John Kitchen

title.none: Walsh, The Cult of St. Katherine (John Kitchen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.009 08.11.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Kitchen, University of Alberta,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Walsh, Christine. The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe. Church, Faith, and Culture in the Medieval West. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. 222. $99.95 978-0-75465-861-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.09

Walsh, Christine. The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe. Church, Faith, and Culture in the Medieval West. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. 222. $99.95 978-0-75465-861-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Kitchen
University of Alberta

A study providing more information than Walsh's about Saint Katherine's early following is difficult for this reviewer to imagine. The discussion offers an extensive investigation encompassing the hagiography, iconography, charters, dedications, figures, geography and politics surrounding the cult's origins and development. While the treatment is especially strong in its critical scrutiny of the "varied and scattered" (2) sources, there is another aspect to the work that readers might easily lose sight of when faced with such an abundance of material so meticulously examined. The inquiry's less discernible but no less important contribution is its delineation of a complex process, one in which the inchoate expressions of piety slowly coalesced into a thriving cult. Walsh's book reminds us of how uncertain saintly afterlife can be: no more than an oral tradition initially commemorates Katherine; for a long time no relics were on hand to draw pilgrims; though her story goes back to Roman times, even as late as the tenth century her cult "is still quite minor" (27); she could have languished "forever in obscurity" (143). Yet Katherine would emerge as one of Western Europe's most popular saints. How did this happen? That is the larger question the book addresses; and it does so by examining closely the early textual and visual representations that led to her gradual reception into the mainstream of medieval religious life.

Walsh's approach, as the book's title indicates, is to focus primarily on the cult rather than the saint herself, for in all likelihood there is no historical Katherine, at least not one we can corroborate. The anonymous author of her Passio draws heavily on the topoi marking other early accounts of female martyrs. Hence Katherine represents--indeed, she is "a prime example of"--what hagiographic specialists call a "constructed saint," a "composite" of stock literary elements (3). Of course, the idea of a constructed saint is not new. What has changed--and what Walsh's study seems to reflect--is the attitude of historians. To recall a phrase from the Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye (d. 1941), one of hagiography's most historically- minded critics, Katherine's "borrowed clothing" (vĂȘtement d'emprunt), the cut-and-paste portrait that leads us to regard her as a hagiographer's invention, is not as problematic as it once might have been: "the important fact is that people believed in Katherine's existence, this sincerely held belief providing impetus to the cult" (4). Thus in terms of the study's approach, the author turns to the hagiographic dossier not for its biographical historicity, but for what it can tell us about the ways Katherine's cult fulfilled specific needs and aspirations in the geographic regions where devotion to her was strongest from c. 305 to c. 1200. These regions are: the Eastern Roman Empire, Italy, Normandy and England. In focusing on the cult's early formation in these areas, the author is also concentrating on a period that has not received extensive attention from previous scholars, most of whom treated the Katherine-cult in the later Middle Ages.

After establishing the book's approach, along with its geographic and temporal scope, the Passio itself comes under scrutiny. Although the second chapter is entitled "The Historical Katherine," Walsh is as emphatic here as she is at the very beginning and end of her study: "the Passio provides no evidence that Katherine ever existed as a living person" (1, 21, 143). Nonetheless, as the later chapters show, the account of her martyrdom is of the greatest importance, for it is largely through the Latin translation of the Passio, originally in Greek, that knowledge of Katherine is transmitted to the West. The other enabling factors in the cult's earliest dissemination are the inclusion of Katherine in the liturgy of the Eastern Church (Chapter 3) and her gradual rise to prominence in the famous monastery on Sinai named after her (Chapter 4). The study then considers the various routes and personal means by which knowledge of the martyr reached Italy, where the story of Katherine's opposition to a "tyrannical ruler" (58) bolstered the papal reform movement during the investiture contest (Chapter 5). The sixth and seventh chapters consist of "case studies" (6), in which the transmission of the cult to Normandy and England is treated. These later chapters, considered in light of the book's previous findings, are most illuminating as they provide an opportunity to compare the cult's development in different regions. Thus the final sections bring to fruition the overarching goal of the investigation: to show how the "the way the cult changed over time...illuminates...broader changes in society" (3).

Characterizing Walsh's treatment of the various themes outlined above is a determined cautiousness in her handling of the evidence and historiography. The care with which she treats both the sources and the previous scholarship gives to the whole study an admirable precision. In sifting through the material, she pinpoints key episodes leading to Katherine's advancement. As has already been suggested, the Passio, written sometime between the sixth and eighth century (Walsh favors the latter), is crucial for the cult's establishment. The rest of the early evidence is scanty, mostly snippets of liturgical texts. Hence the Passio marks Katherine's most significant break into the religious imagination, a break due in part to the one distinctive element Walsh identifies--the saint's public debate with Alexandria's learned men. With its colorful description of her outsmarting and converting "fifty philosophers," who had set out to deter her from Christianity (7), the Passio gives Katherine a definable character. Considered in terms of what the story as a whole offered, "the Passio was a major advance for the cult as it enabled Katherine to develop a distinct persona with which the faithful could identify--a prerequisite for any cult--that of a beautiful, intelligent, noble-born virgin, capable of defying an Emperor, of outwitting the finest minds in the Roman Empire and of enduring torture and martyrdom for her Christian faith" (143).

The Passio also deserves attention for a notable request. Similar to the Life of Antony, in which the holy man asks that his body be "buried in an unknown location" (13-14), the story of Katherine's martyrdom recounts the saint's wish to be hidden after her death instead of being "divided into relics" (16). In a manner that is typical of the entire study, Walsh offers an explanation for this feature of the narrative that ties the early representation of Katherine to the larger historical situation, in this case Byzantium's major crisis--the controversy over religious images. She suggests that the martyr's prayer not to have her body divided "could be seen as being broadly in keeping with the iconoclast viewpoint" (16). But in qualifying her position, Walsh resists viewing the account of the saint's request as the product of heavy-handed iconoclasm. The point of the story is to attract rather than divide Christians. Given the theological tensions of the period and region, the Passio's explanation for the missing remains would have appealed to a diverse audience generally anxious over the status of holy objects. Thus the absence of her relics during the first iconoclast period makes Katherine "acceptable to all shades of religious opinion" (16).

A particular era's solution, however, can become another one's problem. As the discussion proceeds to the centuries following the iconoclast controversy, we see how the missing relics impede the cult's expansion. After all, medieval devotion is hard to generate without some portion of the holy body accessible to the faithful. The "cultural pressure" for saintly remains meant that if no "physical manifestations" of Katherine were found, her cult could not "grow beyond minor status" (39). The discovery of relics thus marks another major episode in the history of Katherine's reception. Again the Passio is the key, for it claims that angels buried the martyr at a hidden spot on Mount Sinai, thus creating the expectation of finding relics there. Although the inventio of Katherine's body on the site are "extremely obscure" (39), by the twelfth century the martyr's remains had been placed in the main monastery on Sinai. Most significant--and this occurs more than once in the history of the cult--with the relics as a focal point, Katherine's popularity began to overshadow the institution's original dedication. Popes in 1217 and in 1317 had referred in bulls to the "monastery of St. Mary." But in 1328 John XXII calls it "St Catherine's" (42). What is more, the relics facilitated the spread of the cult; they created what we might call the saint's transferability, for relics have a metonymical quality--to have a part of a saint is to have the whole. Not only could portions of the martyr be "miraculously detached" from her body (73); pilgrims now had access to the "healing oil" exuding from Katherine's bones (40, 88-89). By the 1040s, three fragments of her had reached the Norman monastery of Holy Trinity, Rouen (76). It too would undergo a change of name reflecting the popularity of Katherine. Her cult was now on its way to becoming "well entrenched" (150) in Western Europe, though with one significant departure from its foundational source: "the later western texts of the Passio omit the prayer not to divide her body" (14).

In tracing the processes and phases of the cult's development in different locations, Walsh is also able to establish a basis for comparison. Normandy, for instance, follows a pattern "typical" of most saints' cults, with the acquisition of relics being the catalyst of growth (96). On the other hand, the reception of the Katherine-cult in England follows a pattern akin to what Walsh identified in the East, with liturgical commemoration and hagiographic tradition being the primary means of establishing and sustaining her veneration. Significantly, there are almost no primary relics of Katherine in England. These are valuable observations, which bear on larger questions surrounding the mechanisms at work in the cult of the saints as a whole.

There is, then, much to recommend this book, which also includes a substantial appendix containing critical discussion and translations of odes, miracle stories, and liturgical texts pertaining to Katherine (though, unfortunately, there are no illustrations of the visual representations mentioned throughout the work). It is clear that the study is primarily addressed to historians; and the historical kernels it finds are hard won. However, the author's attentiveness to the rhetorical strategies marking the sources, along with the substantial textual material appended to the study, will also make the book of interest to literary critics and hagiographic researchers, especially those investigating the depictions of female martyrs and saints. Finally--and perhaps most important of all--the book offers a fine example of the way scholarship intensely focused on very particular matters can bring to light broader social and cultural practices that characterize the interconnectedness of medieval religion and society.