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II The Absent Mother as Protector and Advisor

Saintly Protection: The Postmortem ‘Mothers’ of Medieval Hagiography

Mary Beth Long

The ubiquity of the Virgin Mary in English medieval religious culture would seem to suggest a constant presence or awareness of mothers in its literature.1 No medieval church seems complete without an image of Mary prominently displayed; no medieval confession finished without the assigned penance of at least a few Ave Marias; no sinner quite expected to get into heaven without the intercessory mercy of the Virgin. Mary appears as the subject of poems, plays, and prose throughout the period.2 The near-total absence, then, of both the Virgin Mary and mortal mothers from many female saints’ lives, the most widely read genre of the period, is palpable. Instead, the genre offers several examples of women whose mothers are noticeably missing or dead, and who themselves die and are resurrected quite young. These virginal or sexless women then exhibit selected aspects of maternal behaviors, often in ways true to the medieval understanding of motherhood as a purely physical activity: lactation, childbirth, superhuman survival of physical torment. I suggest that these relatively common episodes of resurrection and postmortem maternity in female saints’ lives function to help mark and define the genre, along with more widely acknowledged formulaic markers such as confrontations

M.B. Long (*)

Medieval English Literature, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_3

between saint and civic authorities, mass conversion of bystanders, and miracles.3 In the discussion that follows, I will argue that the disproportionately low representation of mortal mothers coupled with the saints’ postmortem behaviors and complex representations of maternal bodies all work to reinforce Marian standards for medieval motherhood.

The gendered treatment and involuntary nature of these motherless women’s postmortem status is common to otherwise dissimilar texts: the twelfth-century vita of the Welsh saint Wenefride, the thirteenth-century vita of the Flemish saint Christina mirabilis, and the fourteenth-century Anglo-French vita of Mary Magdalene.4 Each of the historical subjects discussed here predates the cult of Bridget of Sweden and a perhaps- corresponding bump in the number of live mothers present in saints’ lives. Dead or silent mothers figure prominently in their plots, as do female bodies performing a variety of maternal miracles. The Virgin Mary is barely mentioned. The vita of Wenefride describes a young girl who briefly escapes an attempted rape in her home only to be captured and decapitated by her attacker; she is resurrected by a priest and establishes a monastery, while a healing fountain springs up at the site of her decapitation. Christina mirabilis dies and is resurrected three times, each time marking an increasingly active phase of service to and engagement with her community; at the moments of starkest isolation from others, she subsists from her own breasts’ emissions. Bozon’s life of Mary Magdalene includes two anecdotes of childbirth, one of which results in the mother’s bodily death and subsequent physical nourishing of the child. Upon her resurrection, she reunites with her husband and helps establish the Christian community in Marseilles. The temptation for modern first-time readers is to focus on the inaccessibility and perceived hilarity of the narratives, which inevitably highlights the alterity of the cultures that produced them: Christina acts so bizarrely that her friends chain her up like a dog! Surely this is a slapstick element in Wenefride when her head rolls down the hill! How could readers believe a corpse could breastfeed a child? But there is much beyond alterity that unites them, particularly if we approach them with the question of what medieval hagiography has to say about motherhood.

These texts are worth examining together in part because their subjects were all ultimately known by the same reading communities: while diverse in geographical, cultural, and linguistic origins, these narratives were preserved and translated to be read by late-medieval and early modern English women. It matters that this secondary readership likely included women familiar with the Mary-centric theologies of Bridget of Sweden,

Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich. It matters that these readers were likely mothers—or, survivors of childbirth—themselves. Taken as a group, these and other female saints’ lives seem tailored to a maternal readership. It seems logical to expect that those readers sought models in their devotional reading: the saints’ miraculous powers are often tied to recognizably maternal or Marian behaviors and problems, such as spontaneous virginal or even postmortem lactation, problematic childbirth or references to labor pains, and fertility concerns and cures. The saints’ participation in, and founding of, convents and religious communities would have resonated as appropriate behaviors for middle-aged mothers like their readers, particularly those familiar with the description of nuns in Bridget’s order as her ‘spiritual children’.

But even as I acknowledge the relatively homogenous demographics of that secondary readership, I want to call attention to the texts’ diverse geographical and chronological origins.5 This diversity reveals a longstanding, far-reaching silence about the business of mothering, divine or mortal. Throughout the medieval period, the Virgin Mary’s holiness was attributed to her virginity, not her maternal behaviors (purity despite motherhood); similarly, female saints were revered for their devotion to chastity, not their maternal miracles (motherhood despite purity). Across several different versions of these narratives, the absence and invisibility of the maternal body coexist in tension with the maternal acts the protagonists perform. In other words, these are not stories about or including conventional mothers. While much has been written about the late-medieval focus on the body in English texts,6 these texts demonstrate that the lack of maternal body is an important phenomenon in earlier Northern European texts. Given that Christianity is an incarnational religion, this sustained avoidance of attention to the maternal body is curious.

As narratives about a mother who avoided death through Assumption and continued to behave maternally, Marian legends are instructive here.7 Although the late medieval period showed strong interest in the status and mechanics of Mary’s postpartum body and sexuality, the Virgin’s physical body is largely absent from early and high medieval narrative. In considering Mary as cultural force, Julia Kristeva points out in her early essay ‘Stabat Mater’, ‘Of the virginal body we are entitled only to the ear, the tears, and the breasts’ (1985, 142).8 Milk and tears might seem to allow a leaky slippage for feminine expression, but they remain controlled because of Mary’s lack of sexuality. (It is worth noting that medieval male writers often incorporated sexless lactation as metaphor in their devotional writing to explain their own intellectual development and growth; for example, in his Confessions, Augustine credits God as the true source of the milk in his nurses’ breasts, so that the female body was only technically a conduit for his infant nutrition; similarly, Bernard’s vision of the projectile lactation of the Virgin into his eyes or forehead serves primarily to give him special doctrinal insight.) Kristeva’s essay goes some way toward explaining that the Virgin Mary’s presence in Western medieval culture may appear to open a space for femininity and maternity, but in fact functions to tame and control women’s experience.9 In her analysis of Kristeva’s points, Elizabeth Grosz calls Christian theologians’ use of Marian maternity ‘an attempt to smooth out and cover the contradictory status and position of maternity in the symbolic, a maternity both “respected” and unrecognized, both sexless and fully eroticized’ (1989, 83). Mary offers a model of sanitized maternity that saints in these vitae can replicate. None of the messy details of birthing or raising a child are present in Marian tales; in fact, her motherly behavior is glossed over until her son dies. Similarly, the saints’ lives under discussion here allow for maternal behavior without the theological issues of sexuality, physiology, and procreation that biological motherhood raises. Mortal women, heavy with the baggage of the fleshly, remain problematic and unholy as long as these sanitized versions exist. Keeping mortal mothers out of the narratives, whether they are dead or simply silenced, removes that distraction.

Structurally, the lacunae left by the Virgin Mary and the saints’ own mothers in the narratives create a maternal space for the saints to fill. Like mortal women, the saints have been excluded from full participation in earthly life by virtue of their gender. Their deaths and resurrections allow an erasure of the theological danger associated with their feminine fleshliness; in these texts, these events also function as the saints’ ‘birth’ into motherhood. After exiting the known world, the saints remain tied to the earthly world as protectors, filling maternal roles in their communities despite the lack of tangible maternal models in their own lives. Wenefride and Christina experience resurrection as an obligation to devote themselves to others and death as an invitation to continue that self-denial indefinitely as they intercede upon request. Their postmortem condition carries the gendered expectation of permanent nurturing and intercession.

Resurrection is of course crucial to the Christian narrative, as is the concept of permanent escape from death, or eternal life: from its beginnings, Christianity has blurred and complicated the binary between living and dead. ‘Birth’, ‘death’, and ‘life’ are metaphors in nearly every textual depiction of conversion, so it should not surprise us to find resurrection depicted literally in several saints’ lives, but that depiction is rare in narratives of male saints. The two most prominent Gospel examples of Christian resurrection, Lazarus and Christ, are male, and the medieval hagiographical corpus offers a handful of examples of male resurrection in narratives of saints’ postmortem miracles. Yet to judge from that same body of texts, undergoing resurrection is overwhelmingly a female endeavor. More women undergo resurrection than do men, and more details are given of their post-resurrection experience. In her essay critiquing Victor Turner’s theory of liminality, Caroline Walker Bynum observes that ‘Women’s stories insofar as they can be discerned behind the tales told by male biographers are in fact less processual than men’s; they don’t have turning points... there is no conversion, no breach and reintegration’ (1984, 108, 112). The stories of resurrected female saints, however, allow for a fairly dramatic conversion moment, although it is from pre- to post-death rather than pre- to post-Christian. Even in resurrection- friendly Christianity, death represents a breach, and when these women return from death to a status that can be considered liminal, they are changed persons: no longer simply the virgins they were prior to death, they are now supramaternal. They emerge from death as persons more committed to Christian action, certainly, but also committed to serving others beyond themselves.

The vitae of both Wenefride and Christina begin with the subjects’ first deaths.10 Resurrection is thus the public, witnessed event that propagates the narrative, so that readers’ knowledge of the protagonists is mostly in their postmortem state. The deaths themselves are quite different: Wenefride is beheaded by a lustful suitor’s sword; Christina dies ‘of inward exercise of contemplacyone’ (2008, 54). Likewise, the resurrections proceed differently: Wenefride’s head is reattached by the holy man Beuno, who also trains her in the ways of active devotion and convinces her parents to allow her to found a convent. Christina has no healer or mediator, having spoken with God directly during her first visit to heaven. In both cases their resurrections are pivotal in the narrative.

Wenefride’s vita begins like that of most virgin martyrs, with an immediate threat to her virginity.11 In contrast to the dead, neglectful, or pagan mother who often features in virgin martyrs’ narratives,12 Wenefride’s mother is alive, supportive, and devout, but she is absent from the scene when Cradoc, the pagan young man intent on having sex with Wenefride, appears at their house. Wenefride’s mother is, in fact, at church when Cradoc invites Wenefride to sleep with him, when Wenefride promises to change her clothes for the occasion but instead sneaks out the back door to escape, and when Cradoc captures Wenefride and beheads her in fury at her betrayal.13 Wenefride’s mother is still at church when her daughter’s head rolls through the church door, when Beuno, the priest, goes out to admonish Cradoc and retrieve Wenefride’s body, and when Beuno asks the congregation to pray while he offers mass and her head miraculously reattaches to her body. Her mother is present as a witness to Wenefride’s ghastly entrance and resurrection, but she is clearly not the maternal model of this text. Once Wenefride has revived, Beuno convinces her parents, who have already donated her dowry as alms, to let her found a convent. Wenefride’s mother then disappears completely from the narrative, and Wenefride steps into the maternal gap, acting as (abbess) mother to the enclosed until her second death 15 years later. From the moment she revives, Beuno guides Wenefride toward the role of abbess; resurrection propels her directly from the role of child to that of metaphorical mother.

By contrast, the life of Christina mirabilis recounts the process of becoming a maternal figure in fits and starts.14 The second sentence of the vita begins simply, ‘And whan hir fader and moder were deed’ without explanatory comment (2008, 54). Christina herself dies a few sentences later, visiting purgatory, hell, and heaven and receiving a divine challenge to suffer for the souls in purgatory and minister to the needs of her community. Her resurrection takes place at her funeral as she levitates from the casket to the church roof. Upon her return to life, Christina tells her friends what she saw, including her prediction that her behavior will trouble them. Accordingly, Christina exhibits extremely unconventional behaviors, such as walking into ovens, hiding in tombs, engaging in voluntary poverty, and submerging herself in freezing water. Her unusual sensory experiences include the abilities to smell sin in people, to levitate into treetops, and to act as tormented proxy for those in purgatory. All these actions lead her friends to chain her up, once even hiring a bounty hunter to beat her so that she can be contained.

It is only when Christina’s behavior becomes recognizably maternal that she is shown compassion: at one point her virginal breasts spontaneously lactate with flavored oil that handily serves both as nourishing condiment for her bread and salve for her wounds. The miracle inspires the narrator to suggest that Christina channels ‘the imcomparabil and singler virgyne, Cristes moder’, the only explicit mention of the Virgin Mary in the text (2008, 58). It is this physical demonstration of maternity (and implied likeness to the Virgin Mary) that convinces her friends to ask her forgiveness and set her free: they ‘bigan to wepe and fro then forth they sturglid [struggled] nor enforced no-thinge ageyne Goddes wille in Cristyns miracles, but lowsed hir of bondys & knelyd doun, preiynge forgifnes of the wronge that they hadde done to hire, & so leet hir go’ (64). The lactation also allows her to accomplish part of her mission: to inspire the living to turn to God. The supernaturally maternal nature of her body, then, saves her from public scorn and the community from its own disbelief. Even after this event, her progress toward acceptance by her community is slow, as her behaviors continue to shock and confuse people, but the narrator’s descriptions of them veer toward maternal language: her physical pain is compared with ‘pangs of childbirth’ (de Cantimpre 22); she acts as a ‘mother’ to a count; and near the end of her life, when she joins a community of religious women, she returns from a second death to answer a nun’s question.

Christina’s second resurrection, like her first lactation, establishes her as an analog to the Virgin Mary, available for intercession to anyone who asks directly. Mary, of course, has a different post-life status than Christina and Winifrede, who are caught in a state between death and life, for Mary never actually dies. (Kristeva argues that the Assumption makes Mary’s fate ‘more radiant’ even than Christ’s, 139.) Mary hangs in a liminal space: she is not postresurrection, but is very much in a ‘post-maternal’ state that requires her to lose some autonomy, serving others to whom she has no biological connection. The huge number of Marian miracle stories attests to the popularity of the notion of a universal mother who is constantly in service. The glimpses we get of this postmaternal behavior in other saints’ lives suggests that it is almost universally gendered female, and, if it is not always reminiscent of saints’ absent mothers, it certainly alludes to the model that Mary has established. Christina’s answer to Beatrice may not read as ‘maternal’ to modern readers, but medieval readers would have recognized its Marian frame.

In myth as in life, supplicants’ access to these saints in their postmortem state is through physical portals that echo the physicality of their earthly bodies: icons, shrines and holy place, relics, and talismans. Wenefride’s healing miracles, for example, are linked to a well that reportedly sprang up in the spot where her head came to rest after her beheading; in addition to a twelfth-century shrine at Shrewsbury, a chapel was built in her honor at Holywell in 1438. Her role as a healing ‘mother’ through the spring, which readers of her vita likely knew about, underscores the maternal action of founding a convent. As mortals, these women have been culturally liminal by virtue of being gendered female, and by extension, fleshly. But once they achieve postmortem status, they no longer pose the same moral threat to mortal men: they are no longer ‘really’ women; they do not have women’s flesh-and-blood, reproductive bodies, so they are not sexual, only—or, extremely—maternal. As postmortem beings, they are not fleshly or monstrous, but are instead idealized, all the threatening parts of their femininity (such as sexuality) stripped away. Once resurrected, they function as exaggerated models of what women and Christians are supposed to be, but their human appearance is superficially maintained so that their now-pure maternity can be assumed and celebrated. It is significant, for example, that Wenefride has only a thin white thread as a scar: for the most part, she still looks like someone who could function as a flesh-and-blood mother. Christina’s behaviors are practically feral, but her body is fully, perhaps exaggeratedly, functional. Just as their help can be solicited through supplicants’ sensory faculties, such as a spoken word or a hand dipped in well water, the expectation of continued protection is rooted in these saints’ female bodies. Their former status as ‘women’, however problematic or inaccurate, grants them a maternal power they lacked in life, but also an obligation to remain in the role of protector. The needs of the living always rank above those of the saints, whom these texts depict acting both protectively and involuntarily, at the mercy of sinners who demand their intercession.

The vita of Mary Magdalene, in its literal depiction of postmortem mothering and in the absence of mortal mothers, brings these issues to the fore. The narrative opens with the orphaned Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus (medieval writers often merged the gospel accounts of the Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the unnamed weeping woman into one figure). The Magdalene is a prostitute, but soon converts and forms a relationship with Christ such that Christ raises Lazarus from the dead for her (1947, ‘par li’, line 88). As a woman, she is dearer to him than almost anyone else, though Bozon clarifies, ‘I wish to except his sweet Mother/Who was considerably dearer to Him’/‘Jeo voile excepter sa dulce mere/Ke li fust de assez plus chere’ (lines 111-112). This is the narrative’s only mention of the Virgin Mary, reminding readers explicitly of the influence behind the Magdalene’s maternal and Marian behaviors even as the Virgin’s absence from the narrative creates a gap in which the Magdalene can act maternally. After Christ’s death, the Magdalene is exiled to Marseilles, where she begins preaching and recruiting members for a Christian community.

Most versions of the text feature an anecdote that underscores maternal themes further: after Mary Magdalene cures her infertility, an unnamed wife to a prince dies in childbirth at sea.15 Sailors insist that both the mother’s and surviving baby’s bodies be disposed of, but the prince convinces them to let him deposit them on a nearby island. The woman’s corpse lactates, keeping her infant alive and thriving for two years until she is resurrected by her husband’s prayers to Mary Magdalene, whom he credits with the mother’s lactation miracle. The woman returns to life to reunite with him as wife and, most importantly for the narrative, establish a solid financial and social footing for Christianity in Marseille: receiving baptism, destroying idolatrous temples, and helping elect the resurrected Lazarus as bishop of the city.

Although it sometimes composes up to half of the vita, the mother’s story is ancillary to that of the Magdalene, who by this point in the text has already experienced a metaphorical resurrection from her previous status as prostitute. The postresurrection behaviors of both the Magdalene and the resurrected mother in the anecdote can be read as postmaternal. Once they are outside the cultural parameters of how mortals, and especially women, should behave, they become even more impossibly exemplary for readers: while the unnamed mother’s experiences of infertility and fatal childbirth would be familiar to medieval readers, her dead body miraculously nourishes a life, then revives to demonstrate just how overachieving a mother can be. The Magdalene acts maternally toward the couple by granting them a fertility miracle and chastising them for excessive wealth and belief in idols16; she multitasks as a former prostitute, a preacher, a fertility goddess, a tour guide,17 and a resurrection miracle-worker.

Consistent throughout the narrative is the connection of spiritual outcomes to functions of the resurrected female body. The success of the Magdalene’s preaching is attributed to her mouth’s having touched Christ’s feet; she is described almost as a relic: ‘It was no wonder that spoke so well/That mouth which formerly touched/The feet ofHim Who is the fond/All full of grace and wisdom’ //‘Ne fu pas mervaile si bien parleit/Cele bouche ke avant tocheit/Les pez celi qui est funteyne /De grace e sen tut pleyne’ (1947, lines 146-149). Similarly, the prince’s agreement to conversion is conditional on his wife’s fertility: ‘If [Christ]... for my wife and myself/Can work such a favor/That we have a child/I shall indeed believe your words and I shall give myself to Jesus Christ’ //’Si part vostre Jhesu Crist... A ma compaygne e a mey/Pusset fere de grace tant/Ke nus ussum un enfant/Jeo crerey bien vostre dit/E me durrey a Jhesu Crist’ (lines 199-205). Women’s bodies perform only to achieve male conversion or survival, regardless of the outcome to the woman: lactation occurs despite the death of the mortal mother, a miracle for which the prince credits the Magdalene rather than his wife (You have nursed my child!’//‘Vus avez nurri mon enfant!’ line 277)—a moment reminiscent of Augustine's gratitude to God for providing his nurse's milk. It appears that the mother’s body must be dead to accommodate maternal function without spiritual taint; once she is resurrected, her mothering becomes metaphorical, as she helps build churches and ministers to other Christians. In several versions of the Magdalene vita, another childbirth-centered miracle story is appended: a woman gives birth in a shipwreck, calling upon the Magdalene to save her baby. The Magdalene appears as a beautiful lady who leads the pregnant woman by the chin to land. This postpartum mother puts her son in a monastery to devote his life to serving the Magdalene, erasing her own role as mortal mother in favor of the church's. In all of these examples, women's bodies serve as a vessel to help others, rather than functioning for their own sake.

The anecdotes in the Magdalene vita underscore my argument that female saints' lives, which might seem to belong to a genre celebrating women, actually reinforce narrow social parameters even as their subjects act maternally. They implicitly acknowledge the lack of femininity in a spiritual framework with extremely limited models (such as the virginal maternity of Mary) for ideal female behavior. These narratives that all but forbid the sexuality of their female subjects still celebrate maternity to the point that resurrected women nurture, protect, and serve the living. The emphases on physical connections and bodily power memorialize the saints’ former identification with the female, or fleshly, but the texts affirm sanctity only in those who circumvent or negate their sexualities and still manage to perform metaphorical motherhood without having to employ their physical bodies. In a culture that valued women primarily for their reproductive faculties, these depictions of the accomplishments of resurrected ‘mothers’ devalued what mortal mothers were realistically able to do in birthing and raising children. By attending instead to postmortem bodies and their metaphorical maternal functions, the texts’ clerical authors are able to follow the model of the resurrected Christ and his mother simultaneously while avoiding the problems that a fertile female body raises in a devotional text. The dead mothers of the saints do not interfere, and so a textual world emerges in which much-needed maternal healing and nurturing can take place completely without flesh-and-blood mothers.


  • 1. I am grateful to former students for helping me think through early forms of these ideas in my seminar on liminality taught at Ouachita Baptist University in Spring 2012. I am also grateful to Sarah Stark, with whom I first presented an early draft of this project alongside her work on Melusine at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI.
  • 2. See Adrienne Williams Boyarin (2015) and Karen Saupe (1998) for examples.
  • 3. For a more extended definition of the genre, see Sarah Salih (2006). See also Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (2001). For a succinct overview of fifteenth-century female saints’ lives, see A.S.G. Edwards (2003). See also my unpublished Ph. D. thesis, Long (2004).
  • 4. For a modern English translation of the thirteenth-century Latin vita of Christina, see Thomas de Cantimpre (1999). A Middle English edition of Douce 114 appears in Jennifer Brown (2008). The vita of Wenefride appears in several sources, including the recent edition by James Gregory (2016), and appears as late as the early seventeenth century. The vita of Mary Magdalene cited here appears in Nicolas Bozon (1947).
  • 5. Although to a modern reader, their origins may not seem diverse at all: they are all, even in later manifestations, authored by male monastics.
  • 6. The foundational, nearly comprehensive text in this field is Caroline Walker Bynum (1987). The comparatively extensive bibliography of studies of late- medieval English mystics such as Margery Kempe might mislead nonspecialists to believe that religious England women didn’t realize they had bodies until the fifteenth century.
  • 7. See note 2 above for two anthologies of Marian literature.
  • 8. This is why Margery Kempe, for example, as a postpartum would-be saint, is so problematic at the beginning of her Boke: she cannot be controlled, and thus orthodox, until she is chaste.
  • 9. This Marian observation is part of Kristeva’s larger argument that abjection, or rejection and exclusion of the mother figure, allows individuals to form their identities and, on a larger scale, cultures to come into being.
  • 10. Each of the women in these narratives is resurrected from a ‘first’ death; Christina is resurrected from her first two deaths.
  • 11. This summary is based on later English versions of the tale. Welsh versions differ somewhat in the details; for example, Wenefride does not officially found a convent, though her example does persuade several other young women to take the veil. Several medieval manuscripts include Wenefride’s life, including the twelfth-century Latin version in Bodleian Library, Misc. Laud, MS 114, and British Library MS Lansdowne 436 (see note 4). See also M.J.C. Lowry (1983). Further, Ralph Buckland (1886) included Wenefride in his Lives of Women Saints in the early seventeenth century, by which time many young English Catholic women in continental convents were likely missing their own mothers.
  • 12. Most virgin martyrs’ vitae do not even mention mothers, who are presumed dead, although Margaret of Antioch’s vita explains that Margaret is raised by a foster mother who later visits her in prison.
  • 13. In some versions it is a companion of Cradoc who beheads Wenefride. See, for example, Gregory’s translation in n. 4 above.
  • 14. The Middle English cited here is from Brown’s edition of Bodleian Library Douce 114, a fifteenth-century manuscript; continental Latin texts of the vita date to the thirteenth century. The modern English of King’s edition is almost interchangeable with the Middle English version; I cite from King only when Middle English might be distracting to the modern reader.
  • 15. My discussion here is rooted in Bozon’s fourteenth-century version of the Magdalene vita. In many versions, the woman’s husband is described as the (Saracen) Prince of Marseilles. The 1260 Golden Legend version of the vita includes the anecdote, depicting the woman as a scold and including several misogynist editorial comments; see Jacobus de Voragine (1993). The version found in the Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 as part of the South English Legendary devotes roughly half of the entire vita to the story of the prince and his wife (lines 227-526 of a 643-line poem). The anecdote is missing from Speculum Sacerdotale, another medieval collection of liturgical texts, although that of the woman who gave birth at sea and was rescued by the Magdalene is present. For an edition of the Middle English texts, see Sherry Reames (2003).
  • 16. The fertility miracle is closely tied to their idolatrous belief, as the couple asks ‘if they might through [their idols] have a child’// ‘si pussent par els [lur maumez] enfant aver’ (line 153).
  • 17. When the prince asks the Magdalene for his wife back, she arises and announces that the Magdalene led her to visit all the places he had been (lines 283-286).

Works Cited

Boyarin, Adrienne Williams. 2015. Miracles of the Virgin in Middle English. Ontario: Broadview Press.

Bozon, Nicholas. 1947. Three Saints’ Lives by Nicholas Bozon. Edited and translated by M. Amelia Klenke. St Bonaventure NY: Franciscan Publications, Broadview Press.

Brown, Jennifer N. 2008. Three Women of Liege: A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis and Marie d’Oignies. Turnhout: Brepols.

Buckland, Ralph. 1886. The Lives of Women Saints of our Contrie of England, also Some Other Liues of Holie Women Written by Some of the Auncient Fathers, edited by Carl Horstmann. London: EETS o.s. 86.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1984. ‘Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality.’ In Anthropology and the Study of Religion, edited by Robert E. Moore and Frank E. Reynolds, 105-125. Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. 1987. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Edwards, A.S.G. 2003.‘Fifteenth-Century English Collections of Female Saints’ Lives’. The Yearbook of English Studies, 33: 131-141. Medieval and Early Modern Miscellanies and Anthologies.

Gregory, James Ryan, ed. and trans. 2016. ‘The Life of St. Winifred: The Vita S. Wenefrede from BL Lansdowne MS 436’. Medieval Feminist Forum Subsidia 4: 1-39.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1989. Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Jacobus, de Voragine. 1993. ‘Mary Magdalene’. In The Golden Legend, edited and translated by William Granger Ryan, 374-383. Vol. I. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1985. ‘Stabat Mater’, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Poetics Today, 6.1-2: 133-152.

Long, Mary Beth. 2004. Reading Female Sanctity: Legendaries of Women ca. 1200-1650. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts.

Lowry, M.J.C. 1983. ‘Caxton, St Winifred and the Lady Margaret Beaufort’. The Library, 5.2: 101-117.

Reames, Sherry, ed. 2003. Middle English Legends of Women Saints. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Salih, Sarah. 2006. Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer.

Saupe, Karen, ed. 1998. Middle English Marian Lyrics. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Thomas, de Cantimpre. 1999. The Life of Christina the Astonishing, edited and translated by Margot H. King. Toronto: Peregrina.

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn. 2001. Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, 1150-1300: Virginity and Its Authorizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mary Beth Long is Visiting Assistant Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA. She works in the fields of hagiography, women’s literacies, book history, and religious culture, and she is writing a book about Marian maternity and representations of motherhood in late-medieval and early-modern English legendaries of women.

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