Examining the role of gender in The Old English Life of Saint Margaret sheds light on many expected notions of martyrdom, femininity, and masculinity. “True” femininity seems to take place in Margaret, a pure, virginal woman. When discussing her holiness, Margaret’s connection to God seems to be very contingent on two things. One, she is above overly-humanistic feelings such as desire and anger. As someone who seems to be free of those things in the name of God, she is deemed worthy to be a servant of God. Secondly, she must suffer for Christ. This furthers the understood notion of servitude that Margaret portrays. Margaret’s servitude is particularly striking when examining themes of gender in the text. Service is an inherently submissive act, particularly associated with femininity. Margaret’s adoption of femininity in this way brings her closer to what could be, in the world of the text, a “true” woman. This is supported by the brutish nature of Margaret’s torturers, who happen to be male. Anger, aggression, and violence are considered to be masculine traits. When juxtaposing this with Margaret’s peaceful and pure nature, she is, in turn, presented to be more feminine. When she is tortured and bleeding, Margaret seems to be uninfluenced by her environment’s brutality. As she’s bleeding on page 119, she says, “‘O you evil counselors, go to your houses, women, and to your work, men! God is helping me.” The implications of this line are two fold. First, she solidifies the text’s notions of gender roles and conformity. Second, she clearly states that masculine aggression and humanistic pain will not impede her role as a servant to God. Thus, her purity and femininity are considered crucial to her servitude, holiness, and, ultimately, martyrdom.
Image: Saint Margaret, painted by Joan Reixach, circa 1411.