Guy of Warwick the Anglo-Norman Guthlac?

Prior to the twentieth century, Guy of Warwick ranked among the most popular heroes of the Anglophone world, even being placed at one point among the Nine Worthies. And it is not hard to imagine why, as there is something for everyone in his story, for he is shown to be a great warrior and a dragon-slayer who later becomes a pilgrim and, eventually, a hermit.

Guy of Warwick as a Knight. Introductory illustration to a copy of Le Rommant de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (an abridged continental French prose version). London, British Library, MS Royal 15. E. VI, ff. 227r-272r (15th Century)
Guy of Warwick Slays the Dragon, Saving the Lion. The Taymouth Hours, London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 13, f. 14r (c. 1331)

The narrative was first written in Anglo-Norman shortly before 1204 A.D. (Weiss, “Gui de Warewic” 7). Attesting to the lengthy story’s success, nine manuscripts and seven fragments survive in Anglo-Norman. The earliest complete copy that we have in Middle English can be found in the Auchinleck Manuscript, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, MS Advocates 19.2.1, dated to c. 1330-1340. Two other, much later versions exist in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius College, MS 107/176 (c. 1470s) and Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.2.38 (c. 1479-1484) (Wiggins, “The Manuscripts and Texts” 64). And there are an additional two sets of fragments in Middle English. One thing interesting about the layout of the text in the Auchinleck Manuscript is that it is separated into a sort of trilogy, consisting of what is known as the couplet Guy of Warwick, covering Guy’s early exploits (ff. 108r-146v), the stanzaic Guy of Warwick, recounting his later life events (ff. 146v-167r), and Reinbroun, which deals with the feats of Guy’s son (ff. 167r-175v). The Auchinleck Manuscript also includes a text called the Speculum Gy de Warewyke, a homiletic treatise that uses Guy’s narrative as a frame to discuss the sins and the importance of contrition and penance.

The entire Auchinleck Manuscript, as well as a treasure trove of information, is available online here: https://auchinleck.nls.uk/.

Guy’s cultural importance extended beyond England and France and also into the early modern period. A now lost Middle English version likely served as the basis for the fifteenth-century Irish Beathadh Sir Gyi o Bharbhuic, copied in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1298B, pp. 300-347. What is most remarkable about this version is that it incorporates material from the Speculum. It is furthermore no secret, for example, that Edmund Spenser’s Guyon from Book II of The Faerie Queene is modeled on Guy of Warwick, and we can also see reflections of Guy in the Redcrosse Knight of Book I (Cooper, “Romance after 1400” 718-719 and The English Romance in Time 92-99). In fact, as Helen Cooper demonstrates, the popularity of the Guy narrative continued unabated up through the Victorian era (“Romance after 1400” 704-706).

For more on the later life of the Guy of Warwick legend, see Dr. Siân Echard’s page: http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sechard/GUY.HTM.

So what, you might be asking, is this blockbuster story all about? Well, the narrative tells of Guy, a steward’s son, who falls in love with Felice, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, and is compelled to climb the social ladder through heroic acts in order to prove himself. Guy has many battles and adventures on the Continent, winning fame and admiration abroad. While in Constantinople, he rescues a lion from a dragon. He also makes a bosom companion in the person of Terri of Worms. On his way back to England, Guy slays the villainous Otun, Duke of Pavia, but he also gets caught up in a confrontation in which he rashly kills the son of Count Florentine. Before returning home to Warwick, Guy helps King Athelstan by slaying a dragon that is ravaging Northumberland. He then marries Felice and fathers a child, Reinbroun. The trajectory is not unlike other romans d’aventure. But once he has fulfilled all of his desires, Guy is suddenly overcome by deep inner turmoil while gazing at the stars one evening, realizing that, as yet, God has had no place in his life. With this, he vows to dedicate himself to holy pursuits and become a pilgrim, expiating by means of his body, as he says, those sins committed by his body, namely the lives of others destroyed and lost through his reckless longing for glory. Upon departing, he gives Felice his sword, and Felice, in turn, gives him a ring to remember her by. (They halve the ring in later versions.) Their parting is a tearful one. In his subsequent travels, Guy, always incognito, makes his way to the Holy Land, aiding and rescuing others, Christian and “Saracen” alike, in many martial exploits. He assists the Saracen King Triamour by vanquishing the giant Amoraunt and, in the process, helps the Christian Earl Jonas and his sons. He also eventually saves his friend Terri by defeating Berard, the likewise treacherous nephew of Otun. Though comparatively little space is given to Felice, she devotes herself to serving her community in Warwickshire through charitable deeds. When Guy makes his final return to England, he aids King Athelstan again, this time preventing a Danish invasion by defeating the giant Colbrond and thus becoming the savior of England. However, he retreats unnoticed to the woods outside of his estate in Warwick. Guy’s desire is to receive religious instruction from another hermit and to live out the rest of his days in contemplation. Guy eventually learns from the Archangel Michael that he has a week left to live (he will die on the eighth day), and so he sends word to Felice as well as his ring (or half-ring) for identification purposes. She comes to him on the point of death, and his soul is soon borne to Heaven by angels. A sweet fragrance issues forth from his body, which (in all versions of the text) is said to be so heavy that it cannot be removed from his hermitage. Felice herself dies soon afterwards. The two are buried together in the hermitage (at least at first) and are said to be reunited in Heaven. The narrative thus shifts from being something like a chanson de geste to something much more hagiographical.

The two halves of Guy’s life are clearly displayed in the Rous Roll, which depicts and gives a brief history of each significant family member (historically real or otherwise) of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick.

Guy of Warwick in the Rous Roll. Pictured from left to right are Felice’s father, Felice and her son Reinbroun, Guy of Warwick as a knight with the lion, then Guy of Warwick as penitent pilgrim and vanquisher of Colbrond, then the adult Reinbroun. London, British Library, MS Additional 48976, f. 3ar (c. 1483)

Guy’s later life is also the likely subject of two misericords in English cathedrals.

Misericord Showing Guy Fighting Colbrond (S03) (c. 1350-1360), Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England
Misericord with Felice Giving Alms to the Hermit Guy (SH-16) (c. 1330s), Wells Cathedral, Wells, England

A number of literary antecedents to the figure of Guy have been posited. Many scholars, like Judith Weiss, point to the twelfth-century Le Moniage Guillaume (part of the William of Orange cycle) whose main character, Guillaume d’Orange (otherwise known as Guillaume au Court Nez), is a warrior who battles “Saracens” and later becomes a monk and then hermit, fearful for the state of his soul after having killed so many people (“The Exploitation” 44-46). As Angus Kennedy points out, it is also not uncommon in Arthurian romances, for example, for hermit-saints to have previously been members of the chivalric class (72). Both verse and prose French romances alike show a host of knights who choose to retreat from the world and end their days as hermits: the protagonist of Escanor; Perceval in Manessier’s Continuation and in the Queste del Saint Graal; at least thirteen knights in the Perlesvaus; Mordrain and Nascien, King Urien, Girflet, Bors and Hector, and even Lancelot in the Vulgate Cycle; Guiron and his ancestors in Palamède; and Pergamon in Perceforest (74-75). References to aristocratic hermits exist in many other texts, particularly Arthurian, but these hermits, as they are presented, are not entirely separated from the world. In fact, they very often still play a role in their societies (think of all of the other hermits in the Queste del Saint Graal) (77-78).

To my mind, however, there is an as yet unnoticed parallel with the late-eighth-century Old English lives of St. Guthlac in that invaluable repository of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501). (For some images, go here. The lives are based, at least in part, on the Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci (between 730 and 749 A.D.) written by a man named Felix, likely a monk, about whom next to nothing is known. Guthlac, though, was born around 673 A.D. into a royal Mercian family and had a military career before becoming a monk at Repton Abbey and then two years later a hermit in the Lincolnshire fens at what is now Crowland (Croyland in the Middle Ages). He died there in 714, and a shrine was erected to commemorate him. Around this eventually grew Crowland Abbey and around this the town (Bradley 248-249).

Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire
Quatrefoil Portraying Scenes from St. Guthlac’s Life, Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire

In the Exeter Book’s Guthlac A (ff. 32v-44v), the saint is said to be attacked by demons who try to tempt him into abandoning his hermitage by making him feel guilty for leaving his family. They also seek to make him feel lonely, to crave human company. Guthlac ultimately resists, but we have here the same tensions that we see exhibited in later works like the legend of St. Alexis and Guy’s narrative. The events that are most reminiscent of Guy’s story, however, are those found in Guthlac B (ff. 44v-52v). Guthlac has a servant who attends to him, much as Guy the hermit does as well, and it is to this person that Guthlac makes a prediction, told to him by an angel, that he has eight days left to live (ll. 1034b-1038a). Shortly before his death, Guthlac has the servant boy prepare to seek out his most cherished virgin sister, “wuldres wynmaeg,” to tell her that he has kept apart from her for so long so that he could attain an eternal life, free from imperfections, with her in Heaven (l. 1345a; ll. 1175a-1196a). Guthlac dies before his sister, who is to bury him in his hermitage, comes; sweet odor issues forth (ll. 1271b-1273a); and his soul is borne to Heaven by angels (ll. 1305a-1306a). We see the same knowledge of impending death delivered by an angelic presence in Gui de Warewic and later versions, many of the very same details regarding Guy’s death, and the sister’s role is easily replaced by the wife’s—which also acts to make familial tensions that much greater. So then, is Guy meant to be a saint? That, dear reader, is a question for another post…or a book.

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

Bibliography (Cited and/or Suggested):

N.B. This list is not exhaustive.

Primary Sources (with introductions, notes, and commentary) 

Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances. Trans. Judith Weiss. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2008. 97-243.

Cambridge University Library MS Ff.2.38. Ed. Frances McSparran and P. R. Robinson. London: Scolar Press, 1979.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Gui de Warewic: Roman du XIIIe Siècle. Ed. Alfred Ewert. 2 vols. Paris: Champion, 1932-1933.

“Guthlac A.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 248-268.

“Guthlac A.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 49-72.

“Guthlac B.” Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Trans. S. A. J. Bradley. London: Everyman, 1982. 269-283.

“Guthlac B.” The Exeter Book. Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records. vol 3. Ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936. 72-88. 

Speculum Gy de Warewyke. Ed. Georgiana Lea Morrill. Early English Text Society. e.s. vol. 75. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1898.

Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Ed. Alison Wiggins. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004. 

The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. Ed. Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: Scolar Press, 1977. 

The Guthlac Poems of the Exeter Book. Ed. Jane Roberts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

“The Irish Lives of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton.” Ed. and Trans. F. N. Robinson. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 6 (1908): 9-338.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. Edited from the Auchinleck MS. in the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh, and from MS. 107 in Caius College, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 42, 49, 59. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1883, 1887, 1891.

The Romance of Guy of Warwick. The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from the Paper MS. Ff.2.38 in the University Library, Cambridge. Ed. Julius Zupitza. Early English Text Society. e.s. vols. 25-26. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1875-1876.

Secondary Sources

Ailes, Marianne. “Gui de Warewic in Its Manuscript Context.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 12-26.

Byrne, Aisling. “The Circulation of Romances from England in Late-Medieval Ireland.” Medieval Romance and Material Culture. Ed. Nicholas Perkins. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. 183-198.

Cannon, Christopher. “Chaucer and the Auchinleck Manuscript Revisited.” The Chaucer Review 46 (2011): 131-146.

Cooper, Helen. “Guy as Early Modern English Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 185-200.

Cooper, Helen. “Romance after 1400.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature.  Ed. David Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 690-719.

Cooper, Helen. The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Crane, Ronald S. “The Vogue of Guy of Warwick from the Close of the Middle Ages to the Romantic Revival.” PMLA 30 (1915): 125-194.

Crane, Susan. “Anglo-Norman Romances of English Heroes: ‘Ancestral Romance’?” Romance Philology 35 (1981-1982): 601-608.

Crane, Susan. “Guy of Warwick and the Question of Exemplary Romance.” Genre 17 (1984): 351-374.

Crane, Susan. Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Guy of Warwick as a Translation.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 27-43.

Djordjević, Ivana. “Nation and Translation: Guy of Warwick between Languages.” Nottingham Medieval Studies 57 (2013): 111-144.

Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

Echard, Siân. “Of Dragons and Saracens: Guy and Bevis in Early Print Illustration.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 154-168.

Edwards, A. S. G. “The Speculum Guy de Warwick and Lydgate’s Guy of Warwick: The Non-Romance Middle English Tradition.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 81-93.

Fellows, Jennifer. “Printed Romance in the Sixteenth Century.” A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance. Ed. Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009. 67-78.

Field, Rosalind. “From Gui to Guy: The Fashioning of a Popular Romance.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 44-60.

Frankis, John. “Taste and Patronage in Late Medieval England as Reflected in Versions of Guy of Warwick.” Medium Aevum 66 (1997): 80-93.

Gordon, Sarah. “Translation and Cultural Transformation of a Hero: The Anglo-Norman and Middle English Romances of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator. Traduire au Moyen Âge. Ed. Jacqueline Jenkins and Olivier Bertrand. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. 319-331.

Gos, Giselle. “New Perspectives on the Reception and Revision of Guy of Warwick in the Fifteenth Century.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 113 (2014): 156-183.

Griffith, David. “The Visual History of Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 110-132.

Hanna, Ralph, III. “Reconsidering the Auchinleck Manuscript.” New Directions in Later Medieval Manuscript Studies: Essays from the 1998 Harvard Conference. Ed. Derek Pearsall. York: York Medieval Press, 2000. 91-102.

Hopkins, Andrea. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Kennedy, Angus J. “The Portrayal of the Hermit-Saint in French Arthurian Romance: The Remoulding of a Stock-Character.” An Arthurian Tapestry: Essays in Memory of Lewis Thorpe. Ed. Kenneth Varty. Glasgow: French Department of the University of Glasgow, 1981. 69-82.

King, Andrew. “Guy of Warwick and The Faerie Queene, Book II: Chivalry through the Ages.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 169-184.

Klausner, David N. “Didacticism and Drama in Guy of Warwick.” Medievalia et Humanistica 6 (1975): 103-119.

Legge, Mary Dominica. Anglo-Norman Literature and Its Background. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Matthews, David. “Whatever Happened to Your Heroes? Guy and Bevis after the Middle Ages.” The Making of the Middle Ages. Ed. Marios Costambeys. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007. 54-70.

Merisalo, Outi. “La fortune de Gui de Warewic à la fin du Moyen Âge (XVe siècle).” Le Moyen Âge par le Moyen Âge, même: réception, relectures et réécritures des textes médiévaux dans la littérature française des XIVe et XVe siècles. Ed. Laurent Brun and Silvère Menegaldo et al. Paris: Champion, 2012. 239-253.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Structure and Meaning in Guy of Warwick.” From Medieval to Medievalism. Ed. John Simons. London: Macmillan, 1992. 54-68.

Mills, Maldwyn. “Techniques of Translation in the Middle English Versions of Guy of Warwick.” The Medieval Translator II. Ed. Roger Ellis. London: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of London, 1991. 209-229.

Poppe, Erich. “Narrative Structure of Medieval Irish Adaptations: The Case of Guy and Beves.” Medieval Celtic Literature and Society. Ed. Helen Fulton. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. 205-229.

Price, Paul. “Confessions of a Godless Killer: Guy of Warwick and Comprehensive Entertainment.” Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation. Ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows, and Morgan Dickson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000. 93-110.

Richmond, Velma Bourgeois. The Legend of Guy of Warwick. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996.

Rouse, Robert Allen. “An Exemplary Life: Guy of Warwick as Medieval Culture-Hero.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 94-109.

Shonk, Timothy A. “A Study of the Auchinleck Manuscript: Bookmen and Bookmaking in the Early Fourteenth Century.” Speculum 60 (1985): 71-91.

Shonk, Timothy A. “The Scribe as Editor: The Primary Scribe of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Manuscripta 27 (1983): 19-20.

Spahn, Renata. Narrative Strukturen im Guy of Warwick: Zur Frage der Überlieferung einer mittelenglischen Romanze. Tübingen: G. Narr, 1991.

Quin, Gordon. Introduction. Stair Ercuil ocus a Bás. The Life and Death of Hercules. Ed. and Trans. Gordon Quin. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1939. xiii-xl.

Weiss, Judith. “Gui de Warewic at Home and Abroad: A Hero for Europe.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 1-11.

Weiss, Judith. “The Exploitation of Ideas of Pilgrimage and Sainthood in Gui de Warewic.” The Exploitations of Medieval Romance. Ed. Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjević, and Judith Weiss. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010. 43-56.

Wiggins, Alison. “A Makeover Story: The Caius Manuscript Copy of Guy of Warwick.” Studies in Philology 104 (2007): 471-500.

Wiggins, Alison. “Are Auchinleck Manuscript Scribes 1 and 6 the Same Scribe? The Advantages of Whole-Data Analysis and Electronic Texts.” Medium Aevum 73 (2004): 10-26.

Wiggins, Alison. “Guy of Warwick in Warwick?: Reconsidering the Dialect Evidence.” English Studies 84 (2003): 219-230.

Wiggins, Alison. “Imagining the Compiler: Guy of Warwick and the Compilation of the Auchinleck Manuscript.” Imagining the Book. Ed. Stephen Kelly and John J. Thompson. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005.

Wiggins, Alison. “The Manuscripts and Texts of the Middle English Guy of Warwick.” Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor. Ed. Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2007. 61-80.

Zupitza, Julius. “Zur Literaturgeschichte des Guy von Warwick.” Sitzungesberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Classe. vol. 74. no. 1. Vienna: Karl Gerold’s Sohn, 1873. 623-668.

The Temptation and the Agony in Swete Susan’s Five-Stanza Garden

There is something curious and charming about an Old Testament classic receiving a courtly treatment (and not just in poetry, as any medieval tapestry admirer can attest. For a medieval tapestry rendering of Susannah and the Elders, see below).

“Susannah and the Elders” Tapestry from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Ca. 1500, Belgium. Materials: wool, silk. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This semester I was very enchanted by my encounter with The Pistil of Swete Susan. In this fourteenth-century retelling of Susannah and the Elders from the thirteenth chapter of Daniel, a narrative of resolute tenacity emerges, almost startlingly, from beneath a veil of lush alliterative verse. Contributing most notably to an initial and misleading association of Susannah and Joachim with an overindulged and naive version of noblesse and splendor is the speaker’s five-stanza elaboration upon that iconic emblem of courtly wealth and leisure, the garden. This elaboration marks a very substantial and deliberate departure from the one line that communicates the garden in the likely source texts, and it cannot be ignored. Though the significance of this disproportionately elaborate moment in the medieval adaptation has been the source of debate, it is likely that centuries of readers have been captivated with the Edenic association that the garden’s verdant portrait ushers into the Susannah story, and of course, in a narrative that also centrally features the theme of temptation, readers would have recalled the Genesis story. Though scholarship has cast Susannah as the Eve figure in the Genesis story, my research questions whether this might be an unfair association, and explores the idea that medieval audiences may have actually viewed the elders as the Eve figures—and might even have viewed Susannah as a Christological figure—gestures, informed by the garden elaboration, which would radically and fascinatingly contradict rigid gender stereotypes of the time period.

Under the umbrella of this primary topic, I also explore some subtopics. For example, I look at this poem’s version of an ideal medieval woman—for though Susannah is “wlonkest in weede”—or in other words, fashionable—the poem emphasizes her education and intellect more than it emphasizes her stylishness. I also look at The Pistil of Swete Susan’s place in an emerging medieval theme of ageism towards the elderly. For, in fourteenth century medieval literature, no longer is the elderly figure associated with sagacity, but he or she is now deemed deceitful and corrupt. I further discuss how the garden elaboration explicates these subtopics.

For me, though, the centerpiece of the poem is not the lush and flowing treatment of the tangled garden, but a moment of profound and moving straightforwardness that the juxtaposition with the garden serves only to emphasize. It is the moment of exchange between Susannah and Joachim after Susannah has been condemned. This moment is characterized not by a reaction of anger or fear that one would expect from pampered and entitled noblesse, but simply by the humble, and indeed Christological, imagery of hands and feet. As Susannah kisses Joachim’s hand and Joachim gently removes the fetters from Susannah’s feet, husband and wife become Christ for one another, and, in a gesture deeply countercultural to medieval beliefs, marriage becomes a stunningly sanctifying vocation.

Thei toke the feteres of hire feete,
And evere he cussed that swete.
“In other world schul we mete.”
Seide he no mare.

“The Pistel of Swete Susan”: 257-260

from Heroic Women from the Old Testament in Middle English Verse, edited by Russell A. Peck.

Honora Kenney
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

The Pearl in the Dragon’s Belly

St. Margaret, identifiable by her dragon in the lower left corner, otherwise resembles a fashionable lady of contemporary European courts, presenting her as an attractive model for the readers of this book of hours, among whom was numbered Anne Boleyn; book of hours, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500; BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v

Hagiography, or the biographies of saints, was one of the most popular genres in the Middle Ages. This was because saints could be valuable moral exemplars: models of virtuous behavior that ordinary people were called on to admire and emulate. But they were also popular because exciting stories of the struggle between good and evil – and the miracles that saints performed – made for rollicking good tales, and vivid illustrations to go along with them. Some of the colorful tales of saints, like Patrick, Christopher, and Catherine, have already found their way into this blog. Today, I’d like to put the spotlight on Margaret of Antioch, one of my personal favorites, both for the dramatic story of her martyrdom, and especially for the beautiful iconography that makes her one of the easiest saints to recognize and identify in medieval art.

Illuminated initial “A” showing Margaret, simultaneously being devoured by the dragon and bursting out unharmed; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Royal MS D. vi, f. 220r

Margaret, or Marguerite, is, as all Francophiles will know, the French word for “daisy.” In Old French, it could also mean “pearl,” making the name a popular spur to etymological and allegorical puns. The most famous of these in English literature may be the poem Pearl (by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), whose elegiac dream-vision about a dropped pearl is often read as a lament for the death of a young daughter probably named Margaret. And it is with this etymology – Margaret for pearl – that Jacob de Voraigne, the author of the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), one of the most widely read medieval collections of saints’ lives, began his life of St. Margaret.   Margaret is a “pearl” for her humility, recalling the diminutive size of the jewel, and even more for the whiteness of her virgin purity. She was one of the many virgin martyrs of early Christianity, and her story resembles many others in its general outline.

A servant, bringing Margaret food in prison; Tectino, Life of Margaret of Antioch in verse, Italy, 1st half of the 15th century; BL Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

She was raised by her nurse as a Christian, and grew into a remarkably beautiful young woman. But her beauty would be her downfall, as she caught the eye of the pagan prefect Olybrius. The lustful Roman wanted her for a wife or concubine, and ordered her brought to him. When he found she was a Christian, he demanded she convert, but she – refusing to betray her faith and wishing to maintain her virginity as part of her commitment to Christ – stood her ground. Olybrius ordered her tortured and thrown into prison to induce her to relent.

Margaret being tortured; Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320; Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 308v

It is while Margaret was in prison that the narrative takes a distinctive turn. The sort of psychological warfare waged by Olybrius is distressing to Margaret, and so she prays to God for a more tangible opponent in her struggles. He obliges, and a dragon appears in her cell, which devours her whole. Margaret, however, is not so easily defeated – either by lusty pagans or by dragons – and makes the sign of the cross. On this action, the dragon bursts open, and Margaret emerges from his belly, whole and unharmed. It is this violent victory over fanged and fearsome evil that gives rise to the most popular way of depicting Margaret, sometimes in the act of emerging from a dragon’s belly and sometimes more sedately trampling it under her feet or holding it, subdued, by a leash or chain. Interestingly, while the story was the aspect of her tale that most caught artists’ imaginations, it was one that met with skepticism in the Latin hagiographic tradition, and which Jacob de Voraigne himself dismisses as apocryphal. This did not, however, dent its popularity in the vernacular tradition (see Cazelles, 216-217).

Margaret bursts unharmed from the back of the dragon, while a scrap of her garment hangs from the mouth of the greedy beast, still in the process of devouring her; book of hours, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century; Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

Once Margaret emerges from the dragon, her ordeal is not over. A second demon appears, this one in the shape of a man, described in some versions as hideous and black. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, and asserts that he has come to avenge his brother, the dragon, whom she has just killed (see Cazelles, e.g. 224). But this new foe is no more successful than the last: Margaret seizes him by the hair, and tramples him underfoot, beating him and interrogating him, before banishing him back to hell. Margaret’s physical victory over these demonic foes renders tangible her spiritual victory over her pagan captors – but from these she does not physically escape. After a further round of torture – during which her fortitude and miraculous invulnerability earn thousands of additional converts to Christianity – she is finally beheaded by the frustrated Olybrius.

Three martyrs: above, Thomas Becket; below left, Margaret with both dragon and Beelzebub; below right, Catherine, another virgin saint known for trampling her enemies beneath her feet; Huth Psalter, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century; Add. MS 38116

While Margaret is a virgin saint, and indeed died to remain so, she is, somewhat incongruously, also the patron saint of pregnant women and women in childbirth. In her vita, this is presented as due to her dying prayer that those who invoke her aid might be healed and, specifically, that women who employ a copy of the book as a protective amulet during childbirth will be delivered of a healthy child. The explanation may also perhaps circle back to her association with the pearl, a gem Jacob de Voraigne asserts had medical use in staunching hemorrhaging blood, which could be a principal hazard during labor. Whatever the explanation for this connection, such powerful patronage no doubt contributed to her wide popularity.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

A midwife holds a swaddled infant, while its mother looks on from a bed following a successful delivery; Passion of Margaret, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 14th century; BL Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

Works Cited

Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady As Saint : A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).