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Saint Brigit and Her Habits: Exploring Queerness in Early Medieval Ireland

Saint Brigit’s behavior in Cogitosus’s Life of Saint Brigit and her reception by society highlight an avenue by which women in the early medieval period could escape societal strictures, exercising agency over their bodies and their romantic choices, and carve out a distinct and unexpected place for themselves in a Christian patriarchal society. Saint Brigit’s position, actions, and depiction by Cogitosus can be interpreted through the lens of queer theory in order to ask key questions regarding attitudes towards queerness in early medieval Ireland. To render the queerness of female sanctity acceptable in a patriarchal system, there were significant elements of compensation for the deviance from these societal norms in the depictions of female saints, such as hyperfemininity contrasting with contemporary masculine traits. This balance of deviance and compensation is most clear in hagiographies, texts where the saints and their actions were recorded and mediated for the explicit purpose of demonstrating sanctity.

As Cogitosus’s Life of Saint Brigit depicted a woman who not only stepped out of one social structure, that being secular, but also monastic ones, his portrayal of Saint Brigit demonstrates that within female sainthood, queerness was not only accepted, but a prerequisite and inherent feature worthy of veneration. By examining how scholars have used a lens of queerness and mediation to analyze key hagiographies first of saints more broadly, and then of female saints, and using these approaches to examine the inherently queer actions, positions, and roles found in Saint Brigit’s First Life, we can gain a clearer view of societal views towards queerness during the early medieval period, and in early medieval Ireland in particular. In doing so, this thesis will help chip away at the monolithic view of the period, as well as the queer erasure within, demonstrating that queerness has always been a fundamental part of human society.