Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English & Film Studies

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Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Dr. Robin Waugh

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor

Second Advisor

Dr. Chris Nighman

Advisor Role

Internal Committee Member

Third Advisor

Rev. Dr. Robert Kelly

Advisor Role

Internal/External Committee Member


Contributing to the spirited discussion regarding feminist and pro-feminine readings of Middle English hagiography, this dissertation challenges the tradition of grouping accounts of medieval holy women into a single genre that relies on stereotypes of meekness and obedience. I argue that fifteenth-century England saw a pro-feminine literary movement extolling the virtues of women who engaged in what I term “performative self-abjection,” a form of vicious self-renunciation and grotesque asceticism based on Julia Kristeva's model of the abject. The corollary of women's performative self-abjection is ex-gratia spiritual authority, public recognition, and independence, emphasized in the English corpus of fifteenth-century women’s hagiography. Performative self-abjection is exemplified in the vitae of Elizabeth of Spalbeek and Christina the Astonishing in the Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 114; their extreme demonstrative affective piety made them unimpeachable in their religious authority as they taught, preached, gave absolution, and lived freely as solitary mulieres religiosae. Translation, redaction, and mouvance over the course of roughly one hundred years altered the ostensible purpose of these lives. Focusing on outrageous dramatics and minimizing scriptural contextualization, these texts evolve into works of subversion rather than conscription in relation to the church. Using Foucault’s approach to literary transformation and history, I argue that these texts constitute a previously unacknowledged “second wave” of women’s hagiography, distinct from Lynda Coon’s notion of the patchwork saint stories found in the early church’s “sacred fictions.” Finding commonality in the third wave feminist theory of R. Claire Snyder, these biographies employ tools of the male-dominated literary tradition in order to subvert the patriarchal church’s order while appearing to conform to its agenda. These works signify a quiet literary revolution aimed at vernacular women readers, and demonstrate an influential connection to the contemporaneous “Lyf of S. Elyzabeth” by Osbern of Bokenham and The Booke of Margery Kempe, texts long considered anomalous and frequently characterized as works without influence. The subversion inherent in performative self-abjection is initiated in physical action and, in the case of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 114, resurrected through literature.

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