The Medieval Review 11.05.04

Sanok, Catherine. Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saint's Lives in late Medieval England. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 256. $39.95 ISBN 978-0-8122-3986-7. .

Reviewed by:

Claire M. Waters
University of California, Davis

In this admirable (and, one hopes, imitable) book Catherine Sanok takes what might seem like a commonplace concept--the exemplarity of saints--and brilliantly dissects its workings across a range of late- medieval hagiographic texts, showcasing in particular "the complicated relationship between the categories of exemplarity, gender, and nationalism" (110). Drawing examples from several centuries but with a particular focus on the late-fourteenth to early-sixteenth, the book participates in the growing body of excellent work that asks us to think about the transitions and continuities of that period in new ways.

The preface sets out an array of theoretical or overarching concerns, among which are the importance of tactical reading, the uses of gender in the creation of expectations, and the nature of exemplarity; the chapters gracefully weave these concerns into readings of specific texts. The book's titular commitment to the concerns and difficulties of historical understanding is carried through in the text; despite the broad implications of the argument, it remains reliably engaged with and attentive to the historical situation of the texts examined. Those texts include an impressive number of "greatest hits" of conduct literature and spiritual reading for and about (and occasionally by) women--Ancrene Wisse and the related life of St Margaret, The Book of the Knight of the Tower, Osbern Bokenham's Legendys of Hooly Wummen and John Capgrave's Life of St Katherine of Alexandria, Julian of Norwich's Shewing, among others--as well as less-known texts like Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge and texts seldom read in this context, including Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and Second Nun's Tale. The readings offered nearly always provide a new framing for and new angle on the well-known works, both by putting them all in the same discussion and by the excellence of the close readings offered; this "payoff" is especially notable in the discussion of the Book of Margery Kempe, whose relationship to hagiographical literature is presented in a wonderfully rich and productive way.

The first chapter begins to sketch a new way of understanding exemplarity as it might have functioned for late-medieval readers, especially women, by pointing to examples that show a willingness to understand exemplarity directly (a model for similar behavior, as for instance with almsgiving or reading) as well as more figuratively (as when Julian of Norwich takes Cecilia as a model of spiritual desire rather than public speech or even private song). It also sets this mode of understanding in the context of other historical models such as Christian typology or translatio imperii et studii, pointing both to its association of history with ethics and the structural importance it gives to the feminine. Sanok points out (following, as she notes, scholars like Larry Scanlon and Elizabeth Allen) the way the expression of exemplarity in narrative form threatened to provide "extra" material whose particularity might undermine the general lesson.

The second chapter further highlights Sanok's unusual and salutary use of Julian as an important figure for understanding exemplarity and also serves as part of her call to value "gender as a category of response, as well as representation" (24)--in effect, to give greater weight and value to audience and hermeneutics in our approach to literary history. Bringing Julian back into contact with the tradition of saints' lives--often seen as male-dominated and even misogynist, and focused on the early church rather than recent developments-- Sanok, while not rejecting the latter reading, suggests that the genre's "representational strategies do not wholly determine its meaning" (26). She points out that the supposed imperviousness of hagiography as a genre to new audiences and modes of devotion is challenged if we note the much greater number of vernacular retellings of women saints' lives by comparison with those of men--even if men's lives remain, for the most part, the ones enshrined in the great legendaries. The chapter surveys the historical evidence of laywomen's patronage and ownership of vernacular legends, especially of women saints (as against the much less extensive evidence for laymen) but also emphasizes the fictiveness of the feminine audience created by these lives and even by that historical record; Sanok carefully walks the line between accepting and dismissing this fiction, noting that it surely influenced audiences' reception but did not determine it. She helpfully highlights this cultural fiction by pointing to the tendency of Anglo-Norman saints' lives composed for or by women to feature male Anglo-Saxon saints, rather than women saints of whatever era.

The third, fourth, and to some extent the fifth chapters are distinctive in their central focus on specific texts. A chapter on Osbern Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women allows Sanok to produce both a carefully situated historical argument and a series of illuminating close readings. Though of necessity speculative, as Sanok acknowledges, her association of Bokenham's attention to "outlawry" and his coded allusions to his own precarious position in 1440s England is richly suggestive of the contexts that shaped this work's distinctive language and creation of community. The chapter builds on the previous one to show how the generalized feminine audience evoked by hagiography as a form could be shaped into a specific transhistorical and private world of feminine devotion that crosses political boundaries and offers an alluring alternative to a volatile and threatening political climate. The chapter's final section is a tour de force, arguing that Bokenham short-circuits the potentially dangerous charge created by his many outspoken female saints (Mary Magdalen and the virgin martyrs) by making them into muses who, by means of female patrons who imitate them, authorize and inspire his own words. Though its connection to the preceding discussion of outlawry is not quite as strong as the reading itself, this conclusion nicely ties into the overarching concern with patronage and, especially, audience that Bokenham evokes in his prologues and that as Sanok shows needs to shape our understanding of medieval hagiography.

An examination of Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge from the early sixteenth century, in chapter four, centers on questions of nationalism. Continuing, as in the other chapters, to trace the saint's paradoxical embodiment of both continuity and change, Sanok also offers a lovely inset account of the rise of "native" saints' lives in England in this period, as well as a thoughtful reading of the work's regional and institutional situation--as a text designed to assert and reinforce certain privileges of the monastery of St. Werburge and also to cast Chester as a metonym for England. The latter effect is achieved, she observes, particularly through its role as a border town but also through the figure of Werburge herself, descendant and culmination of a lovingly detailed Anglo-Saxon genealogy that then becomes the basis for her English appeal across time. At the same time, the saint's example is used to reinforce contemporary class divisions, making the English nationhood she represents one that sustains rather than challenging social norms. The chapter ends with a delightful flourish, as Sanok points out that the less coherent account of English nationhood provided by Richard Pynson's 1516 printing of the Kalendre of the New Legende of Englande--a calendar of English saints which ends, puzzlingly but not inexplicably, with the adopted English St. Birgitta--is, in a sense, recuperated and perfected in his 1521 legend of St. Werburge, which reuses the woodcut depicting Birgitta for its frontispiece of the truly native saint.

The fifth chapter turns to two women who performed uncomfortably accurate imitationes of early Christian saints: Christina of Markyate, whose "somewhat more straightforward" (117) and less public imitatio ultimately made it possible to assimilate her into familiar paradigms; and Margery Kempe, whom no one has ever found it easy to assimilate into anything. In both cases, however, Sanok argues, exemplarity allowed and perhaps even encouraged exploration of the historicity of women's devotional practice and its cultural contexts. This is most notable in the case of Margery, whom Sanok sees as forcing a recognition of the "disjunctions between social and spiritual systems of meaning" (142) as she directly adopts the behaviors of key early-Christian saints--Mary Magdalene, Cecilia, Katherine of Alexandria--in ways that disorient her audiences (past and present) and show the strains, perhaps insurmountable, created by the attempt to reconcile bourgeois social expectations with spiritual commitment.

The accumulated arguments about community, history, and ethical practice from the earlier chapters give Sanok the momentum, in her sixth and final chapter, to tackle the tricky issue of saints' plays-- tricky because of the dearth of substantive evidence about their performance and content. Beginning with the civic spectacle of the pageant performed for Catherine of Aragon upon her 1501 entry into London (which featured SS. Katherine of Alexandria and Ursula in roles that conspicuously omitted mention of their actual legends, focusing instead on their royal English associations), she then works backward to the briefly noted "pley of seynt Katerine" mentioned by the London Chronicle in 1393 and other, equally misty saints' plays. Drawing together surviving evidence and recent scholarship on the parish-guild associations of virgin martyrs and their plays, she argues that their potential for dissent or challenge to civic and religious authority was widely perceived and persistent, while at the same time noting the convention of cross-dressed performance that kept women out of the roles (those of virgin martyrs) most challenging to contemporary gender norms. The argument is duly careful and while the paucity of evidence on these plays makes a definitive case impossible, the conjectures about the latent dangers of saints' drama are plausible and offer an intriguing basis for the concluding discussion of Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale and the implications of its female teller--in a sense, preacher--of a female saint's life.

Returning to St. Cecilia, then, the book comes full circle but in a way that, as Sanok emphasizes, reminds us once more of the "tactical reading" possibilities available in late-medieval hagiography and of the varieties of ethical response and modes of imitation they elicited. Similarly, a brief but emphatic Afterword points out that careful attention to medieval forms of exemplarity and the forms of historical consciousness they articulate offers yet one more argument against the exploded but persistent fiction of a Middle Ages without a sense of history beyond the eschatological, and demonstrates the persistence of "medieval" exemplarity into Foxe's Actes and Monuments, which struggles in some similar ways with the continuities and discontinuities of history.

Rhetorically, the book gracefully conveys a complex and rounded sense of its central points by returning to them in varied forms; there is a strong sense of the coherence and interconnectedness of the argument's parts without a feeling of excessive repetition. Because of its range and its juxtaposition of better-known and less-known texts, it also offers a wonderful introduction to the modes of medieval hagiography in their many contexts as well as rewardingly detailed readings. In so doing, it helps to continue the demolition of the notion of either hagiography or the Middle Ages as telling the same story over and over.