Karen A. Winstead

title.none: Lewis, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England (Karen A. Winstead)

identifier.other: baj9928.0112.013 01.12.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Karen A. Winstead, Ohio State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Lewis, Katherine. The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 286. 75.00. ISBN: 0-851-15773-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.12.13

Lewis, Katherine. The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 286. 75.00. ISBN: 0-851-15773-4.

Reviewed by:

Karen A. Winstead
Ohio State University

No saint was more popular during the late Middle Ages than Katherine of Alexandria, and no saint's cult is more challenging to study. The quantity of relevant evidence is staggering. Most national traditions, including England's, produced hundreds if not thousands of surviving artifacts. These include painted images, church windows, statuary, badges, and seals; literary artifacts, such as sermons and narratives; as well as countless non-literary textual references in wills and other records. This daunting bulk of material may explain why there are so few published studies of this important saint, despite the blossoming of research on hagiography that has taken place over the past decades. Work that has been done on Katherine tends to concentrate on a single facet of the saint's cult within a single national tradition-for example, lives composed in German.

Katherine J. Lewis's Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England is the most ambitious study of the saint to date. Lewis analyzes evidence from sources as diverse as written legends, murals, household inventories, church dedications, pilgrimage badges, and banquet tableaux. Her multidisciplinary book, traversing the boundaries of history, archaeology, art history, folklore, literary studies, and gender studies, ranks with the finest work on saints by cultural historians such as Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn. It is a worthy model for future studies of Katherine, or of other saints' cults.

Lewis never loses sight of the complexity of her subject. "There is no one St Katherine to seek or find," she emphasizes, "but a figure whose representation entailed many meanings and invited a variety of appropriations." (133) In exploring those diverse meanings and appropriations, she considers the various contexts in which Katherine's legend was received, particularly the household, the parish, and the guild. Understanding Katherine's role in each of these contexts is itself tricky, she insists, because institutions such as parishes and households were by no means homogeneous bodies. The perception of any element of Katherine's legend, Lewis cautions, could depend on context and circumstances. Thus, for example, Katherine's learning might equally be seen as empowering or as dangerous.

Lewis avoids the tendency, still all too common, to consider female saints almost exclusively in relation to women. While giving due consideration to Katherine's importance for women, she also emphasizes Katherine's appeal to men. In the debate between Katherine and the fifty pagan philosophers, Lewis proposes, the learned saint may have served as a model for pastors dealing with increasingly inquisitive and informed parishioners. Men as well as women, she contends, could and would have identified with Katherine as Christ's bride. And while certain representations of Katherine may have encouraged women to expand their intellectual horizons, the male members of urban oligarchies also used her to "uphold and maintain the patriarchal status quo". (170)

The Cult of St Katherine consists of a preface and five chapters. In the preface, Lewis gives a broad summary of the Katherine legend as it was known in England, based primarily upon a widely disseminated life in Middle English prose composed during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Chapter 1 surveys the evidence (visual, archeological, archival, literary, etc.) pertaining to Katherine's cult. Chapter two recounts the early history of the cult and its establishment in England, considers Katherine's significance for English royalty, and discusses Katherine's distinctiveness as a virgin martyr. The next two chapters situate Katherine within specific contexts. "Reading St Katherine in the Parish" examines Katherine's presentation to parishioners through sermons, stained-glass windows, and murals, as well as considering evidence of her reception found in wills and in the records of religious guilds. "Reading St Katherine in the Household" follows naturally from the chapter on the parish. Here Lewis focuses on fourteen manuscripts that appear to have been produced for use within lay households. These manuscripts, she argues, "demonstrate the ways in which the programme for pastoral instruction outlined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 became part of the lay domestic observance of religion". (178) The book concludes with a chapter considering the relevance of Katherine and her legend to medieval women, much of which was previously published as "Model girls? Virgin martyrs and the training of young women in late medieval England" in Young Medieval Women (Stroud, 1999).

My criticisms of this book are minor and pertain mostly to its structure. The tremendous amount of information in The Cult of St Katherine is not always effectively organized. I, for one, would have appreciated shorter chapters with more descriptive titles. For example, little more than half of Chapter 2 directly pertains to its purported topic, "St Katherine as Virgin Martyr". Few would guess to look there for extended discussions of, say, Katherine's appropriation by the Lancastrians or of Mount Sinai's importance as a pilgrimage destination. (Fortunately, the book does have a thorough index!) I also don't think it was a good idea to depart from a context-oriented organization (Katherine in the parish, Katherine in the household) to include the final chapter, "St Katherine and Women", whose original incarnation as a freestanding essay is rather too obvious. Because Lewis has discussed Katherine's importance to women throughout the book, the title strikes the reader as odd, and indeed, the chapter begins by repeating material about Katherine as a virgin martyr that was already covered in Chapter 2. Much of her discussion of Katherine as a role model for women could have been incorporated into her chapter on the household. Her discussion of Margery Kempe's use of the Katherine legend would have fit nicely into the chapter on the parish.

Such minor organizational defects will not prevent scholars of late medieval English cultural history from finding The Cult of St Katherine enormously rewarding. Lewis has amassed an impressive quantity of evidence about St Katherine's reception in England and has used that evidence to elucidate the saint's multifarious roles in medieval society, roles ranging from a model of household management to an agent of social control.