Jewish heterosexuality, queer
celibacy? Ælfric translates the Old
Department of English, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1, Canada.
Abstract This essay argues that Ælfric’s discussion of priestly marriage demon-
strates an Anglo-Saxon articulation of the difference between Jews and Christians as
sexual difference. Ælfric represents temporally distant Biblical Jews as embodying a
kinship-based heterosexuality that has been superseded by and is now opposed by
Christian chastity and asexual reproduction. This supersession operates through lin-
guistic as well as temporal translation; Ælfric transmutes ritual Jewish purity into
Christian sexual purity by translating the Vulgate’s mundus and immundus, which
gloss Old Testament טָהוֹר and טָמֵא [‘ritually pure’ and ‘impure’], into Old English clæne
and unclæne [in Ælfric’s context, generally ‘chaste’ and ‘unchaste’]. Terms from the
Hebrew Bible that, when translated into Greek and Latin, assume equivalence to New
Testament terms for spiritual purity thus undergo a further conversion in the work of
Ælfric, who diverges from other Old English writers in linking the word clæne not only
with the Old Testament but also, specifically, with Jewish sexuality. Ælfric’s linguistic
choices forge a largely fictive continuity between Jewish and Christian sexual purity
systems, while also authorizing Christianity’s break from Jewish mores.
postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies (2017). 8, 292–306.
Christians and Jews have sometimes articulated their difference in sexual terms.
As Steven F. Kruger notes of this nexus of identifications, ‘The means for
constructing sexual difference and those for defining religious, (quasi-)racial
©2017 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2040-5960 postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies Vol. 8, 3, 292–306