New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives

New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives

New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives

New Legends of England: Forms of Community in Late Medieval Saints' Lives

Synopsis

In New Legends of England, Catherine Sanok examines a significant, albeit previously unrecognized, phenomenon of fifteenth-century literaryints. Embodying a variety of literary forms--from elevated Latinate verse, to popular traditions such as the carol, to translations of earlier verse legends into the medium of prose--the Middle English Lives of England's saints are rarely discussed in relation to one another or seen as constituting a distinct literary genre. However, Sanok argues, these legends, when grouped together were an important narrative forum for exploring overlapping forms of secular and religious community at local, national, and supranational scales: the monastery, the city, and local cults; the nation and the realm; European Christendom and, at the end of the fifteenth century, a world that was suddenly expanding across the Atlantic.

Reading texts such as the South English Legendary, The Life of St. Etheldrede, the Golden Legend, and poems about Saints Wenefrid and Ursula, Sanok focuses especially on the significance of their varied and often experimental forms. She shows how Middle English Lives of native saints revealed, through their literary forms, modes of affinity and difference that, in turn, reflected a diversity in the extent and structure of medieval communities. Taking up key questions about jurisdiction, temporality, and embodiment, New Legends of England presents some of the ways in which the Lives of England's saints theorized community and explored its constitutive paradox: the irresolvable tension between singular and collective forms of identity.

Excerpt

In 1389, English saints began once again to perform miracles, claims the Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham: despite other calamities that year, Walsingham counts it a “happy” one on account of the “renewal of miracles”— miracula renovata— by England’s own saints. the British St. Alban, for example, cured a London woman named Agnes, who was so “demented by grief that her madness was known to almost all those who were accustomed to throng the streets of London” (272). the Anglo- Saxon St. Etheldreda— or Audrey, the Anglo- Norman name by which she is also known— renewed her miracle- working too. She appeared in a vision to a young man to warn him of the “gravest dangers which would befall the kingdom, unless a merciful God was placated by the pious prayers of the faithful and thus stayed his hand from punishment” (269). the saint instructed the man to carry her message to the prior and monks and informed him that to prove its truth he would be made lame until the feast of her translation, when he would be miraculously healed. His disabled body provided powerful evidence that his story was not “fake and the invention of human cunning” (270): the crowds that rushed to see him poked at his shins and feet with their knives to confirm for themselves that his flesh was “dead.” the man also conveyed Etheldreda’s prophecy of the devastating heat wave that summer, when it was so hot that the lead on church roofs melted, weather that would have been “still more intolerable” had not St. Etheldreda advised the English to pray for forgiveness. the saint appeared to an old woman as well, the young man’s counterpart, as a medium for dire warnings addressed to both monks and laity to “continue their processions, redouble their intercessions, and to pray without ceasing that God would remove the sword which hung over their heads.”

Walsingham’s periodizing scheme, structured by the renewed activity of English saints, maps an epistemic shift in vernacular literary culture too. While there had been considerable interest in England’s native saints . . .

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