Reading female sanctity: English legendaries of women, ca. 1200–1650
This dissertation considers as cultural artifacts surviving manuscripts of legendaries (collections of saints' lives) that focus on female saints. By the conventional count, there are only two English legendaries of women from the period 1200–1650, Osbern Bokenham's and Ralph Buckland's. This count obscures the pattern I have discerned in extant manuscripts: throughout the medieval period and into the seventeenth century, multiple female saints' lives often appear together in the same book. These groupings occur in manuscripts exclusive of male saints' lives, indicating a long-term concern with female sanctity.
Privileging manuscript-culture standards over those of print culture, I stretch the term “legendary” to accommodate more than just those collections of saints' lives that stand alone, designating any grouping of three or more vitae within the same book even if they appear in a codex alongside other kinds of texts. Along with Bokenham's and Buckland's, I discuss the legendaries found in Bodley 34, Cotton Domitian A xi, Harley 4012, Arundel 168, Douce 114, Brian Anslay's 1521 translation of Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, Archives Départementales du Nord 20 H 7, and the Life of Elizabeth Cary. My broadening of the term “legendary,” along with an inclusive definition of “English” (to indicate language or geography, rather than both), raises the count from two English legendaries of women to nine: they are not as rare as first scholarly glance suggests, but comprise a previously-unexamined genre. That so many examples are extant, and that the “legendary of women” persists beyond the Reformation (and beyond English borders), suggests the form resonated strongly with multiple audiences.
Legendaries represented access to a reader's favorite vitae; stories could be chosen to fit the number of pages a patron could afford. I examine the significance of this selection along two dimensions. First, I consider the reciprocal relationships among the legendaries, female readers, and the larger religious culture. Second, in addition to placing these narratives in their manuscript contexts, I offer literary analyses of the individual vitae to demonstrate how they, and by extension these legendaries, were versatile enough to accommodate readers from vastly different backgrounds.
0297: Middle Ages