Imitating the Imagined: Clemence of Barking’s Life of St. Catherine

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


One of the most astonishing moments in Clemence of Barking’s Life of St. Catherine occurs in the opening lines of the text. Before beginning her narrative of Catherine’s vita, Clemence declares her intention to “translater la vie,/De latin respundre en rumanz/Pur ço que plus plaise as oianz” (31–34; to translate the life, expounding it from Latin into the vernacular, in order to please more those who hear it).1 With this self-assured statement, Clemence, a cloistered twelfth-century female writer, authorizes herself as a participant in the hagiographical tradition and proclaims herself qualified to pass critical judgment on the literary and aesthetic merits of previous (and presumably male-authored) versions of Catherine’s life. This bold strategy of self-authorization is the hallmark of Clemence’s text, suffusing the Life’s form, content, and, ultimately, devotional and theological implications. Many of Clemence’s modern critics have focused on her declaration of translatio, evaluating and commenting on her translation and transmission of Catherine’s vita. Clemence, however, focuses on the contemporary readers who receive her version of Catherine’s life. The very syntax of the lines reinforces her authorial investment: Clemence moves sequentially from the act of translating (“translater la vie”) to the method of translation (“de latin respundre en rumanz”), finally finishing the statement with a new clause (“Pur ço que plus plaise as oianz”), which emphasizes those (“oianz”) engaged with the text as readers and listeners.


Source Text Direct Discourse Textual Production Public Speech Courtly Love 
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  1. 1.
    For the French source text, I cite Clemence of Barking, The Life of St. Catherine by Clemence of Barking, ed. William Mac Bain, Anglo — Norman Text Society 18 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964). All subsequent quotations are to line numbers from this ed it ion. All translations are my own. In keeping with the source text, I refer to Catherine by her Anglo-Norman spelling, and I have tried to maintain this spelling throughout this chapter when possible; many of the critics I cite, however, refer to Catherine as “Katherine of Alexandria,” in keeping with later Middle English practice. I have maintained this spelling within quotation for accuracy.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Robert N. Swanson describes devotion as “the external practices of medieval Christianity … [which] aimed to secure God’s favor on earth and achieve communion with Him here and in the hereafter … Numerous devotional practices sought that end, aiming through good works and pious foundations to secure prayers and other rewards to benefit the soul after death.” See R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215–c. 1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 136.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Anne C. Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 32.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Countless critics have summarized the antifeminist tradition and its impact on all aspects of medieval life. More specifically, Alcuin Blamires examines intellectual culture, reminding us of “the general principle of women’s exclusion from formal theological—as from legal, and to a lesser extent, medical—study in the period … attribute[d] … to male monopolization of powerful professions, combined with ingrained masculine contempt for female intellect.” See Alcuin Blamires, “The Limits of Bible Study for Medieval Women,” in vol. 1 of Women, the Book, and the Godly: Selected Proceedings of the St Hilda’s Conference, 1993, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1995), 1 [1–12].Google Scholar
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    For detailed discussion of gendered roles in medieval literary society, see Maud B. McInerney, Eloquent Virgins from Thecla to Joan of Arc (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003),Google Scholar
  6. and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture, 1150–1300: Virginity and Its Authorizations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6.
    Robert L. A. Clark, “Constructing the Female Subject in Late Medieval Devotion,” in Medieval Conduct, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 163 [160 – 82].Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed., Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 195. See also the introduction to this volume for more complete discussion of Carruthers’s formulation of memorial ethics.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    Katherine Lewis, The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England (Suffolk, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2000), 2. Lewis traces the “standardization” of Catherine’s legend to the eleventh-century Latin Vulgata version, which provided the primary source for Catherine’s life in Voragine’s Legenda Aurea. In addition to the Middle English iterations of Catherine’s life traced by Lewis, at least 11 Old French versions proceeded from the Vulgata text, one of which is Clemence’s.Google Scholar
  10. The Vulgata version of Catherine’s legend is widely regarded as Clemence’s source; for further description of Clemence’s source and discussion of the manuscript evidence, see MacBain’s introduction and the notes in the most recent English translation: Clemence of Barking, “The Life of St. Catherine,” in Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths: Two Exemplary Biographies for Anglo-Norman Women, trans. and ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Glyn S. Burgess (London: J. M. Dent, 1996), 3–79. The most current edition of the Vulgata text is Seinte Katerine: Re-Edited from MS Bodley 34 and the Other Manuscripts, ed. S. R. T. O. d’Ardenee and E. J. Dobson, The Early English Text Society, s.s. 7 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).Google Scholar
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  12. also E. C. Fawtier-Jones, “Les vies de Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie en ancien français,” Romania 56 (1930): 80–104.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    I borrow this term from Pierre Delooz, who ruminates that “all saints are more or less constructed in that, being necessarily saints for other people, they are remodeled in the collective representation which is made of them … Some saints are solely constructed saints simply because nothing is known about them historically: everything, including their existence, is a product of collective representation.” Delooz pointedly references Saint Catherine as an example of a saint “who never was a real person. In her case, everything has been constructed. Again, the construction has been enormous, and has spanned the centuries, ultimately making her the patron saint both of philosophers and spinsters.” See Pierre Delooz, “Towards a Sociological Study of Canonized Sainthood in the Catholic Church,” trans. Jane Hodgkin, in Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore, and History, ed. Stephen Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 195–196 [189–216].Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    William MacBain, her first twentieth-century editor, imagined Clemence as innovative but ultimately loyal to the Latin source text: “Whatever Clemence deems worthy of a more thorough treatment, she develops, and what she finds tedious or difficult, she curtails, retaining always the essential idea of the Latin text before her.” See MacBain, introduction to Clemence of Barking, Life of St. Catherine, xiv. Similarly, M. Dominica Legge cautiously describes the text as “interesting for the curious blend of piety and courtliness, this courtliness striking an odd note in a work of praise to a virgin saint.” See M. Dominica Legge, Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 72. This “curious blend” has since been characterized by Barbara Newman as “la mystique courtoise.”Google Scholar
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  16. 12.
    She points out that Clemence’s choice to translate was itself political, since she was probably well versed in Latin; Crane argues that Clemence uses stylistic models of authority in her depiction of Catherine in order to combat patriarchal notions of the vernacular as gendered: “For women who write in England, Latin might have been a plausible vehicle, as it was for Hildegard of Bingen, Heloise, and continental authors of religious poetry in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but French is their chosen medium, perhaps again because of the elite status of that vernacular as well as cultural pressures associating women with the vernacular rather than Latin. As if resisting those pressures, Clemence of Barking’s Life of St Catherine (c.1175) honours a notably learned and disputatious saint.” See Susan Crane, “Anglo-Norman Cultures in England, 1066–1460,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 44, 46 [35–60]. Duncan Robertson also notes the political aspects of Clemence’s translation, arguing that Clemence’s choice of the vernacular was connected to her milieu of production: “At Barking, the cultivation of the vernacular was closely related to the ‘feminist’ mission of the abbey … the task of vernacularization therefore takes on a particular urgency. The lives of Catherine and Edward both convey powerfully the identification of women writers, readers, and patrons with the heroines of legend, under the ultimate patronage of the Virgin Mary. St. Catherine, gifted with eloquence, is the very figure of the female vocation, religious and literary.”Google Scholar
  17. See Duncan Robertson, “Writing in the Textual Community: Clemence of Barking’s Life of Saint Catherine,” French Forum 21, no.1 (1996): 7 [5–28]. While these arguments about localized politics of production are compelling, I am more concerned with the spiritual and theological implications of Clemence’s narrative innovations.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    Wogan-Browne argues that Clemence’s statement of love for her community in the final lines reveals the motivating factor behind her translation: “In the case of the Lives from Barking, the source material is also completely refocused in the light of particular thematic interests and relations with inscribed and future audiences. These are signaled in the prologues, as part of the creation of narratorial stances.” See Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “Wreaths of Thyme: The Female Translator in Anglo-Norman Hagiography,” in vol. 4 of The Medieval Translator, ed. Roger Ellis and Ruth Evans (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994), 53 [46–65].Google Scholar
  19. 15.
    This model of authorship has been described by Mary Carruthers as the goal of both writing and reading in the Middle Ages, in which “the complete process of reading does not observe in the same way the basic distinction we make between ‘what I read in a book’ and ‘my experience’ … ‘what I read in a book’ is ‘my experience,’ and I make it mine by incorporating it (and we should understand the world ‘incorporate’ quite literally) in my memory.” See Carruthers, Book of Memory, 211. Furthermore, as recent work on the idea of the vernacular has shown, in this concept of authorial self-authorization, “authors are mediators of an ‘entent’ that is situated somewhere between their minds and their texts, whose attempts to express ‘entent’ are inherently vulnerable. In all these texts, ‘entent’ fragments: dispersing and disseminating its Latin meanings, acquiring a whole new set of vernacular contexts their authors actively evoke, insisting on the difference, rather than the common ground, between their projects and authoritative Latin texts.” See Ruth Evans, Andrew Taylor, Nicholas Watson, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “The Notion of Vernacular Theory,” in The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520, ed. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor, and Ruth Evans (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 329 [314–330].Google Scholar
  20. 16.
    William MacBain quotes O. Sodergard on the uniquely twelfth-century character of the vita, which he describes as possessing “l’expression de sa propre pensée sous la forme de commentaires moraux et de réflexions d’un caractère religieux … elle emploie des expressions et des phrases toutes personnelles en ce sens qu’elles ne se trouvent pas dans le latin.” See William MacBain, “The Literary Apprenticeship of Clemence of Barking,” Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 9 (1958): 10 [3–22]. In this volume, Catherine Keene’s chapter examining the hagiographical afterlife of Saint Margaret of Scotland explicates a related process of “saint-construction”; Keene argues that while Margaret was a real historical personage, her posthumous textual identity reflected the political and religious concerns of her descendants, who appropriated her pious identity and royal status in order to construct a saint with associations of dynastic patronage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 17.
    Catherine Batt, for example, argues that Clemence uses courtly language to characterize Maxentius, the pagan emperor who persecutes Catherine, and thus to symbolize the danger of espousing cupiditas rather than caritas. Batt sees Clemence’s project as a transformation of worldly courtliness into spiritual devotion—a project that nevertheless uses courtly language to great effect in achieving this transformation. See Catherine Batt, “Clemence of Barking’s Transformations of Courtoisie in La Vie de Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie,” New Comparison: A Journal of Comparative and General Literary Studies 12 (1996): 102–23.Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    See Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “‘Clerc U Lai, Muïne U Dame’: Women and Anglo-Norman Hagiography in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500, ed. Carol M. Meale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 67 [61–79].Google Scholar
  23. 19.
    Jacques Le Goff describes the increasing emphasis on individual and subjective spirituality, beginning in the twelfth century and culminating with Lateran IV in the thirteenth century: “Everyone was required to examine his conscience: the soul was thus plumbed to new depths, and introspective practices previously limited to clerics, especially monks, were now extended to laymen. This decision was the culmination of a long evolution; it sanctioned a need.” See Jacques Le Goff, The Invention of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 216.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    See Victor Bers, Speech in Speech: Studies in Incorporated Oratio Recta in Attic Drama and Oratory (London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1997).Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Henrik Specht, “‘Ethopoeia’ or Impersonation: A Neglected Species of Medieval Characterization,” Chaucer Review 21, no. 1 (1986): 1–15.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Peter Brown describes the martyrs as “the membra Christi par excellence … The martyr himself, and later the holy man, is often shown in the pose of the Crucified. This identified him not only with the sufferings of Christ, but also with the unmoved constancy of his election and the certainty of his triumph.” See Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 94.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    For description of devotional practice, see Swanson, Religion and Devotion, 156, and Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 151.Google Scholar
  28. 30.
    Reames contends that “the eloquent and theologically learned speeches with which [Catherine] converts the philosophers … might be illustrated at length in retellings for clerics but were usually minimized for lay audiences—especially when it was feared that such audiences might try to imitate her, violating the rules against public preaching by women or laymen. Some retellings for the laity skip most of the dialogue and concentrate on the most entertaining aspects of the story.” See Sherry L. Reames, ed., Middle English Legends of Women Saints, TEAMS Middle English Text Series (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute Publications, 2003), 170.Google Scholar
  29. 31.
    I turn again to Wogan-Browne for a description of the intended audience of Anglo-Norman hagiography: “Where there is direct evidence for women’s association with hagiography’s initial production contexts and audiences it tends to be in noble or gentry circles (whether lay or in the largely aristocratic and gentry religious houses characteristic of the period) … contemporary indications of their uses and audiences suggest an interest in them which extended beyond these initial contexts. Some saints’ lives occur in clerically produced compilations for lay patrons; others, while in the company of clerical texts, must have been designated for use with lay audiences … Women would have heard and sometimes read saints’ lives in religious communities, but would also have heard them as part of the mixed audiences of secular households.” See Wogan-Browne, “Clerc U Lai, Muïne U Dame,” 62. Critics agree that though Clemence’s audience was likely to be female (see D. H. Green, Women Readers in the Middle Ages [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007]), it was less uniform in the social situation of those women, who might hail from a variety of social backgrounds and contexts.Google Scholar
  30. 39.
    See Sarah Salih, “Introduction: Saints, Cults, and Lives in Late Medieval England,” in A Companion to Middle English Hagiography, ed. Sarah Salih (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2006), 18 [1–23].Google Scholar
  31. 41.
    Francois Recanati, Oratio Obliqua, Oratio Recta: An Essay on Metarepresentation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 173.Google Scholar
  32. 48.
    Jones speculates that “the anonymity of the lives of the saints is due to a feeling that a religious should not appear to seek anything but the glory of God, and that it is his duty to labor without thought of himself, effacing himself as far as possible just as did the composers of the thousands of Gregorian Chant Hymns and Sequences.” See Paul J. Jones, Prologue and Epilogue in Old French Lives of Saints Before 1400 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 62.Google Scholar
  33. 49.
    Laurie Postlewate, “Vernacular Hagiography and Lay Piety: Two Old French Adaptations of the Life of Saint Margaret of Antioch,” in Saints: Studies in Hagiography, ed. Sandro Sticca (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996), 128 [115–130].Google Scholar
  34. 50.
    Karl D. Uitti, S tory, Myth, and Celebration in Old French Narrative Poetry, 1050–1200 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 26.Google Scholar
  35. 52.
    Catherine Sanok, Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 21.Google Scholar

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© Margaret Cotter-Lynch and Brad Herzog 2012

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