The longer thirteenth-century Middle English verse life of Saint Frideswide found in the collection of saints' lives known as the South English Legendary (SEL) narrates an event unique to medieval hagiography. In the poem, a leper asks the virgin saint to kiss him with her "sweet mouth," which she does in spite of her feelings of considerable shame, and the leper is healed. The erotic nature of the leper's request, Frideswide's reluctance to grant it, and her shame throughout the incident represent a significant departure from the twelfth-century Latin texts on which the SEL version of the saint's life is based. In this paper, I provide a deeper critical analysis of the text than has previously been attempted, exploring the SEL version of the leper's healing from medieval perspectives on leprosy, gender, religious authority, and genre. By the thirteenth century, leprosy in hagiographic texts had come to symbolize the abject condition of Christ himself, and saints' lives invariably portrayed their protagonists as eager to embrace and kiss lepers as a means of serving Christ. Frideswide's shame and reluctance to kiss the leper greatly contrast with generic convention and cause her gender to emerge as a defining holy attribute inexplicably demanded by the leper's exigency. The SEL-poet's portrayal of Frideswide's gender as a vital component of her healing power is consistent with medieval conceptions of personhood, from which gender could not be separated. The poet crafts the scene of the leper's healing using conventions not only of hagiography but of romance as well; this hybridization of genres creates tension between sanctity and eroticism in the scene. The poet's depiction of the saint as simultaneously exceptional and human may have been a reaction against the contemporary ecclesiastical landscape, in which female authority and influence were limited. Moreover, the romantic language used by the poet to create tension also makes Frideswide's story more accessible to lay readers by transforming the relationship between supplicant and saint into an interaction between a courtly lover and his lady.



College and Department

Humanities; English



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Frideswide, hagiography, Middle English, saint, leprosy, virgin, gender, romance, medieval, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Oxford, South English Legendary, kiss