Katherine of Alexandria: Introduction

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Katherine of Alexandria: Introduction

Although her legend would place Katherine's martyrdom in the early fourth century, she is not mentioned in any document written before the ninth or tenth century, when the earliest known accounts of her life appeared in Greek. Given the long gap, modern authorities have concluded not only that the legend is fictitious, but that the saint herself may never have existed. Her name, which comes from the Greek katharos, "pure," is suspiciously apt for a virgin martyr, raising the possibility that her legend (like that of Christopher, "Christ-bearer") may have originated as an allegory. Her feast - along with those of some other favorite medieval saints, including Christopher and Margaret - was abolished by the Vatican in 1969.

The main center of Katherine's cult in the Middle Ages was an Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, which claimed to have acquired her tomb and her relics by miraculous means. Since Katherine's tomb exuded an oil with healing powers that could be sold to pilgrims, it became a major source of fame and revenue for the monastery - aided by the advertisements for this pilgrimage site that ended many retellings of her legend. Some medieval readers were skeptical about the miracles that supposedly occurred at Mount Sinai (see Mirk's account, for example), but the rest of Katherine's legend was widely accepted, and by the end of the Middle Ages she had become one of the most popular saints in Europe. The main impetus for her cult in the west came not from Sinai itself, but from the abbey of the Holy Trinity and Saint Katherine at Rouen, in Normandy, which had acquired some of her relics by the end of the eleventh century. From Normandy, of course, her cult easily spread across the English Channel. Her great subsequent popularity in England is suggested by such facts as these: her name appears in the dedications of 62 medieval English churches, countless side altars, and many parish guilds; at least 56 churches had wall paintings with scenes from her life; and over 170 bells with inscriptions in her honor have survived until recent times. She was also one of the saints most frequently portrayed on church screens, in stained glass windows, and in small works of art for private use.

Katherine's appeal was even broader than Margaret's because her legend cast her in a wide range of roles, inviting different kinds of people to take her as their patron saint. For example, she was considered a suitable patron for aristocratic women because she was a princess who had been brought up to rule a kingdom. She was a good patron for nuns and other women with religious vocations because, like them, she was a consecrated virgin, a faithful bride of Christ. Her courage and outspokenness were clearly important to some exceptional women, including Catherine of Siena and Margery Kempe, who emulated her example when they spoke out against abuses of power in their own society. More surprisingly, she was a favorite patron and role model for (male) university students and preachers, since she was such a brilliant scholar and debater that she had once defeated the arguments of fifty pagan philosophers at once. Her legend also made her an advocate for women with evil husbands, a patron for nursing mothers (because milk flowed from her neck when she was beheaded), and a powerful intercessor for those who invoke her when they are dying or in great need (because of her final prayer and its answer). Since the climactic instrument of torture devised by her persecutor was a diabolical set of wheels, she was often portrayed with a wheel as her emblem - with the paradoxical result that she even became the patron saint of wheelwrights, millers, and other craftsmen who worked with wheels.

Because Katherine served so many different purposes for various subgroups within medieval society, retellings of her legend vary enormously in their emphases. The eloquent and theologically learned speeches with which she converts the philosophers, for example, might be illustrated at length in retellings for clerics but were usually minimized for lay audiences - especially when it was feared that such audiences might try to imitate her, violating the rules against any public preaching by women or laymen. Some retellings for the laity skip most of the dialogue and concentrate on the most entertaining aspects of the story, including all the failures and reversals that drive Katherine's persecutor to the brink of insanity. More ambitious retellings for laymen and women, on the other hand, often emphasize the prayers and private visions that show the mutually loving relationship between Katherine and Christ. In some late-medieval versions (not including the three given here) this theme was greatly elaborated by adding a long introductory narrative that explained how she had converted to Christianity in her youth, rejected all earthly suitors, and entered into a mystical marriage to Christ.

Like the stanzaic Lives of Mary Magdalen and Margaret, the anonymous stanzaic Life of Katherine was probably composed during the thirteenth century, in part as an answer to the popularity of secular romances. Although Auchinleck (National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, c.1330) is the earliest of the three surviving manuscripts, only Gonville and Caius MS 175/96 (c. 1400), the one edited here, gives the complete text. One noteworthy feature of this version is the way it emphasizes the enlightenment and courage of Katherine's converts. Like Katherine herself, the converts are all shown as choosing to serve God instead of the tyrannical emperor, no matter what earthly rewards the emperor promises or what dire physical punishments he inflicts. There is a good deal of comedy here too, with Katherine and the converts given some wonderfully bold speeches of defiance against the emperor, who practically melts down in his impotent rage against them. But the text clearly invites its audience to follow Katherine's example instead of just enjoying the story and remembering the final promises of intercession.

Mirk's sermon offers a fairly detailed summary of the legend which shows Katherine's own courage and allegiance to God but otherwise differs quite noticeably from the emphases of the stanzaic Life. Katherine's converts receive relatively little space, and the confrontations with the emperor are all so muted and discreet that not even Katherine herself sounds like a rebel against his authority. Mirk's selectivity at the end of the sermon is more interesting still. He says not a word about Katherine's final prayer and its answer, which were usually stressed because they provided a strong incentive to call on her as an intercessor, but substitutes an exemplum that seems designed just to encourage faithfulness in observing her feast day. Some manuscripts of Mirk's sermon cycle also include an account of miracles at Mount Sinai (inserted here in brackets) which departs significantly from the more usual promises of healing at Katherine's tomb.

The brief chapter from the Speculum Sacerdotale retells most of the legend as briefly and efficiently as possible, but singles out two parts for detailed presentation: the design of the wheels (the visual emblem that generally served to identify Katherine) and her final prayer and its answer. There is not much ambiguity about the purposes of this account, then. It does not encourage its readers or listeners to imitate Katherine in any way, but only to understand and remember her emblem and rely on her as an intercessor.

Go To Stanzaic Life of Katherine
Select Bibliography

Indexed in

[stanzaic Life] Brown-Robbins, #1158 and #1159.


[stanzaic Life]Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge MS 175/96, pp. 107-118.

[Mirk] London, British Library MS Cotton Claudius A.ii, fols. 116r-117r.

[Spec. Sac.]London, British Library MS Additional 36791, fols. 137r-137v.

Previous editions

Stanzaic Life

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden. Neue Folge, mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. 1881. Pp. 242-59.

Mirk, John. Mirk's Festial. Ed. Theodor Erbe. EETS e.s. 96. 1905. Pp. 275-77.

Speculum Sacerdotale
Weatherly, Edward H., ed. Speculum Sacerdotale. EETS o.s. 200. 1936. Pp. 243-44.

Important sources and analogues in English

Bokenham, Osbern. Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Ed. Mary S. Serjeantson. EETS o.s. 206. 1938. Pp. 172-201.

Capgrave, John. Life of Saint Katherine. Ed. Karen A. Winstead. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999.

Clemence of Barking. "Life of Saint Catherine." In Wogan-Browne and Burgess, Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths. Pp. 3-43

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Trans. William Granger Ryan. 1993. Vol. 2, pp. 334-41.

"The Life of Saint Katherine" Ed. and trans. Karen A. Winstead. [Early fifteenth-century prose version from Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Richardson 44.] In Winstead, Chaste Passions. Pp. 115-63. [Modern English translation.] Pp. 184-201. [Original Middle English version of chs. 1-9.]

St. Katherine of Alexandria: The Late Middle English Prose Legend in Southwell Minster MS 7. Ed. Saara Nevanlinna and Irma Taavitsainen. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

Savage, Anne, and Nicholas Watson, trans. and intro. Anchoritic Spirituality: Ancrene Wisse and Associated Works. 1991. Pp. 259-84. [Modern English translation of the early thirteenth-century prose Seinte Katerine.]

Seinte Katerine. Ed. S. R. T. O. d'Ardenne and E. J. Dobson. EETS s.s. 7. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. [Early thirteenth-century version in alliterative prose. Includes an edition of the Vulgate Latin Life, pp. 132-203.]

Historical background and criticism

Görlach, Manfred. "The Auchinleck Katerine." In So Meny People Longages and Tonges: Philological essays in Scots and mediaeval English presented to Angus McIntosh. Ed. Michael Benskin and M. L. Samuels. Edinburgh: Middle English Dialect Project, 1981. Pp. 211-27.

Jenkins, Jacqueline. "Popular Devotion and the Legend of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England." Ph.D. Diss. University of Western Ontario, 1996.

Jones, Charles W. "The Norman Cults of Sts. Catherine and Nicholas, saec. xi." In Hommages à André Boutemy. Ed. Guy Cambier. Collection Latomus 145. Brussels: Latomus, 1976. Rpt. in Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Pp. 144-54.

Kurvinen, Auvo. "The Life of St. Catharine of Alexandria in Middle English Prose." D.Phil Diss. University of Oxford, 1960.

Lewis, Katherine J. The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2000.

Winstead, Karen A. Virgin Martyrs. 1997. Pp. 15-18, 147-77, et passim.