God's Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature

God's Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature

God's Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature

God's Handiwork: Images of Women in Early Germanic Literature


"Perhaps because well educated women formed a large part of the audience of early Germanic literature, it was quite sympathetic to them. God's Handwork offers a guide to the images of women in this literature. Focusing on the vernacular writings of Anglo-Saxon England and other Germanic territories in the same era, he discovers that many of these literary women were 'romanesque' abstractions and not meant to represent actual people. Schrader's book offers a genuinely fresh look at its subject matter, and will prove of interest to scholars in medieval literature, comparative literature, and women's studies." Studies in the Humanities


Despite some notable lapses in Old Norse, the literature of the Germanic peoples was more sympathetic to Eve's daughters than was traditional theology. Eve herself came in for far less than the usual criticism, and she and the New Eve, Mary, inspired several of the conventional ways of depicting women. the favorable portrayals may also owe something to the fact that women, a number of them well educated, formed a significant portion of the audience and were themselves authors. Since pagan times they had had a relatively large role to play in cultural and political affairs.

Although this social context is explored, the literary images of women are my primary concern. in the writings, a good many characters are "romanesque" abstractions used to expose ideas, not necessarily to mirror real people. the ideal, much of the time, seems to be the virago. If a saint, she displays a spiritualized virility because of her virtue. in the secular realm, the ideal can partially transform solidly historical persons like Unn the Deep-Minded, the pioneer Icelander and paragon of Germanic womanhood.

A saint's virtue prevails despite the size of its possessor. Smallness is useful in the lives of virgin martyrs, whose (male) pagan judges can only destroy their bodies, but it is also employed in marvelous ways as an authorial pose by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, self-styled vilis and fragilis muliercula. This "little woman" works ironic wonders with the affected modesty topos.

Inner qualities radiate outward, and so the saints are beautiful. But not all beauties are saints: loveliness is also a "heroic" trait, one that connotes devastating power. Nor do the writers ignore the mental qualities of heroines. Acuity of mind is met as commonly in the Northern goddesses as in the Latin martyrs.

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