Amazons and Ursulines
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.
KeywordsBritish History Classical Epic Pirate Attack Medieval Literature Female Colonist
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