- Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints' Lives in Late Medieval England
Catherine Sanok's book is a welcome contribution to the currently vibrant study of hagiography in later medieval English culture. Her Life Historical adds some important new considerations to the conversation. In particular, as [End Page 463] her title suggests, she directs our attention to the ways in which hagiography provides a locus for thinking historically in later medieval Eng land. The history with which Sanok is concerned is both literary and sociopolitical; indeed, one of the book's greatest strengths is the ways in which it attends to the mutually informing dimensions of these types of history.
Sanok begins by exploring the complicated, flexible functions of exemplarity as a mode of interpretation. Considering a wide range of Middle English texts, in her first chapter she analyzes diverse figurings of relationships of past and present, examining the implications of such representations for ethical practice. She argues that "hagiography and its exemplary hermeneutics did not . . . provide one model of history but a vehicle for exploring and contesting a variety of such models" (19).
Sanok's second chapter addresses the processes through which, and the reasons for which, female saints' lives invent a feminine audience. She presents a diverse body of evidence, including textual accounts of patronage or commission and testamentary records, for the strong association of female saints' lives with female readers. This association is not, however, necessarily "proof" of women's "agency in the genre." Rather, it attests to an association between women and the genre "in the late medieval cultural imagination" (37), an association that the texts themselves work to produce. Female saints' lives create "if only in theory . . . an interpretive response proper to female readers. Female saints' lives . . . ask women to read as women" (25, emphasis in original). In doing so, they do not fully control reception, but they do create expectations.
In her third chapter, Sanok turns to Osbern Bokenham's Legends of Holy Women to examine the feminine audience it creates in "a political context" (51). She argues that Bokenham crafts "fables of commission and reception" (55, a concept she borrows from Seth Lerer) that elide both class differences and differences of political allegiance among women. He seeks to create a unified feminine community sharing devotional commitments and literary interests during an era of political strife. His agenda, therefore, is not to regulate women's devotional activities or reading practices, but rather to foreground a stable community in the face of contemporary political division.
Chapter Four, entitled "Exemplarity and England in Native Saints' Lives," centers on Henry Bradshaw's Life of St. Werburge. Sanok reads Bradshaw's text through the lens of the work of Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha on "the nation." Like Bokenham, Bradshaw figures a unified feminine audience for his vernacular legend; his aim is to represent "the transhistorical continuity and coherence of English identity" by linking a native English saint with contemporary English women. The Life is concerned, as Sanok notes, [End Page 464] not only with national issues but also with local ones concerning Chester and Bradshaw's abbey; Chester becomes, however, a metonymic representation of England.
Chapter Five turns to The Book of Margery Kempe. While Bradshaw's mobilization of exemplarity upholds "fictions of community" (116), the Book of Margery Kempe illustrates the ways in which imitating female saints can serve as a mode of social criticism. Sanok considers Margery's imitation of various saints, especially Mary Magdalene, Katherine of Alexandria, and Margaret. Her reading of the scribe's refusal to acknowledge likeness between Margery Kempe and Mary Magdalene, whom he replaces with Marie d'Oignies as "a more proximate example of a late medieval holy woman," is particularly interesting. Margery's imitatio is disconcerting because it highlights troubling similarities between the past of saints' lives and her present moment. Margery Kempe also exposes incoherence within her community by calling attention to the ways in which it privileges ideals of feminine sanctity in...