Academic journal article Magistra

False Positives: The "Katherine Group" Saints as Ambiguous Role Models

Academic journal article Magistra

False Positives: The "Katherine Group" Saints as Ambiguous Role Models

Article excerpt

[Hearken all who have ears and hearing -- widows along with the wedded, and the maidens especially -- listen most eagerly, how they shall love the living lord and live in maidenhood...].(1)

The saints' lives gathered in the early thirteenth-century collection known as the "Katherine Group," like most saints' lives, are at least nominally exempla for their audiences. As Elizabeth Robertson argues, "Both paleographical evidence and comments within the work itself make it almost certain that this life [Margaret's, though by analogy the others as well] was intended as a spiritual model, if not for the three anchoresses of the Deerfold for whom the Ancrene Wisse was also written, at least for a similar group of female contemplatives."(2)

Initially, these women seem like positive role models for the virgin recluses, that is, appealing to their intellectual abilities to lead them toward an approved model of behavior. Saints Katherine, Juliene and Margaret are practical prototypes for their readers. All maintain their sworn virginity and Christian faith under duress and are rewarded for it in the end with ascension to heaven for the celestial wedding with the bridegroom Christ.

Upon closer examination however, the lessons to be gleaned from their lives are less clear, and perhaps even negative. This is true particularly if one examines the motif of torture and the underlying theme of fear which runs throughout the saints' portrayals and the other Katherine Group texts, Hali Meidhad and Sawles Warde. The lessons become negative when they appeal not to the female reader's intellectual apprehension, but to her apprehensiveness of physical harm. Such bodily terror may have led more women away from the intended path of sanctity rather than toward it.

The Katherine Group texts and the Ancrene Wisse demonstrate a close relationship by language as well as theme, indeed "they all seem to have been written originally in the same literary dialect, they are linked by verbal and thematic parallels, and sometimes several of them are found together in the manuscripts."(3) This group of texts occupies a unique position in the transition from Old to Middle English, showing the increasing influence of French on the vernacular language, as well as some local Welsh.(4) They are part of "a vernacular literary culture which in some senses stretched back to the late Anglo-Saxon period," yet steeped in the latest debates of the continental tradition.(5)

The interpenetrative history of the texts results in cross-textual references that pepper the documents. In Hali Meidhad the reader is exhorted to:

[think of Saint Katherine, of Saint Margaret, Saint Agnes, Saint Juliene and Saint Cecilia, and of the other holy maidens in heaven, how not one of them didn't forsake the sons of kings and earls with all worldly riches and earthly pleasure, but suffered strong torture...](163)

In Part IV of the Ancrene Wisse, where the anchoress is advised how to deal with being itemptet, she is advised that:

[Inward and constant and anxious prayers win soon succor and help from our lord against temptations of the flesh...they do him [the devil] two kinds of harm: they bind him and burn...Haven't you also [heard] of Ruffin the devil, Belial's brother, in our english book of Saint Margaret?](6)

This should bring to mind at once the vivid picture of Margaret emerging from the belly of Ruffin after making the sign of the cross, as well as her binding Belial with her celebratory prayers and her foot. Clearly these texts mirror the closeness of the community to which they speak.

Even beyond this intimate circle of texts, though, saints' lives have been considered role models to guide one's spiritual life, although in varying ways at different times in church history. As Peter Brown has written about early trends of renunciation in the Christian church, the "pagan conviction that Christians met in order to indulge in sexual promiscuity died hard. …

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