Introduction to Hagiography and the Life of St

Medieval Women Mystics &
2/14: Introduction to hagiography;
St. Margaret & virgin-martyr legends
Saints’ lives tradition
Hagios “holy” + graph “writing”
= writing of saints’ lives
The life of Christ provides the
model for the saint who follow
his path.
Christ (& saints) = exemplary
Literary features of hagiography
Saints’ lives:
• Are highly structured and formulaic
• Often begin with etymology and allegoresis
• May include historical detail (even if the saint
is unhistorical)
• Feature eye-witness testimonies of healing
miracles, incorruptible bodies, and even
“victorious” martyrdoms leading to mass
The Body of the Saint
• Suffers (asceticism or
torture) but gains spiritual
• Bridges physical & spiritual
• Has healing and intercessory power, through relics
• Is present in the saint’s passio
The virgin-martyr legends
“For marriage has its reward thirtyfold in heaven; widowhood,
sixtyfold; virginity, with a hundredfold, surpasses both.”
- Holy Virginity
Church doctrine supported virginity
as the better, more reasonable
• Paul (1 Cor 7: 9): “for it is better
to marry than to burn.”
• Jerome (4th c.): “the command to
increase and multiply is fulfilled
after the expulsion from
Virginity as the answer to the problem
of the female body
Medieval physiology held that
women’s bodies, compared to
men’s, were:
• weaker
• less efficient
• more out-of-control
• more imbalanced.
Humoral physiology also claimed
women’s bodies were more
subject to lust, and compromised
in their ability to reason .
A medieval women’s book club: The Katherine
Group & the Life of St. Margaret
• A single group of religious prose works written in
the West Midlands of England (c. 1190-1230).
• Saint Margaret and its "sister-legends“: St.
Katherine of Alexandria and St. Juliana of
• Includes a letter on virginity, Hali Meithhad (Holy
Virginity), and an allegory on the custody of the
soul, Sawles Warde.
• Larger manuscript includes the Ancrene Wisse, a
guidebook for female recluses, enclosed for life in
a cell attached to the wall of the church.
Similarities between the legends of
Margaret, Katherine & Juliana
• Set during Diocletian persecutions, early 4th century in Asia Minor
• All legendary (Margaret entirely, expunged from Roman Calendar of
Saints in 1969)
• “Brides of Christ”
• High born to pagan families alienated by parental deaths or conflict
• Interrogated and tortured by tyrants who try to get them to
abandon their virginity and their faith
• Juliana and Katherine face torture on a wheel
• Margaret and Juliana interrogate demons
• All experience extreme bodily violence
• Beheaded in accordance with Roman law, receive martyr’s crown
St. Margaret: the setup
• Margaret - born in Antioch (Syria),
raised in the country. Tends sheep
and hears about Christian martyrs.
• Theodosius – Margaret’s father and
prince of Antioch.
• Teochimus – narrator and learned
witness to Margaret’s martyrdom
• Olibrius - the “Devil’s own
offspring,” an idol worshiper and
governor of lands that include
The conflict
• Olibrius is “dazzled by the beauty of her face
and figure.” What does he offer Margaret? She
responds with some interesting language.
• When he asks, “Do you love and believe in a
man who suffered wretchedly and died on a
cross?” Margaret reframes the question using
inverse logic.
• Olibrious becomes furious—and so it begins…
Margaret’s imprisonment &
• “Maiden, relent and take pity
on yourself. Think of your youth
and your comely figure, of your
beautiful face.”
• “Do what I want and worship
my idols and you shall be well
rewarded, more than the
highest in rank in my court,
with all the possessions that I
have in the world.”
• When Olibrius then threatens torture and death, Margaret
responds calmly. Who seems in control here?
Spectacle, torture & violence
• “’Strip her stark naked and hang her up high, and flog her bare
body with biting rods.’ The accursed villains laid on so violently
that her fair skin was broken all over and streamed with blood.”
• Margaret : “If my body is torn apart, my soul will be at peace…”
• Olibrius “angrily ordered that she should be suspended still higher
than before, and that her fair flesh should be ripped and torn with
a sharp sword and with hooks of iron.”
• “While she spoke, she was being so lacerated that neither the
cruel governor nor anyone else there could bear to look at her, so
great was their horror at the torrents of blood that streamed from
• Question: Why all the gratuitous imagery? And what does
Margaret pray for during all of this spectacular violence?
Virgin restraint vs. pagan frenzy
• The virgin’s metaphoric tower
• Olibrius: “heathen dog,” “loathsome fiend,”
“raging lion”
• Margaret’s contemptus mundi vs. Olibrius’ fury
• She asks God to protect her: “guard my
virginity inviolate for yourself, my soul against
sin, my reason and wisdom against senseless
• Her intact body (virginity) || her intact mind
(reason, unsullied by sin) || her intact faith
• The medieval head/body analogy
• Margaret prays to see “the wicked devil who is
waging war against me.”
The Dragon
• This exciting passage
in the legend may
have helped its
• Read about the
“gilded” dragon and
the threats and
temptations it
Another depiction
of St. Margaret and
the dragon
The hellmouth
Dragon swallows Margaret
…is this an image of:
• The hellmouth (into
which she later casts
another demon)
• A sexual threat (we later
learn the dragon was
trying to attack the
virtue of her virginity)
• Birth (Copies of
Margaret’s legend given
to pregnant women in
the form of amulets)
Demon confessions
• Margaret vanquishes the dragon with the sign of the
cross, then roughs up a second demon
• After a sign from heaven, Margaret begins the inquisition
• The demon reveals his secrets: pursuit of the chaste
through conversations about love of God, how the fire of
love overcomes reason, how one can sin while sleeping!
• Weapons to fight the demon
• Read: “Margaret, maiden, what will become of me? My
weapons—alas!...” Why is she best suited to have this
• Demonology 101: the nature and habits of demons
Mass conversions & martyrdoms
• After Margaret casts the demon back into hell it’s
back to torture, and everyone in town comes out
to see it.
• Burning for God: Read section in which Margaret
is hung up and burned – how does Margaret
reframe this scene?
• Holy bath: Olibrius’ vessel of water = baptism.
• Earthquake (cf. Christ’s Passion), martyr’s crown
• Mass conversion and martyrdom (St. Augustine
considers martyrdom a “baptism of blood” that
gave remission of all sins).
The final prayers
• Margaret’s prayers : “whoever writes a book on
my life, or acquires it when written, or whoever
has it most often in hand, or whoever reads it
aloud or with good will listens to the reader, may
all have their sins forgiven at once, ruler of
• What else are we told you can do to get her to
intercede on your behalf?
• Saintly relics: her body, bones and even a book
dedicated to her life will be able to heal a man’s
An execution or wedding?
• The dove/Holy Spirit bids her: “Come now, for I
am waiting for you, bride to your bridegroom.
Come, beloved, to your life; I long for you to
come. The brightest chamber is ready; beloved,
hasten to me. Come now to my kingdom, leave
that lowly race, and you will rule with me all that
I possess.” What inverse logic is operating here?
• Margaret tells her executioner, Malchus, to carry
out his work.
• Mass conversions and healings; angels singing.
Margaret’s body
• Teochimus bears her body away to the city of
Antioch to her grandmother’s house. He also
claims eye-witness account to everything and
says he wrote everything down.
• Margaret dies on July 20th
• End of the saint’s life we read that the
audience is a listening audience, which makes
sense, given the alliterative nature of the text.
Some Questions
• The extreme violence in Margaret’s legend may
be surprising in a religious text, some of which
seems to be sexualized violence. Why do you
think all this is necessary to the saint’s life?
• Margaret is a rather flat, non-developing
character in her life story, and even the imagery
of violence and torture directed towards her by
both the tyrant Olibrius and her demonic
enemies are not very different from other virgin
saint’s lives (e.g., Katherine; Juliana). Why do you
think this is so?

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