Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature
In Ruling Women, Stacy S. Klein explores how queens functioned as imaginative figures in Anglo-Saxon texts. Focusing on pre-Conquest works ranging from Bede to Ælfric, Klein argues that Anglo-Saxon writers drew upon accounts of legendary royal wives to construct cultural ideals of queenship during a time when that institution was undergoing profound change.
Also a study of gender, her book examines how Anglo-Saxon writers used women of the highest social rank to forge broader cultural ideals of femininity, even as they used female voices to articulate far less comfortable social truths. Capitalizing on queens’ strong associations with intercession, Anglo-Saxon writers consistently looked to royal women as mediatory figures for negotiating sustained tensions, and sometimes overt antagonisms, among different peoples, institutions, and systems of belief. Yet as authors appropriated legendary queens and inserted them into contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture, these royal “peaceweavers” simultaneously threatened to destroy existing unities and to expose the fragility of seemingly entrenched social formations.
Drawing on the strengths of historical, typological, and literary criticism, feminist theory, and cultural studies, Ruling Women offers us a way to understand Anglo-Saxon texts as both literary monuments and historical documents, and thus to illuminate the ideological fissures and cultural stakes of Anglo-Saxon literary practice.
"Legendary royal wives glitter here and there in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, from Bede's History to Beowulf and from Cynewulf's Elene to Aelfric's tales of Jezebel and Esther. Stacy Klein's book shows how writers mobilized these queens to address, indirectly, contemporary issues such as the downside of heroism or the upside of lay spirituality. This is a rich, learned, eloquent, and often surprising study." —Roberta Frank, Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of English, Yale University
"With Ruling Women, Stacy S. Klein makes a highly original contribution to Anglo-Saxon literary studies in her examination of how queens functioned as imaginative figures in Old English texts. Well-written, engaging, and theoretically informed, her book offers a very fresh treatment of some materials that have seen considerable work and, very welcome indeed, some materials that have been scarcely treated in the literature." —Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, University of Notre Dame
"Ruling Women makes important contributions to current academic debates in many areas, among them historiography, queenship, sanctity, gender and identity, Ælfric and his age, Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, and the Anglo-Saxon sense of the past. By bringing these varied discourses together in one book, carefully reconstructing the cultural, theoretical, literary and historical contexts in which Anglo-Saxon texts were made and read, Klein achieves a complex depth of vision that is enlightening, imaginative, innovative and exemplary." —R. M. Liuzza, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
“[Ruling Women has] much [to say] about the literary texts it studies: apart from Beowulf, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, Cynewulf’s Elene and Ælfric’s Kings and Esther. . . . These tales depict queens less as representative of women—partly because the authors were not much interested in gender—or even of queens in general, but instead use them to discuss a range of other concerns. It is in the brief conclusion that Klein probes deepest into why this may be the case, suggesting it may have to do with the queens’ position as both close to the centre of political power, and somewhat marginalized by their gender. In pre-Norman Conquest England, women could become reigning monarchs, but this rarely happened in reality or in fiction, where a queen was usually the wife of a king, and her power resided in her influence over him. . . . Perhaps the very fact that Ruling Women yields few generalizable results about queenship or gender . . . is its most important message. Such notions are historically and culturally specific, and they ought to be considered afresh for each text and writer, in the way Stacy S. Klein exemplifies with such skill.” —Times Literary Supplement
"Klein shows how Anglo-Saxon writers used queens figuratively to comment on social and cultural issues of their times. Much of her discussion is on the political situations that underlie the portrayals of queens, including social hierarchy, the Benedictine Reform, and conversion. Chapters focus on works by Bede, the Beowulf poet, Cynewulf, and Ælfric. Although these works are not typically presented together, Klein unites them to illustrate the myriad roles of literary queens. . . An important contribution to Anglo-Saxon feminist theory, this book will have a significant impact on Anglo-Saxon studies in general." —Choice
"Stacy Klein demonstrates how representations of queens played integral roles in issues that are now recognized as crucial to Anglo-Saxon literature and culture, including 'conversion, social hierarchy, heroism, counsel, idolatry, and lay spirituality.' . . . Klein's integration of gender studies with more traditional forms of scholarship and her commitment to challenging traditional readings yield rewarding and provocative new insights into the constitutive role of queens in Anglo-Saxon literature." —Arthuriana
“Klein's work supplies a refreshing breath of air for those studying and teaching Old English literature, providing a discussion which steers an easy course between complex theoretical discussion (of which there is some) and careful reading of texts (of which there is much).” —Medium Aevum
“Ruling Women is a refreshingly independent and thought-provoking study which challenges any tendency to assume that Anglo-Saxon depictions of women were solely and simply driven by straightforward misogyny. Klein has made a valuable contribution in establishing the cultural significance of Anglo-Saxon literary representations of queens, and also in demonstrating that Ælfric’s presentation of Biblical and legendary queens in their relation to the politics of the Benedictine Reform and Æthelred’s reign merit further study.” —Journal of English and Germanic Philology