Michael Calabrese

title.none: Delany, A Legend of Holy Women

identifier.other: baj9928.9401.004 94.01.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, Whitman College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Delany, Sheila, trans. A Legend of Holy Women: A Translation of Osbern Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992. Pp. xxxv + 219. $29.95 cloth $14.95 paper. ISBN: ISBN 0-268-01294-6 ISBN 0-268-01295-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.01.04

Delany, Sheila, trans. A Legend of Holy Women: A Translation of Osbern Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992. Pp. xxxv + 219. $29.95 cloth $14.95 paper. ISBN: ISBN 0-268-01294-6 ISBN 0-268-01295-4.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
Whitman College

Sheila Delany has dusted off an EETS volume of late 15th-century female saints' lives and translated the stories, themselves Middle English versions of various Latin hagiographic stories, into modern English prose in a handsome, classroom worthy volume. Scholars unfamiliar with the Austin monk Bokenham will no doubt benefit from this work, which presents to the academic community a relatively obscure monastic author. The work is directed at students and designed for teaching and must primarily be examined in this context.

As Delany indicates, Bokenham's is the "first all female hagiography in any language" (xxvii), and there is no doubt that this volume will serve teachers in the 90s as part of our ongoing effort to expand the canon to include more works about women. Because Bokenham is an English author, this book can be included in English literature survey classes, allowing students of Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich and Chaucer's women to see and hear vernacular images and voices that do not appear in the Norton anthology. The twelve stories themselves, derived from a series of Latin sources (discussed in the Serjeanston EETS edition, xxi-xxiv) include the lives of Saints Margaret, Anne, Katherine, Mary Magdalen and Cecelia.

Most of the traditional legends work according to a very simply structured conflict: a female virgin pledges herself to be the bride of Christ, is desired or harassed by a pagan male authority figure, suffers horrific bodily abuse, and is joyously martyred. The legends provide for both the poet and audience not only exemplary narrative, but effective, affective images of devotion and loci for comforting prayer. Some of the stories may lack the drama, ironies and complexity of Chaucer's Man of Law's or Second's Nun's Tale, for they are ever programmatic and direct: Bokenham is not playing with genre or character or narrative. But in terms of our teaching and study, this volume (like such texts as the Paulist Press's Anchorite Spirituality, a collection of Middle English spiritual guides and narratives concerning women) will contribute to our re-invention of the undergraduate curriculum and may inspire students to explore hagiography, the Golden Legends and others work of female or indeed male spirituality in the Middle Ages. To take a work from relative obscurity and make it available for classroom use appears to be one of Delany's main goals, and her efforts are bound to generate interest in Medieval and in women's literature.

Because of Bokenham's relative obscurity and because the book is designed for undergraduate use, Delany offers some 192 notes to the text, defining figures as obscure as "Euprepia," one of the handmaidens of Saint Afra, and as familiar as "Minerva" and "Tully." A select bibliography provides both primary and secondary sources that could serve to spark both undergraduate and graduate research. The introduction provides a clear, general overview of the historical, cultural, literary and spiritual context of the Legends, synthesizes information concerning Bokenham himself, and provides history of the unique ms. and the EETS edition,. giving the reader a good general sense of the world of Bokenham and of the Legends themselves. We learn that Bokenham at least would have known of Margery Kempe (xi), that he wrote in a time of political and religious turbulence, and that despite being an Austin monk, because of his social, political connections and his patrons, he lived "no hermit like existence."(xiii). We learn of Bokenham's other, scholarly/political works, some supportive of Richard, Duke of York and his claim to the throne, a detail that will figure in Delany's assessment of the political aim of these female saints' lives.

Delany shows particular delight in sharing details that Bokenham provides about himself in the text, that he wore spectacles for example, and she prepares us for the homey speech that gives the work a warmly human cast, wondering if "Perhaps all this is the plain Suffolk countryboy speaking alongside the Cambridge student of Latin classics (xvii). Delany does well here to sensitize the reader to Bokenham's charming, personal rhetoric, for it is one of the most interesting features of an otherwise deeply derivative, programmatic vernacular version of the Latin saints' legends. That Bokenham as self conscious, struggling author shines through in so artificial a work should contribute to our understanding of medieval monastic authorship and composition.

By far the boldest features of the introduction and of the volume itself, however, are Delany's claims to the political and literary significance of the Legends. Here she brushes up against complex scholarly arguments and promises that elsewhere (we must imagine in separate scholarly work still in progress or in press) she will expand and argue her points (xxiii, xxvi.). Her two pronged analysis is this: Bokenham writes a history of female saints in part to support Richard's aspiration to the thrown, a claim based on the Yorkist reliance on the notion of female ability to transmit the right of succession. Second, argues Delany, the Legends are intentionally modeled on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women and seek to transform a secular text into a more fittingly holy one.

The first claim., though not as clear as summer sun, is thrilling and provokes questions about the relations between history, politics, poetry and hagiography. "The capacity of women to succeed to rule or. . . to transmit the right to rule. . . became a significant component in public debate," says Delany (xxviii), as she argues that "the time was ripe for such a project" as Bokenham's all female hagiography. Delany acknowledges that as propaganda, such a work as the Legends would not have much circulation or very popular political appeal, but she maintains nonetheless that "to those who identified their fortune . . . with that of the Yorkists, [Bokenham's collection] would be, I think, a welcome, if modest, affirmation of their hopes" (xxx). Delany's formulation here is overtly mild and tentative, and we must await response from historians to these claims. Delany's argument does indeed influence our assessment of the spirit of the work, since she argues that as part of this project Bokenham at times "softens" the misogynist thrust of his sources (xxxi). The very status of the Legends in woman's history is at issue here.

Delany's second bold assertion, concerning the work's debt to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, she supports through a point by point comparison of stories in the two collections, displaying how an image or feature from Chaucer's poem corresponds to a story in the Legends. The believability of the correspondences varies. We might agree that Bokenham's choice of Margaret (in French "marguerite") as the first subject echoes Chaucer's moving worship of the daisy the Prologue to the LGW. But readers will have to decide the force and importance of such assertions as Delany's claim that Bokenham's story of St. Faith corresponds to the tale of Dido because Faith is "bound to a bed or grill of brass and roasted" and "Dido and Aeneas spend a great deal of time in bed" (xxiv-xxv).

At one point honesty compels Delany to flatly admit that "To the legend of Phyllis, Chaucer's eighth, I have found no particular correspondence in Bokenham" (xxvi). If Bokenham labors to create such complex imagistic correspondences, why did he nap at this point? Why too does he write three lives beyond Chaucer's nine? Readers cannot help but be flustered with this awkward game of matching, and Delany's "I won't develop this assertion here" sounds too much like the deflective rhetoric of a playful, unreliable Chaucerian narrator. Here it appears Delany is trying to welcome students into the world of the text while also attempting to attend to her fellow medievalists, who would be anxious to be convinced of this bold literary historical claim she has made. For if Bokenham's parallel work is "at once homage and critique" and if his strategy is "to replace the mock hagiography with a real one" (xxvi) then our understanding of 15th-century literature, Chaucer's reception and the status of secular and religious literature are all influenced. These are the "scholarly" issues that arise from this volume, and we must await the arguments, the response and the debates that will arise as we try to sort out Bokenham's role in English Literary History.

Delany explains her decision not to translate into verse because of the "futility of attempting to duplicate Bokenham's rhymes in modern English" (xxxv), and she relates her modern decision to the medieval practice of "unrhyming," i.e., translating from verse to prose. Though she has converted stanzas into paragraphs in an attempt to maintain Bokenham's pace and structure, the "unrhyming" distances readers from the rugged poetic world of Bokenham and makes less appreciable Bokenham's self consciousness of his poetic imperfections and his humble references to Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate. But Delany's decision may make the work more readable and accessible to modern audiences and non specialists than a verse translation would have. Scholars will always, of course, employ the EETS edition, and teachers of English Literature can easily reproduce parts of the original if they want to present the "real" Bokenham to students. Delany too has indeed captured some of the verve and liveliness of the original, as we see in the following excerpt from the Prologue to the life of Saint Anne, where Bokenham, Reeve like, laments his advancing age:"If I had knowledge and eloquence to dilate my conceits skillfully, as formerly did the fresh rhetoricians Gower, Chaucer, and now Lydgate, I would occupy myself in translating the life of Saint Anne into our language. But I fear to begin so late, lest people ascribe it to dotage. For I know full well I am advanced in age, and my life's term fast approaches, and the fierce rage of cruel death—as my inevitable fate wills—has stopped his cart at my gate to carry me off; and I neither may nor can, though I hate him, resist his force."Such a passage captures the humanity and sweetness of Bokenham's 16 line stanza well. And Delany's focus is not on a poetic document per se, but on a political document, political in relation to the status of women in 15th-century England, and in relation to contemporary academic needs and canon reformation. Her goal, I would conclude, is to get before the academic reading public this "gallery of strong articulate women who are indubitably worthy to do God's work" (xxx). Such a project as this, full of bold literary and historical assertions, is bound to contribute to graduate and undergraduate curricula, to aid our understanding of the function of hagiography, and deepen our knowledge of and interest in the female voice and female power in Medieval literature. At the very least, this book will generate discussion of these issues and of the role played in English literary history by this "first all female hagiography in any language."