- 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
This is a useful book for those wishing to know more about the circulation and transmission of saints' lives in the later medieval milieu. Specifically, the book provides editions of the Middle English lives of three famous thirteenth-century beguines from around Liège: Elizabeth of Spalbeek, Christina Mirabilis and Marie of Oignies. The Latin vitae of these women are very well known and have been studied individually and together for a number of years, providing scholars such as Caroline Walker Bynum with evidence for the importance of somatic piety in the medieval religious landscape. The later circulation of these lives has been less studied, and this is where Jennifer Brown's book makes an important contribution.
The book is divided into two main parts, and seven chapters overall. The first part of the book provides the editions of the texts and the second part provides more narrative commentaries and interpretations of the three texts. The Middle English lives appear in one fifteenth-century manuscript, Oxford Bodleian Library, MS Douce 114 which, Brown notes, is one of the only pieces of evidence for interest in female continental mysticism in late-medieval England (p. 10). The contextual introduction to the book furnishes the reader with useful information about reception, audience and the likelihood that these Middle English lives were directed at women. Although more might have been said about the Carthusian connection (mentioned briefly on p. 11), the background of the manuscript is effectively narrated.
The editions of the texts themselves as they appear in MS Douce 114 are careful and quite meticulously glossed. Helpful reference is made to the Latin original, and Brown notes throughout where the Douce author has omitted material. The notes include some reference to relevant events and people, while biblical references are annotated. The glossary at the end of the book will assist readers with the more unfamiliar words and phrases.
Somewhat less original is the second part of the book. Brown has devoted a chapter to each of the holy women of Liège, in order to discuss the main themes in their vitae and to provide a discussion of the original Latin texts on which the Middle English versions are based. Elizabeth of [End Page 191] Spalbeek is described in the context of performatio Christi; the chapter on Christina Mirabilis is subtitled 'astonishing piety'; and the chapter on Marie of Oignies discusses the text of Jacques de Vitry. The placing of these chapters is a little awkward, and it might have been more useful to situate each as a preface to the Middle English texts, rather than as long postscripts to them.
The material presented in each of these chapters mostly summarizes the traditional scholarship, rather than offering a new interpretation. Elizabeth of Spalbeek's vita (composed by Philip of Clairvaux around 1268) is presented as an example of imitatio Christi, and Brown writes that 'because women were so tied to their fleshly bodies, at least according to medieval thought about gender, the devotional meditation [on Christ] had to be predominantly on Christ's humanity' (pp. 194–5). Here, Brown is quite reliant on the established scholarship of Walter Simons, for example, and reiterates the views of various others on rapture, pain and the importance of seeing. More interesting is the Middle English omission of a significant passage in the Latin in which Elizabeth is linked to St Francis. While this is point could have been explored further, to tell us more about the English context, Brown is content merely to note that 'the omission is the most glaring one, denying the audience a key piece of Philip's exegesis' (p. 217). The sections on Christina Mirabilis and Marie of Oignies similarly mostly summarize...