Movement and Meaning in Early Medieval England: The Kinesic Style of Old English Saints’ Lives

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Jana Schulman

Second Advisor

Dr. Elizabeth Bradburn

Third Advisor

Dr. Eve Salisbury

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Renée R. Trilling


Kinesic analysis, movement, early medieval literature, hagiography, Old English, kinesis


Moving bodies fill the pages of Old English texts, but while scholars of early medieval England have produced countless studies on gender, authority, religion, education, law, and more, they have rarely centered those bodies and their movement, through which those concepts were mediated, reproduced, and experienced. In Movement and Meaning in Early Medieval England: The Kinesic Style of Old English Saints’ Lives I address this gap by employing a methodology called kinesic analysis—the practice of attending to the movements of human bodies and the ways in which they make meaning—and reading Old English saints’ lives with a focus on the texts’ kinesic style—which, in a broad sense, means “the particular manner of all movements performed by a person in events that are liable to make sense to her (perception, sensation, and embodied cognition) and to others (presence, expression, and communication), including the slightest nuances.”1 Ultimately, I argue that kinesic analysis of Andreas, Guthlac A, Judith, Juliana, and the Life of Saints Chrysanthus and Daria reveals early medieval English writers representing bodily control, restraint, and deliberation as integral to sanctity.

In chapter II, I focus on the poems Andreas and Guthlac A, both of which portray male saints who were once warriors, but who reject the more forceful movement practices associated with that vocation in favor of a controlled, “active” stillness. I argue that the poets employ kinesic descriptions to draw on secular poetic norms of masculine heroism and then subvert them. In this way, the poets construct the saints’ new movement practice as a new vision of masculine Christian heroism and offer Andreas and Guthlac as uniquely effective exemplars for early medieval English Christians.

In chapter III I turn to female saints and ideas of feminine heroism and sanctity in the Old English poetic Judith and Cynewulf’s Juliana. In contrast to Andreas and Guthlac, Judith and Juliana both perform acts of violent movement against their antagonists, which would usually make these women threatening in Germanic heroic tradition. But in a similar way to the poets of Andreas and Guthlac A, the poets of Judith and Juliana invoke, then subvert, the gendered norms of early medieval English heroic literature through the kinesic style of their poems in order to portray sanctity as a form of Christian heroism based in submission to God’s will.

Finally, in chapter IV I analyze Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, particularly the Life of Saints Chrysanthus and Daria, and argue that Ælfric values bodily stillness over even controlled bodily movement and that he consistently portrays bodily control, particularly in the forms of conscious stillness and devoted chastity, as integral to sanctity. The collection emphasizes bodies and portrays bodily stillness and control as active and determined choices, framing chastity as an intentional, physical devotional practice rather than a lack of action or passive bodily state.

Ultimately, I argue that the poets of these vernacular texts use kinesic description to engage with, call on, and subvert Germanic heroic and secular values and norms in order to emphasize the power of God to overthrow them; to construct new Christian ideals of heroism, gender, and action; to challenge characterizations of saintly behavior as passive; and to recast bodily behaviors such as restraint, stillness, and endurance of suffering as forms of active heroism and resistance.

1. Guillemette Bolens, The Style of Gestures: Embodiment and Cognition in Literary Narrative (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 21.

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