The partible text and the textual relic: The function of materiality and memory in Seinte Margarete

Francesca Brooks, King’s College London

‘[Saint’s] Bodies are partible yet whole […] texts are partible, but when they too are a form of relic, their fragments, like their material components, retain the meaning and force of the whole text.’1

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

Image 1. Fourteenth Century St Margaret seal, belonging to the Guild of Horsham. British Museum No. 1987,0403.20 (photograph the author’s own).

Image 1. Fourteenth Century St Margaret seal, belonging to the Guild of Horsham. British Museum No. 1987,0403.20 (photograph the author’s own).

The thirteenth century West Midlands Seinte Margarete found in MS Bodley 34 and in MS Royal 17 A XXVII2 is a mnemonic text which draws on the material devotional and contact-relic culture of the saints as a model for remembering the text. The author3 inserts his text into a long and active tradition of devotion to Margaret, but hopes that for his community (the anchoritic audience implied by its context, and the lay audience invoked in the text) his Seinte Margarete will be at the centre of the cult. Seinte Margarete celebrates the various means by which Margaret may be venerated by a group of people but it also exists as a central ordering foundation, an urtext4 for its textual community which gives meaning and value to the devotional activities that it produces: whether it be the building and dedication of a church, the touching of an inscribed ring or seal, or simply the recalling of Margaret’s name. While most criticism has focused on the somatic nature of the virgin martyr stories and issues of gender, I will argue that the interest in the body is part of a wider focus on the material and physical world and its mnemonic potential; the body acts as a model for what the text must do.5

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne argues that the textual transmission of hagiographies worked by reproducing the relationship between saint’s body and relic; while the saint’s body (and therefore the text) is partible, ‘their fragments like their material components, retain the meaning and force of the whole text.’6 The text acts as a contact relic and becomes integral to establishing the text’s place within the vernacular community through physical and sensory engagements with the cult of St Margaret. While Wogan-Browne’s argument focuses on the relationship between the book of Margaret’s passion and the devotional objects which lie outside of it (a model which sees book as body and objects as relics) I will make closer textual analysis and argue for the ways in which the text is designed to divide itself internally into relic-like fragments. The book becomes just one form of several memorial aids, signifying tokens and textual relics: produced in order to recall the whole narrative.

Margaret and the cultic practices surrounding her devotion had long been established by the time of Seinte Margarete’s composition in the thirteenth century, and her story had a well-developed textual tradition for the author to draw on. The saint had appeared under the name ‘Marina’ in the Old English Martyrology in the mid to late ninth century and three extant Old English versions of the life still survive today. While in Latin the earliest extant manuscript dates from the eighth century, with some versions deriving from an earlier Greek source.7 Seinte Margarete remains close to the narrative of its Latin textual ancestor the Mombritius version, in retelling the story of the virgin martyr’s refusal to marry the pagan Governor Olibrius, as she remained steadfast in her faith and spiritual marriage to Christ. We are told of Margaret’s subsequent tortures and imprisonment, including her miraculous bursting forth from the belly of a dragon unharmed. There are however some key textual differences in Seinte Margarete’s representation of the familiar narrative which demonstrate that the authorhas rewritten and reshaped the story for its first Middle English vernacular audience. By the thirteenth century the cult of Saint Margaret had evolved and grown; Eamon Duffy describes the ‘enormous devotion’ which the saint attracted alongside the other virgin martyrs of the Katherine Group8 and Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne note that Seinte Margarete was probably written after the ‘establishment of St Margaret’s Day [twentieth of July] as a major feast in the English Church by the council of Oxford in 1222,’9 hence the text’s reference to the maiden we celebrate today, ‘Þet eadie meiden Þe we munneð todei […].’10 The feast day was an official recognition by the Church of the popularity of Margaret amongst the laity and an attempt to bring it back under its own authority. The text both reflects, and is a product of, Margaret’s spectacular growth in popularity; a new vernacular version would reinvest inherited devotional practices with appropriate meaning and significance.

Brian Stock coined the idea of the ‘textual community’ in his book The Implications of Literacy and the phrase will help to define the relationship between the clerical author of Seinte Margarete and the audience he imagines to be his textual community.11 The ‘textual community’ of Seinte Margarete is both the group of anchoresses invoked by the Ancrene Wisse and those readers directly invoked by the author at the beginning of the text, who are ‘alle þe earen ant herunge habbeð’ [all those with ears and hearing], and also more specifically ‘widewen wið þa iweddede, ant te meidnes’ [widows with the wedded and maidens] (p.44), an inclusive lay audience (with perhaps a stronger appeal to its female listeners) who did not necessarily have the ability to read. While much feminist criticism considers female saints as agents of their own texts in hagiographies, who use their bodies and tortures to speak;12 more effective criticism (although less well explored) recognises the clerical scribes as mediating authors of the hagiography who use the female saints (body and narrative) for their own purposes.13 Saint Margaret hopes that she may be a model through which other maidens may come to Christ, ‘swa þet alle meidnes eauer mare þurh me þe mare trusten on þe’ [so that all maidens may come to trust you through me] (p.44) and learn how to love the living lord and live in chastity. These are also the central messages of the author, and it is clear that this is predominantly his hope for the text, expressed through Margaret.

Stock writes that ‘what was essential to a textual community was not a written version of a text, although that was sometimes present, but an individual, who, having mastered it, then utilized it for reforming a group’s thought and action’.14 The text comes to tell us as much about the role of the author, as representative of the church, as it is does about the role of Margaret in the community. Sharing the vernacular with its audience, the text already confirms the common and binding elements of its community, fusing this language with the shared experience of a narrative and the devotion it inspires. Stock’s key point is that within a community of devotees who did not necessarily have the resources to read or own a personal copy of the text it was memory which ensured its survival. The text’s existence hinges upon its ability to be remembered and the author of Seinte Margarete has an appropriately saintly mnemonic model for the establishment of his text in memory which draws on the contact culture of veneration of the saints.

Saints’ cults relied primarily upon contacts15 with the remaining bones, body parts and relics associated with the living figures. Medieval religious institutions often legitimised or established their connection to a particular saint by claiming that they held a relic of that saint’s body which could be looked upon and touched by devotees; through a chain of authorising physical contacts, the relic offered the possibility of recalling and invoking the saints themselves. Medieval memory also worked in a parallel way, using a series of sensory contacts to recall and invoke the original. Mary Carruthers describes how ‘recollection occurs consciously through association: one finds or hunts out the stored memory-impressions by using other things associated with it either through a logical connection or through habit (consuetudo), the sort of associations taught by the various artes memorativa.’16 Memory was a physical as well as a mental process in which seeing, touching and hearing were all sense perceptions with a mnemonic value. These memory impressions relate in turn to medieval models which compared the storehouse of memory to a wax tablet and a seal-in-wax, giving credence to the idea that memory was a material object imprinted by physical contacts.17

  1. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ‘The Apple’s Message: Some Post-Conquest Hagiographic Accounts of Textual Transmission’ in Late Medieval Religious Texts and their Transmission: Essays in honour of A.I Doyle, ed. by A J Minnis (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994) pp.39-53, p.46 []
  2. In the facsimile edition N. R. Ker suggests that the manuscript can be dated to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Facsimile of MS. Bodley 34: St. Katherine, St. Margaret, St. Juliana, Hali Meiðhad, Sawles Warde, with an introduction by N.R.KER, (London: Oxford University Press, The Early English Text Society, 1960) (p.x). []
  3. Seinte Margarete is believed to have been originally composed by an author related to that of the anonymous Ancrene Wisse, probably of Dominican origin. Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan Browne, ed., Medieval English Prose for Women: The Katherine Group and Ancrene Wisse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) (p.xi). []
  4. The Oxford English Dictionary says that an ‘urtext’ is the original version of a text, to which later texts refer. The suggestion here is that Seinte Margarete takes on the status of the original for its community, becoming the ultimate authority. [accessed 03.01.2014]. []
  5. For criticism which looks at issues of the body and gender see Katherine J. Lewis, ‘”Let me suffre” Reading the Torture of St Margaret of Antioch in Late Medieval England’ in Medieval Women: texts and contexts in Late Medieval Britain; essays for Felicity Riddy, ed. by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000) and Maud Burnett McInerney, ‘Rhetoric, Power & Integrity in the Passion of the Virgin Martyr’ in Menacing Virgins: representing virgins in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. by Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Marina Leslie (London: University of Delaware Press, 1999). []
  6. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ‘The Apple’s Message’, p.46. []
  7. Mary Clayton and and Hugh Magennis (ed.), The Old English Lives of St Margaret (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). []
  8. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: traditional religion in England c.1400-c.1500, second edition, (New Haven: London: Yale University Press, 2005) p.177. []
  9. Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ed., Medieval English Prose for Women (1992) p.153. []
  10. Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ed., Medieval English Prose for Women p.44. Subsequent references will be given after quotations in the text. []
  11. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983) p.88. []
  12. For a study of somatic piety in the medieval period see Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Urzone, 1989); for criticism on the virgin body’s privileged access to eloquence see Lewis, ‘”Let me suffre” Reading the Torture of St Margaret of Antioch in Late Medieval England’ (2000) and Burnett McInerney, ‘Rhetoric, Power & Integrity in the Passion of the Virgin Martyr’ (1999). []
  13. See for example Amy Hollywood’s essay in the collection Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and their Interpreters and Philip of Clairvaux’s use of Elizabeth of Spalbeek’s body as a book of redemption for the illiterate, which includes his own authoritative glosses on her body’s legible text. Amy Hollywood, “Inside Out: Beatrice of Nazareth and her Hagiographer” in Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and their Interpreters, ed., Catherine M. Mooney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) pp.78-98, Walter Simons, “Reading a Saint’s Body: rapture and bodily movement in the vitae of the thirteenth century beguines” in Framing Medieval Bodies, ed., Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) pp.10-23. []
  14. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983) p.90. []
  15. I’m using the word ‘contact’ here, coming from the Latin ‘contactus’ meaning ‘a touching’, to think about the tactile relationship with saints’ relics, in which a physical touching of the saint’s body or bones was the most valorised action in veneration and devotion. In the absence of a physical or material relic other sensory actions can often stand in for touch, so that singing or praying becomes a touching of voice and remembering becomes a touching of the object of memory. All sensory acts of devotion imply a physical sensory contact with that saint: an affective sensorial and spiritual ‘contact’ even when the subject is immaterial. []
  16. Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p.23. []
  17. For a detailed analysis of such classical and medieval models of memory see ‘Models for the Memory’ in Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory, pp.18-55. []

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