The Medieval Review 10.09.02

Brown, Jennifer N. Three Women of Liège: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d'Oignies. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 23. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. viii, 348. EUR 70 ISBN 978-2-503-52471-9. .

Reviewed by:

Karen Winstead
Ohio State University

Scholars of hagiography and spirituality will welcome Jennifer Brown's edition of the Middle English translations of lives of three extraordinary holy women haling from the Brabant-Liège diocese: the proto-beguine Marie d'Oignies (ca. 1170-1213); Christina of St. Trond (ca. 1150-1224), called "the astonishing" for feats ranging from rising from the dead to feeding from her own breasts; and Elizabeth of Spalbeek (ca. 1246-1304), famous for weekly reenactments of Christ's passion culminating in her receipt of the stigmata. Latin lives of these women were composed by clerical admirers: Philip of Clairvaux, who witnessed Elizabeth's performance of the passion; Jacques of Vitry, Marie's friend and confessor; and Thomas of Cantimpré who was inspired by reports of the recently-deceased Christina's extraordinary behavior. Although these vitae were known in England from the late thirteenth century, it was only in the first quarter of the fifteenth century that English translations, now preserved in a single manuscript, Bodleian Library MS Douce 114, were produced.

The Douce lives are known to some specialists through Carl Horstmann's edition, published in the 1885 volume of Anglia. Though Brown exaggerates in claiming that Horstmann's edition is "nearly impossible for anyone untrained in sophisticated palaeography to negotiate" on account of its italicized expansions of scribal abbreviations and its preservation of yoghs, thorns, and ampersands, her assertion that her edition "differs markedly from Horstmann's" seems a bit defensive and certainly understates her achievement (24, footnote 37). Three Women of Liège is a superb critical edition. Its outstanding apparatus and its thought-provoking interpretive essays will surely stimulate study of these long-neglected yet fascinating hagiographical narratives.

In her introduction, Brown provides basic information about the women, their biographers, and their milieu. She surveys the early beguine movement, with which all three women are generally associated, and she discusses the complex relationships that then obtained between holy women and their clerical supporters. How, she reflects, can we recover the experiences of medieval women who are known to us only through the mediation of male authors? Themes and strategies common to the three lives are also examined, particularly the use of traditional hagiographical tropes and the pervasiveness of self-inflicted torture. Brown also discusses the textual transmission of the lives, listing and dating the seven manuscripts of English provenance that include one or more of the vitae. She establishes Oxford, St John's College, MS 182, containing all three vitae, as preserving the versions of the vitae that the Douce translator(s) probably used. St John's College 182, Brown points out, cannot be the direct source of the Douce translators, since Douce 114 dates from the first half of the fifteenth century and the St John's manuscript from the second half; indeed, she argues that the Douce manuscript is itself probably copied from still earlier Middle English originals, because it contains errors more likely to have resulted from mistranscription than mistranslation.

One of the many strengths of Brown's edition is that her footnotes indicate how the Middle English translations depart from the St John's vitae and also from the published editions of the Latin vitae that will be more familiar to her readers. When the Middle English departs from the Latin vitae, she usually provides the Latin rendition. One notable exception: Brown indicates in a footnote that the Middle English translator omits about five hundred words comparing Elizabeth to other women, including Judith and Esther, and concluding with a comparison of Elizabeth to Saints Veronica and Francis. These five hundred words aren't given in the footnote, presumably because of length, but given Brown's claim that these lives seem to address a female audience, the omitted passage would have been useful.

While Brown uses her introduction to compare the agendas and strategies of the hagiographers and to explore common themes, she concludes with substantial essays devoted to each of the lives. However, these essays mostly concern themselves with the Latin lives and have little to say specifically about their Middle English incarnations. Though readers will certainly appreciate these in-depth analyses, it was somewhat jarring to see quotations from the Middle English being used to further arguments about the designs and intentions of Continental authors who wrote in Latin. I wish Brown had given more attention to what these unusual texts might have meant to English readers.

Brown's essay on Elizabeth has most to say about the distinctive features of the English translations. She provides an interesting discussion of that text as the product of four authors: Philip, the scribe of the manuscript that was the source for the Middle English translation, the Middle English translator, and the scribe who copied the translation into Douce 114. She discusses how the translator conspired with Philip to implicate readers as voyeurs of Elizabeth's performance, and she notes differences in how the readers of the Latin and the Middle English texts might have perceived Elizabeth's reenactment of the passion. To the former, she says, it would have looked more like dance; to the latter, more like theater. She hypothesizes that Elizabeth's obvious familiarity with devotional art would, for medieval English readers, have distanced her from the iconoclast Lollards.

Somewhat perplexing is Brown's decision to exclude the fourth text about a late medieval holy woman that is preserved in Douce 114, a Middle English translation of Stephen of Siena's letter in support of Catherine of Siena's canonization. Brown explains, reasonably, that the letter doesn't exactly "fit" because Catherine is not a Lowlands woman associated with the Beguines. Moreover, the letter "appears to be in its own quire, added later to the manuscript" (15). Yet Brown also avers that a single compiler was apparently "responsible for the four Middle English works gathered here," and she draws on the apology the compiler appended to Stephen's letter for insight into "why the vitae may have been originally translated into English and for whom" (17). Despite the geographical disjunction, the letter is clearly apposite to the lives Brown has edited, and it would have been useful to have its text, unavailable in a modern critical edition, at least as an appendix. If space were a factor, Brown's critical essays might have been abridged slightly, since the letter is relatively short. Another useful appendix would have been the Jacques' "theologically subtle introduction" to Marie's vita, which the Middle English translator omitted (17).

Brown's edition is one of several high-quality editions of texts by medieval women to appear in Brepols's excellent "Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts" series. As with the other volumes in that series, I wish this volume were available in an affordable paperback edition for students. I would love to teach Brown's edition in my courses on hagiography and medieval women authors. As I hope this review has indicated, it is ideally suited to classroom use, and its adoption in graduate courses would give the lives much-needed exposure. Unfortunately, the hefty price-tag is likely to deny Brown's superb edition the wide circulation it deserves; many whose pocketbooks are light will continue to rely on the 1885 volume of Anglia.