Michael Goodich

title.none: Ashton, Speaking the Saint (Goodich)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.012 00.09.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Goodich, Haifa University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Ashton, Gail. Speaking the Saint: The Generation of Identity in Late Medieval Hagiography. Routledge Research in Medieval Studies. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. vii, 173. $50.00. ISBN: 0-415-18210-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.12

Ashton, Gail. Speaking the Saint: The Generation of Identity in Late Medieval Hagiography. Routledge Research in Medieval Studies. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. vii, 173. $50.00. ISBN: 0-415-18210-7.

Reviewed by:

Michael Goodich
Haifa University

This volume is a study of late medieval female saints' lives written in middle English, firmly based on the theories of gendered psychology found in the works of the French feminists Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous which have been translated into English. Despite male impositions intended to manipulatively reduce the female saint into a "lifeless, patriarchal doll" (p. 104), an effort is here made to trace a female presence and to liberate the female saint from the imprisonment of bondage to masculine needs. The author openly admits that her attempt to unravel the "authentic female voice" so well hidden in the male hegemonic rhetoric of later medieval hagiography, is based on a strong ideological orientation. This is readily apparent in the repeated use of such code words as "fissures," "construction," "jouissance," "patriarchal," "alterity," "univocality," "the chora," and "abjection," which may be clear to the initiate who is well-versed in feminist theory. For those less conversant with the works of the above-mentioned authors, such terminology may often obfuscate rather than illuminate and a course of study of the above canon may be necessary.

The work is divided into four chapters, entitled: 1) "Narration and narratorial [sic] control: the masculine voice;" 2) "A concept of space and a notion of identity;" 3) "Articulating an identity: speech, silence, and self-disclosure;" and 4) "Written on the body," in addition to an introduction and conclusion. The volume treats exclusively texts written in English, and makes use only of secondary materials in English. The first chapter provides a useful prolegomena to the sources, their authors and contents, although the summaries often contain editorializing and analysis in which it may be difficult to distinguish Ashton's voice from her subject's. The corpus examined includes such works as Mirk's Festial, John Capgrave's The Life of St. Katherine of Alexandria, the Early South English Legendary, the Legendys of Hooly Wummen by Bokenham, Caxton's version of James of Voragine's Legenda aurea, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, among others.

Limiting her inquiry to these particular texts necessarily imposes some limitations. Thus, for example, although Capgrave's life of Catherine of Alexandria may be the fullest medieval account of this influential saint's life, no reference is made to the very rich hagiographical literature [see Bibliotheca hagiographica latina, 1657-1700] which preceded his work. Similarly, the study of the legend of St. Cecilia lacks sufficient reference to such literary antecedents as Flodoard and Aldhelm. Likewise, the life of Elizabeth of Hungary was based on a considerable corpus of contemporary material, in which women were given a greater opportunity to speak (admittedly under male guidance). As a more contemporary saint, it is possible to distinguish between her propagandistic presentation in hagiography and the historical record, which may be instructive. But without reference to these other sources, it is difficult to judge whether the English portrayals merely reflect the psychopathology of late medieval English clerics, or are representative portraits of female sanctity for the entire period. Such cross-historical studies of individual saint's legends might help to contextualize these sources and reflect the nuances of changing perceptions of pious womanhood (of course only through men's eyes, since the number of legendae written by women is very small, and the few 'autobiographies' of women were often dictated to a male confessor). The work of Sherry Reames might serve as a suitable model (cited on p. 68, n. 56).

Furthermore, while the availability of these texts in the vernacular and eventually in print would clearly increase their readership, the nature of the audience is not adequately addressed. Are they meant for men, in order to re-enforce their own notions of femininity, or for women, in order to impose the male version on them? How are these texts complemented by the more widely known visual images of martyrdom, self-sacrifice, etc.? What is the distribution of chapels, altars, cloisters dedicated to these holy women, and who were their constituencies? How original are Mirk, Bokenham, Chaucer and the other hagiographers? Or are they simply translating into English earlier versions of the saint's lives? Ashton is on the mark in admitting that hagiography serves the needs of the community for which it was written. One could question, however, these hagiographers' claims (as Ashton sometimes does) to serve women. It would be more apt to suggest that their works serve other men, who wish to perpetuate the subordination of women and of the values of a society dominated by men. The sanctity of women was clearly defined by men, denying their selfhood and individual, textured identity in pursuit of a stereotypical 'ideal'. Even a valiant, learned rebel against male authority such as Catherine of Alexandria in the end is depicted, even by sympathetic biographers, as a source of licentiousness, a servant of patriarchal values, a mere vessel for the holiness of a male God (pp. 17-23). Following French feminism, Ashton notes the grim fact that "there exists nothing that is not defined by masculinist assumption.... As a result, all female experience is 'spoken' by men in a particular style of language which represents the 'truth' about women" (pp. 103-4). While the author notes the peculiar role of vision and ecstasy in female piety, these themes might have been further explored in relation to the selected texts. The author rightly notes the focal place of song and music in the hagiography of women. Here again, further exploration of the occasions in which music plays a role (in the course of a revelation, as an expression of sisterhood) would enhance our understanding of the history of music as a medium for women's spirituality. At the same time, citing Cixous, Ashton suggests that "what is repressed in women's speech and song" (p. 6). In fact, the lives of such saints as Margaret of Cortona, Margaret Colonna, Margaret of Hungary, Hildegard of Bingen, Dauphine of Languedoc, Helen of Hungary, and Dorothy of Montau (all based on direct testimony by persons, including women, who knew the saints), to name just a small sample, are replete with references to women as composers, musicians, choristers and recipients of heavenly music. But these cases are of course not included in Ashton's sample of biographies. At the same time, the exploration of the female body as the vehicle for the enactment of the Christian ideology of sacrificial suffering receives greater attention and maps out the vulnerabilities of the female body and its effluvia.

Some of my criticism of this monograph may well stem from our differing professional training: mine as a historian, Ashton's as a student of literature and gender studies. This reviewer, biologically male, according to Ashton has been endowed with "phallocentric logic [which] stress[es] singularity, univocality, or at best, binary opposition, and operate[s] under an unconscious or socialised commitment to patriarchal conventions" (p. 5). As a man, he (I) allegedly "seeks therefore to resolve disparity, to resist contradiction and multiplicity." The term "phallocentric" reeks of a certain prejudiced reductionism best avoided. Further, the rather strong dichotomy between male and female expressed in this work does, my arrogant male voice believes, contradict a more fluid concept of sexuality that occasionally makes itself heard in medieval sources. But this is perhaps a large question that goes beyond either this review or the volume at hand. A greater integration of contemporary medical and theological notions of womanhood as attempted by Elizabeth Robertson, for example, seems like a fruitful avenue for research. Since much hagiography played not merely a devotional role, but was also meant to entertain (p. 41), perhaps it can be put on the level of some of the cruder forms of contemporary pop culture with their fictitious portrayals of women/men meant to satisfy men's/boys' fantasies. As Ashton notes, "the female subjects of these tales are reduced to powerless mirror images of patriarchal assumption" (p. 41, referring to Caxton's version of The Golden Legend). Ashton's work thus encourages a healthy suspicion both of the contents and intentions of medieval female saints' lives and of those who attempt to deconstruct them.