Amazons and Ursulines

  • Elizabeth J. Bryan
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The image of an “army” of virgins persists from the earliest legendaries of St. Ursula, and the apparent anxiety such an image might elicit reveals itself in the careful contrast drawn, initially in the anonymous Sermo in natali (Cologne, 922),1 between the army of virgin martyrs that came to be associated with Ursula and the army of women from classical epics, the Amazons. In this remarkable piece of contrastive rhetoric, as Pamela Sheingorn and Marcelle Thiébaux relate, the sermon writer volunteers a categorical statement that the virgin martyrs of third- or fourth-century Cologne were not Amazons. Amazons are condemned for killing, whereas the virgin martyrs of Cologne are praised for dying, two opposite means by which a female army might achieve “victory.”2 As centuries passed, the twinning of Ursula’s virgin army with Amazons, first introduced as a typological opposition, proved to be a powerful binary with mnemonic force. The same set of associations surfaces in reverse in Jesuit writings in seventeenth-century New France (Quebec), when one of the first female colonists, Ursuline nun Mère Saint Joseph, is habitually referred to as “cette Amazone canadienne” in the Jesuit Relations.3 This chapter addresses two clusters of medieval texts that adapt the hagiographie matter of St. Ursula to the genre of British history; in adapting Ursula to a story of ancient British colonization, I argue, these texts play with the idea that Amazons are liminal to Ursula.


British History Classical Epic Pirate Attack Medieval Literature Female Colonist 
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. 3.
    Agnes Repplier, Mère Marie of the Ursulines: A Study in Adventure (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1931), pp. 135–36.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Helen J. Nicholson, “The Head of St. Euphemia: Templar Devotion to Female Saints,” in Gendering the Crusades, ed. Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 113 [108–20].Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Osbern Bokenham, Legendys of Hooly Wummen, ed. Mary Serjeantson, Early English Text Society, O.S., 206 (London: Oxford University Press, 1936).Google Scholar
  4. Osbern Bokenham, A Legend of Holy Women: Osbern Bokenham Legends of Holy Women, trans. Sheila Delany (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  5. Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints as Englished by William Caxton, ed. F.S. Ellis (London: J.M. Dent, 1900).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1966).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Michelle R. Warren, History on the Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100–1300, Medieval Cultures 22 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 44–47.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Marie de l’Incarnation, Marie de l’Incarnation, Ursuline (1599–1612): Correspondance, ed. Dom Guy Oury (Solesmes, Fr.: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1971).Google Scholar
  9. Marie of the Incarnation, Marie of the Incarnation, i 599–1672, Correspondence, trans. Sr. St. Dominic Kelly, OSU (Sligo: Irish Ursuline Union, 2000).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Bonnie Wheeler 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth J. Bryan

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations