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'O mihti meiden! O witti wummon!': the early English Katherine as a model of sanctity 'O mihti meiden! O witti wummon, wurSmunt ant alle wurSschipe wurSe!'1 These words, heavy with irony, are addressed by the Keiser Maxence to Saint Katherine of Alexandria at a turning-point in her story. Katherine has argued her case so weU that she has convinced the fifty wisest of aU the wise men of the East and has converted them from pagan philosophy to the Christian faith. The Keiser has just had them all burned at the stake. H e is not an inteUectual; the only means of persuasion he understands are bribery and threats, and if these fail he falls back on force. H e is the typical villain of epic hagiography and, it seems, a misogynist of the brutish kind that today's feminists delight in detesting. 'Meiden' for him is a pejorative description, and 'mihti meiden' a contradiction in terms. Confronted by an intelUgent and learned woman, he rapidly loses control. The heroine of the story goes beyond hagiographical convention. She is young and lovely, as all maiden martyrs are, but she is also learned, a scholar, an 'icuret clergesse'. In this she may be seen as more than unusual: a prodigy, even a monster. The modern editors of the Early EngUsh version of her legend have found her offensive. Eugen Einenkel, whose edition for the Early EngUsh Text Society was published in 1884, objected to the character of Katherine presented in the Latin version2 as 'impetuous and vindictive', though he commends the EngUsh writer for mitigating these traits.3 Professor E.J. Dobson, who worked with Professor S.R.T.O. d'Ardenne to produce a more thorough edition nearly a century later, found the heroine 'too loquacious':4 although the English writer has evidendy cut her speeches down drastically from the Latin, 'she remains long-winded, and it is hard to see how anyone could have stopped her talking except by the emperor's ultimate way, off with her head. H e should have done it much sooner'. Katherine comes across as a contradictory figure: a 'mihti meiden', where maidens are supposed to be soft and pUable; a 'witti wummon', where women are considered to be creatures governed by emotion rather than reason. Like the female scholars of the early Italian Renaissance, Katherine might be perceived as 1 S.R.T.O. d'Ardenne and E.J. Dobson, Seinte Katerine, Early English Text Society (EETS) SS 7, London, 1981, 528-29. All line references to the Middle English Life are to this edition of M S Bodley 34. 2 A text of the Vulgate Latin Passio S. Katerine is included in the Middle English edition of d'Ardenne and Dobson, pp. 144-203. All references to the Latin text are to this text. 3 The Life of St. Katherine, EETS O S 80, London, 1884, p. xx. 4 Seinte Katerine, p. xxxvi. 104 S.M. Withycombe an androgyne, a female body with a male spirit, not belonging to either sex and rejected by both.5 Perhaps the idea still lingered in the minds of Einenkel and Dobson that the ideal woman is subdued, modest and silent, not engaging in public disputation but remaining quietly at home. By entering the public arena Katherine brought all her trouble upon herself; if she had remained quiedy reading it would never have happened. But these are not the opinions of the authors of her legend, who write to commend and celebrate the heroine. In the Prologue, the Latin writer exhorts a male audience to be diUgent in the service of God (p. 144). If a member of what he calls infirmioris sexus canfightfor the Lord with such constancy and valour at a time of general persecution, how much more should nos barbati homines take care to follow Christ now that peace has come to the Church. The EngUsh writer omits the Prologue, very likely because his version was intended primarily for women. The original audience to w h o m the Early English version was addressed might well have received a very different image of the heroine from the one perceived by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 103-115
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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