religious gatekeepers in introducing the Christian faith to the English kingdoms, how abbesses and other prominent women of the cloisters bolstered the faith and helped establish a new religious status quo, and why the authors of early medieval chronicle sources sought to narratize the roles of women to fit their own social agendas.
Table of Contents
Introduction -- Secular women as patrons, models and agents of conversion -- The agency of abbesses and monastic women -- Conclusion