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21.09.32 Winstead, Fifteenth-Century Lives

21.09.32 Winstead, Fifteenth-Century Lives

This innovative study of selected fifteenth-century saints’ lives--and a few texts that sit slightly outside those descriptive confines--is an interesting and largely persuasive account of a shift in the approach and focus adopted by a range of authors working within the geographical and chronological margins of late medieval England. Any designation of a century is effectively arbitrary, as it reflects the imposition of a human perceptions onto a natural passage of time; historians are familiar with concepts such as “the long eighteenth century” to account for the fact that the markers provided by the various calendars used in the Western world are largely artificial, especially when it comes to grouping of years into decades and centuries. However, the emphasis in this book on the particular timespan of c1400-c1500 is to be welcomed: the fifteenth century has sometimes been described as an unloved, or overlooked, era in English history, falling as it does between the “High Middle Ages,” with all the prestige that name implies, and the excitement and disruption of the Reformation. Increasingly scholars have sought to recover and reappraise the value of the textual and material evidence created in England during these years, and Karen A. Winstead’s new book is a worthy addition to that endeavour. She sets out a compelling vision of changing concerns and foci of the authors of these works: in particular her insights relating to a new emphasis on the family life of saints, and hence the ways that they could mirror, or complicate, the lived experience of the readership of these texts, will form an important contribution to ongoing debates.

That said, I do have some concerns over quite who the intended audience of this book is thought to be. Winstead assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the part of her readership, including a familiarity with Middle English that obviates any need for translations or glosses. To give one example of an aspect where the reader could flounder, there’s no explanation given for the termLollardy (the significant and pervasive heretical belief system which was based on the teachings of the fourteenth-century English priest and scholar John Wyclif) despite several references to it. Meanwhile, a very useful analysis is provided of the concept of beguinage (a largely European phenomenon where lay women lived communally in order to pursue a religious vocation and did not take the full vows required of professed nuns). The fact that beguinage was little-known in late medieval England, and hence may be less familiar to the reader steeped in the history and literature of this time and place than the home-grown Lollards, perhaps accounts for the fact that this concept is carefully explained but others are left obscure. I’d also point to the discussion of the backstory of Mary Magdalene as a place where (mis)understandings derived from contemporary popular culture may get in the way of a reader who is unclear why this saint is being identified as the sister of Martha and Lazarus (83): Winstead’s interpretation of the Digby play’s identification of its titular character is quite particular, and by no means entirely consistent with some other late medieval treatments of the saint and her colourful associations. This book is quite short, running to less than 200 pages even with the notes and bibliography, and I sense that it could have been helpfully expanded somewhat to enable the naïve reader to obtain a greater insight into some of the key ideas that are referred to at points throughout the text.

There are some archaisms in the language deployed by the author, and this too hampers accessibility. I found myself reaching for the dictionary as early as the first page of the introduction, to check the meaning of “aureate” as a descriptor of “rhetoric,” and wondered why the word “striking” or some other more familiar term could not have been used. Similarly the author has a fondness for the word “dilate” when describing the way in which a saint is said to have expounded at length on a particular topic. Although I could work out the meaning from the context, I did feel that I had to confirm it by checking, and I sense that the average postgraduate, let alone undergraduate, who is developing an interest in saints’ lives may find this tendency towards archaisms off-putting.

Thinking more about this potential reader, I would have liked to have seen some overt acknowledgement of the fact that saints’ lives are a very particular manifestation of religious devotion, and that they are partial survivals of a literary genre that existed within a much wider context of modes of veneration; Sarah Salih’s important edited collection A Companion to Middle English Hagiography (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006) appears in the bibliography but is referred to only once, I think: this is a missed opportunity to signpost the reader, perhaps in the introductory chapter, towards existing commentary which will help them understand the wider milieu of saints’ cults and the ways that these beliefs manifested beyond the text. In one of only a few discursions into the wider context of devotion to saints, we find a contention, apparently derived from Christopher de Hamel, that books of hours were “books for everyone” (8): this really could be misleading for the reader who is unfamiliar with the concept. It is somewhat akin to claiming that taxis are “public transport” because anyone can access them--it depends on where you are starting from, how far you are going and how deep your pockets are. Books of hours were undoubtedly created for laypeople rather than the clergy, but in general they can be safely categorised under “conspicuous consumption,” so are perhaps analogous to booking a limousine ride from your home to visit a friend a hundred miles away, despite the availability of less expensive, less convenient and less attention-drawing alternatives.

Alongside these potentially confusing claims there are also some generalisations which would benefit from unpicking: I’m still unsure how “teaching, community, compassion, and pastoral care” are emphasised in Lydgate’s version of the life of St George (25), a claim that is reiterated a few pages later where Lydgate is said to have based all his saints’ lives on “a humane and humanizing Christianity, founded on compassion and understanding” (39). I’m not suggesting that Winstead’s interpretation is wrong, just that I really needed a bit more persuasion that the broad interpretation is correct for all texts she is discussing by that author. Similarly I feel that the contention that fifteenth-century hagiography is consonant with a “socially conservative reading public” (2) needs some elaboration, especially as only a few pages further on we read that this genre “liberated its practitioners to indulge in theological audacities and social critique” (10). To this reader the latter characterisation is the more recognisable, not least because of the fact that late medieval readers were clearly able to countenance the existence of cross-dressing saints such as Eugenia (mentioned by Winstead in the context of a sixteenth-century treatment by Foxe, although this figure certainly occurs in the Gilte Legende (1438) albeit not in the selection of lives discussed by Winstead from that source): this type of characterisation is hardly clearly consistent with social conservatism as most readers would understand it. Furthermore, the key role of the patrons of these works in shaping the final form needs some attention--many of Winstead’s readers will undoubtedly be aware of the significance of writers working to commission, but in my experience this is not self-evident to everyone who has an interest in medieval literature, and a few additional words explaining the truth of the adage that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” would not have been misplaced.

Overall, though, this is a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of literary treatments of saints’ lives, and I found that the final chapters, which looked at the ways that later authors continued and changed the emphases of the chosen texts, provided some unexpected insights. Many medievalists would have confined themselves to the timespan denoted by the title of their book, but Winstead confidently goes beyond the fifteenth century, and even the Reformation, to indicate further patterns of evolution; we should all be grateful for the additional learning this flexibility affords us. Although I feel that the undoubted utility of this book could have been enhanced by greater attention to the needs of a student readership, and that some greater equivocation on conclusions may have been warranted, I can certainly recommend this as a worthy addition to the growing library of examinations of late medieval saints’ lives.