Seminar Eleven

Piety and Passion (i)

This week we first read one of the most sophisticated late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman saint’s lives, that of St Catherine by Clemence of Barking.  We look at its staging of devotion and doctrine (poetry does theology?) as well as at the figure of the virgin martyr and her lay converts.  From this professed and professional virginity we move to the post-Lateran IV (AD 1215) codification of the estates of the flesh, with its broadening of monastic virtues to lay lives (something we have already seen in Guillaume le clerc’s Madeleine), and to some of the texts that prescribed (or voiced?) response to the passion and the redemption narrative as the Lateran Council’s prescriptions for individual confession were implemented in the insular context.  We thus begin reading in what is normally treated with silence as a kind of hole in the literary history of England: older criticism speaks of an efflorescence of vernacular religious writing in English in the late fourteenth century and cites as one cause Lateran IV’s teaching that every individual should be able to articulate his or her interior condition to his or her parish priest and that the priest should be sufficiently well trained to receive confession properly.  But such narratives don’t account for the period of nearly 150 years directly after Lateran IV in which French was the primary language both of pastoralia (texts instructing priests and others concerned with the cura animarum) and of the formation of the self.  (The body of Anglo-Norman pastoral and devotional texts numbers over 500 items, a relatively substantial body of material in comparison with Middle English’s c. 800, and the Anglo-Norman texts in fact continue alongside Middle English into the fifteenth century, so Anglo-Norman is no small aspect of the literary history of devotional and doctrinal writing in medieval England). You’ll probably find it most helpful to read our short primary and secondary texts in the order listed below.

1.  ‘The Life of St Catherine’ by Clemence of Barking in Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths: Two Anglo-Norman Biographies for Women, tr. J.W-B and Glyn S. Burgess. Everyman 1996.

2. Henrietta Leyser, ‘Introduction’, pp.1-20 of “Cher alme”: Texts of Anglo-Norman Piety, FRETS OPS 1 (2010), ed. T. Hunt, tr. J. Bliss, introd. H. Leyser.  Succinct, informative and imaginative: essential background reading to the late C12th-early C14th developments and important for this and for next week’s seminars. (book on RES).

3. Cher alme, ch. 15: Commentary on the Beatitudes: read pp. 379-391 (text with facing page translation) on the orders of salvation (or, as they are also called, the estates of the flesh).

4. Two useful pieces of background reading on corporeality and spiritual eroticism, raising questions of relevance for all primary texts in this pair of seminars:
Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘And Woman His Humanity….’ reprinted in her Fragmentation and Redemption (Zone Books, 1992) [on E-res].
Sarah Salih, ‘When is a bosom not a bosom?’ in Medieval Virginities, ed. Anke Bernau, Sarah Salih and Ruth Evans (University of Wales Press, 2004). [on E-res].

5.Cher alme, ch 9  A Woman’s Prayer, pp. 262-73 (text with facing page translation).


(i)     Read the passage quoted on p. xlvii of the introduction to Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths and then translate Appendix passage (ii) on pp. 94-5.  Make your translation close and accurate rather than elegant when you have to choose between these two qualities.

(ii)    Look in detail at vv. 2195-2218 in Appendix passage (iii) and (freely using the translation available to you, as this is a tricky passage) make a literal translation of this section of Maxentius’ soliloquy.


1. Compare Clemence of Barking’s treatment of passion and redemption (both in the biblical narrative and in the figures of St Catherine and her converts) with no 5 above, A Woman’s Prayer.   How useful is it to see these texts as works of spiritual eroticism?

2. Is the body, and especially the body gendered feminine, more of a resource or more of an obstacle in the representation of spiritual ideology in this seminar’s texts?


Those wishing to read further, especially in pursuit of the question of how far women’s voices are represented in this literature are encouraged to look at Cher alme ch. 3, Young Mary (opening lament of St Anne, pp. 130-33),  and ch. 6, Mary’s Lament (pp.181-89).  Next week our selection from Cher alme will be targetted at illuminating and providing background for Duke Henry of Lancaster’s extraordinary treatise on his spiritual condition.


Week Twelve (Friday 15th April):  Henry of Lancaster (extracts from his Livre de seyntz medicines, and from Cher alme):

Week Thirteen (Friday 22nd April): No class: Fordham observation of Good Friday.

Week Fourteen (Friday 29th April):  Final projects seminar (ii):  four class members will have a half hour each in which to spend c. 15 minutes describing their project with c. 15 minutes response, discussion and question time from the rest of us.  Presentations should include an account of the research questions that animate your project and why you find it interesting, the material to be explored (it doesn’t matter if you’ve not yet been able to study all of it), and the issues so far encountered.

Week Fifteen (Friday 6th May): Final Projects Seminar (ii): (as above: remaining four class members to present).

Week Sixteen (Friday 13th May):  FINAL PROJECTS DUE