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Catherine and Margaret: Vernacular Virgins and the Golden Legend

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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

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© Maud Burnett McInerney 2003

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  • Maud Burnett McInerney

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