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The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria

John Capgrave

Publication Year: 2011

The fifteenth-century scholar and Augustinian friar John Capgrave took as his subject the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria, who was an anomalous cultural icon, a scholar, and a sovereign whose story unsettled traditional gender stereotypes yet was widely popular throughout Western Europe. Capgrave’s Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria (ca. 1445) stands out among the hundreds of surviving vernacular and Latin narrations about the saint by its intricate plotting, its moral complexity, its obtrusive Chaucerian narrator, and its attention to psychology, history, and theology. The Life of Saint Katherine is a bold literary experiment that transforms the genre of the saint’s life by infusing it with conventions and techniques more often associated with chronicles, mystery plays, fabliaux, and romances. In Capgrave’s hands, Katherine emerges as a sensitive and studious young woman torn between social responsibilities and personal desires. Her story unfolds in a vividly realized world of political turmoil and religious repression that, as Capgrave’s readers were bound to suspect, had everything to do with the England they inhabited and its recent past. Winstead’s translation—the first into idiomatic modern English—brings to life Capgrave’s sharply drawn characters, compelling plot, and complex, unsettling moral. Its promotion of an informed, intellectualized Christianity during a period known for censorship and repression illuminates the struggle over the definition of orthodoxy that was excited by the perceived threat of Lollard heresy during the fifteenth century. This volume also includes an appendix with passages of Capgrave's original Middle English and literal translations into modern English, providing a valuable tool for teachers and students.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. vii

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pp. 1-18

John Capgrave expected his Life of Saint Katherine to raise eyebrows. His fifteenth-century readers would have known all about the fourth-century virgin martyr, one of the best-loved saints of their...

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Prologue: The Discovery and Translation of Katherine’s Life

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pp. 19-23

Jesus Christ, crown of all maidens, a maiden gave birth to you and suckled you. According to our book, you lead the saints, those lilies that neither fade nor wilt. They look to you with all their hearts. Their love and pleasure are so firmly fixed on you...

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Book 1: Katherine’s Parentage, Upbringing, and Coronation

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pp. 25-44

Historians tell us that there was once a great king in Greece, lord of both Syria and Cyprus. Everything was done as he wished under his firm governance. This king was called Costus, a respected and widely renowned...

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Book 2: The Marriage Parliament

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pp. 45-69

When you see fair and bright sparks flicker in the air, you can reasonably infer that fire is near; experience tells you so. It’s obvious that sparks don’t fly to and fro unless there’s a fire. The same principle applies to this lady...

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Book 3: Katherine’s Conversion and Mystical Marriage

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pp. 71-97

Because nobody may do a good deed without being inspired by the Holy Ghost, who is freely sent to us from the omnipotent heavenly Father and from the Son, we think it best to commend our efforts to that Ghost...

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Book 4: Katherine’s Confrontation with Maxentius and Debate with Fifty Scholars

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pp. 99-140

People are like worker bees and drones:1 some labor while others idle. There are different attitudes and ranks. The good laborers are like the worker bees, especially those who, alighting on the flowers...

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Book 5: Katherine’s Martyrdom

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pp. 141-176

The time has now come—at last, after all our attention to other matters—to return and savor the sweetness of this pure virgin, of this delicious flower, which grew here on earth with five...

Notes to the Translation

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pp. 177-194


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pp. 195-203

E-ISBN-13: 9780268076955
E-ISBN-10: 0268076952
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268044268
Print-ISBN-10: 0268044260

Page Count: 168
Illustrations: NA
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 797816810
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria

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Subject Headings

  • Christian poetry, English (Middle) -- Translations into English.
  • Catherine, of Alexandria, Saint -- Legends.
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