The Life of St Margaret of Antioch in Middle English (31st Jan 2018)

Next Meeting: 29th January 2018 – Room 2.46 – 3pm-5pm

By Megan Leitch

StMargaret&DragonDetail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, British Library Add MS 18851, f. 406v

They do not die easily, these zealous adolescents […] who are flayed and burned and drowned and maimed and shaved and insulted and disemboweled and roasted and have their tongues and breasts torn off, their guts and bones exposed, and are then proposed to, whereupon they answer spiritedly: no. Their endurance is superhuman – indeed, surreal. They survive ordeals that would kill any of us ten times over. Yet there is a moment of truth that no saint survives, for the coup de grâce is, most often, decapitation.

– Sheila Delany, Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham (OUP, 1998), p. 71

This month we are reading the life of St Margaret of Antioch, the virgin martyr who defeats a dragon and remains strong in her faith despite horrific bodily torments. Our central focus is on Osbern Bokenham’s fifteenth-century verse Legend of St Margaret, and we will also consider the thirteenth-century prose Seinte Margarete from the Katherine Group. The texts are scanned from the following editions:

  1. Osbern Bokenham, Legendys of Hooly Wummen, ed. by Mary S. Serjeantson, EETS OS 206 (London: Oxford University Press, 1938). We will be giving particular attention to lines 1-868, which together form Bokenham’s Prologue and the Vita of St Margaret; these 868 lines will be the required reading for students on Transgressive Bodies (Week 8). The PDF also includes Bokenham’s narrative of what happens to Margaret’s body and relics after her death (lines 869-1400), which will be provided in the Transgressive Bodies course reader and discussed in the lectures. Do also have at least a glance at this interesting ‘afterlife’ section – the EETS ‘reader’s digest’ marginal comments may prove useful here.
  2. Seinte Margarete, in Medieval English Prose for Women, ed. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). This edition includes the original thirteenth-century English prose alongside a facing page modern English translation. You are welcome to just have a quick read of the translation in preparation for the reading group – we can then have a closer look at points of interest during the discussion.

St Margaret of Antioch probably never existed, but her cult was very popular throughout the central and late Middle Ages. Narratives of her life are extant in Greek, Latin, and many European vernaculars. Like other virgin martyrs whose legends were re-told for later medieval audiences, St Margaret was positioned as a victim of the Diocletianic persecutions of the third and early fourth centuries, in which Christians in the Roman Empire lost their legal rights and were forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods or be subject to persecution (e.g. imprisonment or death). Margaret was put to death in AD 304; her feast day is July 20 in the Roman Catholic Church (July 17 in the Eastern Orthodox Church). In the version of St Margaret’s life that circulated widely in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea, or the Golden Legend (the expansive hagiographical collection composed c.1260 in Latin that also survives in various vernaculars and over 1000 MSS), Margaret’s ability to survive being eaten alive by Satan in the form of a dragon is described as apocryphal. Yet this episode was central to narrative and iconographic depictions of her life, and due to the way in which she emerges unscathed after being swallowed whole by the dragon, she was widely revered as the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women – if somewhat counter-intuitively, since when she is ‘birthed’ from the dragon’s insides, the dragon explodes.

Osbern Bokenham, an Augustinian friar at Clare Priory in Suffolk, was a late contemporary of the East-Anglian monk John Lydgate and, like Lydgate, one of Chaucer’s self-described literary disciples. Bokenham studied at the University of Cambridge, receiving his BA in 1423, and later travelled to Italy (at least twice) and Spain. In the 1440s, Bokenham wrote the first all-female legendary in English, featuring thirteen saints, ten of whom were virgin martyrs. His other works include the Mappula Angliae, a c.1440 translation of part of Ranulf Higden’s early fourteenth-century Polychronicon. Bokenham wrote for the East Anglian gentry: he mentions twelve patrons in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen, almost all of whom are laypeople, and eight of whom are women. However, the sole surviving copy of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, BL Arundel 327, was compiled for presentation to a convent. In her seminal study of Bokenham’s hagiographical collection, Impolitic Bodies, Sheila Delany argues that Bokenham offers a ‘moral-theological critique of Chaucer’ (69) and a multifaceted response to the Legend of Good Women.

The ‘Katherine Group’ Seinte Margarete was also written for a female audience. This group of five thirteenth-century Middle English texts is addressed to anchoresses, and includes two other virgin martyr narratives, the lives of St Katherine of Alexandria and St Juliana of Nicomedia. This unprecedented grouping may have been selected to tie in with the names of the three sisters who were the first audience for the Ancrene Wisse, the guide for anchoresses written in the same early thirteenth-century West Midlands dialect as the Katherine Group. The author of this version of Seinte Margarete elaborates on his Latin source, explaining points of theology for his audience, and adding sections such as the account of the Devil’s attacks on chastity and the defences against lechery, which Margaret wrings from the fiend while she tramples him underfoot.

These are some of the many insular medieval retellings of the life of St Margaret of Antioch, whose popularity was sustained in part by the assistance she was thought to give in pregnancy and childbirth, and the help and intercession she was understood to offer, especially to those who wrote or retold her legend. This popularity was reinforced in the Christian west after the First Crusade’s capture of Antioch in 1098, after which a number of relics associated with Margaret of Antioch were brought to Western Europe.

Virgin martyr tales have a self-evident emphasis on the body, as the protagonist seeks to preserve her virginity (as consecrated to God), but also prioritises her soul over her body when she refuses to change her faith despite the horrific tortures to which she is submitted. Some scholars view the graphic descriptions of tortured female flesh that this genre offers as constituting an almost pornographic form of voyeurism for medieval readers, though this view has its critics too.

Topics for discussion:

  • Purity, beauty and torture: how can we understand edifying religious literature that features shockingly graphic violence?
  • What are Margaret’s virtues, and who might be expected to emulate them?
  • What roles do emotions play in this text?
  • What about the gaze? (Voyeurism? Witnessing?)
  • What displays of power shape the narrative?
  • What is the significance of the dragon?
  • How does Bokenham’s version compare to the thirteenth-century Katherine Group version? (Explication, exemplarity, torture?)
  • How do the text and its genre negotiate traditional gender roles?
  • In what ways does the text align with feminist or anti-feminist readings?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s response to Chaucer? Formal choices, literary models, name-dropping?
  • What are the implications of Margaret’s prayer for those on whose behalf she will intercede after her death, and the divine response (834-54) – for both Margaret (in the narrative) and Bokenham (as writer of the narrative)?
  • What do you make of Bokenham’s discussion of translatio (linguistic and hagiographic)? How are writing and relics connected here?




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