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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: April 2020

11 - Written with her Own Hand: Perpetua’s Representation of Non-Binary Gender in Old English Hagiography


The intellectual influence of women of letters in Old English can be difficult to detect. The evidence for women's participation in Latin literary culture is more readily available: the correspondence of Boniface, for example, reveals a network of learned women religious involved in the exchange and production of religious books. The English nun Leoba even sends Boniface a sample of original poetry, explaining that she has been taught to compose verse by her abbess Eadburga. There is also evidence of women as historians and hagiographers in early medieval England, as Diane Watt has recently argued – the compiler of the ninth-century Old English Martyrology and Bede were likely indebted to the work of nuns’ local historiography and hagiography as sources for the lives of the holy women of their communities. Although the traces of women-authored texts may be detectable in the Old English Martyrology, one of the earlier extant texts in Old English, there are no known women writers in that language before 1150. According to Lees and Overing, however, the apparent lack of women writers in Old English represents not a dead end in the historiography of British women's writing, but an opportunity to expand our notion of what it means to participate in the production of writing in early medieval England: “these problems become opportunities to revise the scholarly paradigms of how we think about and identify women's agency as writers, readers, and participants in the production of literature and of culture.” One way of revising these scholarly paradigms is to pay due attention to the models of authorship and literary agency that are particular to the manuscript culture, in which a text is created throughout the transmission process of translation, copying, and compilation. Another is to reconsider early medieval notions of auctoritas, which gave more currency to ancient writers like Augustine and Orosius than any contemporary English writer, expanding our notion of early medieval English literary culture temporally to consider a potential auctrix: Perpetua of Carthage.

Perpetua is unusual among women saints venerated in the Middle Ages in that she tells her own story in the form of prison diaries that were incorporated into the third-century Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis.