Introduction: Genuine Devotion, Imaginary Bodies

  • Maud Burnett McInerney
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


On the first weekend in September, the small Burgundian village of Alise-Ste-Reine venerates its patron saint by presenting the Martyrdom of Saint Reine. You can, if you like, attend Mass on the Saturday evening, and then follow a torch-lit procession of costumed figures to the outdoor Théâtre des Roches to see the first performance of the Martyrdom, but the real celebration begins on Sunday morning at a place in the valley known as the Three Elm Trees, even though the three trees that presently grow there are chestnuts. From this point, a colorful procession begins to wind up the hillside to the theater. The Roman soldiers, red-cloaked and glittering with armor, take the lead on horseback. They are followed by virtually the entire population of the town, costumed as Gallo-Romans, and grouped around a series of tableaux vivants. There are four dumbshow Reines in addition to the one who will act in the Martyrdom, each accompanied by a crowd of other girls of the same age, all wearing appropriately symbolic colors. The four-year-old Reine comes first, dressed in white and walking between her parents at the head of a crowd of other tiny children, boys as well as girls, whose parents sometimes have to carry them up the steep road. Next comes Reine the shepherdess, also dressed in white and carrying distaff and spindle, with a following of other twelve-year olds. The fifteen-year-old Reine is cloaked in blue, and known as Reine méditante; she paces along with her eyes lifted to heaven.


Sexed Body Eighth Century Sunday Morning Patron Saint Saturday Evening 
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  1. 1.
    Jean-Baptiste Étourneau, Le martyre de Sainte Reine (1878) cited in André Godin, “La dramaturgie de sainte Reine” in Reine au Mont Auxois: Le culte et le pèlerinage de sainte Reine des origines à nos jours, ed. Philippe Boutry and Dominique Julia (Dijon: Cerf, 1997), p. 234.Google Scholar
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    The most significant is a metal plate with a fish upon it, dated to the late fourth or early fifth century. The word REGINA is roughly scratched upon the back. Joël Le Gall, “Un service eucharistique du IVe siècle à Alésia” in Mélanges Carcopino, Mélanges d’archéologie, d’épigraphie et d’histoire (Paris: Hachette, 1966), pp. 613–28.Google Scholar
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    As Karen A. Winstead notes in Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) one result of this is “the widespread assumption…that virgin martyr legends as a genre express a more or less constant paradigm of sainthood” (p. 4).Google Scholar
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    Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, p. 4. Christine de Pizan was not, as Bloch claims, the first to mount a “sustained attempt to counter the pernicious effects of misogyny” (p. 3). Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim developed a coherent critique of misogyny five hundred years earlier; see Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977).Google Scholar
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    For many critics, this antifeminist and heterosexist impulse remains the defining feature of virgin martyr stories. See e.g. Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2000), especially the final chapter; and Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady As Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), especially “Femininity Circumscribed.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (Routledge: New York, 1993), p. 231. Another point of contact between queer identity and virgin identity lies in the creation of same-sex communities bound together by a shared desire; as Frederick S. Roden notes, “virginal purity, in devotion to the ambigendered body of Christ…may be read as a profoundly queer choice for religious”; “Two ‘Sisters in Wisdom’: Hildegard of Bingen, Christina Rossetti, and Feminist Theology” in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), p. 235. See also Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) on queer heterosexuality (pp. 12–13) and on Robert Gluck reading Margery Kempe (pp. 165–72).Google Scholar
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© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

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  • Maud Burnett McInerney

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