Catherine and Margaret: Vernacular Virgins and the Golden Legend

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


The work of women like Hildegard and Hrotsvitha reflects communities of religious women for whom the virgin body, whether that of Agnes, Ursula, or even Pelagius, served as the guarantee for claims of spiritual autonomy. Such autonomy could, given the right circumstances, be converted into temporal power and influence by certain extraordinary women committed to the virgin life: Sophia of Gandersheim, blessed with both an extraordinary education and imperial connections, was capable of confronting ecclesiastical authority head on, even though in the long run she did not succeed in her challenge; Hildegard, possessed of a much more limited education, nonetheless exploited her role as virgin prophetess to become a central figure in twelfth-century culture. The production of vernacular virgin martyr legends in the interconnected kingdoms of France and England in the twelfth century, however, invites us to inquire about the meaning of these stories to women very different from Hildegard or Sophia. Some of these were princesses, not of the church, but of the royal houses to whose dynastic projects their marriages were central; some were widows;some were religious women whose access to formal education and especially to Latin was increasingly curtailed as the twelfth century progressed. In the Anglo-Norman lives of Saint Margaret, by Wace, and Saint Catherine, by Clemence of Barking, we can perceive reflections of a culture that may initially seem a curious place for the legend of the virgin martyr to flourish, the Angevin courts of Normandy and England. The very different representations of these two saints suggest profoundly conflicted attitudes toward virginity, femininity, and courtly love.


Thirteenth Century Twelfth Century Latin Text Absolute Identity Religious Woman 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    References are to The Sequence of Saint Eulalia (ca. 880–82) in Wendy Ayres-Bennett, A History of the French Language Through Texts (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 31, translation and commentary, pp. 32–39.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Clerc u lai, muïne u dame’: Women and Anglo-Norman Hagiography in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 62–63.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On medieval women as book owners, see Susan Groag Bell, “Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture,” in Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages, ed. Judith M. Bennett et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976; rpt. 1989), pp. 135–61; Carol M. Meale, “‘…alle the bokes that I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch’: Laywomen and Their Books in Late Medieval England,” in Women and Literature, pp. 128–58.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Hans Jantzen, High Gothic: The Classic Cathedrals of Chartres, Reims and Amiens, trans. J. Palmer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 160.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Glyn S. Burgess, Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths: Two Exemplary Biographies for Anglo-Norman Women (London: Everyman, 1996), pp. xxi–xxiii for a brief history of the cult of Saint Catherine. Since there is no record of the monastery of Saint Catherine on Sinai before the time of the Third Crusade (1189), it has been suggested that the translation of relics actually went from West to East and not the other way around. The authenticity of the relics at Rouen is at best dubious; see R. Fawtier, “Les Reliques Rouennaises de Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie,” Analecta Bollandia 41 (1923): 357–68. The Catholic church demoted Catherine in 1969 on the grounds of lack of historicity.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    On Wace’s career as a historian, see Peter Damian-Grint, The New Historians of the Twelfth Century Renaissance (Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1999), pp. 53–58.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Donald Attwater, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965; rpt. 1976), p. 228.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Hrabanus Maurus’s account can be found in Rabani Mauri Martyrologium, ed. John McCullough, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis 44 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), pp. 67–68.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Hans-Erich Keller, La vie de Sainte Marguerite (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1990), p. 10.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Phyllis Johnson and Brigitte Cazelles, Le Vain Siecle Guerpir: A Literary Approach to Sainthood through Old French Hagiography of the Twelfth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979), pp. 130–31.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Wace’s source appears to be the “Caligula” version of the passio (found in Cotton MS. Caligula. A.VIII) rather than the better known “Mombritius” version; it dates from the tenth or (more likely) eleventh century. For the text see Elizabeth A. Francis, “A Version of the ‘Passio S. Margaritae,’” PMLA 42 (1927): 87–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 16.
    Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (London: Methuen, 1983), pp. 240–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 20.
    Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. W. S. Anderson (Leipzig: Teubner, 1977), 7, 192–200. These resonances exist in all versions of the Margaret story, more or less emphatically in different instances; I have discussed the Middle English Life of Saint Margaret, which presents a much more verbally accomplished and aggressive saint, in “Rhetoric and Power in the Passion of the Virgin Martyr,” Menacing Virgins: Representing Virginity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Kathleen Kelly and Marina Leslie (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), pp. 50–70.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Artemis was patroness of childbirth in spite of her virginity because she had helped her mother, Leto, deliver her twin, Apollo, shortly after her own birth. A life of Saint Margaret is appended to a thirteenth-century medical treatise apparently aimed at women (it includes remedies for various discomforts of pregnancy, cystitis, insufficient milk production, and snoring husbands). P. Meyer, “Notice du MS. Sloane 1611 Du Musée Britannique,” Romania 40 (1911): 536–58. This version of the story, which is in French that Meyer characterizes as “shocking” (539) nonetheless represents a rather more energetic Margaret than Wace’s heroine.Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    On Roman magic, see Anne-Marie Tupet, La Magie dans la Poesie Latine (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1976).Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    On Angevin family politics see June Hall Martin McCash, “Marie de Champagne and Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Relationship Reexamined,” Speculum 54.4 (1979); Ralph V. Turner, “Eleanor of Aquitaine and Her Children: An Inquiry into Medieval Family Attachment,” Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988): 321–35, and “The Children of Anglo-Norman Royalty and Their Upbringing,” Medieval Prosopography 11 (1990): 17–44. On the marriage of Henry the Young King to Marguerite of France, see Marion Meade, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography (New York: Hawthorne/Dutton, 1977), pp. 191–95. All the most scurrilous contemporary gossip about Henry II and Eleanor can be found in Gerald of Wales’s De Instructione Principis, ch. 27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 31.
    On dates of composition, see Keller, Sainte Marguerite, pp. 37–46. Keller inclines toward the early end of this range. On the didactic impulse in Wace, see Jean Blacker, The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo Norman Regnum (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 178–79.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Wogan-Browne, “Wreaths of Thyme: the Female Translator in Anglo-Norman Hagiography,” The Medieval Translator 4, ed. Roger Ellis and Ruth Evans (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Text Society, 1994), p. 59n7.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    This was a mixed blessing, as the downfall of Abbess Alice demonstrates; Alice was charged with “notorious familiarity and cohabitation with Hugh your officer, who is an offence and a scandal to all religion.” John of Salisbury, Letters 1.111, cited in Sharon K. Elkins, Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 148. Elkins points out that, whatever misconduct there was may not have been sexual; Hugh may have been helping the abbess “defend her abbey’s rights in the conflict over tithes”; in any case, after Alice, the king held the abbacy of Barking from 1166 until he bestowed it on Mary à Becket.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Wogan-Browne, “Clerc u lai, muïne u dame,” p. 67; Duncan Robertson, “Writing in the Textual Community: Clemence of Barking’s Life of St. Catherine,” French Forum 21:1 (1996): 6.Google Scholar
  22. 39.
    See Gabor Klaniczay, “Legends as Life-Strategies for Aspirant Saints in the Later Middle Ages,” in The Uses of Supernatural Power: The Transformation of Popular Religion in Medieval and Early-Modern Europe, trans. Susan Singerman, ed. Karen Margolis (Princeton: Princeton Unversity Press, 1990), pp. 95–110. The issue of apostolic poverty was particularly charged in the early to mid-twelfth century, where radical examples of alms giving could be seen as defacto heretical behavior. See Herbert Grundmann, Religious Movements in the Middle Ages, trans. Steven Rowan (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), pp. 7–30. The residents of Barking, an enormously wealthy institution, may have observed with interest Henry II’s preoccupation with Fontevrault, founded by Robert d’Arbrissel, a once-radical pracitioner of apostolic poverty.Google Scholar
  23. 41.
    The paraphrase is that of Ermanno Bencivenga, Logic and Other Nonsense: The Case of Anselm and His God (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 24.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    For a succinct definition of the aims and methods of twelfth-century dialectic, see Catherine Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 36–41.Google Scholar
  25. 43.
    Peter Abelard, Historia Calamitatum, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1974), p. 58.Google Scholar
  26. 49.
    M. Dominica Legge, Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 67–69; William MacBain, “Five Old French Renderings of the Passio Sancte Katerine Virginis,” Medieval Translators and Their Craft, ed. J. Beer (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1989) invites the comparison to Marie (p. 63); Robertson, “Textual Community,” pp. 18–25 provides an extended analysis of the relationship between Clemence and Thomas.Google Scholar
  27. 50.
    Robertson, “Textual Community,” p. 18; see also Catherine Batt, “Clemence of Barking’s Transformations of Courtoisie in La Vie de Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie,” New Comparison 12 (1996): 102–23.Google Scholar
  28. 51.
    See E. Walberg, La Tradition Hagiographique de Saint Thomas Becket (Paris: Droz, 1929), pp. 75–92 for an account of the manuscript tradition and the circumstances of composition of Guernes Life. Cazelles and Johnson, Le Vain Siecle, pp. 296–304 summarize Guernes’s text.Google Scholar
  29. 52.
    The history of the dispute between Becket and his king is too complicated to review here; for a lively account of the events leading up to the murder, see William Urry, Thomas Becket: His Last Days (London: Sutton, 1999). W. L. Warren’s massive biography, Henry II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974) strives as hard as possible to give a balanced picture of Henry and downplays the death of Becket as much as possible. Warren points out that virtually all contemporary historians were writing about Henry after he had already been cast in the role of tyrant and assassin of a saint (pp. 215–16).Google Scholar
  30. 54.
    Willaim Caxton, preface, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints as Englished by William Caxton (London: Dent, 1900), v. 1, p. 2.Google Scholar
  31. 55.
    F. S. Ellis, ed., The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints as Englished by William Caxton, 7 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1931), p. vii. Because of the extraordinary richness of the manuscript tradition, there has not been a critical edition of the text since that of Graesse in 1845, which was revised in 1850 and reprinted without alteration in 1890 and 1965: Jacobi a Voragine, Legenda aurea vulgo historica lombardica dicta, ed. Th. Graesse (Leipzig, 1850; rpt. Osnabruck: Zeller, 1965). I have consulted the following translations: Jacobus deVoragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) and Jacques de Voragine, La Légende Dorée, trans. J.-B. M. Roze, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1967). Citations, abbreviated as Legend and followed by page number, are to Roze’s translation.Google Scholar
  32. 56.
    On the structural and organizational principles of the text, see Alain Boureau, La Légende Dorée: Le Système Narratif de Jacques de Voragine (Paris: Cerf, 1984), especially pp. 240–49 and the charts pp. 36–38.Google Scholar
  33. 57.
    As does the absence of saints from the lower classes or mendicant orders. On the conservatism of the Legend, see Sherry L. Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), especially chapter 10, “On the Legenda as a Medieval Best-Seller,” pp. 197–209. Boureau notes that Jacobus includes only 6% of the saints canonized between 993 and 1255 in his collection and appears “more interested in the classic modes of sainthood than in new forms of devotion and sanctity.” La Legende Dorée, p. 39 (my translation).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maud Burnett McInerney

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations