Marion’s Thesis Portrait

As might be evident from my Categorized Bibliography, I decided this week that I would switch my thesis topic because I was having a hard time writing even short amounts about Patrick, so trying to write something much longer seemed like it would not go well. I went back to my other initial idea, which I feel I have more passion for and a clearer idea of methodology and specific questions. I am sure I have created an unfortunate amount of extra work for myself, but…oh well.

My thesis is going to be on friendship in letters from and to medieval women. In order to make that incredibly broad topic narrower, I have picked out 5 letters to look at (with wiggle room to look at others if needed). Four of the letters are from abbesses (Bugga, Eangyth, Ecburg, and Lioba) to St. Boniface, and one is from St. Boniface to Lioba. These letters are all from the 8th century CE. Bugga, Eangyth, and Ecburg are from the British Isles, while Lioba is German. St. Boniface himself was a monk and missionary who traveled in the area that is now Germany. He probably had more extensive correspondence with these women, but only small snippets of communication remain.

I chose these letters because they all use the language of friendship to some extent, and they are from women who were in a unique social position (abbesses) that gave them some freedoms unusual of the time (though confined them in other ways), and these women wielded no small amount of power over their particular abbey. However, they are communicating with a male bishop who is of a significantly elevated position compared to them. Since letters are a form of writing that interacts very closely with social relationships, it seems to me the perfect place to explore how friendship was understood and realized in a gendered, religious context and try to find ways to understand how these women occupied the social hierarchy.

In terms of research questions, I am interested in asking these questions:

  • How did conceptions of “friendship” evolve from Classical times to the 8th century CE (and how did Christian conceptions of “friendship” evolve and change?)
  • How was friendship gendered in these letters, and how did women portray and understand their own social position?
  • How did these abbesses use epistolary conventions and forms to communicate and establish relationships with a bishop?
  • How do women express agency in the epistolary mode? Do these letters reveal any ways in which women exercised agency and social mobility?

While, due to the circumstances, I am a bit behind in developing my arguments, I anticipate that I will be building my argument around the use of epistolary conventions as extensions of social hierarchy, but I also want to explore how the epistolary form gives women agency and how these abbesses had power and persuasive ability through their command of letters.

I am most familiar with Eangyth and Ecburg’s letters, which are also the longest. Both of these women make extensive use of Biblical quotation, and Eangyth expands into other medieval and classical works as well. Lioba and Bugga have shorter letters, but they also reveal extensive familiarity with scripture that speaks to a highly literate, learned culture of religious women. All the women also use a variety of particular words (including familial words—“frater”, et al., and friendship words such as “amicitia”) to establish their relationship to Boniface. I am especially interested in examining how the women use language and convention to establish the type of communication and relationship that they will have with Boniface, which is a type of quiet agency that I find interesting.

In the secondary literature, I paid a lot of attention to finding texts about epistolography and specifically Christian letter forms so that I can have a solid grounding for understanding when conventions are being observed and when they are not. I also found a lot of sources relating to friendship, how it was understood, and the language used to discuss it.

Since I made this decision to change recently, I have had less time to discuss with faculty, but I intend to reach out to Professor Conybeare and Professor Mulligan to discuss my ideas.

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