Karen Winstead

title.none: Wogan-Browne, Saints' Lives & Women's Literary Culture (Karen Winstead)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.005 02.11.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

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

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. Saints' Lives & Women's Literary Culture: Virginity and Its Authorizations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 314. 80.00. ISBN: 0-198-11279-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.05

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. Saints' Lives & Women's Literary Culture: Virginity and Its Authorizations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 314. 80.00. ISBN: 0-198-11279-3.

Reviewed by:

Karen Winstead
The Ohio State University

Though Jocelyn Wogan-Browne claims that Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture is about "the literary culture of women in earlier medieval England" (1), her book is more specifically about Anglo-Norman manifestations of that culture. Such a focus is highly welcome. The rich Francophone literature that was produced in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England has largely been an orphan, claimed by neither scholars in English departments nor their colleagues in French. The neglect of this literature by specialists in women's culture is particularly lamentable, because so much of it was written for, by, or about women, and much of it appears in manuscripts owned by women. Wogan-Browne's study of Anglo-Norman women's literature and its cultural environments enriches our understanding of post-Conquest England, complementing a substantial body of scholarship on women's literary culture that has been based on the Ancrene Wisse and related "Katherine Group" texts and thereby correcting some misapprehensions that have resulted from an over-emphasis on Anglophone culture.

As the book's subtitle announces, its organizing theme is virginity, an ideal that dominated women's literature, especially hagiography, but whose expression was complex and varied. In focusing on Middle English hagiography, Wogan-Browne argues, scholars have overemphasized the importance of virgin martyrs as paradigms for women in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: "Not only the predominance of English texts in the Katherine Group manuscripts but the exclusivity with which they present female sanctity as virgin martyrdom is almost without parallel" (6). Most manuscripts owned by twelfth- and thirteenth-century Englishwomen, she points out, feature a far more varied selection of saints. A case in point is the late-thirteenth-century miscellany owned by the Augustinian priory at Campsey, which includes among its virgin saints not only martyrs but also abbesses, celibate churchmen, and a holy king, and which features in addition a reformed prostitute and a holy wife.

Wogan-Browne's discussions of Anglo-Norman departures from the virgin martyr paradigm are the strongest portions of her book. In Chapters 2 and 6, she discusses the development and evolution in post-Conquest Britain of a "virgin pantheon" of pre-Conquest abbesses and foundresses, including the "historical" Audrey (Etheldreda) of Ely, the "composite" Osith of Chich, the "semi-legendary" Modwenna of Ireland, and the "shadowy" Edith of Polesworth (63-65). This pantheon, a "reinvention of Anglo-Saxon virginity for Anglo-Norman interests" (60), was seldom supplemented by contemporary foundresses or abbesses, the most significant of whom tended to be not virgins but rather high-born widows. Wogan-Browne shows how the reconstituted lives and post-mortem miracles of these pre-Conquest virgins contribute to an Anglo-Norman mythos of authority, stretching "the rich and flexible capacities of virginity to the limit" (222).

In Chapter 4, she discusses hagiographers' construction of "honorary virgins" through asceticism and penance, arguing that these practices "become modes in which widows and mothers can claim the powers of the virgin-martyr ideal for lives within and outside the enclosures of convents and households" (124). Creating more inclusive models of sanctity was, she contends, essential to avoid alienating the "socio-economically indispensable audience of married and widowed women" (124). Reformed prostitutes provided models "available both for the institutional church's thinking-through of newly feminized styles of spirituality and for women's own various identifications" (139). Likewise, Nicholas Bozon's lives of Saints Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth of Hungary "modulate and broaden the models of female sanctity available in the vernacular in England, adding figures who authorize a wider range of female roles and occupations as exemplary" (146). In Bozon's lives particularly, Wogan-Browne discerns "Continental styles of female holiness" that are not found in Middle English hagiography until the fifteenth century; indeed, she proposes, it may be possible to chart a "history of exchange and cross-influence in women's thirteenth-century literary culture in the region constituted by the East Anglian coast and north-west Europe" (148).

In Chapter 5, Wogan-Browne turns to the biographies of ascetic clerics, which "seem to have been of interest to elite women, inside and around female communities" (151). She focuses on the lives of Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard, Bishop of Chichester, which were, respectively, dedicated to and commissioned by Isabella, Countess of Arundel (d. 1279). "Churchmen's biographies," Wogan-Browne maintains, "map family relations and sexual and gender identities no less powerfully than chivalric and courtly romance or virgin martyr hagiography" (176). In a fascinating discussion of the lives of these courtier ascetics, she teases out political subtexts, demonstrating the lives' appeal to both baronial and ecclesiastical interests and their usefulness to Isabella, an outspoken and politically active woman who resisted either remarriage or enclosure, the common routes to respectability for widows.

Less satisfying than her chapters on male celibates, penitents, and abbesses is Wogan-Browne's chapter on virgin martyrs. Chapter 3, "Virgin Passions: Romance, Raptus, Ritual," rushes through a raft of loosely related topics, including the parallels between hagiography and romance, the meaning of torture, the importance of structural inversion, the virgin martyr's "potential heterodoxy" (113), and an allegedly surprising lack of anti-Semitism in virgin martyr legends. This chapter struck me as oddly out of place in the book: the most heavily theorized, it is also the most reliant on generalizations and the least on close readings; moreover, it is the least concerned with women's literary culture or with distinctly insular topics. Certain of the larger claims are hardly new-for example, that "it is quite impossible to see the genre simply as male fantasy visited upon women" (117) or that "saints' lives are not triumphal patriarchal statement, but a struggle to fix contested and anxiety-ridden categories" (112).

Far more successful, to my mind, were Wogan-Browne's close readings of the virgin martyr legends by Simon of Walsingham and Clemence of Barking in chapters 2 and 7, respectively. She argues that Simon's life is infused with a distinctly Anglo-Norman obsession with exchange, using the anthropological theories of Marcel Mauss to explore the "circulation of the saintly virgin" (75). In Chapter 7, she examines Clemence's production of a theologically sophisticated yet distinctly French account of Katherine of Alexandria's passion. With its intricate verbal echoes and punning, Clemence's work expresses "a theology that has to be thought and felt in the vernacular" (240), thus demonstrating that "the texts of female and vernacular audiences do not have to be seen as limitingly corporeal and literal" (245).

Readers may note a contradiction between Wogan-Browne's Francophone emphasis and her assertion that "women writers and readers in the England of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries inhabit a polyglot world of at least two languages, so that study of their literary culture must move across modern divisions between French and English" (2). Wogan-Browne only gestures toward Middle English hagiography, mostly with passing references to the Katherine Group and the South English Legendary, and she largely ignores the substantial body of scholarship on Middle English hagiography and virginity. Occasionally, a discussion of Middle English texts is badly needed to substantiate arguments about French texts. How, for example, to judge the claim that "Bozon's legendary updates and extends the styles and environments of female sanctity while the anchoritically customized Katherine Group legendary conforms it to the heroinic and the antique" (148) without a direct comparison between Bozon's texts and those of the Katherine Group, particularly the lives of Juliana and Margaret common to both? Given the vastness of the subject, however, an equal treatment of French and English texts is too much to expect, and Wogan-Browne was wise to concentrate on the material that has received the least attention.

Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture makes a major contribution to the literature on virginity and virgin hagiography that has proliferated since the late 1980s -- and continues to proliferate with the publication in 2000-2001 of Sarah Salih's Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England, Katherine J. Lewis's The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England, and Kathleen Coyne Kelly's Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages. Considering Wogan-Browne's many contributions to that development, one might have expected this book to be a medley of previously published essays. One of its many strengths is that it is not. Only a few paragraphs were drawn from earlier essays; the book as a whole embodies new research and mature analysis by an author who has thought and written about her subject for over a decade. Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture deepens our understanding of the multifarious paradigms of virginity available to (and created by) English women, and it will make it exceedingly difficult for future scholars of English women's literary culture to overlook the Anglo-Norman connection.