12.06.07, Winstead, trans., John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria

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Christine Walsh

The Medieval Review 12.06.07

Winstead, Karen A., trans.. John Capgrave, The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria. Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. Pp. 216. ISBN: 978-0-268-04426-8.

Reviewed by:
Christine Walsh
Independent Scholar

John Capgrave (1393-1464), was a prominent member of the Augustinian Order, which he joined in about 1410. He was probably born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk and certainly spent much of his life there, becoming Prior of the Kings Lynn friary by 1446. He was elected Prior Provincial of the Order in England in 1453 and again in 1457. As well as being a leading churchman he was a prolific writer in both Latin and Middle English. Many of his Latin works have been lost but some of his biblical commentaries survive as do his De Fidei Symbolis and a set of biographies of famous men called Henry. His surviving English works include a pilgrim's guide to Rome, a chronicle of world history from Creation to the Council of Constance in 1417 and four saints' Lives REND="i"> (Norbert, Augustine, Gilbert of Sempringham, and Katherine of Alexandria), two of which are in verse (Katherine and Norbert). The Katherine life is the longest of his works (around 8000 lines) and survives in four manuscripts. Although this is more than for any of his other writings, the Katherine life is the only one of his works not to survive in a manuscript either written or corrected by Capgrave himself. It was probably composed around 1445.

There has been a growing body of work on Capgrave in recent years and Winstead herself has written extensively on him. As well as a number of articles, she has already published an edition of Capgrave's Life of St Katherine. [1] Winstead has now produced a modern English prose translation of the Life of St Katherine as part of the Notre Dame Texts in Medieval Culture Series. The primary aim of the book is to make Capgrave's text available to students in an enjoyable and readable form. In order to do this Winstead tells us that she has opted to render the original verse in prose, in order "to achieve a more accurate translation, and also for the sake of readability" (11). She has achieved both these aims admirably and produced a text that conveys the sense of the original, is very readable and will be accessible to all levels of students. In order to allow readers to cross-reference her prose version with the verse version Winstead has included Capgrave's chapter numbers and the range of lines covered in each of her sub- sections. Additionally, for those who want a sample of the original Middle English text, Winstead has included an Appendix with two extracts of Capgrave's original verse with a line-by-line translation on the facing page.

Winstead has also provided a short introduction, which gives a very brief overview of Capgrave's life and work and the context in which the Katherine life was written. My only criticism of this book is that I would have liked the introduction to have been longer. Although Winstead does cover the main themes of the work the brevity of the discussion could mislead. In particular Winstead's summary of Capgrave's account of how the original manuscript of Katherine's Life came into his hands makes the point, correctly, that his history of the source "was surely invented" (1) but she leaves the reader with the impression that Capgrave himself invented the story (1-2; 178 and note 10). In fact it contains elements present in some of the earliest surviving Greek and Latin texts. [2] Winstead's earlier edition of the original Middle English text does contain more detail and references on this topic but there are no cross- references to this earlier work.

St Katherine was one of the most popular saints in Europe in the later middle ages and her story was capable of multiple elaborations and interpretations. Capgrave's Life of St Katherine is a rich and complex version which he has used to deal with important issues which would have resonated with his fifteenth-century audience. These include such things as the nature of monarchy and power and theological controversies on such things as the nature of baptism. Winstead brings out these themes most fully in the comprehensive notes to the translation, which will be invaluable to both teachers and students alike. There is also a select bibliography, which will be a good starting point for students wanting to explore further aspects of Capgrave's work and the cult of saints.

In addition to the Prologue, the Life of St Katherine consists of five books, each of which deals with an aspect of the Katherine Legend. Book One recounts her parentage, upbringing and coronation. The nature of rulership was a sensitive one at the time Capgrave composed the Life of St Katherine and Winstead makes the comparison between his portrayal of Katherine withdrawing from government and the deteriorating political situation in England under the feeble King Henry VI (6,33 and note 13). Book Two, which contains the Marriage Parliament, continues to explore the nature of power. It also contains significant material on the ability of women to rule as well as broader gender issues. Book Three covers Katherine's conversion to Christianity and her Mystical Marriage to Christ. Book Four consists of her confrontation with the Emperor Maxentius and the debate with the fifty scholars. It is in this section that some of the most interesting treatment of theological issues is to be found. Of note is Capgrave's use of the vernacular to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity (129 and note 39). In her notes to this section Winstead highlights these theological issues and also puts them in the context of fifteenth-century controversies over the Lollards (e.g. 126 and note 36). Her notes also provide guidance to further reading. Finally, Book Five tells of Katherine's martyrdom and the translation of her body by angels to Sinai.

Capgrave's work deserves study for the light that it sheds on social and religious issues in fifteenth-century England. In Winstead's translation both teachers and students have an excellent tool for the study of late medieval English history and literature.



1. The Life of St Katherine. Edited by Karen A. Winstead. (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999). Reviewed in TMR in 2000.

2. For early Greek texts see J. Viteau, Passions des Saints Ecaterine et Pierre d'Alexandre, Barbara et Anysia (Paris: Emile Bouillon, 1897), pp. 22-3, 38-9. For Latin see BHL 1660.

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Author Biography

Christine Walsh

Independent Scholar