Gender Performativity and the Desire for the ‘Other’ in a Post-structuralist Reading of Saints Eugenia and Euphrosyne in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints

Anindita Bhattacharya

Presidency University, Kolkata

Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


Lives of Saints, one of Aelfric’s most celebrated works, documents the exemplary lives of a few female saints and their role in spreading Christianity to the world. In this paper, I have attempted a post-structuralist reading of the lives of the two saints, Eugenia and Euphrosyne, on account of their cross-dressing and gender disidentification as a manifestation of gender performativity towards the accomplishment of the greatest pleasure of spiritual life.

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply shall become

The form of my intent.

                                                                                  -Twelfth Night, Act I Scene 2

Anglo-Saxon prose, especially homiletic prose, reached its pinnacle in eloquence and stylistic brilliance in the hands of Aelfric (955 — 1020). Catholic Homilies, the Lives of Saints, the Biblical commentaries, translations, and paraphrases composed by Aelfric constitute a reckonable work of high literary merit. His works are a combination of sermons and instructions on Christianity and its various tenets. He also talks about the origin of Christianity, its introduction in England, and the ways in which one can embrace Christianity and make it a way of life. His works are mostly informed by those of the Doctors, St.Augustine, St. Jerome, Bede, Gregory the Great, and others. Of all his memorable contributions to late Anglo-Saxon literature, his hagiographical accounts of saints contained in The Lives of Saints is considered by far to be his best work.  The Lives of Saints, found in three manuscripts is, as he himself lays down in the foreword addressed to Ealdormon Aetheweard,“about the passions and lives of those saints whom the monks celebrate among themselves” (Anderson, 316). There are in all 40 lives, of which there are only eight female lives. Five are those of saints — Agatha, Agnes, Lucy, Eugenia, and Aethelthryth; and three lives of virginal married women — Basilissa, Cecilia and Daria. There are two other lives, which are to be found in this compilation but they have most certainly not been written by Aelfric viz. those of Mary of Egypt and Euphrosyne, owing to the stylistic differences observed in the depiction of these two from those of the rest as has been documented by many researchers of Old English Literature.

The lives of the female saints have been a subject of perusal to the literary critics for a long time. Whereas some critics have called the lives a reflection of the patriarchal negation of the women on the account of their femininity, some feminists have opined that Aelfric paints his female saints in surprisingly positive colors, represented as individuals with indomitable spirit, goodness of heart, strength of character, and exercising a lot of freedom in charting the trajectory of their lives, sometimes defying family and tradition. These studies either try to analyze the history of the female saints within a masculinist discourse or a feminist discourse. Either way, it considerably delimits various other literary and theoretical possibilities, especially when it comes to the lives of Eugenia and Euphrosyne. They do not attain their sainthood merely on the account of their ‘clynlynes’ or virginity like Agatha or Agnes, but they join the monastic order, holding high offices, serving people, and also performing miracles. But the one significant aspect where their lives concur is on the account of their gender-bending disguise. They hone manly looks and attire to serve God. We must not forget that these saints fall within the Old English tradition of the warrior saints like Judith, who is ascribed to the Caedmonian school of Old English Christian poetry. As such, these saintly women displaying such conventionally ‘manly’ courage and skills can be seen as falling within the discourse of female masculinities. In Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam opines:

I am using the topic of female masculinity to explore a queer subject position that can successfully challenge hegemonic models of gender conformity. Female masculinity is a particularly fruitful site of investigation because it has been vilified by heterosexist and feminist/womanist programs alike; unlike male femininity, which fulfils a kind of ritual function in male homosocial culture, female masculinity is generally received by hetero-and homo-normative cultures as a pathological sign of misidentification and maladjustment, as a longing to be and to have a power that is always out of reach. (Halberstam 8-9)

Whereas the lives of Eugenia and Euphrosyne fall within the discourse of female masculinities in that they serve their purpose on earth by defining their physical and mental being in masculinist terms (where the depiction of them shaving their heads and wearing the manly monastic garb is emphasized upon, giving primacy to their ‘dressed bodies’ as a representation of their desires and not their ‘naked bodies’ as theorized by Halberstam in her work), in the end their lives recount the history of not acceptance but resistance to any such discursive roles. Herein lies the relevance of Butler in this analysis and the study of gender definitions as depicted in Lives.

Judith Butler, in her seminal work, Gender Trouble, equates ‘gender’ with performativity. According to her, gender is a form of ‘doing’ and not ‘being’. The effects of gender are “performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence” (Butler 33). Therefore as Butler points out:

 […] within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed. The challenge for rethinking gender categories outside of the metaphysics of substance will have to consider the relevance of Nietzsche’s claim in On the Genealogy of Morals that “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed — the deed is everything.” (Butler 33)

In Eugenia and Euphrosyne’s taking on the identities of a man and a eunuch respectively, the very aspect of giving primacy to the ‘deed’ which is spiritual, than the ‘subject’ which is corporeal (her own self) irrespective of its femininity or masculinity, is of primal importance. It must be borne in mind that there is a difference between the connotations of ‘performance’ and ‘performativity.’ ‘Performance’ has a subject; someone who performs. ‘Performativity’ does not have a subject, rather the ‘deed’ is the ‘subject.’ If we look at the lives of Eugenia and Euphrosyne, we will see how they stand against their fathers, overcome material and sexual avarice, and turn down suitors to spread the words of God to mankind. The subversive act of defying tradition and the pronouncement of patriarchy to espouse a life of austerity at the expense of the effacement of the ‘gendered self’ lies at the heart of understanding the true intent of these ‘female’ saints. What they are trying to do is not fit into any gender role, they are rather disrupting the gender specificities towards the fulfilment of spiritual bliss or divine ‘joissance,’ that is beyond any discursive trappings.

Butler employs Foucault’s concepts of ‘prisoner’ and ‘body as a prison’ to further radicalize ideas of gender. Gendering ultimately results in culturally constituted taboos that are associated with a body to create the ‘abject’[i], the ‘other’, caught in the boundaries of the body under the control and regulation of the society. Eugenia dons man’s clothes precisely because her feminine nature is of no good to her. Rather she finds her ‘body’ a menace, an abjection because it can evoke lust and desire for the flesh in men and women alike. Critics have often commented that Eugenia had to reveal herself as a man to the world to be able to perform her spiritual duties as an abbot, a position which is usually held by men. This argument is far from true. Eugenia turns to androgynous clothing not to cater to a socio-religious norm but as a means of protecting herself from the male gaze. Aelfric writes of Eugenia:

Then Eugenia took them apart in conversation,

Called them brethren and besought that they

Would shear her head after the fashion of men,

And disguise her with garments as if she were a boy.

She desired to approach the Christians

In the garb of a man, that she might not be betrayed. (Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham 29)

Euphrosyne becomes Smaragdus not because she cannot attain her “soul’s salvation” as a woman but as a cautionary measure to hide her identity from her folks so that she can serve God:

Then Euphrosyne thought thus, saying; ‘if I go now to a woman’s convent, then my father will seek me there, and find me there; and then he will take me thence by force for my bridegroom’s sake; but I will go to a man’s minster where no man will suspect me.’ (Aelfric, Abbot of Eynsham 343)

But even in the man’s minster she realizes that her body is a harbinger of lust in other monks and she agrees to lock herself in solitary imprisonment for the rest of her life to find her true happiness. She not only identifies her ‘gendered body’ as a prison but is also imprisoned due to the attributes of her ‘body.’ Thereby once again, reinstating the fact that Eugenia and Euphrosyne not only denounce the ‘femaleness’ of their bodies but the very notion of a gendered existence, queering their existence and subverting gender discourse. And because their gender is a ‘mere’ performance, so an Eugenia can stand naked in front of her folks and the entire world, tearing apart her robes and revealing her breasts to her angry father; liberating herself from the appurtenances of the bodily discourse, affirming her sainthood. Their lives exemplify the relevance of gender performativity in deconstructing these ancient Old English texts to better understand the gender roles of that time and age.

This brings us to a grave consideration. What purpose does this gender queering serve in understanding the lives of the female saints?  How does it qualify their lives and its relevance to humankind? The answer lies in the reason of their glory, whether it is Eugenia or Agatha, to have their lives inscribed in the martyology of saints, to quote Aelfric. Very early on in their lives the female saints begin to acknowledge their desire for no man but the Christ in heaven alone. They call themselves the handmaids of Christ and some in quite erotic passages profess their love for Christ. Aelfric paints all his female martyrs in selfsame strokes. In Lacanian terms, post our ego formation and identification with the Symbolic Big Other which can be broadly defined as constitutive of our society, politics, and law, we experience a dissatisfaction with its oppressive discourses. The first object of our Libido, to quote Freud, which is always the Mother is lost to us, signifying the Real. As a result, we continue to live as contradictory organisms-in-culture, trying to regain the lost Real which cannot be had unless in death. Thus Eugenia and Euphrosyne assume gender queer roles to enter the monastic order, in search of the Real, wishing to serve as ascetics so as to ingratiate themselves with Christ in heaven and earn a place of privilege after they die, representing what we may call the desire for the Real or the Real Big Other manifested in the death drive. It is therefore through their death, that is through martyrdom, that Aelfric’s female saints realize their desire for the ‘Other,’ which is nothing but the desire for recognition from the ‘Other’, representing the ultimate achievement of sainthood.

Thus we see how the lives of the female saints in its attempt in upholding gender fluidity or gender neutrality as a means to a spiritual end actually informs contemporary deconstructionist studies in gender and sexuality that essentially talks about doing away with categorizations and generalizations to accommodate disparate and divergent thoughts and practices in the on-going process of ‘doing’ and ‘becoming.’

[i]Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: Essay on Abjection, defines ‘abject’ as something which is neither a subject nor an object; which “beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects.”

Works Cited

Anderson, George K. The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons. New Jersey: Princeton Legacy Library, 1966. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print.

Skeat, Walter W and M.A Skeat. Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, Vol 1. 1st ed, London: N. Turner, 1881. Print.

—. Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, Vol 2. 1rst ed., London: N. Turner, 1881. Print.

Anindita Bhattacharya, Presidency University, Kolkata. Email:


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