Holy Women in the British Isles: A Survey

Holy Women in the British Isles: A Survey

By Anne Clark Bartlett

Medieval Holy Women in the Christian Tradition c.1100-c.1500, eds. A. Minnis, R. Voaden (Brepols, 2010)

Introduction: Representations of holy women appear in a wide variety of textual, dramatic, and iconographic forms across medieval Europe during the central and late Middle Ages (c.1100-1530). This survey provides an introduction to the mulieres sanctae whose Lives circulated in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and in the numerous island regions and inland territories that have come to be categorized as the British Isles. Traditional scholarship on British hagiography during the period under consideration here has focused primarily on the representation of the virgin martyrs of late antiquity. The best-known of these were Katherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch, whose biographies survive in Latin, Anglo-Norman, English, Irish and Welsh versions, as well as in such widely circulated collections as the Legenda aurea (c.1255-70) and The South English Legendary (c.1270-90).

The vitae of the female virgin martyrs feature highly formulaic, quasi-allegorical conventions of characterization and conflict. The typical protagonist is young, well educated, noble, beautiful, and pious. Her parents (sometimes well-intentioned) urge her to worship their (false) gods, bow down to their pagan emperor, or to marry an unbeliever. Rejecting paternal authority and social tradition, the saint-in-the-making refuses. She fixes all of her affection on the Christian God and offers eloquent testimony about her faith. Family and civic authorities attempt to persuade her with pleas, bribery, and imprisonment. In many stories, the young virgin is publicly stripped, taunted, and sent to dwell in a brothel; her breasts are cut off; or she is tied naked to a bed and set on fire. Her steadfastness and eloquence in the face of such treatment initiate mass conversions, and she is eventually martyred. Miracles accompany her death, and her hair, fingers, clothing, teeth, and blood inspire pilgrimages and further miracles. Despite their heroines’ flamboyant eloquence and power, the Lives of the virgin martyrs focus with particular intensity on their heroines’ virginity, patience, and humility. Their stories are exemplary though not imitable, as their authors regularly insist. Medieval clerics advised female readers and viewers to admire the virtues of the saints, but not to emulate their rebellious activities.

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