Three Women of Liège. A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies (review)
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Three Women of Liège. A Critical Edition of and Commentary on the Middle English Lives of Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis, and Marie d’Oignies. By Jennifer N. Brown. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 23. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. Pp. viii + 350. EUR 70.

Under the impact of the Gregorian reforms and the Fourth Lateran Council’s prohibition of new female orders, medieval women faced daunting obstacles professing their spiritual vocations. Inspired by new models of sanctity, women were restricted in their ability to imitate Christ by gender conventions that all but forbade women to practice an apostolic life. Nonetheless, the remarkable female religious movement defended and chronicled by churchmen like Jacques de Vitry, Philip of Clairvaux, and Thomas of Cantimpre reflects the creativity and determination of medieval holy women. In 1987 Peregrina Press published Margot H. King’s translation of The Life of Marie d’Oignies, making it possible for scholars to teach Jacques de Vitry’s narration of the mother of the Beguines. Since then, a remarkable body of scholarship has grown to flesh out the Beguine movement, featuring foundational scholarship by distinguished religious and literary historians such as Barbara Newman, Amy Hollywood, Bernard McGinn, and most recently Anneke Mulder-Bakker and Walter Simons. Jennifer Brown’s critical edition of and commentary on “three women of Liège” is a significant contribution in this effort in making the spiritually dynamic world of the thirteenth- century Lowlands accessible to students in a wide variety of disciplines as well as providing Middle English scholars with a historically and critically contextualized, comparative discussion of the three vitae that survive together in a single manuscript, Oxford Bodleian Library, Douce 114.

Brown navigates the complexities of such an ambitious volume with helpful transparency. The Introduction provides readers with the thirteenth-century context for the three Latin lives. From the outset, Brown distinguishes the unique nature of each woman’s devotional practices, as well as their different relationships with their authors and affiliations to the official church. The Introduction identifies the themes, authorial writing practices, transmission of and audience for each text—necessary apparatus for reading each life with a sensitivity to the complex issues of authorship, female representation, and reception that Brown pursues in the essays of commentary that follow the critical editions. Brown’s work thus models the highly interdisciplinary methodology necessary to a full comprehension [End Page 541] of the difficulties that faced these charismatic women and the ways in which they challenged their contemporaries with new models of female sanctity.

In providing students with these Middle English translations (and an excellent Glossary and Bibliography), Brown has contributed an important tool for further research and teaching of these historically significant women. In her focus on the transmission and translation of the Latin Lives into the vernacular for lay usage, Brown teases out the rhetorical conventions that both influenced and helped shape the writings of Jacques de Vitry, Thomas of Cantimpre, and Philip of Clairvaux; this primary discussion provides a foundation for analysis of the Middle English translator’s religious and ideological objectives, constructing a detailed map of influence and revision. Brown’s painstaking emendations, footnotes, and glossing will enable students in disciplines other than Middle English literature to study these texts and experience the religious and literary benefits Douce 114 afforded its fifteenth-century textual communities. Brown’s Introduction provides a detailed discussion of the manuscript’s provenance, contents, and compilation, but wisely underscores that Douce’s ownership and intended audience, a mixed audience of religious and laity of both genders, requires contemporary readers to construct reception beyond the Carthusian charterhouses that disseminated Continental mystical literature. Her footnotes enable scholars to discern patterns of interest and assumptions articulated in the translator’s apology as well as challenges he faced in translating from Latin into English.

The three essays of commentary that follow the edition address both shared themes and tensions that sequential reading makes manifest. Douce 114 thus affords insights to the continuities and divergences that made it so difficult for contemporaries of these women to assign to them a collective identity. For readers less familiar with hagiography, Brown provides a useful discussion of the genre...