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22.03.09 Field, Courting Sanctity

22.03.09 Field, Courting Sanctity

Courting Sanctity will cement Sean Field’s reputation as one of our leading contemporary authorities on the later Capetians. The book is, in some senses, the culmination of a series of publications reaching back to 2003. These include an impressive number of scholarly articles and two significant monographs. [1] Yet rather than proffer a synthesis of his scholarship to date, Field instead offers an exciting new reading of the “long” thirteenth century. As he is careful to acknowledge throughout, it is a reading that both builds on, and is in dialogue with, the significant work conducted by, among others, Elizabeth A. R. Brown, M. Cecilia Gaposchkin, and Xavier Hélary, some of the most important figures in current Capetian studies. Similarly acknowledged, Field’s scholarship also entwines with that of Walter Simons, notable for his work on the beguines of the Low Countries. The result should, undoubtedly, be celebrated as an unabashed triumph. This is not only a thoroughly convincing study but a notable pleasure to read, being exceptionally well written. It combines meticulous source analysis with a lightness of prose that reminded me of Sir Steven Runciman at his best. Courting Sanctity is, in short, that rarest of beasts: a good academic book.

Field’s study explores the evolving concept of female holiness in relation to the Capetian dynasty in the course of the thirteenth century; considers the ways in which that holiness might be manipulated to build dynastic sanctity; and culminates in examining how the Capetians reacted to something that came to be seen as dangerous and uncontrollable. Each part of this tri-partite structure--Creation, Interrogation, Destruction--is divided into two substantial chapters and preceded by a prologue that embeds its discussion in a broader context. At the heart of the book is an attempt to bring together two strands, one religious and the other political. The former involves the “burst of religious energy” at the beginning of the thirteenth century that fostered the mendicants and, central to this book, the beguine movement. While official enthusiasm for uncloistered women underwent a sharp decline from the 1270s, the seemingly inexorable rise and rise of Capetian power, Field’s second strand, appeared unstoppable. The book charts the intersection of “these two lines of force” (214). It explores, as Field puts it, the “initially productive, increasingly tenuous, and eventually destructive relationships” formed between the Capetian dynasty and holy women (12). For Field, the political crisis of 1276-1278, which saw the fall of former royal favorite Pierre de La Broce, was a critical turning point in Capetian attitudes towards female holiness. His arguments dovetail with the important work of Xavier Hélary, to highlight that the reign of Philip III, often over-shadowed, deserves significant re-evaluation. [2]

Five of the six chapters focus on the careers of individual holy women. In Part One, Field returns to the career of Louis IX’s sister, Isabelle of France, the subject of his first monograph. Through a detailed examination of contemporary sources, notably papal letters, he demonstrates the way in which Isabelle’s determined chastity was, after some initial hesitation, warmly welcomed by the ecclesiastical authorities. However, her decision to shun formal vows, coupled with an unwillingness to endorse the papally preferred rule for female devotees of St Francis, saw Isabelle become “as much an irritant as an asset” (48). Her embrace of the uncloistered, beguine model meant that in the last decade of her life she became a marginalized figure. Indeed, as Field shows, she disappears even from papal correspondence relating to her own foundation of Longchamp! This initial chapter is followed by an examination of a much less well-known Provençal beguine, Douceline of Digne. Douceline’s career is particularly challenging to reconstruct. Field locates one tantalizing glimpse of her contemporary activities, even the original of which has now been lost along with the rest of the Sicilian archive. He marries this with a later hagiography, doing an admirable job of reconstructing Douceline’s relationship with Louis IX’s brother, Charles d’Anjou. The analysis is subtle, drawing out, for example, the way in which Douceline’s use of Old Testament comparisons was likely to resonate with any Capetian (68). Like Isabelle, Douceline’s status as an uncloistered woman meant she remained, ultimately, an ambiguous figure. Unlike the princess, however, Douceline also claimed the gift of prophecy. Here, Field suggests, were the seeds of a problem that changed Capetian perceptions of holy women. While Douceline might offer Charles divine endorsement, she could also warn him that he would lose his Sicilian kingdom if he proved arrogant. What ruler could feel truly comfortable in such circumstances?

In Part Two, Field explores what he identifies as the critical turning point in the Capetian relationship with holy women. The first chapter focuses on another beguine, Elizabeth of Spalbeek. It considers Elizabeth’s own claims to prophecy and the way in which she was drawn into a power struggle between Pierre de La Broce and Philip III’s new queen, Marie de Brabant, a struggle that culminated in the former’s fall. Field reconstructs Elizabeth’s story, relying on altogether different source material to that used to examine the careers of Isabelle and Douceline: a deposition by Simon of Brie (the future Pope Martin IV) and the record of an official enquiry. This reveals that at a time of Capetian crisis, a holy woman could be perceived as a very real threat. Initially, Elizabeth was supposed to have implied Philip was homosexual, cause enough for concern at the Capetian court. Subsequently, having denied the original story, she was reported to have claimed that Marie had poisoned Philip’s oldest son by his first wife. Field is duly cautious, particularly in his use of Simon’s account. Yet he still manages to capture the future pope’s increasing frustration with the sheer mendacity of those involved; the rising panic of Pierre de La Broce’s hapless co-conspirator, Pierre de Benais, as the plot rapidly unraveled around him; the brief moment when the whole conspiracy descended into farce as key elements became lost in translation; and, finally, our own frustration as historians at Elizabeth’s “maddeningly ambiguous” response as it is recorded (111). The story itself deserves its own Netflix series; Field’s account of it is both a master class in historical reconstruction and a cracking page-turner.

Rather than exploring the career of any one holy woman, the second chapter in Part Two takes an altogether different approach. “Writing Holy Women” analyzes accounts of Isabelle and Elizabeth written in the orbit of the Capetian court between 1282 and 1285, as well as examining Salimbene’s account of Douceline written in these same years. Field begins by underlining that despite the 1270s being a decade of substantial historical production at Saint-Denis, holy women were notable by their absence from the ink spilt at the unofficial hub of royal historiography. By tying this chapter’s discussion to efforts to canonize Louis IX at this time, Field paints a revealing picture of the larger reaction to the crisis of 1276-1278, one that embraces the totality of the historical and hagiographical output influenced by the Capetians in these years. His examination of Agnes of Harcourt’s hagiography of Isabelle paints a picture of “an ambivalent legacy,” one which highlighted the ambiguity in Isabelle’s reputation and the need to airbrush out more contentious elements of her story (136). The outstanding analysis in this chapter, however, is the examination of the way in which the Dionysian William of Nangis presents Elizabeth in his Latin life of Philip III. Field makes an excellent case for William as a writer who, despite his access to official records, notably tailored his account to the court’s new concerns about women who lay claim to the power of prophecy. While identifying contradictory themes in William’s re-imagining of Elizabeth’s story, Field’s exploration underlines the sophistication of Dionysian historiography, a theme that reappears in both Part Three and the book’s epilogue.

In Courting Sanctity’s closing chapters, Field shows us how “weakened foundations would collapse, bringing the delicately constructed edifice of female holiness crashing down around the court” (144). The first chapter of Part III considers the case of Paupertas of Metz, which is reconstructed from one of the continuations of another of William of Nangis’s works, his Latin universal chronicle. By employing a continuation first edited in 2013 by Elizabeth Brown, Field reveals a treasure trove of new information. [3] He is, again, duly cautious in his analysis but uses the case of Paupertas to demonstrate the dramatic way in which attitudes towards beguines at the Capetian court were now marked by deep suspicion. Accused of orchestrating an attempt to poison the king’s brother, Charles of Valois, Paupertas’s career ends with torture and a narrow escape from being burned at the stake. In the book’s final chapter, we are introduced to the fates of two women, Marguerite Porete and Margueronne of Bellevillette, both of whom became embroiled in the efforts of Philip IV’s government to prosecute enemies of God. The Porete case is reconstructed from inquisition records. These demonstrate the lengths to which the Dominican inquisitor, William of Paris, was willing to go to convict a holy woman of a relapse into heresy. It is, as Field ably shows, unlikely to have been a coincidence that William’s dedication to a combination of technicalities and public theater took place against the backdrop of the contemporaneous trial of the Templars. Meanwhile, caught up in Bishop Guichard of Troyes’s alleged plot to assassinate another Capetian queen, Margueronne ended up imprisoned in the Châtelet for sorcery. Margueronne’s career began with a local reputation for preternatural insight into locating lost animals; it ended with a truly tragic reprise, which is explored in the epilogue. Although she did not die at the stake, her story probably cements Field’s point rather better than the case of Marguerite Porete, whose connections to the court were, at best, tenuous. However, both cases illustrate Field’s argument that “by the first decade of the fourteenth century there was little room for anyone but the king to speak for God” (213).

Field’s fascinating epilogue is possibly most interesting for its focus on the ongoing reinvention of accounts of holy women in the historical production of Saint-Denis. We see continual transformation: in the story of Isabelle, who, between recensions of William of Nangis’s universal chronicle, finally becomes a nun; in the story of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, once more re-invented in the French translation of William’s life of Philip III; in the story of Paupertas of Metz in the “official” continuation of William’s universal chronicle; and in the story of Marguerite Porete as the Dionysians addressed the inconvenient deficit in the historical record by transforming her into a “proper” heretic. This discussion underscores the sophistication of Saint-Denis’s scriptorium and historical writing in the Parisian environment more generally. Field is not alone in making this point. Isabelle Guyot-Bachy has recently, for example, demonstrated similarly complex transformations in various treatments of French involvement in Flanders. [4] Equally, Dominique Barthélemy has shown the sophistication with which chronicles presented and re-presented the involvement of the French baronage at Bouvines. [5] Yet Field’s case studies are important because they shed new light on a not yet fully understood period of the Dionysian scriptorium’s evolution prior to the stabilization of the Grandes Chroniques tradition. [6]

One of Courting Sanctity’s strengths is that its arguments are built on a solid foundation of detailed source analysis. Field is also very aware of the extent to which his sources can be pushed. If I have criticisms at all they are minor ones. A brief “side step” concerning the career of Saint Louis d’Anjou and Douceline of Digne, for example, appears clumsily inserted into the chapter concerned with Paupertas of Metz; its relevance is not immediately apparent (167-68). Field’s proposal that the location of the Trésor des Chartes can be linked to sacral kingship is interesting but did not quite convince me (215). And, overall, I would have preferred slightly more extensive source citations in the notes. Nothing essential is missing--and Field always provides the key words and phrases on which his arguments hinge--but, personally, I prefer to see the evidence in full. On the other hand, I think bibliographies should be complete and comprehensive. The decision to provide a partial bibliography with some material only included in footnotes, while explained (235), seems like a misstep. One suspects it, like the atrocious paper quality, may be a cost-saving measure that tells us something about the plight of university presses. In broader terms, two observations seem worth noting. The first is probably the more contentious: some readers will feel that the book would have benefitted from a direct engagement with scholarship regarding gender. This may not have altered Field’s conclusions but could have added another dimension to his analysis. Setting his examination of Salimbene’s account of Douceline to one side (141-44), the second observation concerns Field’s tendency to follow a well-trodden path that treats “Paris” and “France” as if they were interchangeable. Or, to put it another way, looking beyond the scriptorium of Saint-Denis may reveal other visions of the “Capetian century.” [7] But these observations are more the product of a stimulating engagement than criticism; I now find myself reaching for my copy of the Sens chronicler Geoffroi of Courlon and wondering how much the attitudes towards female holiness that developed in the vicinity of the court filtered through to the periphery. Sean Field’s Courting Sanctity is a very fine book written by an outstanding scholar at the top of his game.



1. Sean L. Field, Isabelle of France: Capetian Sanctity and Franciscan Identity in the Thirteenth Century (Notre Dame, ID: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) and The Beguine, the Angel, and the Inquisitor: The Trials of Marguerite Porete and Guiard of Cressonessart (Notre Dame, ID: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). The former, oddly, does not feature in the bibliography, although there is an extensive and useful list of Field’s articles (244-45).

2. Field includes an extensive bibliography of Hélary’s work (247-48).

3. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “Marguerite Porete, John Baconthorpe, and the Chroniclers of Saint-Denis,” Mediaeval Studies 75 (2013): 307-44, appendix 2. Field outlines the current state of research into the continuations (152-53).

4. Isabelle Guyot-Bachy, “Les guerres de Flandre dans le processus de formation de lacommunitas regni au travers des récits des chroniqueurs français (1214 - première moitié du XIVe siècle),” in Dominique Barthélemy, Isabelle Guyot-Bachy, Frédérique Lachaud, and Jean-Marie Moeglin, eds., Communitas regni: La “communauté de royaume” de la fin du Xe siècle au début du XIVe siècle (Angleterre, Écosse, France, Empire, Scandinavie)(Paris: Sorbonne Université Presses, 2020), 181-96.

5. Dominique Barthélemy, “Le baronnage français dans les récits de la bataille de Bouvines (1214-1274) et dans la liturgie du sacre royal,” in Barthélemy, Guyot-Bachy, Lachaud, and Moeglin, eds., Communitas regni, 159-80.

6. The best guide is now Isabelle Guyot-Bachy and Jean-Marie Moeglin, “Comment ont été continuées les Grandes Chroniques de France dans la première moitié du XIVesiècle,” Bibliothèque de l’École des chartes, 163 (2005): 385-433.

7. At the risk of self-promotion, I have certainly found this to be true: Chris Jones, “Geoffroi of Courlon and Political Perceptions in Late Medieval France,” Viator 47, no. 1 (2016): 153-89; “Perspectives from the Periphery: French Kings & their Chroniclers,” The Medieval Chronicle, 10 (2015): 69-93.