The Female Patience Figure as Counterfeit

  • Robin Waugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The compiling of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea announces the height of the patience literature genre. The years 1260–70, when Jacobus’s compendium first appears, also work well as a rough marker for the apex of patience literature because the criteria for sainthood, and consequently attitudes toward saints’ lives, underwent significant changes during this decade as the cults of Francis, Dominic, and others began to transform the previous definitions of saints and began to reach into hitherto uncharted political territory.1 Of course Jacobus did not invent the later medieval attitudes towards the content of saints’ lives. As the revolutionary rhetoric of Christianity began to lose its immediacy and as the hierarchy of the church began to take an increasing interest in and control over the making of saints, the typical vitas and passios had already undergone many changes in the centuries before 1260, and, as a compendium of hagiography from well-established sources, the Legenda Aurea must partake in movements such as the feminization of suffering and the gendering of patience as an attribute that had rapidly increased between 300 and 1260.2 Ambrose had turned Agnes’s body into a fetish of male fantasies, such as youth, virginity, modesty, and unquestioning loyalty, all miraculously preserved at the moment of martyrdom (De Virginibus, 1.2.5–4.19); Prudentius had turned Eulalia’s body into a manuscript leaf, upon which spectators could read her sensational wounds like the text of Prudentius’s Peristephanon itself (Peristephanon, 3.131–40);3 the anonymous writer of the fifth-century Life of Syncletica had turned Syncletica’s body into a memento mori of abjection: putrefaction, stench, disintegration, and absence.4


Literary History Patience Literature Canterbury Tale Virtuous Woman Miracle Story 
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  1. 1.
    See Sherry L. Reames, The Legenda aurea: A Reexamination of its Paradoxical History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 198–99.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    William Granger Ryan, trans., Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, 2 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. xv;Google Scholar
  3. Martha Easton, “Pain, Torture and Death in the Huntington Library Legenda aurea,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 49.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See Maud Burnett McInerney, Eloquent Virgins: From Thecla to Joan of Arc (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 67–73.Google Scholar
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    Life of Syncletica, PG 28:1487–558. See Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 100–07.Google Scholar
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    For differences between the treatment of male and female martyrs’ bodies, see Kirsten Wolf, “The Severed Breast: A Topos in the Legends of Female Virgin Martyr Saints,” Arkiv för Nordisk Filologi 112 (1997): 100–104.Google Scholar
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    See Easton, “Pain, Torture and Death,” p. 57. For the treatment of rape in the Legenda Aurea, see Mills, “Can the Virgin Martyr Speak?” pp. 190–91. For discussion of Ambrose’s and Prudentius’s depictions of female martyrs, see McInerney, Eloquent Virgins, pp. 70–75. As the readership for lives of women saints is increasingly associated with women, the idea of these lives as pornography becomes more problematic. See Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’i>Lives in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 27.Google Scholar
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    See Larissa Tracy, trans. and intro., Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints Lives (Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2003), p. 6, and n. 14; p. 109. Later hagiography in turn tends to treat female saints in a “gentler” fashion even than the Legenda Aurea. See Reames, Legenda aurea, pp. 206–07.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Carol F. Heffernan, “Praying before the Image of Mary: Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, VII 502–12,” Chaucer Review 39 (2004): 109. See pp. 109 –10, n. 24, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lee Patterson, Temporal Circumstances: Form and History in the Canterbury Tales (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 135, 137–38. For the treatment of images of Mary, see alsoGoogle Scholar
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    Patterson, Temporal Circumstances, p. 129. See William Orth, “The Problem of the Performative in Chaucer’s Prioress Sequence,” Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 202, 204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Robin Waugh 2012

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  • Robin Waugh

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