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23.02.03 Blumenfeld-Kosinski (ed. and trans.), Two Lives of Saint Colette

23.02.03 Blumenfeld-Kosinski (ed. and trans.), Two Lives of Saint Colette

Saint Colette of Corbie (1381-1447) is remembered primarily as a reformer of the First and Second Orders of St. Francis and the founder of several monasteries in and around France, known today as the Poor Clare Colettines. Though this reformed order still carries her name, many of the monasteries she founded or reformed have since been lost, mainly during the French Revolution. For this reason, it is fortunate that two versions of her Life have survived to attest to her work and legacy. The translations of the two versions of her life presented in this volume reveal the remarkable influence she wielded in her time over royalty, nobility, and religious figures, including several popes, while also bringing to the fore her deep humility, asceticism, and personal suffering. Indeed, the often-graphic details of Colette’s suffering are not for the faint of heart--such as demonic persecution by snail infestation of Colette’s oratory (128)--but they reflect the troubled times in which she lived. In this way, the volume is a welcome addition to the Other Voices in Early Modern Europe series, and the third contribution by editor and translator Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski.

In orienting the reader in hagiography, Blumenfeld-Kosinski establishes Colette as a “new” saint, in contrast to the older and more universally known saints of medieval art and literature such as Saints Catherine of Alexandria or Alexis--a newness she sees as significantly linked to gender (1). As Blumenfeld-Kosinski remarks in the Introduction to her translations, Colette is one of the rare female saints of the Middle Ages whose Life was composed by both a male and female contemporary, namely Pierre de Vaux, her confidant and eventual confessor, and Sister Perrine de Baume, a nun at one of the Colettine monasteries and the niece of her first confessor and friend, Henry de Baume. The other two women saints whose lives were recorded by both male and female contemporaries, according to Blumenfeld-Kosinski, are Saints Radegund and Margherita Colonna (9, n. 22). Such informed notes permeate the volume and raise questions about medieval and early modern views on gender and writing, among other literary and historical topics. As such, this volume will be of interest to scholars of the medieval and early modern periods, as well as to more general undergraduate readers.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski situates Colette’s life and works in fifteenth-century France admirably and succinctly in her forty-page Introduction. This period of great danger and turmoil saw the ongoing Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism and its end, and the Observant reform movement in western Europe, all of which are raised in the Lives and letters. This context is crucial to show how Saint Colette and her reform efforts intersected with the political, social, and religious spheres.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski adds several notes that will be particularly welcome to the undergraduate or to a reader unfamiliar with hagiography or the Roman Catholic tradition, for example, one names the three orders of Franciscans (48, n. 16), another glosses the “vicar on earth” as the pope (80, n. 74), still another explains the Eucharist and the doctrine of transubstantiation (108, n. 133). The geography of medieval France is also elucidated in several notes, which pair well with the map on page 267. Even those well-versed in medieval saints’ lives and history will find these notes useful as they provide connections and references to help further an understanding of the texts and the contexts in which they were composed. In addition to numerous references directing the reader towards further study of various saints, the historical period, and the Franciscan orders and their reforms, the notes also address such wide-ranging topics as xenoglossia (36 n. 108; 87 n. 93), childbirth and Caesarean section (35, n. 105 and 106), illness and disability studies (35, n. 104). The physiological and medical anomalies in the texts are astounding, from Colette’s days-long raptures and the copious tears she routinely shed during prayer that caused her face, hands, and clothing to be wet, to her grave but nondescript illnesses and scorching pains in her eyes that nearly led to blindness before she was received a miraculous cure. Some of her visions of demonic persecutions are depicted in Figures 1 (57), 6 (129), and 9 (190), which are different illustrations taken from the base manuscript of the Middle French edition. Colette also cured others through her prayers, touch, and presence; one instance involved her chewing up bread then feeding it to ill nuns in her convent who were immediately cured upon ingesting it (164-165). Such sufferings and miracles are sure to be of interest to a variety of readers unfamiliar with the original language of the texts.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski’s translations of the lives in this volume are based on the 1911 edition by Ubald d’Alençon of the manuscripts composed in Middle French. The reader interested in further discussion of the manuscripts is invited to consult d’Alençon’s edition, among other studies. The translations are commendable, particularly the ways in which Blumenfeld-Kosinski handled the at times awkward Middle French of Pierre de Vaux, whose writing poses comprehension challenges because of his liberal use of personal pronouns without clearly designated referents. The translator’s skills are on full display as she sorts through these thorny sections, parsing and identifying the pronouns with specific individuals, all while creating a readable text for her audience.

In addition to the two Lives, the volume also contains twelve beautiful color images of Colette’s life, taken from MS 8 in the Ghent monastery, and a selection of seventeen letters by, to, and about Colette that give the reader direct access to Colette’s words and those of many contemporaries featured in the Lives. The final letter from a young Henry VIII of England in support of her canonization shows the far-reaching impact of Colette’s reforms. The letters give a fuller and more personable picture of this saint and are an invaluable addition to the volume. Similarly, the map detailing the monasteries Colette reformed and/or founded within a larger framework of shifting Burgundian territories and allegiances is easy to comprehend, although a two-page spread would have done it more justice. Finally, the parallel chronologies at the end of the volume help the reader situate Colette’s life within the broader historical and social context of the first half of the fifteenth century; they continue through to her canonization in 1807. All of these sections are well articulated and useful to a range of readers. The volume as a whole would have benefitted from an additional copyedit, as there are several typos, repetitions, and even an error in the index, yet the overall effect is polished and orderly. The stellar translations and notes make this a most serviceable volume for both general readers and scholars.