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17.10.12, Dresvina, A Maid with a Dragon

17.10.12, Dresvina, A Maid with a Dragon

St Margaret of Antioch remained one of the most enduringly popular and problematic saints of the Middle Ages. In this book, Juliana Dresvina seeks to arrive at a better understanding of why and how the cult of St Margaret of Antioch evolved by undertaking the almost herculean task of evaluating medieval English sources "from the eighth century to the Reformation" (2). Her stated goals are twofold: first, to trace the evolution of St Margaret's legend over time, and second, to situate each iteration of her legend within its medieval context. She notes that previous works have considered either an individual text or the text within a collection, which necessarily impedes any comparative analysis. By focusing on one place over a period of time--medieval England--she succeeds in providing a firm and comprehensive textual foundation for further study. In achieving her second goal, she recognizes that while previous scholars have worked profitably from the perspective of "feminist, gender, or queer approaches" (4), she is more interested in placing the lives of St Margaret within their broader historical context in order to better understand what they might say about the anxieties, hopes, and fears of contemporary society. The scope of her work is impressive, consisting of over two hundred pages of analysis comprising twelve chapters divided into two parts in addition to an introduction and epilogue, supported by forty-six color illustrations and almost one hundred pages of appendices.

In Part I, Dresvina discusses over forty versions of Margaret's legend, in each case situating the text in time and place, comparing it with sources and analogues, providing some context, and offering insightful conclusions. Chapter one is a bracing race through the earliest Greek, Latin, and Old English sources, continuing with the Anglo-Norman version by Wace and finishing with the thirteenth-century Middle English text associated with the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group. This broad range of texts then serves as foundational source material for comparison in subsequent chapters.

The following two chapters focus on developments in the thirteenth century. Chapter two looks at the vernacular traditions: two English verse lives (the texts deriving from Meidan Maregrete and those formed from the versions contained in the South English Legendary) as well as anonymous Anglo-Norman and French lives. The Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine is the focus of chapter three, as well as its vernacular derivatives: the Gilte Legende; Caxton's Golden Legend; Nicholas Bozon's Vie de seinte Margarete; and the version included in the Scottish Legendary.

The brevity of the following two chapters is a reflection of the limited source material. Chapter 4 focuses on sermons, specifically the version composed by the fourteenth-century Augustinian canon John Mirk and the version in Bodleian MS Hatton 96. Dresvina suggests that Mirk's minimization of the gruesome nature of Margaret's torture might be intended "to avoid reminding the people of the bloody events of the recent peasant revolt, or overemphasizing the cult of martyrdom in the light of widening religious persecutions" (104). Although no written text of a staged play exists, in chapter 5 Dresvina is able to tease evidence out of limited sources such as the records of official triumphs and pageants.

Chapter 6 discusses three fifteenth-century versions of St Margaret's life deriving from East Anglia written by John Lydgate, Osbern Bokenham, and the compiler of BL Harley 4012, noting in particular the role that patrons, especially women, played in commissioning and promoting these works as devotional objects and status symbols. The final text to be analyzed, a Middle English prose life contained in Bodleian MS Eng. th. e. 18, is the subject of chapter 7.

Chapter 7 then maps the locations of the cult of St Margaret by overlaying the sites of churches dedicated to her with the geographic origin of textual accounts of her life, concluding that "three clusters are discernible across the east Midlands, the west Midlands, and East Anglia" (140). As the author admits, the strength of such an analysis is tempered by the fact that the church dedications are not always comprehensive or accurate, especially since there might be some confusion with the cult of St Margaret, queen of the Scots.

Part II, "Motifs and iconography of the legend of St Margaret," provides thematic synthesis and analysis, beginning with a discussion of virginity in chapter nine. Although the chapter is brief, it importantly establishes that, within a medieval context, the emphasis on Margaret's corporeal integrity serves as an allegory for her spiritual purity rather than evidence of any preoccupation with physical virginity.

In the following chapter, Dresvina argues that Margaret's torture is hardly intended to be viewed erotically, as has often been interpreted. Demonstrating her dry sense of humor, she comments: "[I]t is difficult to imagine the majority of the audience feeling sexually aroused while reading about streams of blood and exposed entrails" (151).

Chapters 11 and 12--the final two chapters--are perhaps the strongest, evidencing years of rigorous scholarship. Chapter 11 focuses on the demon episode, linking it with the fifth- or sixth-century Testament of Solomon. Interestingly, the author establishes that Margaret's connection with childbirth stems not from her emergence from the dragon's belly, but rather from her textual emulation of Solomon, who "as exorcist was often referred to in Greek and Hebrew protective charms for women and children, as well as (explicitly or implicitly) for pregnant women, and it could have been this connection between exorcism and childbirth which was later transferred from 'Jewish' Solomon onto 'Christian' Margaret" (162). Childbirth as exorcism! The chapter concludes with an astonishing miracle, dating to the late twentieth century, in which St Marina/Margaret is credited with curing a woman, noting "the striking similarity" of the narrative's elements in terms of "demonic possession, childbirth, devilish serpent destroyed by a cross" (172).

Chapter 12 evaluates pictorial representations of the saint based on an analysis of over seventy examples. Dresvina groups the images into three types: Margaret on her own, in a group of saints, or in a pictorial narrative. She traces the first image type of Margaret standing triumphantly on the neck of the dragon to the calcatio colli images originating in imperial Rome, which was then repurposed in the Christian tradition. Narrative cycles of Margaret's life survive primarily in wall paintings and stained-glass, with a single example surviving in a manuscript (Queen Mary Psalter, BL MS Royal 2 B VII).

In the four appendices, the author generously shares her research, which is admirable in terms of both its scope and detail. Appendix 1, "Medieval lives of St Margaret," inventories forty-one textual examples of the Life of St Margaret, giving detailed information regarding the provenance of each. Transcriptions, in whole or part, of six versions of her life are included: the Cleopatra Latin metrical life alongside a modern English translation; two Middle English texts contained within the South English Legendary presented side-by-side; another Middle English text from the South English Legendary; a Middle English prose sermon on St Margaret; the life authored by Osbern Bokenham in Middle English; a Middle English prose life from BL MS Harley 4012 juxtaposed alongside its source in the Sarum Breviary; and the Middle English prose life from Bodleian Library MS Eng. th. e.18.

Appendix 2 lists examples of images of the saint in various media. Appendix 3 delineates the textual descriptions of the dragon and demon in 12 different versions of Margaret's life, followed by a chart that details how the dragon is depicted artistically in about 70 instances. Appendix 4 charts iconographical similarities and differences in 31 pictorial cycles.

One measure of thorough and original research is the extent to which it encourages further scholarship. In this regard, Dresvina has excelled. For example, she lays the groundwork for a fruitful consideration of the complementary nature of the cults of Margaret of Antioch and Margaret, queen of the Scots. She notes a resurgence in the cult of Margaret of Antioch during the reign of Henry I and again in the mid-thirteenth century, both of which coincide perfectly with high points in the cult of the queen: her vita was commissioned by her daughter, wife of Henry I; and she was canonized in 1249. Similarly the rise in popularity of the name Margaret could have been in imitation of the queen as much as the virgin martyr. [1]

A few customary quibbles. The author toggles between calling the author of the Legenda Aurea "Jacobus," "de Voragine," and "Voragine." Similarly the twelfth-century philosopher is referred to variously "Bernard Sylvester," Silvestris," and "Bernardus."

The book is beautifully produced, with 46 color illustrations, footnotes at the bottom of the page, and the inclusion of delightful details such as the simple image of a daisy, a "marguerite," to mark the conclusion of the central text. It is clearly targeted at more advanced scholars, presuming, for example, familiarity with Latin, Old English, and Middle English. It is engagingly written, as evidenced, for example, by the title of chapter 10, "Done to death: the torture of St Margaret in historical perspective."

As Dresvina decisively demonstrates, however, Margaret of Antioch has not yet been "done to death." I expect this book to serve as a helpful springboard for future studies regarding medieval culture, English society, and the cult of saints.

-------- Notes:

1. Catherine Keene, Saint Margaret, Queen of the Scots: A Life in Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).