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Introduction to the Katherine Group


1 Tolkien, “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad.” Tolkien was not the first to notice Bodley 34 or to connect its existence to the then better-known Ancrene Wisse. Hall first published two Bodley 34 texts (Sawles Warde and Þe Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Juliene) in his two-volume Selections of Early Middle English in 1920.

2 With the exception of Hali Meiðhad, we follow the titles as they appear in the manuscript itself. However, in the interest of brevity in the explanatory and textual notes, we have abbreviated the titles to, respectively, SK, SM, SJ, HM, and SW.

3 See Dobson’s discussion of the Katherine Group in Origins of Ancrene Wisse, especially pp. 163–66, as well as his edition with d’Ardenne, Seinte Katerine: Re-Edited from MS Bodley 34 and the other Manuscripts.

4 See Millett’s introduction to her edition of Ancrene Wisse, Vol. 2, pp. ix–lvii.

5 Cazelles, “Introduction,” p. 2. See this anthology, Images of Sainthood, edited by Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Szell, for studies of some of the varied ways saints might be understood in high and late-medieval Europe.

6 See Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, as well as Simpson’s discussion of some of the motives of the authors of late medieval and early modern saints’ lives in “Moving Images.” For a discussion of the model of virginity provided by the lives in the Katherine Group, see Wogan-Browne’s “Chaste Bodies” and Saints’ Lives and Women’s Literary Culture.

7 See Robertson’s discussion of the Bodley 34 saints’ lives in Early English Devotional Prose, pp. 94–125.

8 An early dynamic presentation on the topic was given by Szell at the Modern Language Association Meetings in the early 1990s, but unfortunately that presentation which was far ahead of its time in its detailed analysis of the functions of torture was never developed for publication. See the more recent essay by Lewis, “‘Lete me suffer.’”

9 See Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose; Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast; and Lochrie, Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh.

10 See Salih, “Performing Virginity,” p. 97, as well as Chewning’s discussion of the fluidity of gender in the Wooing Group in her “The Paradox of Virginity.” Virginity is a complex term in the early periods and will be addressed in Margaret Ferguson’s forthcoming book on the hymen, Hymens: Sites of Fantasy and Doubt. One of the earliest book-length treatments of the topic on these works is Bugge’s still useful study, Virginitas: An Essay on the History of a Medieval Idea. For two general discussions of virginity in the Middle Ages, see Wogan-Browne, “Chaste Bodies,” and her “Virgin’s Tale.” For a discussion of the ambiguity of virginity as both “mark” and “seal,” see Bernau, “Virginal Effects.” For a full-length study of virginity, see Kelly, Performing Virginity and Salih, Versions of Virginity. See also the collection of essays on virginity in a variety of medieval works, Medieval Virginities, edited by Bernau, Evans and Salih.

11 Several recent works of scholarship attest to the enormous cultural importance of the St. Katherine legend throughout Europe, and especially in England. See, for example, Walsh, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe; and Lewis, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. A later medieval English account of her life, which emphasizes the story of her youth, is John Capgrave’s Life of St. Katherine, translated by Winstead.

12 d’Ardenne and Dobson, eds., Seinte Katerine, pp. xxvi–xxxiv.

13 For a discussion of the relationship between the cults of St. Margaret and St. Marina, see Larson, “The Role of Patronage.”

14 The surviving English versions of her life are in London, British Library MS Cotton Tiberius A III and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 303. A third version of her life existed in British Library MS Cotton Otho B X, which was mostly destroyed in the Cotton library fire of 1731. See Clayton and Magennis, The Old English Lives of St. Margaret, pp. 84–96.

15 Mack, Seinte Marherete, p. ix.

16 In the Old English lives, Teochimus not only observes Margaret’s passion, but also fosters her earlier on in the story. On Teochimus’s role in Margaret’s narrative, see Mack, Seinte Marherete, pp. 58–59n4/4.

17 Dendle (“Pain and Saint-Making,” pp. 48–49) points out that Margaret’s encounters with the dragon and the fiend suggest “a two-stage process of spiritual initiation in which Margaret confronts the untamed forces of both her body and her mind, of soma and psyche.”

18 Quoted by Mack, Seinte Marherete, p. xi; translation ours.

19 The South English Legendary, ed. D’Evelyn and Mill, p. 297, lines 165–68; translation ours.

20 See Celletti, “Marina (Margherita), santa, martire,” and Weitzmann-Fiedler, “Zur Illustration der Margaretenlegende,” cited in Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, p. 33 n.32.

21 See Mack, Seinte Marherete, p. xi and p. xi n1.

22 See Millett and Wogan-Browne’s discussion of the popularity of the legend in their Medieval English Prose for Women, pp. xxi–xxii.

23 The Martyrologium Hieronymianum was falsely ascribed to St. Jerome. See Martyrologium Vetustissimum PL 30.443na.

24 For a complete list of the existing vernacular versions, see d’Ardenne, ed., Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Iuliene, pp. xx–xxii.

25 See d’Ardenne, Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Iuliene, pp. xvi–xviii. This edition includes the first edited text of this Latin Juliana.

26 The pressure an amorous reeve places on an aspiring anchoress is dramatized in Chris Newby’s 1993 film Anchoress, a work that reflects a number of details about the anchoritic life found in the AB Group.

27 Millett provides a thorough discussion of these sources in her edition of Hali Meithhad, pp. xxiv–xxv. See also Millett’s Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group.

28 See Millett’s introduction to Hali Meithhad, pp. xxx–xxxviii. St. Jerome writes about the tribulations of marriage in his Adversus Jovinianum (which Chaucer’s Wife of Bath so vituperously attacks), and the tradition is extremely popular in eleventh- and twelfth-century writing (see, for example, the Speculum virginum). Millett (p. xxxvii) also points to the work of Hildebert of Lavardin, Osbert of Clare, Alan of Lille, and Peter of Blois.

29 Ælred of Rievaulx, De Institutione Inclusarum, ed. Ayto and Barrett; Aldhelm, De Virginitate; and Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Walsh. Ayto and Barrett identify two Middle English translations of Ælred’s De Institutione, preserved in the Vernon manuscript and Bodley 423. They also discuss De institutione’s well-attested relationship with Ancrene Wisse, but do not mention Hali Meithhad (pp. xxxviii–xliii).

30 For discussions of the significance of this literalization, see Bugge, Virginitas, pp. 87–88; and Robertson, Early English Devotional Prose, pp. 77–93.

31 In “The Order of the Texts,” Mockridge argues that, far from being the most remote of the Bodley 34 texts, Sawles Warde represents “the climactic and key work of the group” (p. 212). She continues: “it seems likely that the compiler realized that by placing Sawles Warde at the end of the manuscript, the other four works in the manuscript would be recalled in the audience’s minds as they heard the lessons imparted by each of the four daughters of God [see footnote 38]. In other words, these cardinal virtues (Vigilance, Strength, Moderation, and Righteousness) can be seen as symbols of the quality that predominates in each of the preceding works” (pp. 213–14). Mockridge’s interesting argument sees Bodley 34 not as a collection of individual works but as a compilation with a single aim: to convince possibly reluctant nuns (daughters of noble families who may have been bequeathed against their will to Wigmore Abbey) to retain their virginity.

32 For a discussion of sermon conventions in Anglo-Saxon England, see Gatch, Preaching and Theology, and more generally for medieval England, Owst, Literature and Pulpit.

33 Cannon notes that while the allegory of the body as fortified castle goes back to Plato’s Timaeus, the extensive use of this imagery in the Katherine Group reflects the authors’ knowledge of Norman and Welsh fortification in the marches; see his Grounds of English Literature, pp. 150–53.

34 We decided to translate Warschipe as “Vigilance,” as opposed to “Prudence,” because the text (as well as its biblical source) emphasizes a specific need for watchfulness against the fiend.

35 Eggebroten, “Sawles Warde: A Retelling of De Anima.”

36 For the Latin text of De custodia, see Southern and Schmitt, eds., Memorials of St. Anselm, pp. 354–60. Savage and Watson point out the likely cause of the mistaken attribution: De custodia was sometimes circulated as the work of Hugh of St. Victor (Anchoritic Spirituality, p. 210). De custodia is now referred to as a “pseudo-Anselmian” work. The identification of the text as the source for Sawles Warde was first made by Dobson, who argued that, most likely, an adaptation of De custodia served as the source both for Hugh’s De anima as well as Sawles Warde (Origins of Ancrene Wisse, pp. 146–54). Wolfgang Becker (“The Source Text of Sawles Warde,” pp. 44–48) expands on Dobson’s argument. It is worth noting that a manuscript containing De custodia, as well as other Anselmian works, resides in Hereford Cathedral Library (Hereford Cathedral MS P.I.1), one of the large religious centers close to where the author of Sawles Warde was most likely writing (Southern and Schmitt, eds., Memorials of St. Anselm, p. 16). In addition to De custodia, P.I.1 contains several well-known texts by Anselm (including Cur Deus homo and De humanis moribus) as well as the De arca Noe by Hugh of St. Victor, and numerous texts by Bernard of Clairvaux. Though the manuscript is dated to the second half of the twelfth century, it is possible that the Sawles Warde author may have had access to either an exemplar of this manuscript or a similar compilation. See Mynors and Thomson, Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Hereford Cathedral Library, pp. 64–65.

37 For an excellent selection of some of the best-known visions, see Gardiner, Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell. According to Gardiner, the Vision of Saint Paul was especially well known and survived in many Latin versions as well as vernaculars (pp. 179–94). Bede’s account of the vision of Drythelm in his Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was another influential early version (pp. 284–89). Of particular note is how many of the staple accounts of the torments of Hell are adapted into visions of Purgatory; see Foster, ed., Three Purgatory Poems.

38 In later Middle English texts the daughters are Mercy, Truth, Justice, and Peace, rather than Vigilance, Strength, Moderation, and Righteousness. Their function differs, as well: in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, N-Town’s “Annunciation Play,” and the Castle of Perseverance, the daughters debate the morality of redeeming humankind. In Sawles Warde, they assist Wit in governing and guarding his household. See Traver’s Four Daughters of God (1907), as well as her later piece “The Four Daughters of God: A Mirror of Changing Doctrine” (1925).

39 For a discussion of the Katherine Group’s relationship to Anglo-Saxon prose writers (especially Ælfric), see Chambers, On the Continuity of English Prose, and Bethurum, “The Connection of the Katherine Group.” Blake, in “Rhythmical Alliteration,” argues that early Middle English texts marked by loose alliterative patterns (as opposed to dense and rhythmically strict Old English poetic alliterative patterns), such as the Ancrene Wisse and Layamon’s Brut, represent a direct link between, respectively, Old English poetry, Old English alliterative prose (such as that of Ælfric and Wulfstan), early Middle English texts, and the poetry of the later so-called Alliterative Revival.

40 See Treharne, Living Through Conquest.

41 See O’Keefe, Visible Song.

42 “Middle English Literary Writings,” p. 383. See Robertson’s discussion of the influence of the anonymous homilies on the Bodley 34 texts in Early English Devotional Prose. For a discussion of the copying of Old English texts in Worcester see “Middle English Literary Writings,” pp. 382–83.

43 See Seinte Margarete 75.1–4, Seinte Juliene 76.1, and Sawles Warde, 51–59.

44 Early editions that printed the Katherine Group texts as poetry include Morton’s 1841 edition of The Legend of St. Katherine of Alexandria, Einenkel’s 1884 edition of The Life of St. Katherine, and Wagner’s 1908 edition of Sawles Warde.

45 Millett, “The Saints’ Lives of the Katherine Group,” p. 32.

46 For the Ancrene Wisse, see Millett’s 2005 EETS edition of the text. This edition draws on the uncompleted edition by Dobson, with a glossary and additional notes by Richard Dance. See also Hasenfratz’s 2000 edition of Ancrene Wisse.

47 Ancrene Wisse, ed. Hasenfratz, p. 261, lines 795–96.

48 Stevens, “Titles of ‘MSS AB,’” p. 443.

49 See Millett’s discussion of the dissemination of the text in her edition of the Ancrene Wisse (2006), 2:ix–lvii.

50 On the fairly extensive lay audience of the Ancrene Wisse, see Robertson, “This Living Hand,” especially pp. 5–6.

51 Ancrene Wisse, ed. Hasenfratz, p. 60, lines 12–13 and lines 23–24.

52 These are the titles Savage and Watson, Anchoritic Spirituality, give to Books 2–7. Books 1 and 8 are labeled, respectively, “Devotions” and “The Outer Rule.” See pp. 43–44, for further discussion of the Ancrene Wisse’s structure.

53 For an edition of the full Wooing Group, see Þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd, ed. Thompson. For a recent collection of essays on the Wooing Group, see Chewning, ed., The Milieu and Context of the Wooing Group.

54 Wohunge, ed. Thompson, p. xix.

55 See p. 34 of Hasenfratz’s introduction to his edition of Ancrene Wisse for a chart illustrating the overlapping texts in the AB manuscript tradition. See also Millett’s Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wooing Group, pp. 49–61, for an extensive description and history of scholarship of each of the manuscripts.

56 See Einenkel, “Eine Englische Schriftstellerin.” Dobson strongly rebuts Einenkel’s claim: “I cannot accept the suggestion, made by Einenkel and supported by Professor Thompson . . . that this group was written by a woman. I do not know how one distinguishes a woman’s writing from a man’s unless there is some specific reference; allowing for the special stylistic demands of this prose-poetry genre and of this type of perfervid devotion, I cannot see any essential difference between the prose meditations and passages of comparable theme in Ancrene Wisse. And it seems perverse to me to suppose that ‘my dear sister’ is a form of address from a man to a woman in Ancrene Wisse, but from one woman to another in Þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd; of course it could be, but there is no evidence that it is. The hypothesis seems merely fanciful” (Origins of Ancrene Wisse, p. 154). It is extremely difficult to identify the gender of authors when their names are hidden under the cloud of anonymity. While no one has yet suggested that the Ancrene Wisse was written by a woman, Anne Savage has recently suggested the three women to whom the Ancrene Wisse was addressed co-authored the work. See Savage, “The Communal Authorship of the Ancrene Wisse.”

57 Wohunge, ed. Thompson, p. xxiv.

58 Seinte Iuliene, ed. d’Ardenne, p. xliii.

59 Millett, “The Audience of the Saints’ Lives,” p. 133.

60 On female literacy in the post-Conquest period, see Millett, “Woman in No Man’s Land,” and Robertson, “This Living Hand.” It is important to note that while the audience of the Katherine Group probably did not know Latin, they may very well have been able to read and/or write in English and French. Robertson points out that “unlike preconquest England, where men and women apparently had similar direct access to texts that articulated the intellectual life, there was a hierarchy of languages in this period, one shaped by the different needs and circumstances of male and female readers” (“This Living Hand,” p. 23). For the relationship between women and their male advisors, see Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers.

61 “This Living Hand,” p. 3. On the triangulated reading process, see pp. 26 ff.

62 See Savage and Watson, Anchoritic Spirituality.

63 See d’Ardenne’s summary of Tolkien’s important argument in Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Iuliene, p. xxvii.

64 Numerous studies have examined the phonological and orthographic differences (subtle as they are) between the manuscripts of the Ancrene Wisse as well as the Wooing Group. See in particular Thompson’s helpful discussion of language, phonology, and dialect, particularly as it is distinguished among the AB manuscripts (Wohunge of Ure Lauerde, pp. xxx–lxi). Laing and McIntosh, Black, and Smith have urged caution about the designation of AB, persuasively arguing that the language of B is neither uniformly orthographically consistent with A, nor in relationship to A exhibiting the four characteristics that indicate the existence of a standard language. See Laing and McIntosh, “The Language of Ancrene Riwle”; Black, “AB or Simply A?”; and J. Smith, “Standard Language.”

65 Dobson provides the fullest argument for the existence of such a center in Origins. For a succinct reassertion of the argument see Blake, History of the English Language, pp. 129–31. Today’s scholars prefer to assert a wider geographical locale of origin in the West Midlands and keep open the possibility of numerous locations of literary production in the area and are wary of the idea of a single center of literary production.

66 The Titus D XVIII scribe is thought to have worked in a West Midland religious house influenced by the AB dialect; his dialect is close to but distinct from the AB dialect found in Bodley 34’s texts. See d’Ardenne and Dobson’s introduction to their edition of Seinte Katerine, pp. xl–xli.

67 While many of the words in the Katherine Group originate from just one of these languages, de Caluwé-Dor also suggests the possibility of “etymological convergence” in the texts. Some words, that is, may possibly have derived simultaneously from several languages. De Caluwé-Dor’s example is tevelin (from Katherine), meaning “to argue.” Tevelin is rooted in Old English tæfl(i)an, Old Norse tefla, and Old French tables/taubles (“Etymological Convergence,” p. 212).

68 See Black, “AB or Simply A?,” Smith, “Standard Language,” and Laing and McIntosh, “The Language of Ancrene Riwle.”

69 Hanna, “Lambeth Palace Library MS 487,” p. 87.

70 Scholars less sure that the original texts used the AB dialect include Benskin and Laing, “Translations and Mischsprachen”; Hornero Corisco, “An Analysis of the Object Position”; and, much earlier, James R. Hulbert, “A Thirteenth-Century English Literary Standard.” Hulbert developed Tolkien’s original claim, arguing that “the best explanation of the language of A and B is that it is a standard form, accurately followed by A and B, approximately by a number of other scribes” (p. 414). It is worth noting that Tolkien described AB only in reference to the manuscripts Bodley 34 and the Corpus manuscript of Ancrene Wisse.

71 Seinte Katerine, ed. d’Ardenne and Dobson, p. xxxviii.

72 Hali Meithhad and the Ancrene Wisse are comparable on a lexical level as well. Clark’s 1966 study of French-derived vocabulary in the Katherine Group found that Hali Meithhad, of all the texts in the group, has the highest percentage of French-derived words (6.3%), closest to that of the Ancrene Wisse (10.7%); see Clark, “Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group.” For a discussion of the French-derived vocabulary of the Katherine Group, see Bately, “On Some Aspects of the Vocabulary of the West Midlands,” especially pp. 66–77. Bately notes that, of the Katherine Group, Hali Meithhad and Sawles Warde have a significantly higher percentage of French-derived words than the saints’ lives, although the latter include many vocabulary words not present in Hali Meithhad and Sawles Warde (p. 77).

73 Ancrene Wisse, ed. Hasenfratz, p. 261, line 796. See also the more detailed discussion above (p. 12) of the Ancrene Wisse’s relationship to the Katherine Group.

74 See d’Ardenne’s introduction to her edition Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Iuliene, p. xliii.

75 Thompson, Women Religious, p. 34 n126.

76 Dobson, Origins of Ancrene Wisse, pp. 174–368. Although he made the most elaborate and best-researched case for the Herefordshire provenance of the AB Group, Dobson was not the first to investigate the issue. For an overview of readings prior to Origins, see Dahood, “Ancrene Wisse, the Katherine Group, and the Wohunge Group,” pp. 8–11. For a succinct summary of arguments for the existence of such a center, see Blake, History of the English Language, pp. 129–31.

77 Millett, “New Answers, New Questions,” p. 220.

78 Cannon, Grounds of English Literature, p. 143; see especially Chapter 5 (pp. 139–71) for a rich discussion of castles, warfare, and defensive imagery throughout the AB Group texts (particularly on notions of the body as fortification against violence, both physical and psychological).

79 Millett quotes a private letter she received from Jeremy Smith in 1991 (“New Answers, New Questions,” p. 224n15). On the basis of preliminary philological analysis, Smith supported a localization for the AB language in Herefordshire “or the southern tip of Salop [Shropshire].”

80 For a recent discussion of the impact of the Norman Conquest on literature in England, see Cannon, Grounds of English Literature, pp. 17–49. For a discussion of the relationship between French, Latin, and English literary production in this period and locale, see Millett, “The Audience of the Saints’ Lives,” pp. 146–47. On the relationship between the Scandinavian vocabulary of the Katherine Group and the development of early Middle English, see De Caluwé–Dor, “The Chronology of the Scandinavian Loan-Verbs.”

81 Millett, “Woman in No Man’s Land,” p. 99.

82 The first book-length study of the Katherine Group alone is Hassel’s 2002 Choosing Not to Marry.

83 Hanna in private correspondence.

84 Seinte Marherete, ed. Mack, pp. xiv–xvi. Readers interested in a comprehensive examination of these revisions should consult Furuskog’s “A Collation of the Katherine Group,” especially pp. 134–43 on Margaret.

85 For details on these sixteenth-century additions, especially about the Herefordshire families that may be related to the men mentioned in Bodley 34, see Ker, Facsimile of MS Bodley 34, pp. xiii–xv. He speculates that the additions were most likely made when the manuscript was located in a lawyer’s office in northern Herefordshire. For the sixteenth-century poem, see the explanatory note to Seinte Juliene, 76.1.
Since 1929, when J. R. R. Tolkien brought our attention to Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34, the importance of this manuscript has been widely recognized.1 For philologists, it preserves evidence of the linguistic transition between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century Middle English. For literary scholars, it offers some of the few innovative pieces of literature written in English in the first centuries after the Norman Conquest. For cultural studies critics and feminist scholars, it provides rare insight into the history of female literacy and the nature of the female spiritual life in late twelfth and early thirteenth-century England.

Measuring roughly five by seven inches, Bodley 34 is a modest, unadorned manuscript that could easily be held in one’s hand. Its eighty folios contain: The Martyrdom of Sancte Katerine (The Martyrdom of Saint Katherine); The Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Margarete (The Life and Passion of Saint Margaret); The Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Juliene (The Life and Passion of Saint Juliana); Hali Meithhad (Holy Maidenhood); and a sermon on the soul called Sawles Warde (The Guardianship of the Soul).2 Collectively, these texts are known as the Katherine Group, after the first of its texts.3 The manuscript was created in the first quarter of the thirteenth-century (according to E. J. Dobson, roughly 1225).

Produced in an area of Scandinavian settlement on the Welsh marches, far from metropolitan and regal centers, the Katherine Group texts mark a borderland that is not only geographical, but also intellectual and temporal. They were designed to cater to the needs of a predominantly English-reading audience, yet the authors’ proximity to prominent religious establishments such as Hereford Cathedral and Wigmore Abbey allowed them to draw on the latest theological developments. In their use of a strong two-beat alliterative rhythm, the texts hearken back to great Anglo-Saxon prose writers such as Ælfric, Wulfstan, and the anonymous homilists. Yet they also drew heavily on the rhetorical resources of the continental Latin tradition. A density of startlingly quotidian detail, some taken from and some added to these sources, enlivens these heterogeneous texts.

Although all of Bodley 34’s texts are closely related to a Latin source or sources, each was chosen and recast in its own distinctive way to highlight the virtues of the virgin life for women. Tolkien established the Katherine Group’s close relationship to another work also important as a witness to female spirituality, the Ancrene Wisse or Guide for Anchoresses. (Anchoresses were female recluses who, having chosen to devote their lives to the contemplation of Christ, allowed themselves to be bricked into a small room or a few rooms, usually on the side of a church.) The Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse, along with a set of prayers known as the Wooing Group, share not only their interest in female spiritual experience but also closely related dialects and a common geographical region of origin, for both original texts and surviving manuscripts. Collectively, these texts are known, following Bella Millett’s recent appellation, as the AB Group.4 This set of mutually reinforcing and influential compositions apparently derived from what in ideological and linguistic terms might be called a discourse community.

In what follows, we review the contents of Bodley 34 and assess its affinity to the Ancrene Wisse and the Wooing Group. We then discuss the possible audience of the AB Group and situate them within their cultural, linguistic, and codicological context. We close with comments on the manuscript and on this edition.


Bodley 34 begins with the three saints’ lives, all of which affirm the triumph of virginity over the enticements and threats of material wealth and power. The stories are particularly appealing for the passion, fortitude, and intelligence of their heroines. One of the most popular forms of writing during the medieval period, saints’ lives were composed in Latin and Greek, as well as in every European vernacular. Cults of the saints sprang up throughout Europe. The saints interested medieval people both as exemplary Christians, after whom they might model their own lives, and as remarkable individuals. The popularity of the genre for the purposes of both edification and entertainment is attested by the many surviving copies of collections such as Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden legends; c. 1258) and the South English Legendary (late thirteenth century).

Saints could be hermits, soldiers, ascetics, or martyrs (often young women or men, determined to make their Christian way apart from the demands of their pagan parents), and their stories served many discursive and social uses. However, as one scholar has claimed, martyrdom was “the most popular type of saintly achievement,” despite the fact that (or perhaps even because) the prospect of dying for the faith became increasingly rare for most medieval readers.5 The most common martyrdom stories concerned early Christian saints who were persecuted, tortured, and killed for their beliefs. However, beginning with the lives of the desert fathers a new kind of martyrdom emerged: spiritual martyrdom, whereby a Christian could, through dedication to a life of asceticism, deprivation, and solitude, achieve a higher form of Christ-like living than if he or she were living in a community. These two types of martyrdom are crucial in a reading of the Bodley 34 saints’ lives. These stories were written about literal martyrs (Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana were all tortured and killed for their faith) but most likely for spiritual martyrs, that is, for female contemplatives such as anchoresses.

The function of saints’ lives in specific times and places has yet to be explored fully. Karen A. Winstead has helped to identify shifting thematic trends as the genre changed from texts directed primarily at monastic or devotional religious audiences (Anglo-Saxon period to the thirteenth century), to texts expressing clerical anxiety about an educated lay public (from c. 1250 on), and finally to texts addressing lay concerns about estates, property, and possessions (fifteenth century).6 More detailed work on the function of saints’ lives during specific periods in the Middle Ages, however, remains to be done.

Englishmen and women of the thirteenth century enjoyed reading the lives of both male and female saints, whether the protagonists were of local origin (e.g., the early English saints Cuthbert and Aethelthryth) or historically and geographically remote (e.g., the fourth-century Juliana of Nicomedia), or even of doubtful historical existence. In their depictions of young, female virgins choosing to remain faithful to Jesus as their beloved, despite increasingly vicious tortures, Bodley 34’s saints’ lives clearly had specific resonance for young female readers. Each life offers a different view of female achievement: St. Katherine’s celebrates her intellectual skills; St. Margaret’s, her physical endurance; and St. Juliana’s, her spiritual discernment.7

One striking feature of all three of the Katherine Group’s saints’ lives is that the women undergo extreme torture. The function of torture in the articulation of a female saint’s piety has been the subject of some critical debate.8 Elizabeth Robertson, Carolyn Walker Bynum, and Karma Lochrie agree that the association of women with the body or with flesh that must be tamed governs female piety.9 Sarah Salih develops that scholarly consensus by arguing that although female sanctity was especially associated with corporeality, the “performance” of virginity allowed the female saints to “successfully redefine their bodies and identities as not feminine but virgin.”10 Virginity, in Salih’s view, effectively creates a third gender.


The story of St. Katherine of Alexandria is legendary rather than historical. Nonetheless, she was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Supposedly martyred in the fourth-century, she is not mentioned until the ninth, when her cult developed and spread widely.11 Sixty-two churches were dedicated to her in England alone. Versions of her story appeared in many languages, and the story of her torture on a wheel inspired innumerable artistic representations, even though it seems to have been a late addition to the legend. Katherine’s feast was on 25 November, but because the historical evidence for her existence is doubtful, her cult was suppressed in 1969.

The legend occurs in two parts: the life, which tells of Katherine’s youthful training and early saintly exploits; and the passion, the story of her martyrdom. Bodley 34’s account gives only the passion. Some scholars claim that the English text is based on the Latin “Shorter Vulgate” version, which was written in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Simone d’Ardenne and E. J. Dobson, however, feel that Bodley 34 and the Shorter Vulgate both derived from a common source, an abbreviated version of the longer and very popular Latin passio.12

After briefly identifying Katherine as the daughter of King Cost, and explaining that she was born and raised in Alexandria, Bodley 34 cuts to the story of her life as an adult. Maxence becomes emperor of Alexandria and demands that all the people sacrifice to heathen idols. Katherine objects and urges Maxence to convert. Enraged, he calls together fifty philosophers to argue with her. She explains to them the mystery of the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Christ, and both her speech and her example inspire them to convert. This intense dispute, which involves matters of Christological detail established in some of the earliest Christian councils and reasserted in Anselm’s influential twelfth-century Cur Deus Homo (Why God became Man), emphasizes Katherine’s remarkable powers of intellect. The argument with the fifty philosophers also echoes the scholastic method of disputatio then emerging in the universities — even though women were excluded from academic education.

Maxence’s queen, Augusta, and his chief knight, Porphirius, also convert. Maxence inflicts vicious tortures on Augusta and has her beheaded. After Porphirius admits to burying Augusta, he and a large retinue of his knights who have also converted are beheaded. Katherine is tortured on a wheel, which bursts apart after she prays for help. The wheel fails to destroy or intimidate the saint who is, finally, beheaded. Blood and milk flow from her wounds, and angels miraculously carry her body away to Mount Sion and bury it.


Although all three of the saints whose legends appear in Bodley 34 were well known throughout the Middle Ages, the story of St. Margaret (called St. Marina in the Greek church) may be the most popular.13 Her vita is preserved in various forms throughout Europe. If Margaret was a historical person — which is not definite, although she remains on the Catholic calendar — she and her martyrdom date from fourth-century Antioch (near the modern city of Antakya in Turkey), during the persecutions of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. One of the earliest references to her occurs in a ninth-century Latin martyrology.

Churches throughout Europe and England are dedicated to Margaret, in particular the Church of St. Margaret of Westminster, reputed to have been founded by Edward the Confessor. Her popularity in England is further attested by the existence of at least three Anglo-Saxon lives, two of which are still extant.14 Frances Mack asserts that these versions are “the oldest renderings in the vernacular in any European literature.”15 Given that there were many Latin and Anglo-Norman versions in England as well, it is difficult to specify the basis of the Katherine Group’s Margaret.

This story is told as an eyewitness account by Teochimus, a fictional narrator who observes Margaret’s persecutions, feeds her in prison, and later buries her body.16 Fostered in Antioch, Margaret as a young woman attracts the attention of Olibrius, the town’s governor or reeve (manorial supervisor), who desires her as a lover or wife. When she refuses him and scorns his heathen idols, he demands that she pay homage to them. She defies his command, and he has her thrown into a dark dungeon. There she prays that she might meet the devil face to face, and soon is confronted with the devil in the form of a dragon. The dragon swallows her whole, but when she makes the sign of the Cross, she bursts from the dragon’s belly unharmed.

Margaret then sees the dragon’s brother, another devil, bound in a corner of her prison. She interrogates him, and he confesses in psychologically rich detail his methods for tempting even the seemingly most spotless men and women.17 Fetched from prison and still refusing to pray to Olibrius’ idols, Margaret is first burned, and then thrown into a vat of water, from which she emerges unscathed. Finally, after promising to aid anyone who prays in her name — especially women in labor — she is beheaded.

Margaret’s encounter with the dragon was considered by some hagiographers too fanciful to include in her legend. Jacobus de Voragine, in introducing the story of Margaret, wrote: “istud autem quod dicitur de draconis devoratione et ipsius crepatione, apocryphum et frivolum reputantur” (moreover that which is said about the dragon’s devouring and about his explosion is thought to be apocryphal and frivolous).18 The South English Legendary also expresses some skepticism:
Ac þis ne telle ich no3t to soþe • for it nis no3t to soþe iwrite Ac weþer it is soþ oþer it nis • I not no man þat wite Ac a3en kunde it were • þat þe deuel were to deþe ibro3t For he ne mai þolie nanne deþ • I ne mai it leue no3t

(But I do not tell this as truth, for it is not written as truth, But whether or not it is true, I don’t know any man who knows, But it would be against nature if the devil were put to death, For he may not suffer any death; I cannot believe it at all.)19
The episode’s appeal endured, however, and it appeared often in artistic portrayals of the saint.20 Moreover, it was this aspect of the passio that made it so pertinent to women who were or might become pregnant: swallowed by the dragon, Margaret was safely “reborn” by means of the sign of the Cross.21 Some pregnant women wore amulets containing versions of the story. Others believed that Margaret would help a woman in labor if a written copy of the legend were placed under her bed.22 Perhaps in response to such concerns, Bodley 34’s account intensifies the physicality of Margaret’s encounter with the dragon, turning that episode, along with her subsequent interrogation of the second devil, into its central drama.


According to the earliest surviving martyrology (the Martyrologium Hieronymianum), Juliana, born of an aristocratic family in Cumae, was martyred during the persecutions under Diocletian in 306 CE.23 Juliana’s legend appears in Latin and in many vernaculars. It was particularly popular among the English, as demonstrated by the existence of a version by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf, as well as two Anglo-Norman and several Middle English versions.24 Although the Latin source for the Middle English text is lost, Bodley 285 contains a Latin version close to that original and from around the same date.25

Like the other two Bodley lives, Juliana’s legend tells the story of a young woman who attracts the attention of a local governor, here named Eleusius, and like Olibrius in Seinte Margarete, described as a reeve.26 Eleusius is a friend of Juliana’s father, Africanus, who urges her to accept the reeve’s hand in marriage and to worship his idols. Eleusius’ supplications, and his offers of marriage and wealth, are cast in the terms of courtly romance. When Juliana refuses the proposal, Africanus has her stripped and tortured, and then sent to Eleusius. Still infatuated with her, Eleusius tries to convince Juliana to worship his idols so that they can marry. When she refuses, he grows enraged and orders that she be hung by her hair while molten brass is poured on her. Juliana emerges triumphant and unharmed, and a frustrated Eleusius throws her into prison. There she unmasks a devil, Belial, who appears disguised as an angel and demands that he recount the history of his temptations from Adam and Eve on. Eventually she beats the devil Belial and casts him in a pit of filth.

The next day Juliana is brought forth again to be tried by Eleusius, who has by this point completed his transformation from attractive courtly lover to monstrous pagan persecutor. When she still refuses to sacrifice to his gods, he orders her to be tortured on a wheel similar to that of St. Katherine (perhaps a contamination from the Katherine legend.) Finally, she is beheaded and her body is taken away by sea and buried in Campagna by a woman named Sophia. Eleusius and his men follow but are drowned in a storm at sea.


Following the saints’ lives in Bodley 34 comes a tract on virginity. This “epistel,” as it is called in the manuscript, derives from Hildebert of Lavardin’s early twelfth-century Latin letter to the recluse Athalisa, along with a rich assortment of commentary on virginity by the Church Fathers, especially St. Jerome.27 Yet despite being a patchwork of motifs common to the literature of praise for virginity, Hali Meithhad (Holy Maidenhood) is widely considered a literary tour de force. The originality of the work stems not only from the author’s skill in weaving his sources together but also from his recasting of the material to reflect the choices availabl’e to women of middle to upper social status in thirteenth-century England.

Like the lives, Hali Meithhad celebrates the choice of a virgin life “married” to Christ. The text begins by comparing the virgin to a tower, praising her for being above those around her and for her protected status. Drawing on a motif known as the vita angelica, which ranks virginity above widowhood and marriage, the author commends the life the virgin leads as like the life of the angels. Marriage, though the less desirable of the states, is nonetheless recognized as a “bed” that catches the sinful from falling into hell. The author next compares the life of a virgin to secular marriage, childbirth, and child rearing. His portrait of marriage paints a dark picture of its trials and tribulations, from husbands who are physically and emotionally abusive to the dangers of childbirth and the demands of child-rearing in a time when children might die young or be born with deformities.

Although the portrait of life as a wife and mother seems intensely realistic, it is nonetheless drawn from a tradition known as the molestiae nuptiarum (tribulations of marriage). The motif originated with St. Paul (I Corinthians 7:32–34), and continued through the writings of the Church Fathers.28 In Hali Meithhad, the tradition is switched around to recount the problems of marriage from a woman’s point of view as imagined by the male author. The author also used some more contemporary commentaries on the virgin life, including Ælred of Rievaulx’s letter to his recluse sister, Aldhelm’s tract on virginity, and Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermones super Cantica canticorum (Sermons on the Song of Songs).29

The author punctuates his text with vitriolic attacks on sexual encounters of any kind. Much more fulfilling than a sexual relationship with a man is the marriage to Christ that the virgin has chosen. This sponsa Christi, or bride of Christ, motif derives from Mark 2:19–20, where Christ describes himself as the bridegroom. The idea that the virgin has a special status as the bride of Christ was developed by Tertullian. In his account, as in the saints’ lives, the author of Hali Meithhad literalizes the idea of marriage to Christ.30 To intensify his description of the virgin’s desire for Christ, the writer draws extensively on Bernard’s interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs as a celebration of the marriage of the contemplative to God. The text concludes with a warning that the contemplative be vigilant against the dangers of complacency and pride, and by urging the virgin to satisfy her desire for children by having spiritual children — i.e., virtues.

Some readers find Hali Meithhad’s attack on earthly marriage distasteful. In its bold contrasts between the woes of earthly marriage and the joys of marriage to Christ, and especially in its energetic descriptions of these woes, Hali Meithhad may also seem excessively involved with the secular rather than the religious sphere. This interest in secular life, however, may have derived from the author’s conception of the needs of his audience, who were perhaps women who had only lately left secular life for a non-monastic form of religious life.

Despite its rhetorical extravagance, Hali Meithhad shares with the Ancrene Wisse an intense focus on the emotional life of the reader, ventriloquizing the female reader’s concerns and providing answers for them. For example, the author writes “‘Nai,’ thu wult seggen, ‘. . . Ah monnes elne is muche wurth’” (‘No,’ you will say, ‘. . . But a man’s strength is worth much’; 20.1–2). He then goes on to answer the objections by showing that these hypothetical goods are difficult to acquire and fragile even if attained. The work grants us insight into the thoughts of a young, aristocratic virgin, untutored in the monastic life, potentially wavering between marrying a local nobleman and following a more difficult and solitary life as a bride of Christ.


Sawles Warde, or the Guardianship of the Soul, seems at first, in its focus on the protection of the soul of any gender, to be the most remote of the Bodley 34 texts from the specific concerns of female contemplatives.31 In form it is a homily (that is, a sermon) on how an individual should best guard and see to the health of his or her soul. It begins with a quotation from the Gospels: “if the goodman of the house knew at what hour the thief would come, he would certainly watch, and would not suffer his house to be broken open” (Matthew 24:43).32 Building on the passage’s allegory, the author describes the soul as the precious treasure within a castle.33 The head of the household is Wit (Reason), whose unruly wife, Will, refuses to amend her ways and better supervise the guardians of the household, the five senses. These guardians are monitored by God’s four daughters: Vigilance, Strength, Moderation, and Righteousness.34 Vigilance allows the entrance of a messenger, Fear or Remembrance of Death, who describes hell to the assembled members of the household in order to encourage them to be more alert. Because the household is threatened with despair after Fear’s description, Vigilance calls Love of Eternal Life to cheer them with a description of heaven.

Although the allegory provides lessons for any Christian, an analysis of the author’s adaptations of his source material, as Anne Eggebroten first observed, reveals the text’s particular relevance for women in the contemplative life.35 First of all, the description of heaven includes an unusually long account of the privileged position accorded there to virgins. Secondly, the allegory as a whole is psychologically astute: it encourages its readers to achieve emotional balance in their earthly life (by avoiding the sins of pride and despair) rather than to worry about the joys or terrors awaiting them in the afterlife. Emotional equanimity, while desirable for anyone pursuing a contemplative life, would be of particular relevance to anchoresses whose daily lives were especially demanding emotionally.

The source of the allegory was thought for a long time to be Hugh of St. Victor’s De anima (On the soul) but has recently been identified as De custodia interioris hominis (On the keeping of the inner self), a work associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury, although the text also draws on motifs common in vernacular sermon literature.36 Vivid, sensory descriptions of heaven and hell were popular in such literature, as was the portrayal of the soul as a treasure within the building of the body.37 Among the many other English poems that discuss the castle of the soul, the Ancrene Wisse describes the anchoress’s soul as a lady besieged in a castle and rescued by Christ the lover-knight. Finally, the author weaves into his allegory another conventional homiletic motif, the allegory of the Four Daughters of God. This motif is of special importance in later medieval English texts such as the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, Piers Plowman, the Annunciation Play in the N-Town Cycle, and the Castle of Perseverance.38 Sawles Warde, however, is notable for its particularly streamlined and focused use of these allegorical motifs.

Sawles Warde can be seen as a culmination of all the Bodley 34 texts, as they move from historical to contemporary secular contexts and finally to the daily struggle of the female religious to maintain her commitment to the protection of her soul. It is remarkable that this manuscript, so clearly addressed to women readers, has survived. Whether or not it was intended for the anchoresses for whom the Ancrene Wisse was written, for a larger group of female contemplatives, or even for religious lay readers, it is hard not to imagine the Katherine Group as a small, well-thumbed compendium of literature, lovingly contemplated by women in pursuit of the highest religious goals.


Because of the paucity of Middle English texts surviving from the period between the Norman Conquest and the fourteenth century, some scholars have treated the Katherine Group as a crucial link between Old English and Middle English literature. The Group’s texts are written in a rhythmical, alliterative style, although the use of alliteration varies from text to text. Margaret seems to conform to a rhythmical alliterative prose style whereas Juliana seems to make use of rather clumsily wrought alliterative half-lines that might be said to approximate verse. Since the oldest (and most densely alliterative) ones are the saints’ lives, these stories have come under particular scrutiny for their role in transmitting alliterative poetic practice from the Anglo-Saxons to the fourteenth century. Both R. W. Chambers and Dorothy Bethurum praised the rhythmical prose of the texts found in Bodley 34 as a continuation of the Old English alliterative prose style established by King Alfred, which reached its heights in the work of Ælfric.39 Elaine Treharne has shown that English texts continued to be produced well after the conquest from 1100–1220.40 The exact relationship between the style of these works, the alliterative prose of the Ælfrician works that continued to be copied in the West Midlands, and the anonymous homilies that continued to be produced after the conquest, as well as their place in the trilingual culture of early thirteenth-century England, needs further investigation.

The representation of the texts on the manuscript page itself contributes to the difficulty we have today in identifying its original identity as either poetry or prose. Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English scribes commonly wrote their English texts out across the full width of the parchment page, whether they were recording verse or prose; when they transcribed Latin verse, however, they allowed the poem to indicate line breaks on the page.41 Bodley 34’s scribe copied his English texts across the full width of the parchment page. And, as Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards point out, “the emergence of Middle English did not lead immediately to a new sense of verse as a distinctive form. Indeed, regional pressures (such as those relating to the Worcester area), continued to determine that verse was often transcribed as prose during this period.”42 Three passages in the texts contain rhyme and are thus clearly meant to be read as poetry (these have been indicated in our edition).43 However, the irregular alliteration, as well as the punctuation used in the manuscript, suggests that the texts were primarily conceived of as prose rather than poetry. The texts clearly draw upon the resources of alliterative poetry, and could be described as poetic prose. Although many early editors of these works printed them as poetry,44 the editors of the present volume have decided to present them as prose.

It is wise to remember Millett’s advice that the “temptation to treat the Katherine Group Lives as a kind of master key to all problems of alliterative transmission needs to be resisted.”45 Much early Middle English literature has undoubtedly not survived to the twenty-first century, thus rendering theories about the relationship between the Katherine Group and later Middle English writing highly speculative.


As noted above, the Katherine Group has been understood to be closely related to the guide for anchoresses most commonly known as the Ancrene Wisse,46 which even seems to contain an explicit reference, if not to the Katherine Group itself, at least to one of the texts in Bodley 34. In Book 4 of Ancrene Wisse the author asks, “Nabbe ye alswa of Ruffin the deovel, Beliales brother, in ower Englische boc of Seinte Margarete?” (Do not you also have [the story] of Ruffin the devil, Belial’s brother, in your English book of Saint Margaret?)47 This reference could well indicate that the intended audience of Ancrene Wisse was expected to be familiar with the Katherine Group’s version of Margaret. Another shared feature is an opening phrase — “I the Feaderes ant i the sunes ant i the Hali Gastes nome her biginneth” (In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, here begins) — that occurs in the exact same form in Bodley 34’s Seinte Margarete, and with a slight variation in Seinte Juliene, Sancte Katerine, and in the Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 402 manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse.48

The Ancrene Wisse was written as a guide for women undertaking the anchoritic life. In the late twelfth through the thirteenth centuries, English women who were attracted by the religious fervor of reformers such as the Cistercians were impeded from inventing their own new forms of religious life by Canon 14 of the highly influential Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. This decree forbade the establishment of new religious orders, at the same time that religious orders for women in England were in decline. Therefore, women wishing to emulate their religiously inspired sisters on the Continent turned to this exceptionally demanding form of religious asceticism as a way to pursue their vocations.49

The number of surviving manuscripts of the Ancrene Wisse suggests that this text was by far more influential and widely read than the Katherine Group. Much of what scholars have deduced about the cultural milieu of the latter, therefore, has been based on the greater information available about the former. Originally written for three sisters of high social status who became anchoresses, the Ancrene Wisse was copied, adapted, and translated for a wide variety of audiences, including larger groups of anchoresses (twenty or more), nuns, male religious, and even aristocratic secular women readers.50 The manuscript tradition indicates that readers were invested in the Ancrene Wisse not only as an instructional guide to life as a solitary recluse but also as a devotional text applicable to secular and active religious life.

Given the insights that the Ancrene Wisse offers into the devotional practices that were probably followed by the readers of Bodley 34 as well, it is worth summarizing here. In eight sections, the author sets out two rules. The primary one is “eaver in-with ant rihteth the heorte” (ever within and directs the heart); the secondary one is “al withuten ant riwleth the licome ant licomliche deden” (completely external and governs the body and bodily deeds).51 These internal and external rules structure the conception of the work. Books 1 and 8 address the outer rule, advising the anchoress(es) on matters such as prayer schedules, proper dress, and diet, and advising against activities such as conducting business, maintaining close relationships with family, and keeping pets (except for, perhaps, one cat). The six internal books (2–7) present the inner rule, advising the anchoresses on ways to cultivate a contemplative state of mind; they address, respectively, the physical senses, the inner feelings, temptations, confession, penance, and love.52 The work reaches an emotional climax in the story of the Christ-Knight, an allegory of Christ’s love for the human soul presented to its female readers in the form of an erotic, chivalric romance.


The Katherine Group has also been associated with a group of prayers and meditations closely related in dialect and theme, known as the Wooing Group. It consists of four poems: On Ureisun of Ure Louerde (A Prayer to Our Lord), On Lofsong of Ure Louerde (A Praise-Song for Our Lord), The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (The Wooing of Our Lord), and On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi (A Praise-Song for Our Lady).53 The phrasing, symbolism, and emotional content of the Wooing Group and the other texts discussed above reflect new trends in theology from the Continent, many of them inspired by the work of Bernard of Clairvaux. However, unlike the Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse, the Wooing texts, as W. Meredith Thompson has noted, show very little concern with domestic issues, infernal enemies, the terrors of hell, or more generally “the loathsomeness of human life and functions.” Instead, these intimate texts are “meditative and emotional.”54 The prayers to Christ request forgiveness and praise Him as lover and spouse, while that to Mary asks for her intercession.

Although several of the Wooing Group prayers are included in manuscripts that also contain the Ancrene Wisse or some of the Katherine Group texts,55 there is little internal evidence that suggests they were composed exclusively for, or by, female contemplatives. Eugen Einenkel, in 1882, proposed that one of the anchoresses for whom the Ancrene Wisse was written was the author of some or all of the Wooing Group texts.56 The proposal that these texts were written by women, which has proven extraordinarily tenacious in discussions of the Wooing Group, perhaps reveals more about nineteenth- and twentieth-century expectations of gender than it does about medieval authors and audiences. Bernard of Clairvaux, it might be remembered, wrote equally emotional and erotic commentaries on the Song of Songs. Even Thompson goes as far as to make the claim that
She [that is, the author of Wohunge] would later have passed it on to some leue suster for the latter’s comfort and edification. Did she then try to repeat herself with less success? Or did one or more sisters, with less art, try to imitate her? Either conjecture might account for the Ureisun and Lofsong addressed to ure Louerde. The Lofsong of ure Lefdi is less strongly marked by feminine authorship and might have been written, though not necessarily, by a man.57
While it would not be safe to assume female authorship, the gender of the author or authors of these works still remains an open question.

Regardless of who authored the pieces, the important aspect of this discussion is their similarity in point of view and emotional content to the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group. In her edition of Juliana, d’Ardenne remarks on the similarities between Juliana’s impassioned prayers in her Bodley 34 life and those articulated in Wohunge. d’Ardenne describes the Wohunge as “the thoughts and prayers of Juliene written out at large.”58 These recurrent, overlapping themes, which develop, dramatize, expand, and contextualize the theological and emotional content of the Katherine Group, speak to the consistent presence of a vibrant community, rich in literary and devotional understanding.


While the close connections to Ancrene Wisse suggest that the texts of Bodley 34 may have been compiled for a similar (if not identical) group of female contemplatives, the Katherine Group contains no specific references to recluses. In her recent study, Choosing Not to Marry, Julie Hassel suggests that the Katherine Group was intended for lay spiritual readers. Much of the texts’ internal evidence, however, indicates that the audience was deeply religious, if not necessarily anchoritic, and that the texts’ readers either were avowed virgins or were contemplating making such vows. For instance, the Bodley 34 scribe entitles Hali Meithhad as “Epistel of meidenhad meidene frovre” (A letter on virginity for the encouragement of virgins), suggesting that this text was intended for a female contemplative, or perhaps even a nun.

Hali Meithhad further suggests that its readers came from the gentry, since the author uses the plight of gentlewomen struggling to attain a socially acceptable marriage as a likely familiar basis of comparison to the even worse situation faced by poor women: “the beoth wacliche iyeven . . . as gentile wummen” (who are unworthily given in marriage . . . like . . . gentle women; 6.1). The author recommends that its readers consult saints’ lives, including those found in Bodley 34: “Thench o Seinte Katerrine, o Seinte Margarete, Seinte Enneis, Seinte Juliene, ant Seinte Cecille, ant o the othre hali meidnes in Heovene” (Think of Saint Katherine, of Saint Margaret, Saint Agnes, Saint Juliana, and Saint Cecilia, and of the other holy maidens in Heaven; 40.4).

Margaret opens with an address to the widowed, the married, and virgins: “Hercneth! Alle the earen ant herunge habbeth, widewen with tha iweddede, ant te meidnes nomeliche” (Listen! All who have ears and hearing, widows with the wedded, and the maidens especially; 3.1–2). The reference to ears and hearing suggests that the text may have been intended for reading aloud to a group of listeners. The legend concludes: “Alle theo the this iherd heorteliche habbeth: in ower beoden blitheluker munneth this meiden” (All those who have devotedly listened to this: remember in your prayers this maiden more happily; 75.1). Both of these addresses may have been adopted from the Latin source but, as Millett points out, the translator’s use of the present tense suggests that he considered the text appropriate to its new audience.59

Juliana includes an address to “alle leawede men the understonden ne mahen Latines ledene, litheth ant lusteth the liflade of a meiden” (all unlearned people who cannot understand the language of Latin, hear and listen to the life of a maiden; 1.1), indicating that the intended audience was: (1) expected to listen to, rather than read, the text; and (2) was “lewd,” that is, unable to read or write in Latin. Although Sawles Warde is addressed to any devout Christian, it expanded its sources’ references to the joys that virgins experience in heaven.

The internal evidence from the Katherine Group thus suggests that the texts address a variety of audiences yet may have been compiled for an audience of female readers who possibly were the daughters of provincial gentry families, who may or may not have been considering a monastic or anchoritic life, and who, though they may have been educated in other ways, were not literate in Latin. This portrait accords with our current knowledge of the situation of religious women in the West Midlands in post-Conquest England.60 As with the other texts, its lessons could potentially apply to anyone.

The audience’s lack of literacy, in addition to the doctrinal rules of the Catholic Church, mandated a literate and educated spiritual advisor, who may or may not have been the same person as the author of these texts. Thus, as Robertson notes, readers of the Katherine Group (and of the Ancrene Wisse) participate in a “triangulated reading process” that includes the author(s) of the Katherine Group; the male advisor or reader (who may or may not have been the same person as the author) mediating the text; and the woman reading or listening to the text being read. In this way, attempts to reconstruct the original female audience of the Katherine Group will always, to a certain extent, be shaped by the way that the author of the texts imagined them. Robertson’s analysis of the audience of the Ancrene Wisse can also apply to that of the Katherine Group. “[T]o some degree,” she notes, “the audience of the Ancrene Wisse will always be a fiction, both a historical fiction, one that is inevitably unstable, and a literary fiction found within the text itself.”61 It is possible that these texts were intended for anyone interested in the spiritual life, or even for lay readers, although they clearly have specific resonance for women in pursuit of a rigorous form of contemplative life. And even if originally written with a specialized audience in mind, such as the three anchoresses for whom Ancrene Wisse was originally composed, all five works clearly also have an appeal for larger groups of the spiritually inclined — lay and religious, male and female.


Despite their considerable differences, the sense of unity, in theme and address among the texts discussed above has a basis in possible historical reality. Bodley 34 was one of a group of manuscripts produced in the early thirteenth century, all of which are compendia of what Savage and Watson have called “anchoritic spirituality.”62 The texts were all written in a roughly similar variety of Middle English. Tolkien first identified what he called the “AB dialect” in Corpus 402 and in Bodley 34 (the name derived from the sigla of the two manuscripts). “In no other extant manuscript of middle English,” Tolkien wrote, “does precisely the same idiom with all its special peculiarities of grammar and spelling reappear.”63 However, later scholars have aligned several other manuscripts with this dialect or variations on it.64 Indeed, it might be more accurate to describe the AB Group as texts written in various West Midland dialects linked as part of what might be termed a flourishing regional vernacular culture.65

The works associated with the AB Group appear in the following manuscripts:

• Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 34: Lives of Sts. Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana; Hali Meithhad, Sawles Warde.

• Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 402: Ancrene Wisse.

• London, British Library MS Royal 17 A XXVII: a sermon on Matthew; Sawles Warde; lives of Sts. Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana; On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi; some fifteenth-century hymns.

• London, British Library MS Cotton Titus D XVIII: Ancrene Riwle (defective at the beginning), Sawles Warde, Hali Meithhad, The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd, and The Life of St. Katherine.66

• London, British Library MS Cotton Nero A XIV: Ancrene Riwle, On Lofsong of Ure Lefdi; On Ureisun of Ure Lefdi; On Ureisun of Ure Louerde; On Lofsong of Ure Louerde.

The dialects that bear a close relationship to one another in the AB Group have been identified generally as West Midlands dialects. Because the grammar and lexicography of the AB Group’s texts draw on Welsh and Scandinavian, the AB dialects have been further narrowed to an area on the border between England and Wales. The texts’ heavy use of alliterative rhetoric suggests a direct ancestry in Anglo-Saxon prose and poetry, congruent with a western origin. But as noted above, the texts also draw heavily upon the rhetorical resources of the continental Latin tradition. The closely related AB dialects are thus the product of a language community of four if not five languages: English, French, Scandinavian, Welsh, and Latin.67

More recently, philologists such as Merja Black, Margaret Laing, Angus McIntosh and Jeremy Smith have argued that the language of Bodley 34 and Corpus 402 is neither linguistically nor orthographically as consistent as Tolkien claimed. Although Bodley 34’s texts and the Ancrene Wisse share dialectal features, some now believe that the two manuscripts do not indicate the presence of an established standard language in the west Midlands.68 Paleographer Ralph Hanna adds that a closer look at the compilation of Bodley 34 in relation to other AB Group manuscripts might lead one to question Dobson’s view of the texts “as a concerted local canon, the designed product of an ‘AB community’.”69 However, while such critiques add more detail to our picture of the AB context, the scholarly consensus still holds in general to the sense that the AB Group reflects an attempt of some sort by a set of authors to write a body of works on female spirituality, using a distinctive literary language that evolved over time.

Tolkien argued further that the dialect found in the surviving manuscripts was closely related to the original language of composition of the Katherine Group, the Ancrene Wisse, and the Wooing Group, although recent critics have suggested that this claim should be received with caution.70 According to Tolkien, none of Bodley 34’s works could have been composed earlier than 1190. But they were not contemporary with the manuscript itself: d’Ardenne and Dobson write that “in every case the Bodleian MS is separated by at least one intervening copy from the author’s original.”71 The unity of style and subject found in Bodley 34 could suggest that one author wrote all of the works, but most scholars agree that Hali Meithhad is lexigraphically and linguistically distinct. It has been proposed that the texts fall into three subgroups: Margarete and Juliene, composed in the last decade of the twelfth century; Katerine and Sawles Warde, in the first decade of the thirteenth century; and Hali Meithhad, a decade later.

Some scholars suggest that, because of its similarity in tone and purpose, Hali Meithhad might have been an early composition by the author of the Ancrene Wisse.72 The texts of Bodley 34 do share a number of alliterative phrases and distinctive vocabulary with the Ancrene Wisse. Overlap occurs also in the Ancrene Wisse author’s mention of “ower Englische boc of Seinte Margarete.”73 The general view is that authorship of the Bodley 34 texts and the Ancrene Wisse was split between several authors, some of whom may have written more than one work. d’Ardenne’s suggestion is that “we are in the presence of a tradition with one specially active and influential centre or school rather than with one busy author and universal provider of devotional literature.”74

That “centre or school” was probably, like the dialects of the AB Group, located in the West Midlands. In his study of the Ancrene Wisse, Dobson, following an idea first articulated by D. S. Brewer, argued that all the texts of the AB Group must have originated from an Augustinian house. Dobson proposed the abbey at Wigmore as a possible center of literary production: located in Herefordshire close to the Welsh border, Wigmore was the only major Augustinian house in the area that suited the linguistic character of the AB Group texts. He further suggested that the Ancrene Wisse was written for a small group of anchoresses located at the Deerfold near Limebrook Priory. However, that claim turns out to have been based on a misreading of the scribal abbreviation for “fratribus” (to the brothers) as “sororibus” (to the sisters).75 Relying on a more fanciful and even more discredited assumption that one manuscript contained an authorial acrostic, Dobson then proposed a possible author of the text, Brian of Lingen.76

Since Dobson’s time, Millett (among others) has ruled out the Deerfold as the location of the center of AB composition and Brian as author of the Ancrene Wisse. On the basis of the devotional practices advocated in the text, Millett proposes a Dominican rather than an Augustinian origin for the Ancrene Wisse. “The importance of Dobson’s study,” Millett has concluded, “now seems to lie less in the specific answers he offered than in his precise definition of the problems involved, and of the kind of evidence which would be needed to solve them.”77 Recently, Christopher Cannon has argued that the Welsh marches were a particularly appropriate setting for the Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse. They were, he says, “a place where the anxieties about bodily boundaries and their penetration which fill the AB texts was not only a practical consideration but a function of geography, the general condition of life in a borderland so constantly subject to war.”78

While it is unlikely that any scholar will conclusively identify the exact location of the composition of the Katherine Group, most scholars have concurred to some degree with Tolkien’s (1929) original conclusion, as well as more generally with Dobson’s (1976), that the texts and the manuscripts that preserve them were created somewhere near Hereford Cathedral.79 An important piece of supporting evidence comes from Bodley 34 itself, thanks to one or more mid-sixteenth-century readers who used the manuscript’s pages to test pens, jot down names, and practice letter forms. Insignificant as these scribbles may seem, they have proven tantalizing scraps of evidence that contribute to scholars’ guesses about the origins of the AB Group, as the names are all of lesser Hereford gentry. Nonetheless, the fact that we know that manuscripts of the Ancrene Wisse traveled widely in the West Midlands over many decades reminds us that Bodley 34 may well have traveled widely as well; the scribbled names tell us finally only that the manuscript was in Herefordshire in the sixteenth century.

The fact that Bodley 34 shares some philological similarities with another obscure Middle English religious prose text, and more generally with an assortment of similar texts, might seem of concern only to paleographers and linguists. However, the discovery of the AB Group has been extremely important to our understanding of medieval English literary history. The texts that comprise the AB Group represent some of the few extant examples of literature composed in early Middle English, and as such partially illuminate a period in English literary history from which relatively few texts survive. The Battle of Hastings (1066), when William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson, ushered in a new era of linguistic and literary development in England’s history. Previously, literature was written mainly in Latin and Anglo-Saxon. With the Norman Conquest, however, the Norman French dominance in politics and language dictated that secular literature aimed primarily at the upper classes was written in French, while religious writing continued to be composed in Latin.

As Millett has pointed out, literary works in French, such as Hue de Roteland’s Ipomedon and Simund de Freine’s Vie de Saint Georges were produced for the local aristocracy in Herefordshire. However, for the provincial gentry far from the cosmopolitan centers of power, who were less familiar with both Latin and French, some religious writing continued to be composed in Anglo-Saxon or in the vernacular it became under the influence of French and Latin: early Middle English.80 This particular audience, lay but devout, gentry but not aristocratic, familiar with both Latin and French but not fully comfortable with either, may well have comprised an unusually distinctive and influential audience in need of literature in English. As Millett observes, anchoresses “seem to have been significant for the development of vernacular literature mainly because of their intermediate position between laici and clerici, illiterates and literati.”81 The Katherine Group and the Ancrene Wisse carried over the Latin continental tradition into English, possibly for just such an audience.

Although the Katherine Group has begun to receive some critical attention in recent years, the texts in and of themselves and as a collection deserve much more scrutiny.82 Among the issues still to be fully addressed are the precise nature of the ideal of virginity in thirteenth-century England; the function of the three saints’ lives within the political and historical context of thirteenth-century England; the purposes and meanings of graphic representations of violence against women; and the exact relationship of Bodley 34 to the AB Group of manuscripts, as a measure of female literacy in this period. By making these texts available in full, we hope to stimulate future research on this manuscript, and on the fascinating early Middle English works it contains.


A small, undecorated manuscript measuring 154 by 108 millimeters, Bodley 34 consists of eighty surviving parchment leaves, gathered in eleven quires. Its outer leaves have suffered a fair amount of wear, indicating that the manuscript survived for some time without the protection of a cover. Three folios are missing from Katerine (between folios 7 and 8), one from Juliana (between folios 40 and 41), and at least one in Sawles Warde (following folio 80, which is itself heavily damaged). All five texts in the manuscript were copied in a single hand. For some reason, the scribe began in a regular and neat hand, became increasingly careless in the middle of the manuscript (especially in Juliana and Hali Meithhad), and returned to careful copying at the end. Based on the orthography and morphology in the manuscript, most scholars have agreed on an approximate copy date of c. 1240. The manuscript preserves not only ð (eth, capital form Ð), 3 (yogh, capital form 3), and þ (thorn, capital form Þ), Middle English letter forms familiar from fourteenth-century literature, but also the runic letter wynn, a form that according to Hanna went out of fashion after 1270 and may have last been used c. 1320.83

Along with the primary hand in Bodley 34, two or more later hands appear. Shortly after the manuscript had been completed (most likely still during the first quarter of the thirteenth century), a second scribe substantially revised folios 18v through 21v of Margaret. Much of the revised wording resembles the version of the text in Royal 17 A XXVII (a member of the AB Group; see p. 17 above). Mack suggests that the revising scribe may have based his revisions not on the Royal manuscript itself but on a lost common source for both the Royal and Bodley versions of Margaret’s legend.84

In the mid-sixteenth century, as noted above, a writer (or possibly a series of writers) adorned Bodley 34’s pages with various scribbles, including names. Someone also inscribed five lines of poetry, in a difficult secretary hand, at the end of Juliana.85 The added lines paraphrase Juliana’s conclusion — indicating that, three hundred years or more after Bodley 34 was written, people were still reading it, understanding the language, and thinking about the text.


As noted above, it is difficult sometimes to tell whether Bodley 34’s texts were considered in their own time to be prose or poetry. See above, pp. 11–12. The present editors agree with N. F. Blake (1969) that the texts’ rhythmical alliterative style bears some affinity to poetry but should be printed as prose. The lines that contain rhyme words and are thus clearly meant to be read as poetry have been indicated as such in our edition. We have used Royal 17 A XXVII to supply the passages missing from Bodley 34.

In editing these texts, we have followed the principles of the Middle English Texts Series regarding u/v, i/j, capitalization, and the updating of medieval letter forms such as ð, Ð, þ, and Þ into their modern equivalents. Aside from the normal practices of the Series, however, this volume faces a few unique issues, most notably in the difficulty of the early Middle English dialect. Because of this difficulty, we have composed a translation of the five texts, albeit one that adheres as closely as possible to the sense of the original. In creating this translation we have endeavored to match punctuation and syntax with the early Middle English to the fullest extent possible. In addition, our edition generally follows the formatting practices of the scribes in the manuscript with regard to paragraph breaks; where appropriate, we have adjusted the format to improve clarity and have followed modern practices regarding dialogue. We have included a glossary for readers who wish to work in a detailed manner with the Middle English.

A second notable issue in editing these texts is the scribe’s confusion between the letterforms ð and d, which we have made every attempt to regularize over the course of the volume. These emendations are listed without comment in the textual notes that accompany each work. Lastly, we have tried to facilitate cross-referencing not only by maintaining consistency with the treatment of these works in previous editions but also by noting the original text’s foliation by means of a singular vertical line (|) accompanied by marginal notation specifying the folio that begins at that point. These tools will, we hope, both enable and encourage readers to move with ease among the various editions and critical discussions of these texts.­

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