‘More Male than Men’: Examining the Perception and Presentation of Female Sanctity Across the Early Mediaeval World (6th – 10th Century)

Elisabeth Mincin
In Volume 3, Issue 1
Special Issue: Medieval Women

Abstract

The concept of female sanctity poses several questions: If, by the requirements of society, women were expected to marry, how could they also be expected to remain pure? How did society reconcile these ideals of womanhood with the ascetic rigours of holiness? And, therefore, to what extent is holiness inherently a world for the masculine? Must a woman transcend gender boundaries in order to enter into the competitive ring of holiness, by doing so, forsaking her biologically determined nature? These questions do not belong to any one time or region but rather were faced by societies across the Mediaeval world. By examining a selection of both Byzantine and western hagiography drawn from the sixth through tenth centuries, I will compare and contrast perceptions of sanctity in East and West and the means of integrating women into this mould. A degree of gender transgression will be readily evident in both cases. It will, however, become apparent that East and West came to fundamentally different conclusions in their ultimate reconciliations of womanhood and sanctity – the West enabling the model of womanhood, which was propagated by society, to be transposed onto that of sanctity; while, in the East a more thorough renunciation of femininity was required for the woman to reach the heights of the most holy.

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