03.07.15, Reames, ed., Middle English Legends of Women Saints

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Karen Winstead

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.015


Reames, Sherry L., ed.. Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Series: TEAMS Middle English Texts Series. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. Pp. vii, 312. ISBN: 1-58044-046-0.

Reviewed by:
Karen Winstead
Ohio State University

Despite the burgeoning interest in hagiography among scholars of Middle English literature, the paucity of good, affordable editions has made teaching saints' legends difficult. Middle English Legends of Women Saints goes far toward filling this deficit. This superb collection, edited by Sherry Reames with the assistance of Martha Blalock and Wendy Larson, comprises lives of six saints -- Frideswide of Oxford, Mary Magdalene, Margaret of Antioch, Katherine of Alexandria, Christina of Bolsena, and Anne -- all but Christina's in multiple versions. Students will appreciate the clear introductions both to hagiography as a field and to the cults and legends of the individual saints, and their reading will be aided by the thorough glossing and explanatory notes. Scholars will be grateful for reliable editions both of previously unedited texts and of texts that were hitherto available only in poorly executed editions, many of which are, moreover, out of print and hard to come by.

In a mere thirteen pages, Reames provides a concise introduction to hagiography, surveying its scope and development and describing the major sources for Middle English lives of female saints. Observing that "studies of gender in saints' legends must begin with the uncomfortable recognition that female saints have been greatly outnumbered by male saints in every period of church history" (3), she discusses the masculine bias that underlies the two foundational paradigms of sainthood: the martyr and the ascetic. She traces the "enormous rise" in the "overall percentage" (6) of narratives of female saints in the later Middle Ages, associating that rise with a broader impulse towards the feminization of piety. Late medieval England, she notes, witnessed an increase in "literary" treatments of female saints that were written for an "elite readership" (8). Yet the increased production of lives of female saints should not be taken as evidence that "some great feminist trend was sweeping through the church" (6). The lives of holy women, Reames emphasizes, spoke to men as well as to women, and their political and social concerns were not confined to gender.

The apparatus for this volume is uniformly outstanding. Reames's bibliography provides an excellent point of departure for the student of hagiography. She includes not only the most important work on the saints whose lives she edits but also the main works on Middle English hagiography generally, not to mention the principal collections of Latin saints' lives and important scholarship on late Antique and Continental saints. The headnotes on each saint survey the saint's cult and legend, discuss the texts edited, and include a bibliography listing manuscripts, prior editions, translations, major sources and analogues, and selected literary and historical studies. Textual and literary endnotes are listed separately, a boon for the typical undergraduate, who will have little interest in manuscript variants. Thorough marginal glosses, supplemented as necessary by footnoted translations, make even the difficult language of the South English Legendary accessible to the novice.

Reames's selection from among the hundreds of interesting, important, or inaccessible Middle English lives of female saints makes eminently good sense. Her collection confines itself to saints of the distant past (heroines of the early Church, Christ's grandmother, and an Anglo-Saxon abbess) whose stories were largely invented, as opposed to later, historical figures, such as Bridget of Sweden, Marie D'Oignies, and Elizabeth of Hungary. This focus is consistent with the apparent tastes of late medieval hagiographers and their readers, for, as Reames notes, there was a tendency in Middle English hagiography "to ignore recent saints in favor of saints from the first few centuries of the Christian era" (10). Her selection includes the three most popular female saints in late medieval England (Mary Magdalene, Margaret, and Katherine) and representatives of the most popular types of woman saint: virgin martyr, abbess, holy mother, and penitent; of the major categories of female saint, only the transvestite is unrepresented.

An unconventional feature of the anthology is that, instead of the legends of many saints, each in a single version, Reames provides multiple versions of the legends of a few holy women "in order to illustrate some of the different meanings and uses that could be derived from a single story" (12). By juxtaposing disparate legends of the same figure, she effectively conveys the flexibility of hagiography. Her selections vary widely in style, from the utilitarian sermons of Mirk's Festial and the Speculum Sacerdotale to the self-consciously literary productions of Osbern Bokenham and John Lydgate. These variations illustrate that "readers and listeners did not just passively receive saints' legends; they continually appropriated them and reused them for their own purposes" (12). Comparison of two versions of the Frideswide legend, for example, suggests how the same story might be cast differently for lay and monastic audiences. Likewise, differences between the St. Anne legends of John Mirk and Osbern Bokenham "suggest that the cult of Anne developed quite unevenly in different regions or segments of society in England" (253).

Throughout the edition, newcomers to the genre are given useful guidance. At the end of her introduction, Reames urges her readers to "ask not only what messages each text was designed to convey, but also what possibilities of interpretation it opened or tried to close for its original audience" (13). In introducing the legends of Mary Magdalene, she writes: "Given the wealth of possible themes and messages that could be derived from this legend in its late-medieval form, a good way of approaching its retellings is to notice which choices each has made. For example, which aspects of Mary Magdalen's sanctity have been chosen for emphasis? Is she being presented primarily as an exemplar of penitence, of loving service to Jesus, of active charity in the world, or of contemplative withdrawal into solitude?" (53). Prompts like these help make this anthology an ideal teaching text.

Reames does a fine job of balancing little-known or hitherto unedited texts (the Frideswide legends, for example) with the writings of well-known hagiographers. Moreover, the inclusion of multiple selections from Mirk's Festial, the Speculum Sacerdotale, and the South English Legendary allows readers to develop some understanding of those important compendia. Lydgate's "Margaret" and Bokenham's "Anne" offer insight into the rapport between male hagiographers and their female readers that anyone teaching the lives of female saints would wish to cover. I was especially glad to see included William Paris's "Christina." This wonderful story of filial defiance, one of only two Middle English saints' lives known to have been written by a layperson (Chaucer's "Cecilia" is the other), has received far less attention than it deserves. Students are bound to enjoy Paris's vigorous narration and to be intrigued by the autobiographical conclusion, which reflects on his life as a political prisoner. His narrative reminds present-day readers that the lives of women saints had undeniable appeal to men and invites them to consider the inscription of contemporary political messages in the stories of long-dead heroines.

In sum, Middle English Legends of Women Saints is an exemplary anthology from both a scholarly and a pedagogical standpoint. With its aid, even instructors with a limited knowledge of hagiography will find it easy to incorporate this vast and important body of material into their courses on medieval culture and gender. Of course, much work remains to be done to make Middle English lives of the saints more broadly accessible, and I dearly hope that this volume is followed by similarly excellent collections representing male and later saints.

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Author Biography

Karen Winstead

Ohio State University