Sacrificial Spectacle and Interpassive Vision in the Anglo-Norman Life of Saint Faith

  • Emma Campbell
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The importance of vision in saints’ lives has been a widely recognized, if not always explicitly discussed, element of a genre that both represents and invites particular kinds of “visual” response. This is perhaps especially the case in accounts of martyrdom, where the martyr’s suffering not only bears witness to his or her belief in the divine, but also articulates a demand to be seen and recognized as such.1 Partly because of this emphasis on spectacle, the treatment of vision in saints’ lives has received a certain amount of attention from feminist scholars, most notably in relation to the lives of female martyrs. In this criticism, the gaze is often considered to be complicit with patriarchal hegemony, performing an intrusive appropriation or even violation of the body of the female saint through a voyeuristic engagement with the depiction of her assault at the hands of male attackers. Thus, in making an argument for seeing female saints’ lives as thinly veiled narratives of rape, Kathryn Gravdal claims, “hagiography affords a sanctioned space in which eroticism can flourish and in which male voyeurism becomes licit, if not advocated.”2 Although arguing for the metonymic function of virginity and the unrepresentability of rape in female saints’ lives, Kathleen Coyne Kelly also asserts that “these tales of near-rape skew the narrative focus toward the virgin’s body in a way that invites readers and listeners to situate themselves as voyeurs or victims (depending on their subject position).”3


Female Body Feminist Scholar Gender Position Symbolic Order Passive Observer 
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  1. 2.
    Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 24. Simon Gaunt usefully develops this point by incorporating the question of (male) voyeurism into a discussion of gendered response.Google Scholar
  2. Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. pp. 185–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kathleen Coyne Kelly, “Useful Virgins in Medieval Hagiography,” in Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, ed. Cindy L. Carlson and Angela Jane Weisl (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 156 [135–64].Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 53.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Arguments for the voyeurism of saints’ lives have been critiqued from a variety of perspectives. However, these critiques often focus on questions of gender and historical context, rather than concerning themselves with the visual basis of the arguments they dissect. See for example Evelyn Birge Vitz,“Gender and Martyrdom,” Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 26 (1999): 79–99. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne makes the point that the visual is also the visionary in the Anglo-Norman Life under consideration here: Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture c.1150–1300: Virginity and Its Authorizations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 57–90 (esp. pp. 70–72). On the problematics of vision in Old English hagiography, see (briefly) Clare A. Lees and Gillian Overing, “Before History, Before Difference: Bodies, Metaphor, and the Church in Anglo-Saxon England,” Yale Journal of Criticism 2 (1998): 322–23 [315–34]; and, at greater length, Lees and Overing, Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 119–21 and 132–51. For a more general argument against feminist critical approaches in relation to Merovingian hagiog-raphy see John Kitchen, Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 1–22. If taken seriously, Kitchen’s objections to “the limited focus of contemporary research” on saints’ lives would nonetheless invalidate most approaches interested in a theoretically informed exploration of gender in hagiography.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Arguments for seeing gender as obscured rather than manifested by saints’ lives have been made by others; however, these arguments do not usually consider the representation of vision itself as one of the ways in which this is achieved. See for example Vitz, “Gender and Martyrdom,” and Kitchen, Saints’ Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender. For related comments on Old English material see Clare A. Lees, Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), pp. 150–53.Google Scholar
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    Simon of Walsingham, “Vie Anglo-Normande de Sainte Foy, par Simon de Walsingham,” ed. A.T. Baker, Romania 66 (1940–41): 49–84.Google Scholar
  8. M. Dominica Legge, Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 257–58. Wogan-Browne provides an erudite description of the manuscript and its contexts, along with a table of contents, in Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, pp. 6–11.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” in Freud’s “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” ed. Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 3–32. On the fundamentally relational dimension of Freud’s concept of narcissism see the article by Heinz Hensler in the same volume: “Narcissism as a Form of Relationship,” pp. 195–215.Google Scholar
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    Matthew Paris, La Vie de seint Auban: An Anglo-Norman Poem of the Thirteenth Century, ed. Arthur R. Harden, Anglo-Norman Texts Society 19 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968). (Line numbers from this edition are provided in parentheses.) A date for this text before 1230 is possible, however (see Harden’s introduction, pp. xv–xvii). The poem has been associated with women readers of the court of Eleanor of Provence; Wogan-Browne suggests that the text was probably known to Isabella of Arundel, who is named by Matthew Paris in the flyleaf to the manuscript. Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, pp. 151–76.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    As others have pointed out, this is a mode of perception common to a great deal of later medieval devotional literature and art. For a consideration of this investment in suffering and its relationship to vision see Robert Mills, “A Man Is Being Beaten,” New Medieval Literatures 5 (2002): 115–53; and Mills, “Ecce Homo,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J.E. Riches and Sarah Salih (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 152–73.Google Scholar
  12. Sarah Stanbury, “The Virgin’s Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion,” PMLA 106 (1991): 1083–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 20.
    Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 86–126 (esp. pp. 111–22).Google Scholar
  14. 21.
    Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies, p. 115. Compare his discussion of the gaze as an object of fascination for the viewing subject in film: Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, [1992] 2002), pp. 114–116.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    Žižek, “Class Struggle or Postmodernism? Yes, please!,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 90–135 (esp. pp. 116–117).Google Scholar

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© Emma Campbell and Robert Mills 2004

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  • Emma Campbell

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