17.02.09, Mueller and Warren, eds., A Companion to Colette of Corbie

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Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski

The Medieval Review 17.02.09

Mueller, Joan and Nancy Bradley Warren, eds. A Companion to Colette of Corbie. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 66. Leiden: Brill, 2016. pp. viii, 230. ISBN: 978-90-04-29792-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
University of Pittsburgh

Colette of Corbie (1381-1447) was one of the most interesting religious women of the late Middle Ages. Yet, compared to the huge number of studies on her female near-contemporaries, Saints Birgitta of Sweden (1303-1373) and Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the literature on Colette is rather meager. A French woman from a simple background who took her time to find her true religious vocation, Colette successfully navigated the multiple political and ecclesiastical crises of late medieval Europe to become one of the great reformers of the Franciscan Order. It took multiple efforts over 360 years to get her canonized. The seven essays in this most welcome volume for the most part do justice to this extraordinary saint. [1]

Nancy Bradley Warren, a pioneer in Anglophone Colette studies, presents Colette's biography in "The Life and Afterlives of St. Colette of Corbie: Religion, Politics, and Networks of Power." As she did in the chapter on Colette in her seminal Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600 (Philadelphia, 2005), Warren places Colette into the political and ecclesiastical crises of her time: the Hundred Years War, the French civil conflict between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, and, to a lesser extent, the Great Schism of the Western Church and the Councils of Constance and Basel. Although Colette's most important patrons were the Duke of Burgundy and his wife Margaret of York, Warren makes a good case for seeing Colette as a "bipartisan figure" (7). Warren delineates Colette's place in a network of pious men and women, from the many noble women who supported her to her male confessors, Henry of Baume and Pierre de Vaux, the latter of whom wrote the first Life of Colette in Middle French shortly after her death. Warren takes us along the road of Colette's many foundations from Burgundy and the Low Countries to Southern Germany. (A map would have been useful here.) A coda to the chapter deals with a strange 1946 pamphlet and a 1912 collection of heroic and saintly lives by a Mrs. Lang; both texts paint Colette as a domestic and feminine creature, eliding her political and reforming activities.

The chapter by Monique Sommé (translated by C. Jon Delogu), an expert in French studies on Colette, "The Duke and Duchesses of Burgundy as Benefactors of Colette de Corbie and the Colettine Poor Clares," covers much of the same ground as Warren's chapter though in greater detail, taking us from foundation to foundation, each time analyzing the involvement of the Burgundian duke and duchess as well as other noble patrons. Sommé's close readings of documents and the many primary sources she cites are invaluable for a true understanding of Colette's wide-ranging activities and influence.

The most problematic chapter is Jane Marie Pinzino's "But Where to Draw the Line: Colette of Corbie, Joan of Arc and the Expanding Boundaries of Women's Leadership in the Fifteenth Century." Here Pinzino tries hard but ultimately unsuccessfully to align Colette with Joan of Arc as female leaders, although positioned on different sides of France's civil conflicts. Pinzino bases her argument on Colette's Life by Pierre de Vaux and the Recollectio by the French inquisitor Jean Bréhal, written as part of the rehabilitation process of Joan in 1456, a legal text which Pinzino considers a saint's life (without, however, justifying her view). Pinzino's claim that Joan "inherited from Colette a model of inspired female leadership" (56) is not substantiated in any way but leads her to argue for parallels between the two women's lives and missions. Fasting, refusing marriage, love for the Eucharist, and prayer (all common topoi in dozens of female saints' lives) as well as the impact the two women had on those around them constitute some of these parallels, according to Pinzino (71). The statement that Pierre de Vaux "offered common ground for devotional unity between Armagnacs and Burgundians in the reconstruction of the French kingdom restored to Charles VII" (66) is intriguing but needs some textual evidence to be persuasive, especially since Pinzino states, a few pages later, that de Vaux "did not engage in overt discussion of any political theory" in his Life of Colette (73). In my view, Colette's reforms and Joan's military leadership simply cannot be fitted into the same mold. Finally, the idea that Colette's leadership role may have delayed her canonization (63) is contradicted by Anna Campbell's exhaustive and convincing analysis in chapter 7 of this collection.

Ludovic Viallet, the author of chapter 4 ("Colette of Corbie and the Franciscan Reforms: The observantia in the First Half of the Fifteenth Century" (translated by C. Jon Delogu), is a great authority on the Franciscans and their reforms. [2] Viallet begins his rich and dense analysis by describing what he calls "un paysage réformateur" (a landscape of reform) from 1260 to 1443, showing in great and amply footnoted detail that more and more flexibility concerning the strict adherence to Franciscan ideals of poverty was introduced into the order over the centuries. This flexibility threatened to destroy the Franciscans' unity and in fact led to ever greater hostilities between the Conventuals and the more radical Observants who, to differing degrees, wanted to return to a more pure version of poverty. Viallet charts Colette's position in the midst of these complicated developments as well as her relationship with some of the major figures of the reform like John of Capistrano (1386-1456) and Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) whose rapid canonization (unlike Colette's!) in 1450 served as a means to legitimize the Observance sub vicariis. Viallet's remarks on and transcription of Johannes Nider's praise of Colette in his 1430s Formicarius remind us that witch hunting could go hand in hand with an appreciation of the achievements of holy women.

Joan Mueller, author of a 2006 study on the "privilege of poverty," addresses this topic for Colette in chapter 5. Mueller first traces the development of the Order of Saint Clare and its stance toward Franciscan poverty. She stresses that Clare's privilege of poverty "was a legal exemption that Clare obtained after a daunting struggle with the papacy" that allowed the Poor Clares "to opt out of the feudal financial system of attaching property to their monastery" (107). Mueller also lays out the politics of Clare's canonization, showing that the original model of "mutuality" between Franciscan brothers and sisters was soon abandoned. The friars now served the sisters "out of generosity" but without official obligation (111). Pope Urban IV imposed the so-called Urbanist Rule in 1263, allowing some property ownership, and it was against this Rule that Colette ultimately rebelled in her desire to reclaim Clare's privilege of poverty. Mueller analyzes in detail how Colette implemented Clare's ideals, drawing on the two Vies, authored by Colette's confessor Pierre de Vaux and Sister Perrine, who spent decades with Colette, as well as on Colette's Constitutions and her Sentiments, both commentaries and elaborations of the Rule of Saint Clare. Mueller makes clear that the difficulties Colette encountered in implementing Clare's vision of poverty were caused mostly by the complicated relationship between the friars and the sisters: "The kink in the chain for Clare and Colette's spiritual vision is the economic mutuality and collegiality required of friars and sisters to make the 'privilege of poverty' viable" (126). Thus, Coletan friars, living under the supervision of an abbess, no longer exist while Coletan nuns still flourish today.

Andrea Pearson's chapter on "Imaging and Imagining Colette of Corbie: An Illuminated Version of Pierre de Vaux's Vie de Colette" offers a thorough analysis of the program of the twenty-five illuminations in manuscript 8 (c. 1468-1477) of the Bethlehem Convent in Ghent that contains Pierre de Vaux's Life of Colette and was a gift of Margaret of York, duchess of Burgundy, to the convent. [3] She also considers the historiated initials in another manuscript of de Vaux's Life: Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique 10980. Pearson argues that the illuminations present Colette first and foremost as an "ideal candidate for sainthood...as a compliant, enclosed visionary rather than a public figure enacting reform" (132). Margaret of York as well as her husband are represented in a crucial image (MS 8, fol. 40v) that shows Saint Francis (not mentioned in de Vaux's text at that point) presenting Colette to a vision of Saint Anne whose intercession Margaret was seeking in order to produce an heir. Colette is depicted as a devout, enclosed visionary and miracle worker. The emphasis on enclosure in the images, Pearson argues, plays down the conflicts Colette had with the Observant Franciscans on exactly that issue. Indeed, neither from de Vaux's Life nor from the images in manuscript 8 would we learn that Colette was almost constantly on the road, as the maps in Elisabeth Lopez' study show. [4] In a number of somewhat conjectural passages Pearson addresses the questions of whether the Bethlehem nuns recognized the illuminator's efforts to contain Colette, how the manuscript may have intervened in the 1471 efforts to open the canonization process, and what Margaret of York's role may have been in all this. Finally, Pearson proposes a candidate for the conceptualizer of manuscript 8's program: Philip I of Conrault (d. 1475), the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter's in Ghent, a bibliophile and "active proponent of Colette's canonization" (169). In this chapter Pearson shows admirably how we can read a manuscript's illuminations in order to understand the programmatic reshaping of Colette's extraordinary career and personality, transforming her into a more manageable saint.

Why did it take 360 years for Colette to be canonized? This is the question addressed and answered in Anna Campbell's impressive investigation in chapter 7, "Colette of Corbie: Cult and Canonization." After showing that the initial impetus for Colette's canonization originated in the House of Burgundy in 1471, Campbell guides us through centuries of evolving procedures for canonizations and introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters--both ecclesiastical and secular--punctuating the different phases of efforts to canonize Colette. Campbell shrewdly analyzes the competing interests of French and Italian forces (especially for the period of Charles VIII, d. 1498). In 1604 Pope Clement VIII beatified Colette (here Campbell revises Elisabeth Lopez's argument that Colette was not beatified, 191 n. 69) but numerous political conflicts, bureaucratic hurdles, and lack of funds delayed her canonization until 1807 and thus into the reign of Napoleon. The Concordat of 1801 that Napoleon initiated was designed to undo some of the ravages the French Revolution had inflicted on the Catholic Church, but in fact a violent conflict erupted between the pope and Napoleon. Thus, as Campbell argues, Pope Pius VII chose a French saint for canonization in order to make a "political statement...to show Napoleon that he did not have power over the pope's actions" (203). After centuries of being "the wrong saint at the wrong time" (204), Colette finally had her moment.

It is a shame that such a valuable--and very expensive--volume is marred by an astonishing number of typos and other mistakes, of which I will list some below. In addition to typos in the text, many notes contain multiple typos (e.g., 23, n. 62). Some typos are amusing like "handmade" for "handmaid" (155). Others are annoying, such as the misspelling of the names of Talleyrand (Tallyrand, 202) or Norman Housley (Hously, 181, n. 29) or of institutions like the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Warberg and Courtald, 181, n. 31 and n. 33), or of book titles like Dyan Elliott's Proving Woman (Princeton, 2004) as Proving Women. What was probably a "find and replace" action gone awry gives us strange book titles mixing English and French like Bertrand Schnerb, John the Fearless: Le prince meurtrier (Paris, 2005), or names like Joan d'Arc plus other English names in French titles of books or articles. Some notes are incomprehensible, such as 178, n. 16 that contains the name of an author twice, in different order of first and last name plus the word "various" with a series of dates that have no bibliographical reference. In the index we have three separate listings for the same person as Guillaume of Casal, Guillaume of Castel, and William of Casale with different page numbers and without cross-references. André Vauchez' famous 1980 book Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages is sometimes cited in the French original and sometimes in the English translation for which the translator Jean Birrell is then listed as co-author. Does Brill no longer employ copy-editors?



1. The volume Brill sent for review is a paperback print-out of the e-book, not the hard back with cover art. My remarks about the quality of the illustrations refer to this version of the book. The illustrations may very well be better in other versions.

2. I was therefore startled to read that Colette died in 1438 instead of 1447 (90) and attributed this error to a garbled translation, a hunch that proved accurate. Professor Viallet graciously sent me his French text and this is what I review here.

3. All are reproduced in color in Charles van Constantje, Yves Cazaux, Johan Decavele, and Albert Derolez, Vita Sanctae Coletae (1381-1447) (Tielt: Lannoo, 1982). Some of the images are reproduced by Pearson here in rather murky black and white. Figure 6.13, Jan van Eyck's famous, wonderfully colorful, altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, is unhelpfully reproduced as more or less a black blob.

4. Elisabeth Lopez, Colette of Corbie (1381-1447): Learning and Holiness, trans. Joanna Waller (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: The Franciscan Institute, 2011), 556-558.

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