The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2022, 87-108

The Functions of the Body in the Formation of the Cult of Saint Etheldreda

I. G. Matyushina

Russian State University for the Humanities


For citation: Matyushina, Inna G. The Functions of the Body in the Formation of the Cult of Saint Etheldreda // Drevneishie gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy (The Earliest States of Eastern Europe). 2022: The Role of Religion in the Formation of Socio-Cultural Practices and Ideas / Editors of the volume Е.V. Litovskikh, Е.А. Melnikova. Мoscow: GAUGN-Press, 2022. S. 87–108.


DOI: 10.32608/1560-1382-2022-43-87-108


AbstractThe incorruption of the body, confirming the virginity of St Etheldreda, is present in the earliest hagiographic works (Vita Sancti Wilfrithi) and becomes a binary semantic centre (virginity / incorruptibility) in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Major Chronicle and Etheldredas Hymn by Bede the Venerable. Variable narrative motifs associated with the body (asceticism, throat tumour as punishment for addiction to necklaces, surgical incision, clothing material, the marble sarcophagus exactly fitting the incorruptible body of the Saint) are inherited from Bedes texts by the Old English Martyrology. The compiler of the South English Legendary omits variable motifs which were present in Bedes Ecclesiastical History, but were not related to the semantic centre (the disappearance of the wound after the discovery of the relics; the miraculous acquisition of the sarcophagus). Choosing three (St Etheldred, St Cuthbert, St Oswald) out of the five Anglo-Saxon lives narrated by Bede, Ælfric emphasises the motif of the miracle in the preservation of the virginity of St Etheldreda in her two marriages and establishes a causal relationship between the binary semantic centre (virginity / incorruptibility) and the ability of the Saint to work miracles. The hagiographic canon, whose foundations were laid by Bede the Venerable, is transformed in Liber Eliensis, which for the first time in the formation of the Saint’s cult correlates the binary semantic center with historical events (the function of the imperishable relics of St Etheldreda in the resistance to William the Conqueror). The hagiographic narrative from the Liber Eliensis served as the basis for late medieval vitae of St Etheldreda, e.g. La Vie Seinte Audrée by Marie de France, which underlined the Saint’s free will and power in maintaining her virginity and her role as the founder and the organiser of the Ely monastery and contributed to the spreading of her cult of beyond the British Isles.

St Etheldreda, hagiography, lives of saints, virginity, bodily incorruption, Bede the Venerable, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ælfric, Marie de France

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