UN-CAGING MEANING IN JOHN CAPGRAVE’S LIFE OF SAINT KATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA: BODIES AND BRIDES OF CHRIST
Geldenhuys, Katharine Leigh
Phd Thesis (University of the Free State)
Katherine of Alexandria, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, was acclaimed for her great learning. This investigation focuses on the fraught relationship between knowledge, the feminine and the idea of the body in the predominantly Catholic society of late medieval England as it is revealed in John Capgrave’s fifteenth century Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria. In chapter one the interrelations between Katherine, the Virgin Mary and Eve – particularly with regard to each woman’s relation to knowledge – is considered. Capgrave attempts to associate Katherine with the positive example of the Virgin Mary and her relation to knowledge through Christ, the Word, in order to increase admiration for Katherine as a saint. However, as the conversion scene is set in an enclosed garden it recalls the Garden of Eden and the Fall thus also creating parallels between Katherine and Eve. In this way an underlying uneasiness with Katherine’s exceptional level of education as potentially disruptive and negative is achieved. The centrality of marriage to Capgrave’s text is explored in chapter two. The representation of Katherine and the Church as the brides of Christ and the ways in which this essentially feminine image lends itself to associations with the body, as well as the Church’s simultaneous portrayal as the body of Christ, is considered. It is proposed that Katherine may be perceived as a symbolic representative of the Church and although, both the bride and body images have implications of subservience for those placed in the feminine role they also serve to express the intimacy of the relationship striven for with God. Chapter three examines Katherine’s use of the body of rhetoric. It is demonstrated that the changes in her use of rhetoric after her conversion and mystical marriage indicate that, as a woman making effective use of the body of rhetoric to argue for female rule, she may be perceived as transgressing gender boundaries in medieval patriarchal society. The ‘disciplining’ of Katherine’s ‘transgressive’ behaviour may be seen in her mystical marriage to Christ as this is the decisive event which brings her under patriarchal control. Therefore any threat she might have been seen to pose to the status quo is subtly neutralised. In chapter four the analogies relating to the body are further considered, particularly with regard to the spiritual implications. Parallels between St Katherine’s passion and Christ’s Passion are noted to indicate how the imitatio Christi and sponsalia Christi themes converge in Capgrave’s text to elide Katherine (as the ‘body’ and bride of Christ) with the divine (perceived as male). The incident narrated in Capgrave’s prologue, where an English priest has to consume a book in a dream before he can discover St Katherine’s legend, may be seen to reveal her elision with the divine through the interrelations of Katherine, the book containing her legend, the eucharist, the Passion, the Resurrection, relics, the body and the translation of her legend as an ‘un-caging’ of meaning. Thus Capgrave does not shy away from the issues of gender power-relations that were pertinent to his society. Although he appears to be unique among his peers in allowing for quite a balanced debate of these issues in his text, he includes aspects which subtly undercut Katherine’s strident independence as a woman. In this way he is able to honour the saint while simultaneously confirming the ‘proper’ position of women in medieval patriarchal society by equating it to the position of humanity in the Church vis-à-vis Christ. Consequently, Capgrave is able to openly consider challenges to, and yet subtly affirm, the status quo of his society in this multivalent saint’s legend.