St. Catherine in Books of Hours: Medieval Selfies?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria was hugely popular in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Europe. Her legend was copied and adapted more frequently in Middle English than any other saint’s.1 One reason for this was her appeal to a growing literate-female audience; as martyrs go, St. Catherine was a pretty awesome role model:

  • She was extremely well-educated (sometimes identified as a princess)
British Library MS Arundel 318, f. 26v; Book of Hours, Use of Sarum; By a Flemish artist working for the English market, c. 1490
  • She dominated all the men in public rhetoric battles
British Library MS Harley 2962, f. 38v; Book of Hours, Use of Rome; By a Flemish artist, c. 1430-1450
  • She survived a Wheel of Torture (which in turn shattered and killed everyone else)
British Library Harley MS 928, f. 10r; Book of Hours, Use of Sarum; English, last quarter of the 13th century
  • And she played impossible-to-get with the enamored (evil) emperor (until he finally gave up on love and killed her).

The images above are all from Books of Hours, a genre of devotional texts often commissioned by and for the use of noble women. As such, the pictures—as much as the text—inform the reader’s meditation on her character; we can “read” the particular legend of Catherine portrayed by each artist.

In the first illustration, we have St. Catherine (we know because of the broken torture wheel, which here looks entirely unthreatening) reading calmly in a garden near the port of Alexandria—or, alternatively, one’s local English port.

Detail from BL MS Arundel 318 f. 26v

She wears the clothes of a noblewoman—maybe similar to what our 15th-century reader would wear. And, as the patron saint of learning scholars, Catherine is even reading, like her reader! By putting Catherine in the reader’s shoes, this image in turn helps the reader liken herself to Catherine.

The second illustration has our heroine, sporting her wheel, unapologetically dominating a man (ostensibly the emperor).

Detail from BL MS Harley 2962 f. 38v

Note that this never literally happens in the story, but this image cuts to the point. Of the two figures, Catherine wears the superior crown, her “crown of martyrdom.”2 This image highlights Catherine’s defeat of sin and death, which the licentious and bloodthirsty emperor embodies. The moral of the image seems to be, “You too, women, can conquer with sanctity!”3

The third illustration is an historiated initial: the capital D (which certainly resembles an O) of Domine frames the scene of Catherine’s miraculous defeat of the wheel—broken here by, apparently, her halo and the hand of God.

Detail from BL MS Harley 928 f. 10r

Though kneeling, Catherine towers over the men around her as in the second image; like the first image, this one emphasizes a resemblance between the reader and the saint: both are presently engaged in prayer.

But what is perhaps more curious, a dragon-creature’s head smiles daftly down over the hand of God, spoiling the vertical hierarchy. Why such irreverence as the critters scattered across Catherine’s page?

Detail from BL MS Harley 928 f. 10r

It might have to do with the mnemonic function of prayerbook illustrations. The repetition of reading daily prayers would lead to memorization; after a short while, the book would function primarily as a series of visual reminders. That the dragon interacts with the image of Catherine might suggest that the memorable marginalia are not enlisted for their own sakes, but to point to Catherine. Perhaps this dog and rabbit say, “Remember this page; remember Catherine; pray like her!”

Detail from BL MS Harley 928 f. 10r

Mary Helen Galluch
PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern.

1Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler, The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2003), 21.
2With her crowned head in the golden semi-sphere, Catherine is likened to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. Her blue dress and red mantle also relate her iconographically with Mary: her blue dress represents humanity, and the red mantle represents divinity; thus Catherine’s attire illustrates her accomplished martyrdom and reception into eternal life. This representation is consistent with the fact that Catherine is often considered the woman second in admirability to Mary. Christine de Pizan places St. Catherine as the next major portrait after the Virgin Mary in her Book of the City of Ladies; she also instructs in her Treasure of the City of Ladies that “A young girl should also especially venerate Our Lady, St. Catherine, and all virgins, and if she can read, eagerly read their biographies.” John Capgrave also wrote in his prologue to his verse Life of Saint Katherine, “But next that Lady [the Virgin Mary] above alle othir in blys / Folowyth this mayde weche we clepe [call] Kateryne.” See the TEAMS online edition: <>
3This image also obviously smacks of Catherine vanquishing the patriarchy; for medieval English interpretation of Catherine in this role, see for example Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “Virginity Always Comes Twice: Virginity and Profession, Virginity and Romance” in Maistresse of my wit: medieval women, modern scholars (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), 340-42.

Bobbing for Answers

London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x (pet-named the Gawain-Manuscript and at times the Pearl-manuscript) contains the only extant copies of some of the most celebrated Middle English literature. As a 14th century Middle English manuscript, and one that survives without any Anglo-Norman or Latin companion pieces, the illuminated initials and the various illustrations, mark it as a unique, multimedia project.

Illustration of the Green Knight ‘s interactions with King Arthur’s Court © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 90v

This can be taken a step further, as the audience of this manuscript would be twofold, namely those reading and experiencing the literature visually, and those listening and experiencing it aurally.

One of the most peculiar features of the manuscript may be the placement of the metrical “bob” in the last poem in the manuscript, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The respective bobs most often appear as many as two or three lines above its accompanying “wheel” directly before which, editors (and indeed most scholars) assume the bob would have been read. Despite that all editors from J. R. R. Tolkien onward move the bob in order to metrically perfect the poem, sloppiness on the part of the scribe seems doubtful considering the care taken in illuminating initials, thus the placements of these bobs may well be intentional.

Bobs out of Place? © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 111v.

By positioning the bob in such a way, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton sees potential for equivocation and the possibility that this bob might be a floating marginal device resonating with more than one line. Because of the syntactic flexibility of a bob, it can in fact (sometimes much more sensibly) be understood in the context of where it actually occurs in the manuscript. For a reader of this text (which is to say a literate, visual audience), such an interpretation is appealing. Kerby-Fulton persuasively argues that wyth wynne, placed between lines describing the respective foundings of Rome and Britain, could equally apply to both joyful events.

Founding of Rome and Britain wyth wynne © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 91r

Howell D. Chickering has an interpretation of the irregular positioning of the bob, which reflects aural reception and considers the performative function of the poem. The audience of such a performance would likely understand the bob in only one place, where it is spoken; however, Chickering argues that the bob often appears preemptively to alert the recitator of the abrupt shift in meter, and almost always is found on the same page as its accompanying wheel. In giving the recitator this warning, Chickering suggests the performance might move more smoothly. These two interpretations both highlight the importance of manuscript context in understanding both the literary texts and their multimodal means of understanding and experiencing the poem.

Preemptive bobbing © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 106r.

The manuscript also reveals that a symbol, called a “trefoil”, often accompanies bobs, and if this symbol serves to add emphasis, as Peter J. Lucas has demonstrated it does in the work of John Capgrave, the trefoils in Sir Gawain may similarly indicate the importance and purposeful placement of bobs. While the manuscript’s systematic reasons for employing certain symbols remains a mystery, it seems likely that there was some premeditated method to the scribal adornment of bobs with trefoils.

Trefoil accompanying bob © The British Library Board, Cotton Nero A X (art 3) f. 112r.

Indeed, analysis of the positioning of bobs in Sir Gawain demonstrates how close attention to the manuscript presentation of a text contributes to a better understanding of how it might have been read and performed.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of our ongoing series on Medieval and Early Modern Poetics: Theory and Practice.


Further Reading:

Baugh, Albert C. “Improvisation in the Middle English Romance.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103.3 (1959): 418-454.

Borroff, Marie. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

Chickering, Howell. “Stanzaic Closure and Linkage in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Chaucer Review 32.1 (1997): 1-31.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary & Visual Approaches. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Lucas, Peter. “John Capgrave: Scribe and Publisher.” Transactions of the British Bibliographical Society V (1969).

Pearsall, Derek. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: An Essay in Enigma.” The Chaucer Review 46.1-2 (2011): 248-260.

Putter, Ad. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance. Oxford, England: Clarendon University Press, 1995.

Tolkien, J. R. R. and Gordon E. V. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

The Froissart Harley: Caricature on the Margins?

Miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary with marginalia of a stag with wings and a sow with a conical hat on stilts on the left-hand side. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

The Froissart Harley, Harley MS 4379, is a manuscript filled with popular conceptions of the medieval period: knights, jousting, courtiers, war, queens and kings. Harley MS 4379 consists of the fourth volume of Froissart’s Chronicle, which recounts the events of the Hundred Years’ War. The manuscript was produced between 1470 and 1472 at the behest of Philippe de Commynes, one of the most powerful members of Charles the Bold’s court.

Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Froissart’s Chronicle explores courtly life, the sphere of the nobility, but his work also teaches noble listeners: it includes emblematic examples of good, contemporary rulers, meant to advise a young lord in the proper governance of his subjects.

Detail of a miniature of tents and mounted knights, with marginal illumination, including a rabbit and snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges) Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Although the text itself instructed its readership in proper chivalric behavior, the illustrations and marginalia enliven dry discussions of events such as siege warfare and provide images to connect to the chapter text. One particularly interesting feature of Harley MS 4379 centers on the depictions of animal marginalia and how they relate to the text.

Detail of a marginal painting of a winged stag. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 19v.

Any medieval reader would have comprehended allegorical associations with animals. One notable example of such symbolism occurs in the hunting scene in Fit 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While Gawain remains in Bertilak’s castle with Bertilak’s wife, his host hunts for three days: the first day he hunts deer, the second a boar, and the third a fox. The alternating hunting scenes and bedroom scenes narrated in Fit 3 parallel one another, underlining the analogous relationship between his lady’s attempts to trick Gawain and the Bertilak’s attempts to catch his prey.

Detail of a marginal painting of a rabbit and a snail jousting on the shoulders of monkeys. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 23v. Knights jousting against snails are a common occurrence in medieval manuscripts, but no satisfactory explanation has been supplied as to why!

However, the animal symbolism in the Froissart Harley differs from the hunting scenes in Gawain in an obvious fashion. While Gawain’s animals are meant to reinforce Gawain’s perilous situation, the marginalia in the Froissart Harley seem to caricature their own text. Regarding the rabbit and snail jousting, neither animal symbolically represents the jousting knights in the center miniature, nor do these two animals have a broader meaning in medieval bestiaries concerning jousting. These marginalia are meant to represent and enhance the text they accompany, but this point is problematic when considering the Burgundian approach to chivalry, the milieu out of which this manuscript emerged. Burgundians valued chivalric ideals above all else, as is shown by the great status granted to those of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a knightly order created by the dukes of Burgundy. Associating a rabbit and a snail with the jousters of Inglevert, perhaps the most vibrant and epic tournament in Froissart’s Chronicle, most likely would not have pleased a Burgundian audience.

Detail of a marginalia painting: a sow with a conical hat on stilts, playing a harp. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379 f. 19v.

Nor does the Master of the Froissart Harley spare courtly women in his caricatures. On the margin of folio 19v, the illustrator places a sow on stilts wearing a conical hat, playing the harp. This sow draws attention to the miniature of female courtiers, all wearing conical hats on watching the tournament in the middle of the page. Again, this characterization is paradoxical in a Burgundian context: pigs typically represented uncleanliness and greed, unfortunate traits for a woman trying to navigate the vicissitudes of court.

Detail of a miniature of courtiers watching a joust. Netherlands (Bruges), Late 15th century, Harley MS 4379, f. 23v.

Sean Sapp
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Multimedia Reading Practices and Marginalia: Medieval and Early Modern

Further Reading:

Froissart’s Chronicle trans. John Jolliffe (New York: Random House, 1968).

Susan Crane, Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Laetitia Le Guay, Les princes de Bourgogne lecteurs de Froissart : les rapports entre le texte et l’image dans les manuscrits enluminés du livre IV des Chroniques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998).

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles: Getty Pulications, 2003).

Willene B. Clark, A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary: Commentary, Art, Text and Translation (Boyden Press, 2013).