Mnemonic Sanctity and the Ladder of Reading: Notker’s “in Natale Sanctarum Feminarum”

Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In the late ninth century, the monk and schoolmaster Notker of Saint Gall composed a hymn for the Church’s festival commemorating holy women. “In Natale Sanctarum Feminarum,” or “For the Festival of Holy Women,” provides a case study in how a text could deploy the memory arts to shape both individual and institutional identities around specific conceptions of gender. A liturgical poem intended for a monastic audience, this sequence demonstrates the memorial function of hagiography and its role in the construction of both individual and communal monastic identities. Notker represents Saint Perpetua in his hymn through carefully selected images from her Passio, which he then contextualizes among images of Mary and Eve. Through his hymn, Notker instructs his audience in how to read, remember, and understand Perpetua’s text. One effect of this mnemonic instruction is to suppress the possibility of the nuanced reading of gender that Perpetua’s Passio invites. Notker’s text instead structures the audience’s memory around binary gender categories, in which women’s sanctity and paths to holiness are clearly differentiated from those of men. This conception of gender difference, in turn, is constitutive of community membership, as Notker interpolates his audience into a community defined (in part) by its shared memory and understanding of holy women.


Community Membership Woman Writer Institutional Identity Mnemonic Device Medieval Literature 
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  1. 1.
    For a thorough study of the sequence form, see Richard L. Crocker, The Early Medieval Sequence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) and Studies in Medieval Music Theory and the Early Sequence (Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ella Johnson discusses the memorial function of the liturgy in chapter 7 of the present volume. Mary Carruthers points out that liturgy and scripture constituted the two most primary loci of memory for medieval religious: Mary J. Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 34 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 61.Google Scholar
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    As discussed in the introduction to this volume, Patrick J. Geary describes the formation of communal memory in the century after Notker: “A society that explicitly found its identity, its norms, and its values from the inheritance of the past, that venerated tradition and drew its religious and political ideologies from precedent, was nevertheless actively engaged in producing that tradition through a complex process of transmission, suppression, and re-creation.” This, I would argue, is exactly what Notker is doing. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millenium (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 8. My claims here regarding Notker are very similar to those made by Claire Barbetti regarding Hildegard von Bingen in chapter 4 .Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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