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: <http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/winstead-capgrave-life-of-saint-katherine-prologue>
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.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print.