This summer, I went on a family holiday to Whitby, where we spent a week exploring the home of Dracula, enjoying the relative sunshine and appreciating a much needed break from the pressures of life (for me, that meant my Masters dissertation, which at that point had somewhat taken over my life!)
Much more exciting than even the £3 ‘Dracula Experience’, though, was the chance to visit Whitby Abbey. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Hild, abbess of Whitby from its foundation until her death on the 17th November 680. Her feast day is celebrated in the Church of England today, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for a blog post.
Hild is a fascinating figure – a teacher of bishops, patron of poets and host of the Synod of Whitby. She mingled with famous saints and secular elites and is one of the foremost powerful women in the early English church. Nowadays, she lends her name to colleges at Oxford and Durham, as well as a society which campaigns against the ordination of women (…. I know) She was born into the royal house of Deira, and was baptised alongside her great-uncle Edwin at the age of 14.
One of the things which makes Hild such a fascinating figure is that despite her high birth and her later success, this baptism is all we know of her early life. Bede tells us that ‘she spent her first thirty-three years very nobly in the secular habit’ and he takes up her story as she is poised to move to Francia, following in the steps of her sister Hereswith who had adopted the monastic life there. Persuaded to remain this side of the Channel by Aidan, Hild was recalled to Northumbria where she cemented her legacy, a legacy which is woefully underrecorded in the written sources. Even compared to other prominent women in seventh-century England, we know very little about her – so much of what is repeated as fact is conjecture, for example, her status as a widow. Filling in the gaps is a daunting task when those gaps are quite so huge!
For me, Hild in particular and the monastic life in general represents a rejection of heteronormativity. She formed deep personal bonds with the sisters under her care, navigated male landscapes of power and authority and, it is likely, remained without biological children even in the 33 years ‘in the secular habit’. She navigated a male-dominated world and her interactions with that world show her careful and clever balancing of different tropes and roles available to women – she fits neither the ‘passive woman’ model nor its counterpart, the ‘persuasive woman’, or temptress. In so doing, she becomes a flesh-and-blood woman in her own right, and not merely another in Bede’s list of ‘women worthies’.
Too often, women in early medieval male-authored sources (and particularly, it seems, those authored by Bede) are reduced to playing out roles assigned to them.These roles are innately gendered, but in assigning them to women, or women to them, our characters are denied agency. Queer theory may be a way of returning agency to these women; Anne-Marie Jagose defines queerness as ‘a way of pointing ahead without knowing for certain what to point at’ – when women’s lives have been overwritten, to fit into male clerical world views and to provide examples of women worthies for the education and aspiration of the faithful, queering women can return them to the centre of their own lives, rather than being bit-parts in another story.
Queering women takes them out of that narrow worldview based on heteronormative gender roles and, while it may not, in reality, be closer to the objective truth, it reveals unconsidered possibilities and moves us away from damaging and obscuring assumptions too often made.
(For those interested, said dissertation is available here: https://www.academia.edu/14401864/Gendering_Hild_representations_of_Abbess_Hild_of_Whitby_c_614-680_-_a_study_of_the_role_played_by_gender_in_early_medieval_monasticism)