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Her Life Historical

Her Life Historical offers a major reconsideration of one of the most popular narrative forms in late medieval England—the lives of female saints—and one of the period's primary modes of interpretation, exemplarity.

Her Life Historical
Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England

Catherine Sanok

2007 | 280 pages | Cloth $75.00
Literature / Religion / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Imitating the Past: Exemplarity and/as History
Chapter 2. Female Saints' Lives and the Invention of a Feminine Audience
Chapter 3. Fictions of Feminine Community in Bokenham's Legendary
Chapter 4. Exemplarity and England in Native Saints' Lives
Chapter 5. Hagiography and Historical Comparison in the Book of Margery Kempe
Chapter 6. Performing the Past: Saints' Plays and the Second Nun's Tale


Works Cited

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


At her lyfe historiall example may take
Euery great estate, quene, duches, and lady (2.1985-86)
—Henry Bradshaw, Life of St. Werburge of Chester
This book is about the exemplarity of female saints' lives: the expectation, voiced in the epigraph by Henry Bradshaw, that women take the legends of female saints as examples for their own ethical and devotional practices. Exemplarity is, on the surface, a regulatory fiction: saints' lives present idealized feminine behavior and encourage female audiences to adopt it. But the ethical address of female saints' lives is not merely or simply prescriptive. This book presents two related arguments. I argue that vernacular legends, understood as exemplary narratives, construct a feminine audience, one which contributed to the increasing visibility of women's participation in Middle English literary culture. I demonstrate, in turn, that this imagined audience was central to the ways that hagiographers and some of their readers used saints' lives as vehicles for historical reflection. By enjoining a contemporary audience to consider their devotional practice as an imitation of ancient saints, vernacular legends provided impetus and occasion for thinking about the aspects of gender identity and religious ideals that had changed and those that had remained constant. The exemplarity of female saints' lives encouraged medieval hagiographers and their audiences to reflect on historical continuity and discontinuity through the category of women's religious practice.

This may seem an unlikely claim for two reasons. First, vernacular saints' lives do not, in general, represent the past in "historical" terms. The genre is notorious for borrowing events from earlier narratives and for confusing, even collapsing, different persons to create largely—sometimes wholly—fictionalized ones. Although there are important exceptions, many vernacular lives of female saints have a formulaic plot that centers on the miraculous integrity of the virgin body: a young girl refuses sexual advances and announces that she is a Christian; she is tortured violently, but her body is restored supernaturally to wholeness before she is martyred. My argument is not that the genre was concerned with the factual veracity of its narratives but that its emphasis on exemplarity could encourage audiences to reflect on historical differences separating the sacred past from the social present. Even the few vernacular legends that do aspire to a substantial and authoritative representation of the past understand it in relation to the present through the exemplary model that the saint provides for contemporary audiences.

The second difficulty is that the idea of exemplarity seems to imply a static cultural context. Exemplarity assumes that ethical practices retain their meaning and social value across time—that is, that they are ahistorical. But ethical practices are not, of course, ahistorical, a fact that is not so much obscured as highlighted by the expectation that the devotional practices of ancient saints can be imitated by late medieval audiences. Reading contemporary behavior and the social codes that inform it against the template provided by vernacular legends inevitably registers the differences between the sacred past and the devotional present, even as it assumes a coherent religious tradition linking them. Late medieval writers took advantage of this apparent paradox to explore questions of cultural continuity and change, sometimes imagining audiences who could, or should, imitate ancient sanctity in their own devotions and sometimes imagining audiences alienated from the example set by traditional saints. The feminine audiences addressed by vernacular lives, that is, figure a model of history in their ability—or inability—to reproduce ancient sanctity. The epigraph from Bradshaw's legend of St. Werburge neatly encapsulates the claim I am making here. The identification of the long poem as a "lyfe historiall" refers to its careful placement of Werburge in a detailed account of Anglo-Saxon political and religious history, but it is also intimately connected to the identification of Werburge as an "example" to contemporary queens, duchesses, and ladies. Indeed, while "historiall" modifies "lyfe" in the first instance, it also points to "example," registering how the poem addresses the relationship between the sacred past and the social present not only through its representational strategies but also through its ethical address.

This book thus seeks to understand female saints' lives from the perspective of the interpretive position they construct. It is broadly indebted to approaches to literary form that stress reception or interpretive practices and insist on genre as a social institution. Critics have come to understand that audiences determine the cultural meaning of a narrative tradition in two ways: through their reading practices and through their own affiliations with the genre. Vernacular hagiography can help us understand better that the constitutive relationship between literary form and social institutions works in the other direction as well: narrative traditions themselves construct a relationship to social practices and particular communities through fictions of address and ideal response. I am interested in both sides of this reciprocal relationship: Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the way that saints' lives construct an imagined feminine audience through their exemplary address, while Chapters 5 and 6 consider how audiences respond to that fiction. Together the final four chapters of the book seek to describe how writers and audiences use the exemplarity of vernacular saints' lives and the feminine interpretive community it constructs to think about ethics and history.

From this perspective, gender is important to an analysis of a narrative tradition with respect not only to the strategies of representation it employs and the cultural practices with which it is affiliated but also to the interpretive position it establishes in the contested field of vernacular literature. Middle English legends of female saints address a feminine audience, often explicitly, identifying the saint as a gendered exemplar. In Chapter 2, I argue that the expectation that women's reception of female saints' lives is informed by their sex encouraged writers to understand gender as a salient category in vernacular hermeneutics. As we will see, this expectation had concrete effects on women's visibility in late medieval narrative culture. The hagiographic fiction of a feminine audience allowed women to surface in the historical record as book owners, patrons, and readers; it is no coincidence that vernacular legends provide the most abundant and detailed evidence of women's role in the production and diffusion of Middle English narrative. I trace some of the evidence that testifies to the central place that saints' lives should have in histories of medieval women's participation in English literary culture. My interest, however, is not to recuperate vernacular saints' lives as women's literature but to investigate the idea of women's literature itself as a fiction of the genre. Women's participation in the production and circulation of saints' lives surfaces so frequently in the historical record because it conforms to the broad cultural fiction that they form a distinct audience for the genre. I offer evidence of historical women's interest in saints' lives, that is, not as the context for but as a consequence of hagiography's gendered address.

In creating a feminine audience, the exemplary address of vernacular legends also fashions an imagined community. Medieval women were surely too diverse in their personal experience and their social identities to form a single, coherent interpretive community. But saints' lives, although they sometimes also acknowledge differences based on age, sexual status, and class affiliation, generally imagine a collective feminine response. The construction of a feminine community, defined through this response, was crucial to the use of saints' lives to comment on the history and identity of other communities-political and religious, regional and national, contemporary and transhistorical. In particular, medieval authors frequently use exemplarity to define a stable feminine devotional community against the instability of other social formations. The fantasy that contemporary women imitate ancient saints could, for example, mark the differences between the authority of civic institutions in the pagan past and in the Christian present; or it could figure the categories of identity that define Englishness as a coherent term, despite significant changes in the political and ethnic makeup of the country.

My central concern in this book is with the fictional audience addressed by vernacular legends, but I would like to consider the possibility that the medieval women who read or listened to vernacular legends, like the hagiographers who wrote for them, attended not only to the devotional model that saints were thought to provide but also to the implications of this model for the historicity of the communities they inhabited and of the gender roles and religious practices that defined their own place in those communities. We do not know how most medieval women responded to these stories, of course. But if they did sometimes seek to understand their devotional practice as an imitation of ancient virgin martyrs, they had to account for the vast historical distance separating the social world they inhabited from the one represented in Middle English legends, along with concomitant differences in civic and religious institutions and the status of feminine devotion. In the last twenty years we have come to recognize that, in the largely masculine domain of secular literature, medieval narratives of the classical past provided a substantive and nuanced forum for thinking about social identities and institutions as products of history. Female saints' lives, the single genre universally endorsed as women's reading in the Middle Ages, may have served an analogous function—one that reminds us that "negotiating the past" is gendered, with different forms of negotiation available to different audiences. Indeed, while there is evidence that some medieval women were fascinated with classical narrative, they were more often and more widely exhorted to understand their identity and practice in the context of the Christian past, especially as represented in the legends of traditional saints.

I am not the first to address the relationship between female saints' lives and the audience enjoined to imitate them: it has been a pervasive concern of feminist approaches to the genre. Critics have emphasized, in particular, how inappropriate the most popular hagiographic narratives are as models for the growing audience of late medieval laywomen. Understood as normative, female saints' lives are egregiously misogynist, not only in their representational strategies—their definition of women's goodness in terms of sexuality and sacrifice and their fascination with the young female body as the object of often erotized violence—but also in their putative psychological effect. Incapable of imitating the practices valued in vernacular legends, laywomen—the argument goes—must have been deeply alienated from the sources of spiritual value. The structural misogyny of the genre has meant that it occupies only a tangential place in histories of medieval women's literature, especially when that tradition is defined through the category of authorship but even when the significant role of female audiences is considered.

This dismissal overlooks not only evidence of women's ownership and patronage of hagiographic books but also their use of saints' legends to structure their own, sometimes idiosyncratic, spiritual lives, as well as the rhetorical and political use of female saints to contradict antifeminist stereotype and to defend female virtue. It is important to recognize that hagiography provided a useful discursive and gestural vocabulary for women's resistance to masculine authority, despite—indeed often because of—its representation of idealized feminine spirituality. Margery Kempe provides the best and most familiar example: imitating virgin martyrs, she refuses marital sex and subordination to her husband and insists on her own religious vocation and authority. The challenge that this might pose to prevailing social ideologies is also well illustrated in Kempe's Book. The contemporary reception of Margery's religious vocation offers surprising evidence that when laywomen did try to imitate the female saints celebrated in vernacular legends, their practice reads as dissent, even heresy—a violation of social codes, rather than their perfect fulfillment.

The reception and social use of vernacular hagiography can remind us that prescriptive literature, however energetically it is used to constrain and define women's behavior and identity, never fully governs practice and its social meaning. As sociological and feminist theories argue, the performance of a regulatory script inevitably alters it. Michel de Certeau provides a useful vocabulary for this in the Practice of Everyday Life: he contrasts the "strategies" of official discourse and the "tactics" of an audience's appropriation of that discourse. The distinction between them, importantly, does not depend on a self-conscious or overtly resistant agenda on the part of the consumer/performer: normative paradigms are altered in performance whether that performance is intended to endorse or challenge their authority. Gender, in Judith Butler's influential work, works in the same way: the practice or performance of the ideological script of gender at once reiterates its terms and inevitably changes them. In Butler's model, that is, gender identity is deconstructed by the very social performances that constitute it, even as those performances are constrained by the ideological script necessary to their intelligibility. Like Certeau, Butler provides a theoretical basis for understanding overtly dissenting or disruptive responses in relationship to ostensibly conservative ones, because even an apparent endorsement of a regulatory discourse must be understood as a "tactical" response that changes or appropriates its terms. If regulatory fictions define women's identity and practice, they also, inevitably, allow them to contest and reshape the social meaning and performance of those fictions.

This theoretical model subtends my understanding of the specific contradictions inherent to hagiographic exemplarity. If the imperative to imitate or perform a scripted ethical paradigm always produces difference, in the case of vernacular legends this difference is magnified by the historical distance between the female saints who embody that ethical paradigm and the feminine audience enjoined to imitate them. The expectation that vernacular legends could or should serve as devotional models is, paradoxically, what made them vehicles for thinking about cultural change and ethical variability, as hagiographers and their audiences sought to distinguish the imitable from the inimitable, the transhistorical from the contingent. The regulatory fiction of vernacular hagiography is precisely what might encourage historical reflection.

Recent scholars have amply demonstrated that the hagiographic tradition is not nearly as monolithic as was once assumed, and this is true of the hermeneutics of imitation as well. Exemplarity could be—and was—used to emphasize the continuity of identity and ethics and their variability. Late medieval writers and readers recognized what was at stake in representing or reading the present as a continuation of, or departure from, the past, and they were interested in the way that the feminine audience of vernacular legends could embody either model of history. While my first two chapters explore the consequences of hagiographic exemplarity I have outlined here—how the genre's ethical address might compel its audience to think about devotional practice in historical terms and how it constructs a gendered audience with distinctive interpretive procedures—the four chapters that follow extend this analysis by demonstrating the variable use of exemplarity to construct the relationship between past and present around the category of women's religious practice. Although the texts I examine use hagiographic exemplarity to construct different models of history, they share an interest in the way that feminine devotion, understood in relation to ancient sanctity, comments on social and political concerns of late medieval England.

Two chapters explore vernacular legends in which the exemplary relationship linking a contemporary feminine audience to ancient saints signals the continuity of feminine devotion, imagined in sharp contrast to the instability and change that marked political culture in fifteenth-century England. Chapter 3 focuses on Osbern Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women, which provides some of the best and most extensive textual evidence for women's affiliation with vernacular legends. Its careful identification of its feminine audience, through the proper names of Bokenham's several female patrons, presents this textual community as a model for, and fantasy of, cultural coherence at a moment when England was threatened from within by a looming dynastic crisis and from without by an expensive, ongoing war with France. Against the divided political community of mid-fifteenth-century England, Bokenham imagines a feminine audience with shared devotional interests. This community is diachronic as well as synchronic: he uses exemplarity to figure the continuity of feminine devotion from early Christianity to late medieval England, even as the figural nature of the imitation he proposes indexes changes in the status of public religion.

In Chapter 4, I turn to the emerging interest in native identity and history in fifteenth-century legends. I focus my discussion on Henry Bradshaw's verse legend of St. Werburge, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess and abbess, which represents the saint as an embodiment and guarantee of a coherent and continuous English community. Bradshaw's representation of the saint, whose body remains miraculously intact for centuries and protects England from "innumerable barbarick nations," must be understood in relation to another striking feature of the poem: its careful delineation of a variety of female audiences-maidens, wives, widows, and religious women—and how each should imitate the saint. Exhorted to reproduce Werburge's ethical and devotional practices, the feminine audience addressed in Bradshaw's text is made responsible for ensuring the continuity of the English community the saint represents. In its use of a feminine audience to figure continuity against evidence of social division and political change, Bradshaw's legend makes an argument that recalls Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women. But while Bradshaw similarly contrasts the stability of feminine devotional practice to the instability of a masculine political world, he represents feminine sanctity not simply as an alternative to this threatening variability—as Bokenham does—but as an antidote to it.

The last two chapters turn to the performance of saints' lives in late medieval cities, as represented in the Book of Margery Kempe and in the suggestive, if slight, historical records of saints' plays. Like Bokenham's legendary and Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge, the Book of Margery Kempe imagines that the female saints celebrated in vernacular hagiography can be imitated in late medieval England. Indeed, Margery's energetic imitation of virgin martyrs creates an unsettling analogy between the social world depicted in vernacular legends and the one she inhabits. In representing saints' lives as a model for her own religious practice, Margery represents late medieval England, its communities and its civic and ecclesiastical institutions, as an imitation of the pagan world of hagiographic narrative. Her imitatio draws attention to the way that both communities persecute religious difference and the public expression of feminine spirituality. But she also charts differences between these two historical moments, as she investigates how the categorical opposition between spiritual and worldly values so vividly demonstrated in female saints' lives challenges the bourgeois fiction of their compatibility developed in other late medieval discourses.

The final chapter explores the use of female saints' lives as civic drama, particularly as pageants and plays sponsored by parish guilds. Plays and pageants representing female saints abounded in late medieval England, but we still know little about their cultural meaning, largely because of the thin archival and textual record documenting the tradition. I argue that the silences of historical sources may reflect the ambiguous relationship that these plays, and the parish guilds that sponsored them, had to secular and ecclesiastical authority. Like Margery's performance of traditional feminine sanctity, parish plays may have represented English communities in analogy to pagan Alexandria or Rome, an analogy that might express the tension between the practice of lay devotion and the institutions that claimed authority over it. I propose that theatrical convention—especially cross-dressing—may have functioned as a limit on this analogy: the disjunction between the sex of the actor and the gender of the character he represented might have been used to register the difference between past and present. Gender, that is, here serves as a mark of historical discontinuity. Though different from the textual tradition in important ways, saints' plays can help us see better how the imitation of vernacular hagiography constitutes a performance of the relationship between past and present, one that relied on the continuities and discontinuities of gendered practices and identities to figure history.

Note: In quotations from the Middle English, thorns and yoghs have been silently modernized. Translations to modern English are my own unless otherwise specified.

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