Seeing Face to Face: Troubled Looks in the Katherine Group

  • Robert Mills
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Avisual hermeneutic can be perceived throughout the cluster of thirteenth-century religious prose works known collectively as the Katherine Group; indeed, it could be argued that vision is one of the Group’s unifying features. Acts of looking and metaphors of sight are central features in the three saints’ lives that appear in the collection, those of Katherine (after whom the Group is named), Margaret, and Juliana.1 What these texts have in common, however, is not a focus on vision per se but a desire to organize or to structure vision as it is manifested in various textual identities or “positions.” Sight, the legends imply, is something that can be manipulated, appropriated, or exchanged by the various protagonists within an economy that associates it with power and subjectivity. At the same time, by mobilizing vision within a framework that is itself discursive and rhetorical—a framework that becomes especially apparent when viewed against the backdrop of the virgin martyr’s verbal eloquence—these texts also have the capacity to generate zones of ambivalence and contradiction. Seinte Margarete, for instance, is structured around a conflict between several different fields of vision: the look of the martyr, who prays to God that she may lay her “ehnen o Qe luðre unwiht Þe weorreð aeein me” [eyes on the wicked devil who is waging war against me] (SM, 56); the look of the devil himself, who appears in the form of a dragon with eyes that “steareden steappre Qen Qe steoren ant ten eimstanes, brade asce bascins” [gleamed brighter than stars or jewels, broad as basins]; the look of the pagan tormentor, Olibrius, who announces that, when Margaret has been torn limb from limb, he will count all her sinews “in euchanes sihðe Þe sit nu ant sið Þe” [in the sight of everyone sitting here now] (SM, 56); the look of those same spectators, who express sorrow when they “seoð” [see] the saint’s soft, lovely body cruelly ripped to pieces (SM, 52), and gasp with horror at the sight of the dragon “glistinde as Þah he al ouerguld were” [glittering all over as if he had been gilded] (SM, 58); and, of course, the imagined looks of the author and audiences of the narrative, who are afforded the option of identifying with any or all of these positions of viewing.


Film Theory Mirror Stage Medieval Literature Narrative Cinema Latin Source 
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  1. 1.
    I refer throughout to the following edition of the Middle English texts and translations: Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (eds.), Medieval English Prose for Women from the Katherine Group and Ancrene Wisse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). Page numbers are provided in parentheses in the text and the following abbreviations have been used: Seinte Margerete (SM), Hali Meiðhad (HM), Sawles Warde (SW).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle: Ancrene Wisse, from MS Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 402, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien, Early English Text Society, original series 249 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 31. For readings of Ancrene Wisse that foreground, like me, the unfixed and unstable elements of virginal identity, see Sarah Beckwith, “Passionate Regulation: Enclosure, Ascesis, and the Feminist Imaginary,” South Atlantic Quarterly 93 (1994): 803–24Google Scholar
  3. Anke Bernau, “Virginal Effects: Text and Identity in Ancrene Wisse,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J.E. Riches and Sarah Salih (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 36–48Google Scholar
  4. Sarah Salih, “Queering Sponsalia Christi: Virginity, Gender, and Desire in the Early Middle English Anchoritic Texts,” New Medieval Literatures 5 (2002): 155–75.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Elizabeth Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), p. 57.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Susannah Mary Chewning, “The Paradox of Virginity within the Anchoritic Tradition: The Masculine Gaze and the Feminine Body in the Wohunge Group,” in Constructions of Widowhood and Virginity in the Middle Ages, ed. Cindy L. Carlson and Angela Jane Weisl (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 127 [113–34].Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2001), pp. 80–81.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    For instance, in addition to Salih’s discussion of spectacle in the legends of the three saints in Versions of Virginity, pp. 74–98, Jocelyn Price [Wogan-Browne], “The Virgin and the Dragon: The Demonology of Seinte Margarete,” Leeds Studies in English n.s. 16 (1985): 337–57, presents a reading of Seinte Margarete that takes its visual hermeneutic as symptomatic of a broader thematic interest in the text in the distinction between the unsehen (un-seen) and the unsehelich (un-see-able)Google Scholar
  9. Gayle Margherita places the obsession with acts of looking in Seinte Iuliene in a psychoanalytic context in “Desiring Narrative: Ideology and the Semiotics of the Gaze in the Middle English Juliana,” Exemplaria 2 (1990): 355–74, and The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), pp. 43–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne considers, briefly, the trajectories of the tyrants’ and saints’ gazes in the Katherine Group in “The Virgin’s Tale,” in Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect, ed. Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 178–81 [165–94].Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Joan Copjec, “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan,” in Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 15–38. Copjec interrupts her analysis of film theory’s relationship to Lacan with a review of what she describes as “orthopsychicism,” a concept produced in response to the work of Gaston Bachelard and a topic that, for the sake of clarity, remains beyond the scope of my discussion here.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 201.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Copjec, “Orthopsychic Subject,” pp. 16–19, citing Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (eds.), Re-vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, The American Film Institute Monograph Series 3 (Los Angeles: University Publications of America, 1984), p. 14.Google Scholar
  14. 10.
    John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin, 1972), p. 47.Google Scholar
  15. A.C. Spearing, The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 22–24, cites Berger’s formulation as an influence.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 11.
    Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (1975), 13 [6–18], reprinted in Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 14–26. See the comments again of Spearing, Medieval Poet as Voyeur, pp. 23–24Google Scholar
  17. Madeline H. Caviness, Visualizing Women in the Middle Ages: Sight, Spectacle, and Scopic Economy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 25–27.Google Scholar
  18. 12.
    See for example Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshement (eds.), The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture (London: Women’s Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  19. Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    For a summary of medieval scientific discourses on vision, see Suzannah Biernoff, Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), esp. pp. 63–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 15.
    Discussions of the “virginal gaze”—the line of sight associated with virginal identity—have to date centered largely on the figure of the Virgin Mary: see, especially, Sarah Stanbury, “The Virgin’s Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion,” PMLA 106 (1991): 1083–93. Stanbury, locating herself within a film theoretical frame, argues that the Virgin’s gaze in fifteenth-century passion lyrics frequently stands in for the gaze of an (implicitly or explicitly) male spectator/reader, but suggests that the representation of such a mode of looking also constructs an important space for female potency since it “jockeys with and even at times resists textual strategies for controlling her [the Virgin’s] lines of sight” (p. 1091).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 17.
    Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 1977), pp. 1–7.Google Scholar
  23. For a helpful discussion of the role of vision in Lacanian theory, see Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 339–70Google Scholar
  24. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 114–116. Mulvey’s exploitation of the mirror stage argument occurs in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” pp. 9–10.Google Scholar
  25. 18.
    Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (Seminar XI), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 106.Google Scholar
  26. 20.
    Thus it might be argued that the panoptic gaze that Copjec critiques in Read My Desire is a construct that is not as unamenable to a psychoanalytic viewpoint as Copjec makes out: after all, Jacques-Alain Miller, the editor of Lacan’s seminars and a practicing psychoanalyst, published an essay on the subject in 1975 that interprets Bentham’s machine in terms that recall Foucault’s political analysis in Discipline and Punish (published in French in the same year) while at the same time resonating with the Lacanian theory of the split between eye and gaze that is the basis for Copjec’s conclusions about representation. See Jacques-Alain Miller, “La Despotisme de l’utile: la machine panoptique de Jeremy Bentham,” Ornicar? 3 (1975): 3–36, translated as Jacques-Alain Miller, “Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptic Device,” October 41 (1987): 3–29. Nonetheless, as I argue in the final section of this chapter, there are aspects of the Lacanian gaze that are irreconcilable with the panoptical apparatus to the extent that, for Lacan, le regard is not an eye that sees or is filled with knowledge.Google Scholar

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© Emma Campbell and Robert Mills 2004

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  • Robert Mills

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