In the foreword to a recent collection on nakedness and the body in Anglo-Saxon art, literature, and society, Benjamin C. Withers poses a formidable problem for modern interpretations of medieval nakedness: he argues that the "cultural ambivalences and evasions" that mark hagiographic descriptions of naked saints in Anglo-Saxon art and literature "significantly challenge the relevance of other modern notions, such as vision, voyeurism, and the gaze that we may seek to project back onto these texts." (1) This caveat provocatively frames the eleven essays that follow in the collection, many of which address our ability or inability to interpret such cultural constructs as eroticism and desire through modern, post-Freudian, post-Foucauldian lenses. I propose to pursue this theme further somewhat by raising the question of whether or not we are envisioning precisely the same thing that the original authors and audience were when they mention that saints are "naked."
It is an unsettling moment in the account of saints' martyrdoms to find, as we sometimes do, that the pious heroine is stripped naked before a large crowd during her tortures. In the conflict between the physical and the spiritual, the pagan overlord embodies the ideology of gross carnality and matter, while the saint divorces herself entirely from attachments to this physical world. Thus, there is nothing theologically unsound about her being abased at the whim of the patriarchal tyrant--in fact, the depictions of the body abused only serve to underscore the impotence of all bodily attachments and thus, by implication, the value of spiritual transcendence. Yet in terms of narrative decorum and reader sensibility, such scenes are decidedly uncomfortable. Male as well as female saints are stripped naked and tortured in the Latin and Old English martyrdom traditions: Lawrence, for instance, is stripped and his nakedness is explicitly mocked by the pagan tormentor in AElfric's Passio Laurentii. (2) Yet female victimization necessarily evokes a far different range of emotional responses, from us and undoubtedly from the original Anglo-Saxon audience too. The detail that the saint is naked adds an extra dimension of intimacy and sexual violation to these haunting and dramatic scenes. Analyzing the literary sensibilities and psychological impulses of a medieval monastic (or mostly monastic) audience is a risky enterprise at best, and yet it is hard to deny the manifest relish in the abusive power dynamics, and the occasional fetishism and objectification of body parts, in these narratives.
Gender theorists have thus focused on these scenes, in various ways, as sites of male voyeurism and sublimated sexual violence. Catherine E. Karkov notes that these scenes describe "violent and eroticized nakedness"; Kathryn Gravdal, Shaft Horner, and Sheila Delany unpack the sado-erotic appeal of these frighteningly voyeuristic texts; and Marie Nelson has bluntly referred to Juliana's treatment as a "gang rape." (3) Sometimes the images in question become quite graphic, by some accounts even pornographic. (4) In his failed assault on Juliana, the devil describes the siege-like nature of his psychological temptations:
ic paes wealles geat
ontyne purh teonan; bio se torr pyrel,
ingong geopenad, ponne ic aerest him
purh eargfare in onsende
in breostsefan bitre geponcas ...
[I open the gate of that wall through malice; the tower is pierced, an entrance is opened. Then I begin to send wicked thoughts into the heart through a flight of arrows ... ]
Shari Horner notes that these battle metaphors are "metaphors of rape," and John Bugge likewise notices that the devil's imagery at this point in Juliana is of "assault, penetration, intrusion." (6) By this logic, the flight of arrows breaching the besieged soul becomes a stream of sperm, and the gestation of evil thoughts within the sinner's soul (if successful) is literally an act of the devil begetting evil in the womb of the person's soul. …