Academic journal article Magistra

To Speak of Silence: Clemence of Barking's Life of St. Catherine and Her Vision of Female Wisdom

Academic journal article Magistra

To Speak of Silence: Clemence of Barking's Life of St. Catherine and Her Vision of Female Wisdom

Article excerpt

John Capgrave states in his fifteenth-century Life of St. Catherine that her subjects lamented, "she loveth not ellis but bookys and scole ... this will turne us alle to wrake and to do ole."1 This attitude to female literacy and scholarship is perhaps not surprising to find in fifteenth century England. However, it is surprising to see it appear in a Life of St. Catherine, that virgin saint whose Passio celebrated her rhetorical triumph over fifty famous pagan philosophers. When calculating Catherine's virtues, Capgrave glosses over her erudition and learning in favor of her purity and humility; she speaks truth, but she does not learn it through a process of study, but rather through divine grace.2

When the English prose Life instructs its readers how they should imitate St. Catherine, the author shies away from Catherine's scholarly achievements and instead claims that his work teaches "all virgins and maidens to despise and flee all worldly vanity and greatly and truly love our lord Jesus Christ. It teaches you to persevere in his love to the death, trusting in that comfort and reward he gives all his lovers."3

In order to examine precisely how the fifteenth century venerators of St. Catherine reconciled this advice to "flee worldly vanity" with a hagiographie tradition that praised the saint for her deep knowledge of worldly scholarship and rhetoric, this study will delve not only into the prose Life and Capgrave's vita, but will particularly focus on a text in direct opposition to those above: the twelfth century Life of St. Catherine by Clémence of Barking.

The focus here will be on the hagiographie Catherine vitae prepared largely for an audience of women. The disparity between the narrative details of virgin saints' lives and the virtues their female readers were supposed to come away with has been observed by scholars before. In her book, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England, Catherine Sanok addressed this very question, and did indeed conclude that young women were intended to read much more typical feminine virtues of obethence, humility, and purity from stories of even the most rebellious female saint.4

Margery Kempe is the classic example of a woman who attempted to imitate Catherine's independence, public authority, and preaching, only to meet with great resistance from her contemporary medieval society.5 However, although much critical attention has already been directed towards Catherine as scholar, there remain several inconsistencies, which would benefit from a broader chronological look.6

Catherine's incarnation as purveyor of husbands and model of stable, unlearned faith is not merely an invention of the fifteenth century, in response to specific contemporary pressures, but instead perhaps a manifestation of trends begun long before, a crisscrossing of centuries and texts which allowed Catherine's role as mystic bride to find birth within the Legend. While Catherine as scholar and Catherine as philosopher do remain recognizable components of the text throughout its many permutations, these versions of the saint seem to have become marginalized in the hagiographie tradition and cult by the fifteenth century; the goal of this paper is to begin to ask why and how that happened.7

The rise of Catherine as "mystical bride of Christ," a narrative twist which coincided with a surge in female lay spirituality and a new focus on the religious potential of both the somatic and the erotic experience, was, it may be argued, used to move aside and redirect attention from aspects of the text with which hagiographers had felt uncomfortable from its earliest dissemination in Western Europe. The Anglo-Norman Life of St. Catherine which was written by Clémence of Barking, a twelfthcentury nun at one of the most prestigious English convents, was, it seems, a notable exception in this general trend.8

This text takes a far more lenient view towards Catherine's studies, as well as academic study more broadly, in a sense tying together spiritual and earthly wisdom so that Catherine can remain a scholar even as she experiences divine truth. …

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