Fifteenth-Century Lives
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121 pages

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In Fifteenth-Century Lives, Karen A. Winstead identifies and explores a major shift in the writing of Middle English saints’ lives. As she demonstrates, starting in the 1410s and ’20s, hagiography became more character-oriented, more morally complex, more deeply embedded in history, and more politically and socially engaged. Further, it became more self-consciously literary and began to feature women more prominently—and not only traditional virgin martyrs but also matrons and contemporary holy women. Winstead shows that this literature placed a premium on scholarship and teaching. Hagiography celebrated educators and scholars to a greater extent than ever before and became a vehicle for educating readers about Christian dogma. Focusing both on authors well known, such as John Lydgate and Margery Kempe, and on others less known, such as Osbern Bokenham and John Capgrave, Winstead argues that the values promoted by fifteenth-century hagiography helped to shape the reformist impulses that eventually produced the Reformation. Moreover, these values continued to influence post-Reformation hagiography, both Protestant and Catholic, well into the seventeenth century.

In exploring these trends in fifteenth-century hagiography, identifying the factors that contributed to their emergence, and tracing their influence in later periods, Fifteenth-Century Lives marks an important contribution to revisionary scholarship on fifteenth-century literature. It will appeal to students and scholars of late medieval English literature and late medieval religion.



Publié par
Date de parution 30 novembre 2020
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268108557
Langue English

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Fifteenth-Century Lives
ReFormations: Medieval and Early Modern
Unwritten Verities: The Making of England’s Vernacular
Legal Culture, 1463–1549 (2015)
Sebastian Sobecki
Mysticism and Reform, 1400–1750 (2015)
Sara S. Poor and Nigel Smith, eds.
The Civic Cycles: Artisan Drama and Identity in
Premodern England (2015)
Nicole R. Rice and Margaret Aziza Pappano
Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England, c. 1350–1600 (2016)
Ryan McDermott
Volition’s Face: Personification and the Will
in Renaissance Literature (2017)
Andrew Escobedo
Shadow and Substance: Eucharistic Controversy and
English Drama across the Reformation Divide (2017)
Jay Zysk
Queen of Heaven: The Assumption and Coronation of the
Virgin in Early Modern English Writing (2018)
Lilla Grindlay
Performance and Religion in Early Modern England:
Stage, Cathedral, Wagon, Street (2019)
Matthew J. Smith
Theater of the Word: Selfhood in the English Morality Play (2019)
Julie Paulson
Chaucer and Religious Controversies in the Medieval
and Modern Eras (2019)
Nancy Bradley Warren
Versions of Election: From Langland and Aquinas
to Calvin and Milton (2020)
David Aers
Saint Petronilla, Queen’s College Manuscript 349, fol. 56 v. By permission of the provost and fellows of the Queen’s College, Oxford.

Writing Sainthood in England

University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2020 by the University of Notre Dame
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020946985
ISBN: 978-0-268-10853-3 (Hardback)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10854-0 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10856-4 (WebPDF)
ISBN: 978-0-268-10855-7 (Epub)
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
With love and thanks
for everything.
Introduction ONE New Directions: The Hagiography of John Lydgate TWO Osbern Bokenham’s Holy Women THREE Holy Educators and “Teaching Hagiographies” FOUR Holiness and the Modern Woman FIVE Golden Legends and Foxe’s Acts and Monuments: Rethinking the Hagiographical Anthology
Afterword: Afterlives
I thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for the year-long fellowship that supported my foundational research and initial writing for Fifteenth-Century Lives .
I thank James Simpson, David Aers, and Sarah Beckwith, who read chapters and encouraged me to submit the manuscript to their ReFormations series at the University of Notre Dame Press.
I thank Nancy Warren and the anonymous readers for UNDP for their careful readings and astute advice.
I thank Stephen Little of UNDP for his patient support.
I thank my husband, Carl, always my first reader, interlocutor, critic, and best friend. Fifteenth-Century Lives is for him.
The fifteenth century was a golden age of Middle English hagiography.
From the early 1400s, English authors were celebrating vulnerable, even fallible saints whom readers could aspire to emulate, not just admire. Family-oriented, or at least family-tolerant, hagiography was in clear vogue by the middle of the century, when hagiographers were composing some of the first Middle English lives of wives and mothers and displaying marked attention to family relations in the legends of diverse saints. Fifteenth-century hagiographers were rewriting lives of virgins to stress their humility, piety, and gentility as much as, or more than, their unwavering commitment to celibacy; that is, they were emphasizing qualities that would be appropriate in lay readers. 1 At the same time, hagiographers increasingly celebrated teachers and pastors—men and women who prized the welfare of others and who aimed to foster an informed and intellectualized Christianity within their communities.
Formal experimentation abounded as authors tried out new approaches to telling lives and turned to new sources. John Lydgate’s saints’ lives, with their aureate rhetoric, are flamboyantly literary. The scope and intricacy of his “epic” five-book lives of saints Edmund and Fremund and of Alban and Amphibalus were unprecedented in Middle English hagiography. Other “firsts” were Lydgate’s compact life of Austin, which focuses on a single incident, and his life of Giles, told in the second person. Jerome’s Life of Malchus , translated into Middle English for the first time during the 1430s, is the first life of a saint told in the first person. John Capgrave relays his Life of Saint Katherine from the perspective of an opinionated narrator whose enthusiasm for his subject is unmistakable but whose reliability is suspect. 2 Not least of the experiments is the strongly hagiographical Book of Margery Kempe , a generic hybrid considered by many to be the first autobiography (or, as some call it, “autohagiography”) in English. 3
During the fifteenth century, lives of time-honored saints such as Katherine of Alexandria received new spins, and lives were translated that had never before been told in Middle English, from that of the wishy-washy desert father Malchus to those of the thirteenth-century beguines of Liège. Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea , that hagiographical classic from the thirteenth century, was translated into English for the first time, and in the process it was updated to suit the literary tastes and religious sensibilities of a new age. Moreover, new kinds of specialized collections were assembled, including lives of teachers, lives of Continental holy women, and lives centered on parent–child relations. 4 These collections contrast sharply with the traditional anthologies of lives of virgins or passions of martyrs, and they captured the new ideals of holiness that were being embraced by clergy and laity.
Various factors encouraged such inventiveness. During the fifteenth century, English replaced French as the preferred language of the cultural elite. 5 Many of the “new” approaches to hagiography that first appear in English during the fifteenth century can be found in French and Latin hagiographies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 6 Osbern Bokenham’s exemplary holy women resemble in many respects Nicholas Bozon’s; John Lydgate’s lives have the historical and political complexity of Matthew Paris’s; the narrator of Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine is as obtrusive as that of Garnier of Pont-Sainte-Maxence’s life of Thomas Becket. 7 The values enshrined in fifteenth-century hagiography are consonant with those of a confident, socially conservative reading public that was intellectually inquisitive, widely read, and receptive to literary experimentation.
Many of these readers were women. Wealthy women had, from the twelfth century, been the intended or presumed readers for some of the most inventive hagiography written in the French of England, from Garnier’s life of Thomas Becket to Matthew Paris’s life of Edmund of Abingdon. 8 Their savvy intellectual descendants in the fifteenth century—Ann Mortimer, Lady March; Elizabeth Vere, Countess of Oxford; Isabella Bourchier, Countess of Eu; Margaret, Duchess of Clarence, among others—were seeking reading material in English. 9 Many enjoyed warm relationships with members of the clergy, who encouraged their spiritual development by providing books and also spiritual comfort and direction. These women encouraged and inspired the production of more, and more varied, lives of female saints. They also requested lives of Christian scholars and teachers of both sexes, from Mary Magdalene (considered an apostle to the apostles and missionary to Gaul) to Augustine of Hippo. 10 Freestanding lives of three Church Fathers—Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome—were composed in Middle English for the first time during the fifteenth century, and at least two of them were written for particular women (the intended recipient of the third is unknown). 11 Simon Horobin hypothesizes that Cecily, Duchess of York, was the recipient of Bokenham’s ambitious anthology of almost two hundred saints’ legends. 12 An anonymous account of Cecily’s pious practices attests that she listened to readings from the “legenda aurea,” which may designate Bokenham’s translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s massive collection by that name. 13 As we will see, some of the most theologically sophisticated and intellectually demanding lives were written for and/or about women.
Paradoxically, creative and intellectually daring hagiography appears to have arisen from the climate of repression and censorship that prevailed during the first decades of the fifteenth century. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, antiheretical rhetoric escalated, paving the way, as Paul Strohm has shown, for the emergence of a “persecuting society” that was willing to kill its dissidents. 14 Shortly after the statute De heretico comburendo , passed by Parliament in 1401, made heresy a capital crime, the first Englishman, the Norfolk priest William Sawtry, was executed under it. John Badby became the first layman burned for heresy in 1410. Thomas Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury from 1397 to 1414, launched a vigorous campaign against Wycliffism and the “lollard” heresy. His “

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