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Christina of Bolsena: Introduction


1 The Lives of the Saints, originally compiled by the Rev. Alban Butler. Ed., rev., and suppl. Herbert Thurston, S. J., and Donald Attwater, 12 vols. (London: Burns Oats and Washbourne Ltd., 1932), vol. 7 (July), pp. 337, 338.
Like Margaret and Katherine, Christina is an early virgin martyr with a legend too fanciful to have much historical credibility. The existence of Christina herself, however, is relatively well attested. Although some versions of her legend place her in Tyre (Phoenicia), the most credible evidence points to Bolsena: an ancient town in central Italy, near an Etruscan site called Volsinium, with catacombs in which archeologists have found the remains of an early Christian church and the tomb of a female martyr. Inscriptions found on the site confirm that this martyr had a name like Christina and that the local community was venerating her as a saint by the end of the fourth century. Some corroborating evidence is provided by a sixth-century mosaic in the basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, which includes in its procession of virgins a saint named Christina, wearing a martyr's crown. Her name also appears on July 24 in several early martyrologies, beginning with the one by pseudo-Jerome. Despite the early beginnings of Christina's cult, she never became as popular a saint as Margaret and Katherine did. Although she was honored as the patron saint of Bolsena itself, her cult does not appear to have been very strong elsewhere. Thanks to the influence of the martyrologies, her name was included in many liturgical calendars - especially monastic and Italian ones, initially, and later in the standardized calendars of the Franciscans and the "Roman curia," which helped to spread it all over Europe. But her feastday seems virtually always to have been observed as a low-ranking feast with just three lessons at Matins (Margaret and Katherine tended to have nine or twelve, the maximum) and no special music or ceremonial. In England the Latin legend of St. Christina was found in monastic libraries as early as the ninth century, and detailed episodes from it were included in the Anglo-Saxon Martyrology, but there is no evidence that any English church was ever dedicated to her. Similarly, although she sometimes appeared alongside other virgin martyrs in paintings, she was not one of the female saints most frequently depicted on rood screens and church walls in England, and even in Italy she was not often chosen as the central saint in a work of art.

Like the legends of many other martyrs from the Roman calendar, Christina's legend became widely known in the late Middle Ages through the influence of compilations like the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais and the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine. Such compilations, which abridged older legends from a wide variety of sources, tended to increase the legends' accessibility and their appeal to potential translators by presenting them in versions that were efficient, dramatic, and full of colorful details. The abridged Latin versions subsequently gave rise to scores of vernacular versions, including at least seven retellings of the Christina legend in Middle English: the anonymous verse adaptations in the South English Legendary, North English Legendary, and Scottish Legendary, the prose versions in the 1438 Gilte Legende and Caxton's Golden Legend, and the longer and more elaborate verse retellings by William Paris and Osbern Bokenham.

The plot of the Christina legend - the young saint's persecution and torture by three successive judges, her miraculous rescues along the way, the swift punishments meted out to her judges and their supporters, and her final execution - is so full of improbabilities that some modern readers have found nothing good to say about it. In their updated edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints, for example, Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater dismiss it impatiently as "a collection of unconvincing and pointless marvels" and lament that the martyr Christina is known only through this "inheritance of childish fables."1 But medieval readers and writers obviously reacted to the legend differently, and there is something to be learned from trying to see it through their eyes. As Karen A. Winstead has suggested in Chaste Passions, Christina is probably the most aggressive and indomitable of all the legendary virgin martyrs. Her example of female courage and outspokenness clearly appealed to her namesake Christine de Pisan, for one, who retold Christina's legend and claimed her as both patron and model in Part 3 of the Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Nor was it only to women that late-medieval readers applied Christina's example. Osbern Bokenham developed the legend as a kind of general parable about salvation and damnation, adding a number of new speeches and other details that emphasize both Christina's constant awareness of her dependence on God's mercy and the contrasting blindness of her persecutors, who stubbornly refuse to repent even when God gives them chance after chance, miraculous sign after miraculous sign.

William Paris' verse retelling of the legend, which is presented here, is even more interesting than Bokenham's because his purpose is subtler and less explicit. Paris tells us in his epilogue (lines 497-520) that he was the squire of Sir Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (c. 1345-1401), and translated this legend while sharing his master's imprisonment on the Isle of Man. Both the date and the immediate context of his translation can thus be known with some precision. Warwick, one of the Lords Appellant who had led the brief rebellion against Richard II in 1387-88 and apparently been pardoned for it thereafter, was suddenly arrested and accused of treason in July 1397. By the time he came to trial that autumn, another of the former appellants had been murdered and a third, Richard, Earl of Arundel, had been summarily tried and executed. Warwick, who evidently confessed to the charges, was convicted and sentenced to perpetual prison on the Isle of Man. He remained there until King Richard's overthrow in 1399 - deserted, Paris laments, by all his former retainers except William Paris himself.

During this period of his life, Paris evidently found special meaning and consolation in the legend of St. Christina. His account has a number of distinctive characteristics which seem to be connected with the ordeal he was sharing with his master. For example, as Mary-Ann Stouck has noted ("Saints and Rebels," p. 84), he portrays Christina's handmaidens explicitly as spies whom she cannot trust (lines 37-40), thus heightening her resemblance to a political prisoner. He repeatedly emphasizes the theme of imprisonment itself. He makes Christina even ruder and more outspoken than usual, and Winstead suggests that he seems to cheer when she strikes back at her persecutors. He is also unusually insistent about her invulnerability to tortures and threats, even dismemberment.

Go To William Paris, Life of St. Christina
Select Bibliography

Indexed in

Brown-Robbins, # 2877


London, British Library MS Arundel 168, fols. 2r-4v.

Previous edition

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Sammlung altenglischer Legenden.1878. Pp. 183-190.

Translation into modern English

Winstead, Karen A., ed. and trans. Chaste Passions. 2000. Pp. 61-69.

Important sources and analogues in English

Bokenham, Osbern. Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Ed. Mary S. Serjeantson. EETS o.s. 206, 1938. Pp. 58-86.

Christine de Pizan. Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982. [Christina's legend is retold in 3.10, pp. 234-40.]

Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Trans. William Granger Ryan. 1993. Vol. 1. Pp. 385-87.

Historical background and criticism

Brownlee, Kevin. "Martyrdom and the Female Voice: Saint Christine in the Cité des dames." In Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe. Ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Pp. 115-35.

Gerould, Gordon Hall. "The Legend of St. Christina by William Paris." MLN 29 (1914), 129-33.

Stouck, Mary-Ann. "A Poet in the Household of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick, c.1393-1427." Warwickshire History 9 (1994), 113-17.

________. "Saints and Rebels: Hagiography and Opposition to the King in Late Fourteenth-Century England." Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 24 (1997), 75-94.

Winstead, Karen A. Virgin Martyrs. 1997. Pp. 83-85.