New Legends of England examines a previously unrecognized phenomenon of fifteenth-century English literary culture: the proliferation of vernacular Lives of British, Anglo-Saxon, and other native saints. Catherine Sanok argues these texts use literary experimentation to explore overlapping forms of secular and religious community.
2018 | 360 pages | Cloth $65.00
Literature | Religion
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Table of Contents
A Note on Spelling and Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Conceptualizing Community in the South English Legendary
Chapter 2. The Phenomenal Bodies of Anglo-Saxon Virgins
Chapter 3. Local Community and Secular Poetics in Middle English Lives of St. Wenefred
Chapter 4. Englishing the Golden Legend and the Geography of Religious Community
Chapter 5. Secular, Religious, and Literary Jurisdictions
Chapter 6. The City and the Inner Precincts of the Sacred
Chapter 7. St. Ursula and the Scale of English Community
In 1389, English saints began once again to perform miracles, claims the Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham: despite other calamities that year, Walsingham counts it a "happy" one on account of the "renewal of miracles"—miracula renovata—by England's own saints. The British St. Alban, for example, cured a London woman named Agnes, who was so "demented by grief that her madness was known to almost all those who were accustomed to throng the streets of London" (272). The Anglo-Saxon St. Etheldreda—or Audrey, the Anglo-Norman name by which she is also known—renewed her miracle-working too. She appeared in a vision to a young man to warn him of the "gravest dangers which would befall the kingdom, unless a merciful God was placated by the pious prayers of the faithful and thus stayed his hand from punishment" (269). The saint instructed the man to carry her message to the prior and monks and informed him that to prove its truth he would be made lame until the feast of her translation, when he would be miraculously healed. His disabled body provided powerful evidence that his story was not "fake and the invention of human cunning" (270): the crowds that rushed to see him poked at his shins and feet with their knives to confirm for themselves that his flesh was "dead." The man also conveyed Etheldreda's prophecy of the devastating heat wave that summer, when it was so hot that the lead on church roofs melted, weather that would have been "still more intolerable" had not St. Etheldreda advised the English to pray for forgiveness. The saint appeared to an old woman as well, the young man's counterpart, as a medium for dire warnings addressed to both monks and laity to "continue their processions, redouble their intercessions, and to pray without ceasing that God would remove the sword which hung over their heads."
Walsingham's periodizing scheme, structured by the renewed activity of English saints, maps an epistemic shift in vernacular literary culture too. While there had been considerable interest in England's native saints following the Conquest, when a flurry of Anglo-Norman and Latin Lives were written, by the end of the fourteenth century this narrative tradition, like the saints themselves, had long been dormant: with the exception of the South English Legendary (SEL), there is very little interest in them in English-language narrative culture. But within a generation of the revival announced by Walsingham, Middle English narrative and verse traditions were reshaped by attention to native saints. By the 1420s, English saints' Lives include a verse Life of St. Edith and a Life of St. Etheldreda, paired together in a manuscript associated with Wilton Abbey; John Audelay's carol-form Life of St. Wenefred, a Welsh saint whose two shrines, at Holywell in Flintshire and at Shrewsbury, made her a kind of border saint and increasingly an English one; a tail-rhyme Life of John of Bridlington, the last English person to be canonized before the Reformation; and a sprawling four-book Life of St. Cuthbert. In the 1430s, John Lydgate's aureate double Lives—the Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund and the Life of Sts. Alban and Amphibalus—made native saints' Lives a crucial forum for aesthetic display, while his shorter works on Augustine of Canterbury and Ursula register his broad interest, and that of his patrons, in England's native saints. By the mid-fifteenth century, the Lives of some English saints from the SEL were translated into prose and appended to a Middle English translation of Legenda Aurea. Shortly thereafter Osbern Bokenham compiled his own legendary, which also adds English saints' Lives to the international canon formed by Legenda Aurea. Long literary saints' Lives in a Lydgatean mode were still being produced at the end of the century: they include Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge, Edmund Hatfield's Lyf of Saynt Ursula, and Lawrence Wade's Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Such works retained their appeal into the sixteenth century and crossed into the new medium of print, in editions produced by William Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, and, especially, Richard Pynson.
Where Walsingham represents British and Anglo-Saxon saints as intercessors for England—that is, as figures for a community at the scale of the nation or realm—these vernacular texts present them as figures for communities at a variety of scales, conceptualized in multiple ways. A central thesis of this book is that Middle English legends of native saints served as an important narrative forum for exploring competing forms of secular and religious community at local, national, and supranational scales: the monastery, the city, and local devotional groups; the nation and the realm; European Christendom and, at the end of the fifteenth century, a world that was suddenly expanding across the Atlantic. These forms of community may be distinguished from one another by temporal as well as geographical scale. Some are experienced or produced through fixed units of time: the day, the week, the year, or the reign; some are defined at a larger historical scale by rupture and periodization, as in Walsingham's representation of English national community; and still others are defined as transhistorical, at the limit of temporal scale. The different kinds of community imagined by native saints' Lives partly reflect the diversity of institutions and audiences responsible for their production, circulation, and reception, which include powerful Benedictine monasteries seeking to advertise their place in English history, nunneries trying to reestablish their authority in the wake of censure, royal and aristocratic patrons promoting their religiosity, and urban textual communities eager for vernacular religious literature, among others.
This book seeks to identify and understand this preoccupation with forms of community in fifteenth-century Lives of English saints as a literary phenomenon. While it necessarily attends to the works' several historical contexts, and while it is motivated in part by a historical question about how religious identity came to be understood as relevant to national identity, the main project of this study is to analyze how, as a group, these literary works explore the nature and experience of different kinds of community. They ask, for example, whether local, national, and supranational devotional communities can be understood through the spatial logic of a graduated scale, or whether they might be better understood as occupying a conceptual scale organized by level of particularity or universality. They explore whether such differences in scale—spatial, temporal, or conceptual—help to structure, or further complicate, the relationships between incommensurable forms of community. And they investigate how the scale of some communities allows them to be defined in terms of contact or intimacy, and how the scale of others demands an acknowledgment of difference. In their broadest terms, that is, they are interested in how communities might be understood in terms of heterogeneity, sameness, or a constitutive paradox of difference and relation that Jean-Luc Nancy has called "being-in-common."
In exploring these questions, English saints' Lives take advantage of a signature capability of literary form, whether on the level of line, stanza, or work: its own capacity to draw attention to and play with scale—to contract or dilate, to emphasize proximity or distance, to specify or generalize. A second key argument of this book is that questions about the scale of community and the relationship between communities at different scales are addressed in this corpus through experimental and heterogeneous literary forms. Middle English Lives of England's saints are written in a dizzying array of verse and prose types. There are examples of "epic" legends in Latinate and literary verse, such as Lydgate's two "double" Lives, the Life of Sts. Alban and Amphibalus and the Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund. Other long legends—the Life of St. Edith and the Life of St. Audrey, both conspicuous for their interest in regnal history—are written in tetrameter quatrains employed elsewhere for secular historiography. The genre-bending tail-rhyme Life of John of Bridlington, if lackluster as a story, is notable as an experiment in literary form, as is Audelay's St. Wenefred carol. The prose legends of the mid-fifteenth century are differently inventive: the Lives of native saints added to the Gilte Legende are rare examples of "de-versification," that is, translations of earlier verse legends into the medium of prose, while the prose Life of St. Etheldreda in Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 120, divides the legend into chapters and so restructures the familiar conversion plot (in this case, the ever-holy Etheldreda's quest to change her social status from a royal laywoman to a humble abbess) in ways that anticipate the incremental narratives of character development of later prose fiction.
This formal variety accounts for the fact that most of these texts have appeared one-off, eccentric. For all the critical dismissal of literary taxonomies, we still often rely on formal similarity to group texts and recognize them as part of a consequential literary phenomenon. Lacking a shared form or shared model of community, fifteenth-century Lives of native saints have been read almost exclusively in terms of their local institutional significance, and they have never been studied together. Read as a group, however, their formal heterogeneity registers and addresses the challenge presented in the fifteenth century by the shifting relationships between differently scaled communities and overlapping jurisdictions. While their common interest in native saints and their formal variety may at first seem to point in opposite directions—the first a warrant for considering them as a group and the second a caution or limit to doing so—it is in the conjunction of the two that we can recognize this cultural work.
These texts, then, demand an approach to form that finds analytical purchase in variety rather than similarity. They do not constitute a genre or subgenre, or really even a corpus or tradition, as those categories are usually defined. My chapters track the relationships between the formal qualities of particular texts and the ideas and forms of community they explore, but my argument rests on the multiple forms these meditations take and the cumulative evidence they provide that literary form was a useful resource for thinking about the relationships between communities at different scales. Because this argument inheres in formal variety, it requires that I survey a relatively large sample of texts. I offer it as a case study for an approach that understands formal variety across a set of texts to map and develop available conceptual models for a given cultural concern, an approach that may be productively extended to other aspects of narrative and expressive culture in the Middle Ages and in other historical periods. In this way, this study of Middle English Lives of native saints may serve as a model for a synchronic approach to other networks of literary forms.
This book thus defines an archive of Middle English Lives of English saints and studies them at the intersection of their conceptual and formal axes. As a work of cultural history, it traces the way that native saints' Lives recognize, disaggregate, and organize the overlapping jurisdictions in medieval England, where civic, royal, ecclesiastical, and monastic jurisdictions were continually contested and remapped. It argues that vernacular legends of England's saints serve to raise and explore questions about how different forms of community—regional, national, and supernational; religious and secular; intimate and imagined—relate to one another. At the same time, it also approaches these texts as a body of "vernacular theory": that is, as explorations, on the level of form as well as subject, of the categories and relations through which various forms of community were understood, above all different kinds of spatial, temporal, and conceptual scale. As I explain below, to understand the conceptual work of form, I borrow an analytical description from political theory, the political theorist Saskia Sassen's account of the complex system of medieval jurisdictions. But I do not argue that the forms of community that structured late medieval England or the historical pressures on them had a determinative effect on the texts in this study, nor that they should be read primarily as responses to tensions between political, religious, or social institutions. There is rather a correspondence, a loose relation, between social practice and structures of thought. Without making literary culture epiphenomenal to historical crisis or change, we can recognize that it shares conceptual structures with medieval social systems and engages on various levels with issues of topical concern.
Taking this as a working assumption, in the following pages I outline some of the central conceptual categories explored in the Lives of English saints in relation to some of the historical phenomena with which they converge. I begin with three linked frameworks for thinking about forms of community in the late Middle Ages in terms of scale: the complex system of jurisdictions and the changing spatial scale of some important kinds of community in the fifteenth century; the various kinds of time produced by, or affiliated with, different forms of community; and the body as a scalable metaphor for communities of different kinds. I then expand upon the approach to literary form I have just introduced. In the final section, I return to a historical register and offer an overview of the elite political promotion of England's saints, as well as some of the definitions of England as a realm, a nation, and a religious community it helped to foster, not as a context for or impetus to the composition of Middle English Lives of English saints, but as a phenomenon parallel to them.
Jurisdiction and Geographical Scale
The vernacular Lives of English saints studied here take up questions about scale that refract marked shifts in both the boundaries and definition of English polity in the fifteenth century. The realm expanded dramatically under Henry V, while his early death jeopardized both newly acquired and long-established French territories. When Henry VI, at last old enough to rule, was crowned in Paris, English commitment to Henry V's legacy had been an open question on practical and political grounds for decades, and the realm shrank as dramatically as it had expanded. Within the archipelago, Owain Glyndwyr's Welsh revolt was quashed early in the century, but political crises at home and the war with France made it impossible to enforce English overlordship in Ireland, which in practice retracted to the Pale. Such vicissitudes of territorial expansion and contraction, the most obvious sources of shifts in the spatial scale of English community in the late Middle Ages, ramified in significance: with the progressive loss of its Continental territories across the fifteenth century, England became, in effect, an island, with political boundaries more coextensive with geographical ones than ever before. The effect of these losses was compounded by the aggregation of European kingdoms, by which Spain and France grew to more or less the scale they now have as modern states. Its own scale inevitably correlative of that of other polities, England contracted to its insular borders in the same period that its European neighbors scaled up. Many of the literary texts central to this study—works by Audelay, Bokenham, and Lydgate, as well as the Wilton Lives of Edith and Etheldreda and the prose Lives of English saints translated from the SEL—were composed during the crucial period for this shift, from the 1420s to the 1450s.
New World discovery at the end of the century further altered the spatial frame in which English audiences might think about the geographical scale of the communities they inhabited. It is in this context that I read Hatfield's Lyf of Saynt Ursula, which offers obsessively alliterative lists of her companions, naming in turn the virgins, kings, and bishops in her company, and in this way presenting the saint's company in terms of atomized and aggregated political and religious communities. The poem offers a striking parallel to, and perhaps meditation on, the paradoxical diminishment and proliferation of discrete places in the wake of New World discoveries: Columbus had, roughly ten years before its composition, named the Caribbean archipelago that we still know as the Virgin Islands in honor of the Ursuline legend. Hatfield's legend, like the Lives of England's saints written in the first half of the fifteenth century, provides intriguing evidence that the expansion of the literary system itself in this period—including an emerging differentiation of literary and nonliterary texts and attendant developments in style and genre, the energetic translation of religious and secular texts into English, and the massive production of prose texts—may be correlative of the re-scaling of medieval communities in the context of England's diminished borders and its expanding global surround.
It is perhaps worth pausing here to note that the cultural products of the Middle Ages, perhaps especially its narrative forms, may be of particular interest to us now, in a period of transition from an age in which the nation was taken to be the normative scale of community to an imagined future in which forms of identity and affiliation are increasingly multiple or heterogeneous. Like fifteenth-century writers, moved to think about the nature of community because of the re-scaling of political and religious groupings in their own day, modern theoretical interest in scale is inspired by epochal shifts in forms of community in a "postnational" and global frame.
In the late Middle Ages, as now, changing definitions and practices may have been more important than shifts in territorial boundaries. Of particular relevance to some of the material in this study is the definition of a principal or general "nation" formulated at the councils of Pisa and Constance in the context of efforts to resolve the papal Schism. At Pisa, a new voting procedure was adopted in which voting was done by "nation," rather than by individual delegates. Although this change seems to have met no significant opposition at first, it became a source of conflict at the Council of Constance: in the debate over whether England or Aragon should be recognized as the fourth voting nation after France, Germany, and Italy, French delegates objected to recognizing England as a "principal" nation on the grounds that it comprised only itself and a small Irish delegation, whereas the other "nations" represented larger and more diverse political communities. Additional evidence from the administration of Pope Benedict VII was adduced: for example, his Vas electionis—essentially a tax policy—had divided the Christian west into four regions, with England subsumed under the German nation, and in the Statuimus—an administrative structure imposed on the Benedictine order—England was accorded only one province of thirty-six. In this debate, the administrative and territorial scale of England relative to the other "principal" nations was precisely the issue: speaking for the French, Jean Campan argued that since England was not equal even to a quarter of France, it could not possibly represent a fourth or fifth of Christendom. The English delegation countered with their own numbers, offering the dimensions of the island as evidence that it more than matched the territorial extension of France.
Alongside physical size, the English case rested on political and linguistic diversity: England, so the argument went, comprised eight nations—the three nations of the British Isles, plus four Irish nations, along with the Isle of Man and more than sixty additional islands—where five distinctive languages were spoken, the latter a new and distinctive criterion that was crucial to the English case. In a long view, we can recognize this argument as both nostalgic, insofar as it identifies England with an earlier period of Norman colonization of Celtic nations, and proleptic, insofar as it anticipates later consolidations of "Great Britain." But it is also significant in its own right as a definition of the nation predicated on political, ethnic, and linguistic heterogeneity: the "nation" of early fifteenth-century church councils is defined not by the self-identity of a community, but by its capaciousness.
This definition has especially interesting implications for the category of scale. It resists an understanding of the local as either a synecdoche for the nation (that is, as a part that can represent the whole) or as a hyponym to it (that is, as a more specific instance of a general category). From later forms of nationalism, we may expect the local to be embedded in the national through one of these figural-conceptual structures, both of which define relationships between smaller and larger forms of community by using extension or territorial scale to produce a graduated order. In contrast, the definition of "nation" developed at Constance to establish England's status identifies it as qualitatively different from smaller communities, including those that it might represent figuratively.
Many of the saints' Lives under discussion here are as interested—often more interested—in communities at smaller and larger scales than "England," however defined. The forms of community addressed by this corpus are genuinely variable, not oriented toward or by the nation as a paradigmatic form of community. Indeed, they can serve to remind us that the nation was not the normative scale of community in this period, and that contemporary efforts to produce it as such, whether in the context of church councils or within English political culture, were often met with resistance. Some individual texts considered here do re-scale a religious or secular community as national: the Wilton Life of St. Edith, for example, reframes a saint's life with national historiography in order to construct a dynamic relation between an intimately scaled community of women religious and England as a secular political community. But the nation is only one framework for identity and belonging during this period; it does not possess the indexical status it later comes to have, nor are the texts discussed here best understood as evidence of its emergence as a "master normativity." The scale of this study is "English saints" because medieval writers and audiences across the landscape of English narrative culture turned to the legends of local or native saints to explore some of the several forms of community in which they participated. But my argument is that these narratives were used to map relationships between various forms of community in a system not yet oriented by a single paradigmatic or normative communal identification.
Middle English Lives of native saints, then, are preoccupied both with shifts in the scale of various communities, including the nation, and the correspondingly shifting relationships between them. My approach is informed especially by David Wallace's Premodern Places, which analyzes different places and, especially, spatial relations, in the premodern period. This project seeks to extend what I take to be a central insight of Wallace's work: that the multiple temporalities and multiple spatial paradigms that we find in medieval texts are ultimately ways of representing multiple forms of community, which structure and are structured by specific kinds of space and time. The Middle Ages are not the only period in which multiple forms of community coexist, of course—it is no doubt true of any period—but such complexity does have a special visibility and purchase in a premodern context, before the nation organizes, if never fully overwhelms, many other forms of community.
Like medieval jurisdictions, medieval temporal paradigms coexisted and overlapped. Sometimes elided into a simple binary of secular time and sacred timelessness, there are in fact many kinds of secular temporality and many forms of sacred atemporality. These are partly a facet and partly an effect of overlapping jurisdictions and forms of community. Different communities are formed by, or are structured in relation to, different kinds of temporality: liturgical time, seasonal time, generational time, regnal time, and so on. It is worth noting that many of these different kinds of time can be distinguished from one another, and thus also coordinated with one another, in terms of temporal scale. A devotional community defined, say, by its weekly Friday pilgrimages to the Shrewsbury shrine of St. Wenefred may overlap substantially—but not fully—with a parish community defined by an annual liturgical calendar, as well as with an urban community defined by a calendar of civic ritual or other local rhythms of secular time. At the same time, if their city saint is celebrated as a patron of English victory at Agincourt, as Wenefred was, members of that devotional community may also come to see themselves as participants in a national community defined through a diachronic royal history. As our own experience of time and community teaches us, in belonging to different communities (defined by work, sex, age, familial and social affiliations), one occupies multiple times (e.g., the academic calendar, familial and national calendars, daily and age-related "body clocks").
As the examples here remind us, saints themselves variously figure different times. They may be associated with an arrested temporality; a miraculous synchronicity with other persons, phenomena, or times; or the intersection between divine timelessness and quotidian or chronological time. The texts that celebrate them reflect this variety and sometimes develop it as a formal principle. Jacques Le Goff has recently reminded us that Legenda Aurea—the ur-text for Middle English legendaries—comprises three primary forms of time: the cyclical time of the liturgy (the temporale), what he identifies as a "linear" temporality in the Lives of the saints (the sanctorale), and the teleological temporality of the eschaton. It models this complex system of times through the formal technology of the legendary. In Chapter 1, I use the SEL to show how two of the legendary's defining formal features—its multipart narrative structure and its calendrical ordering—work to coordinate the complex relationships between different communities through the category of time.
The SEL's exploration of community and temporality can help us understand later developments in the cults of native saints and literary works that respond to them. The fifteenth century witnessed new efforts to align local and national temporalities, and especially secular and liturgical ones, by incorporating native saints into the English liturgical calendar. In 1416, Archbishop Chichele mandated devotion to St. Chad (March 2), St. David (March 1), and St. Wenefred (November 3), as well as observation of John of Beverley's feast (May 5) and his Translation (October 25). These saints had conspicuous political currency as objects of royal devotion, and liturgical celebration of their feasts works to sacralize national history and nationalize liturgical time. So, for example, the victory at Agincourt fell on the feast of St. John of Beverley's Translation: to elevate the feast was not only to claim the saint's endorsement of—even participation in—the military campaign, but also to inscribe in liturgical time a signal moment in English history.
A striking example of this project may be found in the Beaufort Hours, whose calendar, which features many English saints, is also a forum for secular history. Important political events are added in marginal notes to the calendar, which includes the feast days newly added to the Sarum rite—Sts. Chad, David, John of Beverley, and Wenefred—as well as saints with well-established national cults, such as Sts. Etheldreda, Edward the Confessor, King Edmund, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and relatively minor or local saints such as Erkenwald, Cuthburge, Frideswide, and Edith. The June calendar, for example, is annotated with entries for the battles at Stoke Field, a final skirmish in the Lancastrian-Yorkist conflict (1487), and at Blackheath, a Cornish uprising against excessive taxation (1497). Just as sacred time comes to host national history through the addition of native saints to the English liturgy, the Beaufort Hours grants national history the achronological status of the sacred, recording events not by year, but by calendar date, on which they are presumably to be remembered annually. Here we see an especially deliberate instance of the construction of a "time of origins," as recent events are located—on the manuscript page—in liturgical timelessness.
In broader terms, Middle English Lives of English saints may help us recognize and understand a significant shift between premodern and modern conceptualizations of the secular, a category I take up especially in Chapters 3 and 6. Medieval Christians understood the secular primarily as a category of time, whereas its stronger association today is with places, both particular institutions such as the university and more abstract spaces like the state or public. An understanding of the secular as a category of time may make possible, even contribute to, the complex system of overlapping jurisdictions that structured medieval social forms. A specific place might host a range of religious and secular communities that correlate with different temporal orders: say, an urban community, organized in part by the mayoral year and in part by regnal time or history, which overlaps with a devotional community defined by local pilgrimage as well as by its relation to a mythic Christian past. Native saints' Lives help us to see how shifting jurisdictions, which remapped differences between the secular and sacred spatially rather than temporally, contribute to the incipient shift from the medieval identification of the secular with the particular, historical, and contingent, toward a modern idea of the secular as "universal"—a massive change that has not yet been fully addressed in recent work on the history or concept of the secular.
Bodies, Embodiment, and Corporate Metaphors
The body plays a particularly important role in saints' Lives and in the ideas of community they instantiate. The saint's body, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, represents an earthly community. It may do so in ritual practice, as an object of veneration that links diverse people in a shared devotional project, or it may do so symbolically, as the location of sacrifice or sacrality with import for a larger community on whose behalf the saint is understood to die or who are the beneficiaries of his or her exceptional virtue. Saints' Lives are stories in which a body that miraculously retains its capacity to serve as a vehicle for a person's singular agency, even after death, also serves miraculously as a vessel for group identity—often an earthly corporate identity that is understood to transcend the individual lives of its members. At the same time, saints are understood to participate in the communion of saints, and the saint's body is also metonymic of this more universal corporate identity.
The capacity to embody a community in this way is correlative of the saint's miraculous physical integrity and posthumous agency: the fiction of a community as a body likewise extends identity in time, past the lifetimes of individual members, by substituting for their mortal bodies an alternative corporate identity that precedes and perdures beyond any human life. But it also derives from the widespread use of corporate metaphors to conceptualize communities. While the body is often imagined as a bounded space—the limit of individual identity—it is also a remarkably elastic and capacious figure that readily accommodates communities at different scales, such as the corpus mysticum ecclesia or the body politic. The saint's body, with its special power to represent and sacralize various forms of community, has an especially tractable scale. In Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge, the saint figures the continuous identity of both a region, Mercia, and England, while Lydgate's St. Edmund symbolically embodies both the abbey to which he gives his name and England, which is sanctified by his death as a far larger religious community. In these works, the saint's body, a figure for two differently scaled forms of community, secures the relationship between them.
While any saint—or indeed any fragment of a saint's body—could figure numinous wholeness, the enduring physical integrity of the saint's body was, from at least William of Malmesbury onward, considered a special feature of English sanctity. Some legends studied here, such as Lydgate's Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, adopt this trope in a way broadly consonant with the main line of the tradition, while others deconstruct it for a far less monolithic representation of community. As I argue in Chapter 2, the Wilton Life of St. Edith does this with special force by exposing how the symbolic capacity of the saint's body depends on its absolute difference from the phenomena of embodiment—that is, from bodily experiences defined by, among other things, vulnerability to pain and mortality. The legend is concerned precisely with the relationship between the saint's symbolic body—especially the symbolic morphology of the body imagined as an enclosed space—and what I will call her phenomenal body, a body defined by its physical circumstances, including forms of physical and affective intimacy that depend on the material body and the experiences of illness and death to which it is subject.
As the Edith legend reminds us, the body lacks both the material and definitional stasis that are often imputed to it to facilitate its use as an ideological and analytical category. The idea of the body as a natural, continuous, and bounded locus of identity has, of course, been challenged on theoretical and other grounds. The Edith legend provides an extraordinary elaboration of this challenge by representing the body's very form as differently constituted by the several communities it inhabits: its alternating appearances as corrupt and incorrupt figure differences between the community of women at Wilton Abbey and the community of the realm. The legend suggests that the fantasy of the body's material stasis is belied, among other things, by the way in which its nature, borders, and constituent parts are produced in reciprocal relation to the specific communities in which it participates. The fiction of the body as bounded and unified—and so as the material basis for a single and singular identity—is challenged by a hagiographic theory of community that acknowledges the heterogeneous communities to which a person belongs and thus also recognizes a corresponding heterogeneity of bodily experience and morphology, insofar as these are informed by different social identities. The individual body, that is, may be recognized as a spatial metaphor through which a person's variable identities and experiences of embodiment, which are contingent on the different communities they inhabit, are presented as a single, coherent, and stable identity.
This study therefore explores narrative representations of the body, including the singular body of the saint, as a species of personification. Like other kinds of personification, the narrative figure of the body gives coherence to experience by attributing a definite physical form to a dynamic identity, whether an individual person or a group of people represented as such by an explicit or implicit corporate metaphor. The difference between these, then, is a question of scale. Indeed, the two kinds of figurative bodies, collective and singular, reinforce one another: the fiction of a unified body politic, for example, depends on the fantasy that each of its constituent members has a single bounded identity. It requires forgetting that the members of the body politic also participate in other communities, which cannot be organized through the imaginary contours of a single (metaphorical) body, and that different forms of community each code the body and its relation to others in distinctive ways. The basic conceptual fulcrum linking the saint's body to forms of community is parsed with particular force in the Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, the story of a British princess and the company of virgins that serves as her collective avatar. In Chapter 1, I lay the groundwork for reading the fifteenth-century materials by analyzing the Ursula legend in the SEL as a kind of vernacular theory of the shifts of scale facilitated by corporate metaphors of identity.
Literary Form as Complex System
To think about communities in terms of the scalable categories of jurisdiction, time, and the body, Middle English native saints' Lives employ a remarkable variety of literary forms, as I noted earlier. Form is not only the medium for thematic articulation of these concerns but also itself an experimental model for exploring them. It works to this end at every level: the line, the individual legend, and the legendary and other large-scale forms. An assumption of this study is that these texts constitute a formal system or network—that is, a set of texts that uses form variably to explore related conceptual and cultural concerns: in this case, the scale and definition of different kinds of community and their relation to other kinds of community.
In its interest in formal variety rather than similarity, my approach departs from those that take form primarily as a mark of genre—that is, as a set of features that pulls texts toward each other through a kind of centripetal force, an approach that cannot account for this corpus. An understanding of genre that privileges identifiable features shared by a group of works has been challenged on theoretical grounds, most influentially in Derrida's "Law of Genre." For Derrida, systems of classification are deconstructed by the nature of the affiliations on which they are predicated: the features that identify items as participating in a genre—the use of a particular stanza form, for example, or the labeling of a nineteenth-century prose narrative as "a novel"—must be external to the genre itself, he argues, because as deictic markers designating the affiliation they cannot also be considered the substance of the affiliation. Formal similarities and other marks of genre, that is, constitute relationships between texts that are otherwise different: in a deconstructive analysis, they produce categories that have no necessary purchase on the individual items assigned to them.
Literary criticism of the last several generations has developed a view of genre that is corollary to Derrida's, one that emphasizes that genres are so porous, and individual texts so hybrid, that it is a fool's errand to assign texts to genres or to use genres to define literary traditions or trace literary histories. Texts rarely reside fully within a single genre, and definitions of genre are often either too narrow, arbitrarily excluding texts that may be usefully affiliated with the texts they embrace, or so broad that they lose their analytical purchase. It is often assumed, and sometimes claimed, that genre is an especially problematic category of analysis and dubious basis for literary history in the case of medieval literature because the period lacked an ancillary study of literary texts that identified genres or established expectations about generic conventions or decorum for their first audiences.
It is, however, only one kind of system, a taxonomy or closed system of literary form, that is challenged on these theoretical and historical grounds, not a literary system per se, much less the role of form or formal convention in any such system. Complex-systems theory suggests a way to account for the centrifugal force of form, the way that genres and forms continually mix with others and migrate to new themes and new audiences, establishing affiliations with other literary conventions and textual traditions. A fundamental principle of systems theory is to refuse to isolate or privilege a single category of phenomena and instead recognize relationships between phenomena different in kind, scale, and even ontological status. Literary texts and their forms are cultural products that exist in a complicated network that includes not only other forms (literary and otherwise) but phenomena of many kinds: conceptual and ideological (ideas of authorship, political ideologies, systems of religious symbolism); historical, social, and biographical (the life circumstances, abilities, and projects of a particular author; natural or political events; forms of social engagement); cultural and literary (developments in other arts, institutional location of composition, availability and prestige of particular texts and traditions, the status of a language in relation to other available vernacular and cosmopolitan languages); and material (the labor of writing, material conditions of circulation, reception and preservation of certain classes of texts, available media). Literary form is, to borrow the now-familiar terms of Bruno Latour's "Actor Network Theory," a category of actant that affects and is affected by other actants in the system.
From this perspective, we can recognize a text's overt formal affiliations or its formal "hybridity" as a function of a complex system in which formal features and their significance shape and are shaped by a variety of literary, social, ideational, and material concerns. The complexity produced by a system with so many changeable elements, which are ceaselessly combined and recombined in dynamic relation to one another, accounts for the centrifugal quality of form or genre. Rather than evidence against the value of a system-level account of any kind, the variety of literary forms that characterize a textual tradition in any given historical moment—approached either synchronically or diachronically—can be read as a map of conceptual and expressive possibilities available for addressing some important cultural concerns.
My approach to literary form as a complex system borrows especially from Sassen's account of the overlapping jurisdictions characteristic of Western Europe before the nation acquired normative or indexical status. Sassen's analysis distinguishes between "capabilities" and "logics of organization": the capabilities of any given component in a complex system often persist even when there is significant alteration to the logics of organization in which it was originally developed. Indeed, at times they make such alteration possible. Different literary forms develop different "capabilities" that derive in part from their aural or visual qualities (e.g., the association and differentiation they make possible through repetition or patterning, their brevity or dilation, or their relationship to other expressive forms such as music or visual art), in part from their distinctive representational strategies (e.g., the level of realism or abstraction they employ, their signature chronotope, the kind and density of imagery or figurative language they employ), and in part from cultural or social factors (e.g., their characteristic linguistic registers, their relationship to other textual traditions, or their affiliation with particular audiences or institutions). Some of these capabilities may be more or less immediately related to some aspect of social praxis contemporary to the form's earliest or most determinative articulation, but they nevertheless persist beyond their immediate historical function through what Sassen calls "path dependency," that is, structures or expectations that keep them current. As elements in a complex system, they are in any case subject to ongoing change since they are shaped, and continually reshaped, by their relationship to many different kinds of phenomena. For this reason, a formal feature developed in one context might work to very different ends in another: so, for example, while Lydgate's aureate style signals the Latinity and hence the linguistic remove characteristic of monastic communities, as I argue in Chapter 5, it is repurposed as a mark of interiority by Lydgate's late successor, Lawrence Wade, in his Life of Thomas Becket, as I show in Chapter 6.
Among other things, reading the Lives of English saints across their formal variety underscores that there is no direct correlation between literary forms and forms of community, and especially no analogy between these based on the category of scale. Small-scale forms, that is, are not necessarily used to represent communities at smaller scales, nor are the "epic" qualities of Lydgate's Life of Sts. Alban and Amphibalus or Wade's Life of Thomas Becket best understood in terms of their interest in England as a nation. Again, because form is a concern on the level of the line, the stanza, the work, and/or the collection, and because form is a social institution that connects a text to other texts, as well as to audiences and institutions, no one feature is determinative. Nor are the capabilities of a given form fixed: although I adduce a topical significance for some forms—aureate stylistics, for example—I understand their use and meaning, like that of all formal features, to be a function of the complex cultural system in which they participate.
My approach is in this regard different from the kinds of historicist formalisms that have been so generative in the last several decades. Unlike Fredric Jameson, and a rich vein of medieval criticism that adopts his theory of form, I do not understand literary forms as lasting instantiations of historically specific formations, constituting a special kind of "archive." Understood instead as an element in a complex cultural system, with various capabilities that derive partly from its own representational technologies and partly from the social institutions and textual traditions with which it is affiliated, form remains crucial to historical analysis, but not as the calcification of an ideological crisis. By looking at a corpus of texts as a formal system, we can recognize that the use and meaning of specific prosodic, narrative, and stylistic features vary both over time and within a given historical moment, and they can be read as explorations—not just resolutions—of cultural and social concerns.
One advantage of this approach to form is that it avoids reading literature as "symptomatic" of a more consequential political or social phenomenon. I have already traced some of the general historical circumstances that made the legends of England's saints an important fifteenth-century textual tradition, and I offer a more extended account in the pages ahead. But one implication of a systems-theory approach is that such circumstances must be recognized as only one kind of phenomenon among many others that shape the production of any particular text or set of texts. Such an approach axiomatically resists a neatly linear literary history or narrative of development. While some texts, such as Lydgate's aureate legends, influence later ones, others, such as the Wilton Lives, do not. And while some texts suggest a response to particular historical circumstances, they also respond to earlier texts and repeat established narratives, or rely on familiar conceptualizations of community or temporality, or borrow literary forms from earlier generations: they are subject, that is, to assorted forms of "path dependency," which produce uneven effects and significant variation. Although the chapters of this study proceed roughly in the order in which the texts under consideration were written, they present them not as a tradition defined by chronological development but as an array of texts and formal possibilities within a historical moment that stretches from 1400 to 1525.
Saints for Kings
Partly to mute the explanatory force it might otherwise seem to have, I have left to the last part of this Introduction a discussion of the royal promotion of English saints, which was sometimes a direct and sometimes an indirect impetus to the literary phenomenon traced in this study. Lydgate's Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund, for example, is presented as a memorial to Henry VI's visit to Bury St. Edmunds, while Audelay's St. Wenefred carol notably—perhaps strategically—omits reference to Henry V's celebrated pilgrimage to her shrine. In both cases, the literary text—which can plausibly be understood as the product of political circumstance following the logic of historicist causality —may be better understood as an alternative, or parallel, exploration of the forum that England's saints provide for thinking about the nature and scale of different forms of community. Here I trace Lancastrian devotion to native saints not so much as background to the discussion of literary texts that follows, but as another important arena in which England's saints were used to think about community at a particular scale, the scale of the realm or nation, and thus as part of a broader inquiry, in which literary culture also participated, into the nature of community.
Royal interest in English saints predates the fifteenth century, and the Lancastrians were inspired in no small part by Richard II's careful cultivation of his affiliation with some native saints, especially St. Edmund, king and martyr, and Edward the Confessor, with whom he is depicted on the Wilton diptych. As Nigel Saul notes, Richard's identification with Edward the Confessor was especially pronounced: Richard impaled his arms with those of the saint according to the iconographic template for a married couple. Lancastrian kings diluted the claim implicit in this affiliation by multiplying the English saints associated with the crown, giving special attention to saints with popular regional cults such as John of Bridlington and St. Wenefred. Though not unprecedented, Lancastrian support for these local cults transformed them into English ones, an appropriation that sometimes met with resistance from more proximate communities and in this way provoked renewed local devotion or vernacular literary production.
Henry IV was especially keen to affiliate himself with local saints in regions where his political support was tenuous. In some cases, he adopted saints with established royal cults, such as that of John of Beverley, who had long been identified by English kings as the saintly patron of their claim to sovereignty over Scotland. Under Henry IV, the cult was reoriented, however, to support the Lancastrian claim to the English crown: a legend circulated that holy oil issued from the saint's tomb for sixty-one days after Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur. In 1408 the prince made a pilgrimage to Beverley, perhaps in response to the growing cult of Archbishop Richard Scrope, who had been executed for treason in 1405: it was certainly a propitious moment for the display of Lancastrian devotion to another bishop of York. The king's devotion—presumably accepted by the saint—is a quiet assertion of Lancastrian political authority over the region; at the same time, it affiliates the sovereign and his subjects through their shared obeisance to the saint. Both modes of Lancastrian sovereignty, patronal and lateral, cultivated through the king's devotion to John of Beverley were advanced when Agincourt was won on October 25, the saint's feast. Again, the saint's tomb was said to have run that day with oil or, as Walsingham has it, with blood.
Lancastrian kings were also on the vanguard of the new cult of John of Bridlington, a fourteenth-century prior of a venerable Augustinian house on the North Sea coast and the last English person canonized before the Reformation. Henry IV actively promoted John's sanctification, sending a Bridlington canon to Rome to advance the case in what proved to be an extraordinarily efficient process: St. John was canonized in 1401, only twenty-odd years after his death in 1379. Henry IV then supported the construction of the shrine to which the saint was translated in 1404, and he placed his son under the protection of the saint, an affiliation that Henry V himself maintained as king. Jonathan Hughes suggests that Lancastrian devotion to John of Bridlington, like that to St. John of Beverley, was calculated to draw off some of the enthusiasm for the nascent cult of Scrope. It may have served more generally, as Susan Wilson suggests, as an appeal to powerful northern aristocrats, with whom the king was often in conflict. But it also reflected long-standing devotion: Henry IV had made an offering at St. John's shrine as early as 1391, as Bridlington emerged as an important object of local and national pilgrimage. In the case of St. John, the royal cult was importantly complemented by—and drew from—a local cult, a glimpse of which is provided by the Book of Margery Kempe: Margery took St. John's confessor as her own, surely intended as a mark of her own exceptional status, but also an index of the kind of regional identification that made such saints useful to Lancastrian kings.
No saint was more useful to them than St. Wenefred, a Welsh saint who, according to her legend, was miraculously resurrected after being decapitated by a spurned suitor. Wenefred was celebrated both at Holywell in Flintshire, Wales, the sacred spring that was believed to have sprung up miraculously at the site of violence, and at Shrewsbury Abbey, which claimed her relics. Like John of Beverley, Wenefred had enjoyed the devotion of earlier English kings: Richard I had made a pilgrimage to Holywell in 1189, and Edward III had promoted the cult. Richard II, regularly in Chester toward the end of his reign, held parliament at Shrewsbury in 1398, and he visited Holywell then as well. He must have visited Wenefred's new shrine in Shrewsbury Abbey when he was received there on this occasion.
While Shrewsbury was familiar and friendly territory to Richard II, it was marked in the early years of Henry IV's reign by the growing strength of the Glyndwr rebellion and then the Percy revolt. Lancastrian interest in Wenefred may originate in the context of these threats. In Chapter 3, I present new evidence from Osbern Bokenham's Life of St. Wenefred that Henry IV commissioned a chapel at Holywell. Although the chapel is otherwise unattested, the reference accords with documented Lancastrian interest in the cult, as is witnessed, for example, by an image of St. Wenefred in one of the windows of the church that Henry IV endowed at the site of the battle of Shrewsbury. Holywell too would have been a worthwhile location at which to assert royal presence and propitiate local communities: Flintshire had been under Henry Percy's jurisdiction as justiciar and it had joined him in revolt. Lancastrian devotion to Wenefred, then, like that to other regional saints, seems to have begun as an effort to override local opposition. An arena of military conflict and political subjection was re-coded as a sacred landscape where sovereign and local subjects were joined in devotion.
The vast historical gulf that separates the legendary Wenefred, who was believed to have lived in the seventh century, and John of Bridlington, a bona fide fourteenth-century prior, has a kind of geographical complement in the distance between their shrines, on opposite sides of Britain. But they were carefully linked in a thanksgiving pilgrimage that Henry V performed after Agincourt, in which he traveled to St. Wenefred's shrine at Shrewsbury, and from there on foot some fifty miles to Holywell, then across the width of Britain to Bridlington and Beverley. The pilgrimage to Holywell provided an opportunity to acknowledge Welsh participation in the French campaigns, and perhaps, in recalling Henry IV's devotions and their political context, to redefine yet again the crown's relationship with North Wales in wake of Glyndwr's presumed death. But the larger project of the pilgrimage was to identify these local saints—all three credited with the military victory—as participants in a shared project to preserve the English claim to the French throne.
This was an extension of earlier Lancastrian devotion, which placed the king in the same posture or relation to the saint as local communities, asserting his affinity with them as grounds for his sovereignty over them. But in linking several local cults, widely separated geographically, Henry's pilgrimage also fundamentally reoriented them as "English" rather than regional, by interpolating them into a larger abstract idea of national community. Conversely, it grounded the political abstraction of the realm in a concrete geography, as the king traveled to the several shrines that served as the saints' "home." A similar function can be attributed to a second royal pilgrimage in 1421, when Henry V retraced his itinerary from Shrewsbury to Bridlington, this time to drum up support for war taxes and for his new French wife. As a begging tour for his war chest, the second progress claimed regional resources on behalf of England and so advanced the idea of English community rooted in the local cults of native saints. This second pilgrimage, that is, echoed the broader ideological implications of the earlier one, if in a petitionary rather than celebratory mode.
Covering a sizable portion of the realm—from London, northwest to the Welsh marches, then east to the Yorkshire coast—the progress articulated the geographical scale of these cults as national. In doing so, the royal pilgrimages relied on, and developed, some distinctive conceptual capabilities. Most obviously, the re-scaling of local cults as "English" is mediated by the king's piety and especially by his body: his physical presence at each shrine and his movement between them put these formerly regional cults in a spatial relationship to one another through the logic of the body politic. The pilgrimage thus affirmed the ideological force of kingship by asserting the king's body as the mechanism that establishes England as the scale of religious community. That is, it establishes the realm as a paradigmatic spatial organization that governs religious as well as political community. The king's body organizes local cults into a national framework both in its finite material form, through his movement between several local shrines, and in its abstract or notional form, which embraces all these places at once.
Veneration of these saints as English—perhaps primarily as saintly intercessors for English sovereignty—was advanced by high-placed members of the king's retinue, especially those active in the French campaigns. Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter, was on pilgrimage to Bridlington in 1417 when he heard news that the Scots were besieging Roxburgh. William Porter, who campaigned with Henry in France and served as an executor of his will, had images of both St. Wenefred and John of Bridlington included in his deluxe Book of Hours. The most spectacular expressions of devotion are associated with Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who had been companion at arms to Henry in his youth and who fought at Shrewsbury and in the Welsh campaigns in 1404 and 1407. His devotion to St. Wenefred and John of Bridlington—which must have inspired or been inspired by the prince's—took extravagant form: his will specified that four gold statues of his own image, each weighing twenty pounds, were to be placed at the shrines of St. Wenefred, St. John of Bridlington, St. Alban, and Thomas of Canterbury. His wife, Isabella Despenser, more modestly left a gown to the statue of St. Wenefred at Holywell. The beautiful chapel built for the earl's tomb at St. Mary's, Warwick—the Beauchamp chapel—contains windows depicting Sts. Wenefred and John of Bridlington. It is worth noting that Beauchamp, who served as ambassador to the Council of Constance, represents a concrete link between Lancastrian promotion of regional saints and the Constance definition of the nation as a political category defined by the heterogeneous places, people, and languages it contains.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, Sts. John of Bridlington and Wenefred were firmly established as objects of royal devotion, as John of Beverley had long been. Henry VI, recalling Richard II's grant of royal mills to support St. Wenefred's chapel at Holywell, augmented the chaplain's annual income so that daily masses might be said in the saint's honor. Yorkist kings were also devoted to Wenefred, which is unsurprising given that Shrewsbury was an important base of Yorkist support. Edward IV traveled to Holywell and, according to the Welsh poet Tudur Aled, put dirt from the shrine on his crown. In 1465, he too confirmed Richard II's grant to the chaplain there, as did Richard III and Henry VII. Henry V's promotion of the cult of John of Bridlington was also enthusiastically continued by his son and later by Edward IV, who granted exempt status to the priory in 1468 in language similar to that used by Henry V and Henry VI before him. Henry VI spent a week in Beverley in 1448, where he must have made his devotions at the shrine of St. John of Beverley; his progress also took him to the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham.
Henry's 1416 pilgrimage sought to redefine regional saints as national ones for his subjects, as well as for his affinity and successors, and to shape an idea of England as a religious community. In the wake of Henry's pilgrimage, any English person's pilgrimage to Wenefred's shrine or to John of Bridlington's might be recognized as devotion to an English saint, rather than a Welsh or Yorkshire one. The project of making native saints national—for English people of various statuses—was further advanced by their inclusion in Sarum liturgy: in 1416 shortly after Henry's pilgrimage, as was discussed earlier, Henry Chichele mandated observance of the feasts of St. Wenefred and John of Beverley. Liturgical celebration of these saints—in regions far from their shrines—helped to generalize devotion to these saints as "English." But while communities affiliated with royal power dutifully folded the new feasts into their practice, others responded unevenly to this effort to conscript them as national figures, as witnessed by variations in vernacular textual traditions. Testifying to the success of the Lancastrian promotion of Wenefred as an English saint, a fifteenth-century exemplar of the SEL includes a unique verse version of her legend that neglects to identify the saint as Welsh and offers the name of the English king as the single localizing detail. But a late fifteenth-century manuscript of John Mirk's Festial shows the limits of this success: localized to Warwickshire, it retains Mirk's original introduction to the St. Wenefred legend, which states explicitly that her feast need not be observed. Mirk had included Wenefred as a local saint, and this copy of the Festial, produced well after the inclusion of the saint in the Sarum rite as an obligatory feast, inadvertently refashions her as one. Other manuscripts of the Festial register the variable effect of official nationalization of the cult: one preface remarks of her legend that "thow somme knowen it, somme doth not."
Evidence for popular devotion to John of Bridlington is sparse, but this may be attributed to the late date of the cult and the special fervor with which it was destroyed by Cromwell's agents, following the participation of Bridlington's last prior, William Wode, in the Northern Rebellion. Devotion to St. John, according to Walsingham, "rested on his humility and his pity for the afflicted" (273), which may account for the enthusiasm of ordinary people for the cult that can be traced in local wills and parish churches across England until the eve of the Dissolution. Such evidence is, in any case, indifferent witness to the effect of Lancastrian promotion of the cult. While John of Bridlington and St. Wenefred were marshaled by English kings as national saints, their cults—like the literary texts studied in this book—speak to varied forms of identification and community.
England as Nation, Realm, and Religious Community
Henry V's pilgrimages made at least two distinctive contributions to the project of fashioning local places into a national geography: they mediated a specifically spatial conceptualization of England, and this spatial conceptualization, in turn, allowed national and religious forms of community to be represented as coextensive. In this way, royal devotion might itself paradoxically dislodge the "realm" as the primary structure for national community: England could be identified as a religious community in addition to, and therefore in place of, its identification with the crown. The relationship between England as a realm, nation, and religious community can serve as a preliminary example of the kind of "jurisdictional heterogeneity" addressed in Lives of native saints.
As we have seen, the relationship between secular polities and their religious analogues was a subject of debate in fifteenth-century church councils, which used the term "nation" to designate communities defined at the intersection of secular and religious jurisdictions. Nor was this the only available understanding of "nation," which had long been a descriptor for ethnic identity (natio). The less-familiar conceptualization, formulated in the context of ecclesiastical politics, reminds us that the category was not a settled one, that there were competing definitions, and that religious discourses and institutions contributed to theorizing secular political community in the period. The conciliar definition, which differs so importantly from later discourses of nationhood, presents an especially useful challenge to fixed, transhistorical definitions of the "nation" on which objections to discussing medieval political forms under this rubric depend. Far from eliding differences between medieval and modern forms of community, as is sometimes charged, retaining the term "nation" allows us to denaturalize the category in productive ways, as well as to recognize the conceptual capabilities developed in the Middle Ages that contributed to later formations.
The most significant of these was distinguishing the nation from the realm, as Louise Loomis long ago remarked. The English delegation at the Council of Constance argued that not all communities in a nation owe loyalty to one prince, citing Spanish kingdoms that did not recognize the King of Castile as their ruler and French polities—Provence, Dauphiny, Savoy, Burgundy, Lorraine—that were not ruled by the French king. The nation was thus geographically, and therefore categorically, distinct from the realm. Indeed, as the English argument had it, just as the nation comprises areas not subject to a single sovereign, the realm might extend to domains that are not part of the nation. In the fifteenth century, this was most obviously true of France, but it was also the case for the English king's claim to Ireland and Wales. J. P. Genet notes that the English delegation to Constance was hampered in their claim to be a "nation" precisely by the fact that the king's dominion over these areas did not produce "feelings of consent and homogeneity" that were implied by medieval definitions of the term.
It is worth pausing here to address the terms "England" and "English" as they are used in this project. I use them largely as a matter of convenience, for want of better descriptors, although it leads to unfortunate elisions. St. Wenefred, whose legend is the focus of Chapter 3, is a Welsh saint who is made to represent certain forms of English community, and St. Ursula, long identified as British in hagiographic and historiographic traditions, is only recognized as a native saint in the fifteenth century, in the face of ambiguity about the geographical and ethnological referent for "Britain." The definition of a nation at the Council of Constance could perhaps provide a warrant for my use of England to refer to British, Anglo-Saxon, and Welsh saints: Thomas Polton, the English spokesperson who countered the French case at the council, took pains to blur the distinction between them by referring to "natio Anglicana sive Britannica." But I do not want to give a veneer of authority to an admittedly inadequate term. I use it because it is, generally speaking, the term preferred in many of my materials, and because it may therefore help us recognize how some of the conceptual frameworks established in the fifteenth century have an afterlife in later constructions of English community.
Some of the literary works explored in this study are interested in definitions of English community that are fundamentally structured by the realm: so, for example, the Wilton Life of St. Edith pays particular attention to the "French" St. Denis, as Jocelyn Wogan-Browne has noted, in the context of its emphasis on regnal history and identity. But English community is elsewhere conceived in terms oblique to the king's sovereignty. Bokenham's English saints' Lives, for example, follow a geographical logic, and the prose Lives of St. Erkenwald and Edward the Confessor in an important manuscript of Gilte Legende present London as a paradigm for national community, as we will see in Chapters 4 and 5. These legends seem to bear out Sassen's claim that in the fifteenth century ideas of the people or patria as the basis for jurisdiction and rights are challenged by alternative ideas rooted in territory.
Interest both in England as a "nation" and in communities at scales smaller and larger than England was no doubt fueled by the fifteenth-century crises in kingship. From the deposition of Richard II to the uncertain start of Tudor rule, the roiling instability of the monarchy threatened the symbolic structures by which the king's body figured national community and the patrilineal order of monarchical succession guaranteed its continuous authority. In this context, English saints might have seemed to promise miraculous rescue not only from natural disasters, as in Walsingham, but also from political ones, by restoring to the body politic the authority, continuity, and wholeness that recent events had revealed it to lack. The long reign of Henry VI is the backdrop for a good portion of the textual tradition studied here. The many ways in which his reign failed to correspond to ideals of kingship or models of sovereignty—from his accession to the throne as an infant and his long minority, to his lassitude regarding affairs of state once he began to rule in his own name, and his intermittent madness, even catatonia—destabilized not only the realm, but also the definitional categories correlative with the ideology of kingship. It had an especially striking effect on dominant tropes of historical time: as the historiographical fiction that the king ensures the continuous identity of the realm became increasingly fraught, some chronicles abandon regnal years as the system of dating in favor of Christian ones. In the Middle English Brut, for example, the convention of dating events according to the year of the monarch's rule—such as "And yn the forth yere of King Harryez regne the fifthe"—is replaced during some especially chaotic years of Henry VI's reign with reference to Christian time, as in "And in the yere of grace M cccc xxxti."
Some fifteenth-century Lives of English saints respond to the crisis in monarchic authority by rooting national community in the person of the saint rather than the body of the king. So John Lydgate's epic Life of Sts. Alban and Amphibalus—written when Henry VI was still a child—identifies St. Alban as England's "protomartyr" and founder of "Brutus Albion," the poetic name he gives to England reimagined not as a realm embodied by the king but as a religious community symbolized by the saint. It is worth noting that this phenomenon—like the shift from regnal year to Christic year in some fifteenth-century chronicle entries—presents a curious wrinkle to established cultural narratives about the inexorable process of "secularization" by which ancient religious forms were superseded by more modern secular ones. So, the argument goes, the supranational Christian community of the Middle Ages is superseded by the secular nation. But in the fifteenth century, a crisis in the authority and representational practices of the monarchy may account for a new emphasis on religious definitions of English community: a sacralization of a more secular political form, rather than the secularization of a religious one.
Imbricated with the political instability of the fifteenth century was a phenomenon of particular importance to this study: the increasing coordination of the authority of church and crown, a significant change to the structure of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdiction to which, I argue in Chapter 5, some Lives of English saints respond. An early seventeenth-century Puritan such as William Stoughton might aver that "there is no crime respecting any commandment contained within either of the two tables of the holy law of God but . . . that hath been evermore and is now punishable by the king's regal and temporal jurisdiction" (1604). But in fact the claim to royal jurisdiction over some religious matters was of relatively recent vintage, not immemorial fact. The English king claimed jurisdiction over Stoughton's specific concern, heresy, only in 1401, with the statute De haeretico comburendo, the law that made heterodoxy a crime against the crown and hence punishable by death, creating a new arena in which ecclesiastical and royal jurisdiction converged. Along with the important political role of "king-making" ecclesiasts in the fifteenth century, this law marks a new era of active collaboration between church and crown and a blurring of their erstwhile separate jurisdictions, a signal project of Lancastrian kings and the archbishops of Canterbury who supported them.
This project was not uncontested, however. Nicholas Watson's influential argument that antiheresy legislation at the start of the century—above all Archbishop Arundel's Lambeth Constitutions—had a chilling effect on literary production has recently been subject to revision in ways that allow us now to explore how the alignment of ecclesiastical and royal jurisdiction, of which antiheresy legislation is a particularly acute symptom, provoked some of the more consequential developments in late medieval literary culture. Indeed, I argue in Chapter 5 that it can be linked to an emerging definition of the literary as a category of narrative or expressive writing marked by its remove from the secular order. English saints' Lives attest to the way that fifteenth-century efforts to coordinate secular and religious authority provoked an interest in the jurisdiction of the literary itself.
Even well before this period, saints' Lives formed a body of vernacular theory about the relationship between secular and sacred forms of community at different scales. Laying the groundwork for the fifteenth-century texts that are the primary concern of this study, the next chapter offers a reading of the SEL, which anticipates these works by more than a century. The SEL circulated and was copied in the fifteenth century, and it was an immediate source for some of the texts produced then. The SEL begins this study, however, not for those reasons, but because it offers a useful heuristic for two analytical categories central to this project: literary form and scale. In its multipart narrative form, the SEL demonstrates the capacity of literary form to model the complex system of late medieval communities and jurisdictions, and in its Life of St. Ursula, it develops a paradigm for understanding the shifts in scale that characterize the relationship between communities in this system, especially as these are figured by the scalar relationship between the body and a community understood as an alternative corporate form. It is not its content, that is, but its structures of thought that make the South English Legendary an essential starting point.