A Voice in the Wilderness: Saints, Prisoners and Exiles in William of Paris’s Life of St. Christina

A Voice in the Wilderness: Saints, Prisoners and Exiles in William of Paris’s Life of St. Christina

By Katherine Frances

Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies, Vol.6:1 (2010)

Introduction: In its broadest sense, exile describes the displacement of a subject from his familiar homeland into a realm of uncertainty and doubt. Throughout the European Middle Ages, exile served both practical and punitive purposes in the handling of subjects who had vied against religious, political or social authorities. Separated from their kinsmen, and stripped of their worldly possessions, these exilic figures were forced to suffer the burden of their guilt in isolated conditions where they would be unable to disrupt or disturb society again. In the closing decades of the fourteenth century, the twelfth earl of Warwick, Sir Thomas Beauchamp, was forced into exile after confessing, before a judicial court at Westminster, that he was guilty of committing treason against King Richard II. As the contemporary chronicle writer Adam Usk describes, after Warwick “foolishly, wretchedly and pusillanimously confessed […] that he had indeed acted traitorously,” he was banished to the Isle of Man where he was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment under the custody of William le Scrope. Warwick’s high social status, however, afforded him a degree of support. Instead of being cast into solitary confinement, he was joined by his servant, William Paris, who wrote the Middle English poem, the Life of St. Christina of Bolsena, as he “satte in prison of ston” (l. 518) alongside Beauchamp.

In this paper I will examine the ways in which Paris drew on an overtly religious form of writing to present his master in more positive light than contemporary judicial or legal discourses permitted. By focussing on the exiled author’s textual commemoration of a saint who was martyred during the fourth-century Diocletianic persecution, I argue that Paris utilised the popular genre of hagiography to exculpate his master from the crime for which he had been condemned. Moreover, by reading Paris’s unusual reference to Saint John the Baptist in relation to Richard’s pious devotion to this Biblical figure, I argue that hagiography also provided a means through which the banished poet could articulate a specific rebuttal against the very man who had instigated his expulsion from English civic society.

Although exile held a punitive potential, medieval peoples were quite aware that, throughout history, many virtuous individuals had wrongly suffered banishment and imprisonment at the hands of oppressive tyrants. Both punishments served to remove the criminal body from society. In the case of banishment, this often involved sending the subject away from his homeland. Imprisonment, on the other hand, could take place on native grounds; however, as the subject was trapped or confined within gaol conditions, they still suffered limitation and segregation from society.

In his sixth-century Latin text The Consolation of Philosophy, the Roman senator Anicius Boethius describes how King Theodoric cast him out of the government and into prison for the role he played in defending an innocent man. The very fact that Boethius’ work gained a pan-European reputation as an erudite consolatory text highlights that this particular outcast figure eventually came to be revered throughout medieval culture. Similarly, in the popular genre of hagiography, the vitae of the early Christian virgin martyrs frequently featured episodes in which one of God’s holy maidens was removed from her familiar surroundings and imprisoned by her heathen opponents. Again, the cultic status of these figures in church history demonstrates that these exiles were celebrated as embodiments of Christian virtue and grace. In many instances, banishment, then, did not result in or equate to a vanquishing from the cultural imagination; rather, the exile lived and lingered beyond their displacement, taking on a protean identity in which they transitioned from condemned criminality to inspirational exemplarity.

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