19.09.21 Sanok, New Legends of England

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Barbara Zimbalist

The Medieval Review 19.09.21

Sanok, Catherine. New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 360. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4982-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Barbara Zimbalist
University of Texas at El Paso

Catherine Sanok's second book charts an ambitious approach to Middle English hagiography that offers novel methods for reading saints' lives as well as more a subtle reconfiguration of studies in hagiography broadly construed. In its generic investments, Sanok's new study builds on the interests of her first book, Her Life Historical. [1] While also attending to the exemplarity of individual saintly figures, New Legends of England, dramatically expands the theoretical significance of analyzing hagiographic communities at different levels of "scale"--temporal, spatial, and conceptual, to name the most significant. This scalar approach undergirds an argument about how late medieval English hagiography both responded to and reflected the emergent relationships between "competing forms of secular and religious community at local, national, and supranational scales" (2). Ultimately, New Legends of England offers an innovative view of late-medieval hagiography as paradoxical and productive: the location of an emergent English identity newly self-defined by geographical insularity, while simultaneously conceptually expansive through the constantly-shifting boundaries of realm, nation, and time.

Divided into an introduction and seven chapters, the study builds to an impressively integrated theoretical argument that functions on multiple levels. The introduction defines Sanok's analytical axes: geography, temporality, embodiment, literary form, kingship, and community at different scales (realm, nation, and religious community). Each chapter then weaves together several of these scalar threads in readings of two or three hagiographic texts. The first chapter, "Conceptualizing Community in the South English Legendary," functions as a formal and thematic prologue through the book's only extended analysis of a fourteenth century text. It demonstrates how literary form depicts communities operating simultaneously at different scales (spatial, temporal, and conceptual) that encompass multiple individual and collective identities. This pluralistic, heterotopic community reveals the legendary itself--multipart and diverse, yet unified into a narrative whole--as the paradigmatic metaphor for English community. This first chapter sets forth one of the fundamental narrative and conceptual tensions explored in each subsequent chapter: the relationship between the secular and the sacred. While the early chapters, including this one, trace an oppositional relationship between royal and ecclesiastical power, later chapters chart a redefinition of the category of the secular within hagiography, while the final two chapters discover a new complementarity between political and religious authority in late fifteenth-and early sixteenth- century saints' lives. Sanok's reading of the lives of Saints Thomas Becket and Ursula in particular reveal English community defined by multiple forms of identity, affiliations, and exclusions, on the level of the individual and the community.

Chapter two, "The Phenomenal Bodies of Anglo-Saxon Virgins" turns to the fifteenth century as it takes up one of the most well-covered areas of hagiography: the problem of embodiment in female saints' lives. Through readings of the Middle English Life of St. Edith (or the Chronicle of Wilton) and the Life of St. Etheldreda, Sanok shows how the embodied sanctity of Anglo-Saxon women, highlighted through verse form, functioned metaphorically for the realm. She shows how the lives contrast affective, monastic community through spatial scale with royal, national community through temporal scale. The chapter argues that the Life of St. Etheldreda theorizes virginity as a mediating force between embodiment and transcendence, as mobile rather that static, and thus as functioning differently than in more well-known symbolic narratives of the virginal female body in saints' lives. The Life of St. Edith, on the other hand, offers models of affective monastic community through the representation of Edith's simultaneously incorruptible and corruptible body. Both texts characterize the monastic as intimate, affective, embodied, and local, in contrast to the abstract corporate metaphors of secular political community at national scale. Even the verse form (tetrameter quatrains), elsewhere a signature of vernacular historiography, "helps to identify English history as the temporal, rather than the geographical, scale of religious community" (94).

Chapter three, "Local Community and Secular Poetics in Middle English Lives of St. Wenefred," maintains this focus on temporal scale through readings of John Audelay's and Osbern Bokenham's poetry. Sanok argues that their respective legends of Wenefred "use poetic and rhetorical form as important resources for conceptualizing community," Bokenham through colloquial style that reveals proximity figured both temporally and spatially as a category of local communal identity and Audelay through the statis and repetition of carol form that dilates the secular present (99). The chapter begins with Bokenham's recently-discovered version of Wenefred's legend, which depicts community as essential local, formed by the lived practice of an assemblage of individuals in secular time and contained within a plain, non-aureate style characterized by the characters' participation, performance, and presence in the present moment of intimate community. Audelay likewise depicts religious community through local, contingent relationships, and Sanok shows how his Wenefred carol operates at temporal scale (rather than at Bokenham's spatial scale) through plural, communal narrative voice and carol verse form, ultimately emphasizing the secular present as the location of a heterogeneous devotional community different from homogenous national or political identity. Bokenham's and Audelay's shared heterogeneous poetics thus imagine English community "contingent on temporary, temporal, physical presence" and therefore resistant to nationalizing devotional and liturgical programs emerging in fifteenth-century politics. One of chapter three's most significant contributions to the book's larger argument inheres within its excursus on secular poetics, with the reminder that "in premodern thought, the secular is defined by particularity and contingency, in contrast to the transcendence claimed by religion" (99). Sanok makes visible underrecognized affiliations between literature and the secular in medieval hagiography that anticipate postmodern critiques of poetry's transcendent power.

The fourth chapter turns to English translations of the Golden Legend, and to the object and concept of the legendary itself as "a formal technology" particularly useful in the English imaginary "for representing a national community in relation to a supranational Christian one" (134). The chapter thus constitutes a turn in the book's argument about English identity from temporally construed religious community to spatially construed community at the urban and national level. After a short section reading the urban, geographical, and insular poetics of the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye and Bokenham's Mappula Angliae, Sanok turns once again to the Abbotsford legendary, revealing there a sacred geography created by native saints' Lives as coexistent with national, regnal, and secular communities. Similarly, Sanok shows how the Gilte Legende's, high level of geographical detail at spatial scale puts "English community into relation to both local and supranational Christian communities" (153). Once again, the legendary as assemblage points toward a diverse logic of community, figured here through the urban, civic metaphors of community and citizenship produced by native English saints affiliated with London. That idea of community, moreover, remains decidedly anti-royal even as it operates through territorial, spatial logic. The chapter concludes with an appeal to formal instrumentality, arguing that the prose poetics of these two translations--including colloquial and quotidian prose, chapter headings, and table of contents--reveal intimate, individual, and idiosyncratic reading practice, and that such practice, in turn, reflects the continued coexistence of heterogeneous religious communities among the English reading public.

Chapter five, "Secular, Religious, and Literary Jurisdictions" transitions from exploration of competing communities to analysis of different yet coexistent spheres of political and ecclesiastical authority, read through the through various formal responses to the fifteenth-century merging of royal and ecclesiastical power. Reading the prose South English Legendary Life of St. Edward the Confessor alongside two of Lydgate's double lives, the Life of Sts. Edmund and Fremund and the Life of Sts. Alban and Amphibalus, the chapter argues that while the Prose SEL maintains a distinction between ecclesiastical and secular spheres despite their historical merging, Lydgate envisages the nation as separate from either through the traditional concept of monastic community. English community emerges in these texts as grounded in the inevitable tension between the forces of crown and church, of religious and regnal time, yet also as ultimately a "shared national space" (182). For Sanok, Lydgate's aureate poetics mark a deliberately anti-secular literary realm, located in an ever-present temporality. The chapter concludes with a meditation on the literary as conscious a-secular, resisting the growing pressure to coordinate religious and secular power in fifteenth century England by insisting on the co-existence of different scales of community, or as Sanok terms it, "jurisdictional heterogeneity" (202).

This focus on the relationship between royal and ecclesiastical authority continues in chapter six, "the City and the Inner Precincts of the Sacred," which returns to Thomas Becket and urban community. The chapter focuses on Laurence Wade's 1497 "Life of Saint Thomas," an almost unknown aureate text that pits private religious experience against the secular public sphere. Sanok argues that Wade's Thomas legend triples Lydgate's doubled narrative scale, with the universal sacred emerging as a communal identity in opposition to both regnal as well as ecclesiastical authority. Because the city of London and Becket himself cannot be easily divided along royal or ecclesiastical jurisdiction, Sanok argues, the division between secular and the sacred ultimately becomes locates at the limits of the individual self. Chapter six thus inaugurates one of the final turns in the book's larger argument, in which the private, inward turn of religious experience (reminiscent of Jennifer Bryan's attention to reading and interior devotion) responds to an increasingly secular public sphere. [2] Whereas for Lydate, as the previous chapter demonstrated, the secular and the sacred remain categorically different, Wade's legend shows them to be ultimately compatible and at times even coextensive, even as they function at different temporal scales. Wade's sixteenth century Becket explores the borders of the private and public spheres through its focus on the urban locality of London, a metaphor for the both the private citizen as well as the nation at large. The choice to focus on Wade's version of the Thomas legend as evidence for a new compatibility of sacred and secular interests may initially appear fraught, especially since as Sanok notes, the poem was never printed and survives only in one manuscript copy. Yet as she rightly argues in a suggestive coda, the text reveals an oven overlooked phase of increasing mutuality between regnal and ecclesiastical powers, demonstrated through comparison with the great work of this transitional moment: Thomas More's Utopia.

The final chapter returns to St. Ursula, in prose, verse, and pageant. It first offers an historical context for Ursula in the sixteenth-century English imaginary, as reflected in pageants for Catherine of Aragon's entrance to London that explicitly staged Ursula as a native saint. It then turns to formal analysis of Edmund Hatfield's 1509 verse Lyf of Saynt Ursula and Richard Pynson's 1516 prose Kalendre of the Newe Legende of Englande. Sanok shows how these diverse Ursula legends recode sacred events within the contemporary, secular sphere. These readings enable two different ways of conceptualizing community--in terms of scale, and through the mobility of scale--that maintained heterogeneous forms of community. This political-historical context includes the shifting boundaries of continental politics and England's self-definition in relationship to them; Sanok situates the London Ursula pageants within the new conceptual logic of the emerging British archipelago, defined in terms of the British Isles as well as the Caribbean archipelago of the New World. This highly suggestive discussion remains one of the only sections of the book that would benefit from further development, particularly as later sections of the chapter take up this "archipelagic" poetics as an analytical tool. The chapter reading of the merging spiritual and political authorities in Ursula legends across a range of sixteenth century representations, however, persuasively reveal her particular usefulness for imaginary English identity as the configuration of multiple local, individual, or varied communities, sometimes subordinated to a unified communal identity but more often depicted as an amalgamation of diverse and varied entities in "dynamic…relation to one another" (254). The book concludes, after a brief survey of several visual representations of Ursula, with a corrective. Pointing out that attention to medieval hagiography shows more nuanced forms of community—religious, political, national—far earlier than theoretical discourse often assumes, the book argues for the revelatory power of attention to scale at formal, theoretical, and conceptual levels as a useful literary approach across genre, period, and canon.

This is, then, a highly theoretical book. Although she engages most overtly with Saskia Sassen's theories of medieval political systems, Sanok makes use of a range of postmodern thinkers. Her view of the different ways in which hagiography (as literature) instantiates community relies on the concept of affiliations forged by Derrida's law of genre and the decentralized agency of Bruno Latour's Actor-Network-Theory, while her vision of the plural and varied insular communities reflected in late medieval English saints' lives draws from Foucault's heterotopia and Jean-Luc Nancy's "being-in-common." More recent political thinkers of nationhood in the era of globalization, such as Arjun Appadurai, inform Sanok's view of England in response to late-medieval shifts in region and geography. These theoretical influences not only enable Sanok's sophisticated, multi-faceted argument about the origins and functions of late-medieval hagiography, but also deliver that often-promised yet rarely-achieved scholarly claim: the application of postmodern theory to premodern literature that becomes self-reflexive, able to shed new light on the literary workings of medieval texts while simultaneously revealing new insights into the origins and workings of the theories themselves. It is in this vein, reminiscent of the work of Bruce Holsinger and, more recently, Eleanor Johnson, that Sanok's book acts as an interlocutor not only of hagiography, but of literary theory in medieval studies and, in terms of nationalism and politics especially, of theory itself. [3] Her stated intention of denaturalizing the category of the nation, for example, enables recognition of "the conceptual capabilities developed in the Middle Ages that contributed to later formations" (25). Those formations—of community, of the secular, of the saint and of the nation—appear in unexpected ways through new modes of inquiry such as Sanok's, and persuasively demonstrate the benefits of bringing new theoretical approaches to the study of hagiography in medieval religious culture.



1. Sanok, Catherine, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

2. See Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

3. See Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Johnson, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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