Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England. By Catherine Sanok. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2007. Pp. xviii, 256.)

In Her Life Historical, Catherine Sanok offers a penetrating review of the concept of exemplarity using lives of female saints to articulate exciting new ideas about how exemplarity could function in later medieval culture. Given the unexamined assumptions usually in play when "exemplary" texts are read by modern critics, Sanok's elegant study is a much-needed analysis of the complex nexus of hagiographie, historical, and gender issues to be found in the popular genre of female saints' lives.

Although Sanok's work builds productively on the preceding generation of hagiographic scholarship, she also offers fresh perspectives that undermine earlier truisms about gender and history. Most fundamentaEy she questions the paradigm that tends to put female vernacular spirituality at odds with historical reflection. Of the genre's supposed ahistoricity she says, "The exemplarity of vernacular hagiography depends on the fantasy that gender ideology and Christian practice are continuous, even transhistorical, but this is clearly not true" (p. 22).

Her initial comparison in chapter 1 of the ways women readers "imitated" their saintly models-saints Cecilia, Mary Magdalene, Margaret, and Katherine-reveals that figures like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe or male writers of prescriptive texts in fact used such saintly models very flexibly. The feature to be imitated was often carefully selected from a range of narrative possibilities in the legend, leaving other features either explicitly or tacitly as unimitable. For example, the typical virgin saint's adamant rejection of marriage and sexuality, her challenge to male authority, or her defiant public preaching were rarely presented as traits the woman reader should mimic. Instead, such narrative features were often allegorized into ethical virtues that could be emulated.

Sanok traces the "incommensurability" of ethics and narrative, the continuities and discontinuities of history, through a variety of topics in the following chapters. …

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