Stealing Obedience: Narratives of Agency and Identity in Later Anglo-Saxon England

Stealing Obedience investigates works in Latin and Old English to pursue a series of questions about agency (here to use the term in its most general meaning) that emerge from my study of the discourses of Anglo-Saxon monastic life during the Benedictine Reform. By investigating a range of texts dealing with monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England: Osbern’s Vita of Dunstan, Ælfric’s Colloquy, Goscelin’s Vita of Edith, Anselm’s Letters to Gunhild, and Goscelin’s Liber confortatorius, Stealing Obedience shows the fractures arising from understanding religious identity as always already given and simultaneously as requiring 'agent action' to assume. While concerns about will and obedience figure widely across the centuries of Christian thinking on individual responsibility, I have been interested to study agency and its interconnections with identity and obedience in the years between the Benedictine Reform and the social disruption following the Norman Conquest.  The book’s approach is two-pronged: it maps some ways writers in late Anglo-Saxon England constructed, understood, and used particular notions of agency; and it distinguishes between past and present notions of agency as a way of highlighting what is historically distinctive from our own about the arguments and assumptions of Anglo-Saxon writings on this issue. The book asks how the narratives of religious men, women, and children who are the subjects of this book depict the relationship between individuals and responsibility for choice. And it seeks to map the specific qualities of that relationship and to parse its effects by reading narrative moments of contradiction and surprise, moments in which individuals respond to conflicting social and cultural demands with a kind of improvisation. That improvisation, I argue, marks a moment at which early medieval ‘agent action’ becomes something we can recognize as agency.

Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe
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