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Jewish heterosexuality, queer celibacy? Ælfric translates the Old Testament priesthood

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Abstract

This essay argues that Ælfric’s discussion of priestly marriage demonstrates 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 Ælfric represents temporally distant Biblical Jews as embodying a kinship-based heterosexuality that has been superseded by and is now opposed by Christian chastity and asexual reproduction.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 linguistic 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.
Article
Jewish heterosexuality, queer
celibacy? Ælfric translates the Old
Testament priesthood
Mo Pareles
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kinship-based heterosexuality that has been superseded by and is now opposed by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.
doi:10.1057/s41280-017-0058-y
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
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... As so frequently in AElfric's work, small alterations to his sources prove philosophically significant. 53 AElfric begins with a Latin excerpt that derives from Isidore, and explicates it in Old English, borrowing heavily from Priscian, in a way that entirely changes both Isidore's and Priscian's categories. ...
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Challenging the way the Middle Ages have been treated in general histories of sexuality, Sexuality in Medieval Europe shows how views at the time were conflicted and complicated; there was no single medieval attitude towards sexuality any more than there is one modern attitude. Focusing on marital sexual activity, as well as behavior that was seen as transgressive, the chapters cover such topics as chastity, the role of the church, and non-reproductive activity. Combining an overview of research on the topic with original interpretations, Ruth Mazo Karras demonstrates that medieval culture developed sexual identities that were quite distinct from the identities we think of today, yet were still ancestral to our own. Using a wide collection of evidence from the late antique period until the fifteenth century, this fully revised third edition has been updated to include the latest scholarship throughout, including expanded coverage of Islamic and Jewish cultures and new ideas on how medieval sexual violence relates to the modern world. A new companion website supplements the text featuring an interactive timeline of key events, links to key primary sources, and references to further reading. Sexuality in Medieval Europe is essential reading for those who study medieval history and culture.