ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Middle English II: The Sacred, pt. 1
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

General: 13th-Century Prose for Women

Read the background information on Anglo-Norman England NA 7-10 (paying particular attention to the discussion of prose religious works, NA 9-10) and read carefully PW xi-xiv. Know dates (or approximations given by editors) for: Norman Conquest, the "beginnings of Middle English literature," Hali Meidhad and Seinte Margarete. Know what is meant by the following terms: vernacular, exemplum (plural: exempla), hagiography (or "saint's life"), anchoress, the Ancrene Wisse (selections from which we will read later this term), the "Katherine Group," and allegory.  Pay particular attention to what editor of PW says about probable authorship of the Ancrene Wisse and the works in the "Katherine Group" (i.e. its monastic origins, PW xi) and about the target audience for these works (PW xi-xiii): while ostensibly written for three sisters in particular (xi), and more generally for any women in or entering religious life (PW xii), the works concern themes of relevance to a much broader audience of Christian lay people, male and female, who were unable to understand Latin (PW xiii). You need not worry about specific sources of these works, but do note that they draw on four different cultures familiar to their audience: Latin, English, French, and Welsh (PW xiii-xiv). Once again, "originality" is not an important concept for the anonymous writer, who is more concerned with reaching his target audience and making his points effectively than in coming up with new arguments or doing so in an "original" way.

A Note on Form:  be aware that the works in this volume were originally written in Middle English  prose rather than the alliterative verse characteristic of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) oral-formulaic poetry, the rhymed verse (in the French language) enjoyed by contemporary French-speaking aristocrats at the courts of Anglo-Norman England, or the rhymed verse (in English) that would later be used by court poets such as Chaucer and Gower (starting in approximately the last third of the fourteenth century).  Prose was considered more suitable to disseminating religious truths than was rhyme, both because verse was regarded as inherently more mendacious than prose (since a poet looking for a rhyme word might be tempted to sacrifice veracity for the sake of poetic expression) and because rhyme was associated with the frivolous court literature enjoyed by the Anglo-Norman courts (the thirteenth-century equivalent of what Bede disparagingly referred to as "vain and idle songs").  Keep in mind that when English poetry began to be composed in rhyme, towards the middle of the fourteenth century, this innovation was essentially a French import into English literary tradition, displacing the "homegrown" English poetry in alliterative verse that was apparently still being composed and transmitted orally (as the late-fourteenth-century works of the "alliterative revival" attest).  The typical form of French-language courtly literature both in Anglo-Norman England and on the continent was octosyllabic rhyming couplets; it is from these French models that Chaucer and Gower would take their poetic inspiration.

Seinte Margarete

Read through the introduction to Seinte Margarete, pp. xx-xxv. Note that Saint Margaret is one of the virgin martyrs who gains sainthood through her stubborn refusal to wed a mortal man rather than saving herself for an immortal spouse; in other words, she is a perfect example (Latin: exemplum) illustrating the wisdom of following the advice offered in Hali Meidhad (choosing to become the bride of Christ). As you read the text, note statements that back up the arguments made in Hali Meidhad; be prepared to cite some examples in class. Similarly, the other saint's lives included in the "Katherine Group" (a set of works associated with the Ancrene Wisse) are the stories of the virgin martyrs Saint Katherine of Alexandria and Saint Juliana of Nicomedia. Note that virgin martyrdom is presented almost as a proto-feminist choice: the saint freely chooses martyrdom over marriage. Whereas she would not be able to choose her own mortal husband, by embracing martyrdom she "exercise[s] [her] own choice of a spiritual father and bridegroom" (xxi).

Note also that Saint Margaret of Antioch was a particularly popular saint, and that many medieval versions of her life exist, both in Latin and in various vernaculars (including several versions in Middle English and Anglo-Norman French). The author of Seinte Margarete uses one of the Latin versions, that of Mombritius, as his main source, but he adapts it freely, elaborating on some points and leaving others out as he sees fit; once again, it is "traditional rather than original, effectively adapted for its audience" (xxiii). Why was Saint Margaret so popular? In addition to the spectacular plot elements that make for an exciting story (M's encounters with the dragon and the demon; the increasing pathos of the tortures inflicted upon her), historical circumstances encouraged the spread of her cult. Margaret supposedly lived during the early fourth century in Asia Minor (although it seems likely that she was in fact an entirely legendary figure). There are Latin and Greek lives of Saint Margaret dating from the 8th century and before. But while her cult was already popular, it was reinforced by the capture of Antioch in 1098, during the First Crusade. Crusaders brought back a number of "relics" (e.g. bones) thought to have come from Margaret's corpse; relics were believed to have miraculous powers to heal those who touched them, or to guarantee salvation through the saint's intercession (note the reference to relics on p. 81).  The General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales describes a group of pilgrims travelling to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine where St. Thomas's relics are preserved; one of them, the Pardoner, carries false relics in his suitcase! 

The text displays a number of traits characteristic of hagiography (the story of a Saint's life, from "hagio," holy, and "graph," writing). The narrator presents himself as an eye-witness able to guarantee the authenticity of the events which he recounts. The "authorities" backing up his text are his own eyes, or the written texts which recount the "facts" which he is relating to the listener. (Know the name of our supposed "author" and narrator, Teochimus--not the same person as the actual author who wrote our Middle-English text in the early 13th century.) Note instances of the narrator's appeal to the authority of written texts, as well as passages in which he insists upon the veracity of his supposedly "eye-witness" account, and be prepared to cite some in class.

The saint is typically presented without attention to psychological verisimilitude; the point is not to make her seem realistic, but to point out precisely how very different she is from you and me. This difference is what makes her special, able to intercede on our behalf with God and thus help us obtain salvation, sinners though we are. In addition to the fantastical events of her life, the "signs" that point to and guarantee her efficacy as an intercessor--i.e. her sanctity--are a series of miracles, which typically begin during her martyrdom (signs of God's favor sent to encourage her and discourage her enemies--e.g. the doves which appear in answer to Margaret's prayers; the saint's ability to withstand terrible torture). Miraculous occurrences increase at the moment of her death. Note examples of miracles and other signs of Margaret's sanctity in the course of the text and be prepared to cite some in class.

Finally, a hagiographic text typically ends by reaffirming the authority of the narrator (Teochimus tells us that he knows what he has recounted is true, since he himself was there and helped to bury the saint's body; note also other assertions of his status as eye-witness to the saint's life and death) and by advising the audience to pray to her (for personal salvation, and/or for that of the narrator or scribe). Note the way in which the narrator addresses his audience. Are they readers or listeners? What does this tell us about the target audience for the work?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2007

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Click here for Ancrene Wisse Study Questions

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