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Exposing Virginal Bodies in Early Norman England


Goscelin of Saint-Bertin came to England from France some time around 1060, a few years before William of Normandy took the English throne in 1066. Although a French immigrant at the time of colonization, Goscelin was a staunch Anglo-Saxon apologist. After his arrival, he composed the biographies of several Anglo-Saxon saints, all female virgins from the monastery at Ely. These saints’ lives (hagiographies) were written to prove to the doubtful Norman authorities that the native saints were legitimate. But there is a hidden undercurrent to Goscelin’s hagiographies.

His narratives abound with stories in which the tomb of the saint is forced open to reveal a corpse that is not decayed but miraculously radiant and supple and lifelike. Understandably, the (male) observers cannot believe their eyes. So they reach in to touch, to test, to discover the truth with their fingers. Goscelin’s own rhetorical flourishes, which describe the luminous beauty of the virginal corpse, also serve to expose the bodies and lay them bare to examination.

When one understands these hagiographies to be a sort of ‘religious pornography,’ then, one recalls Malek Alloula’s assertion that the exposure of female bodies is implicit in any colonial enterprise. By reaching deep into a cloistered realm, grasping the female bodies found there, and revealing what should have remained hidden, Goscelin participated in the penetrating thrust of the Norman conquest--even as he sought to allay it--by controlling Anglo-Saxon society through its symbolic and powerful women.

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