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Item 37, Saint Margaret: Introduction


1 For a recent overview of Eastern and Western iconography of Margaret, see Drewer, “Margaret of Antioch the Demon-Slayer, East and West.”

2 For a useful overview of these legends, see Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, pp. 1–13.

3 Frances discusses the various Latin versions in “Hitherto Unprinted Version of the Passio Sanctae Margaritae.” She prints a copy of the “Mombritius” version in her edition of Wace’s life of Margaret (La Vie de Sainte Marguerite). For the relationships between the various Middle English lives, see D’Evelyn’s account in MWME–08.

4 See below, Text.

5 Robertson, “Corporeality of Female Sanctity,” pp. 272–73.

6 R. Evans, “Jew, the Host and the Virgin Martyr.”

7 One parchment amulet is illustrated on page 33 of Albert’s essay, “La Legende de Sainte Marguerite.” For Margaret’s legend and maternity, see Wogan-Browne, “Apple’s Message,” and Larson, “Who Is the Master of This Narrative.”

8 Caxton, Book of the Knight of the Tower, p. 92.

9 For a more complete reading of the nurse’s value in providing female instruction that runs counter to the patriarchal brutality of Olibrius and Margaret’s father, see K. Lewis, “Life of St. Margaret of Antioch,” pp. 130–33.

10 In at least one moment, Rate inadvertently recalls Lybeaus very directly; see the note to line 353.

11 For this source, written in quatrains, see Reames, Middle English Legends of Women Saints, pp. 63–74. Though there are many verbal parallels between these two texts, the stanzaic version was written in the thirteenth century and undoubtedly predates the version presented here.

Origin, Genre, and Themes

Though Saint Margaret had no documented historical existence and was not widely venerated until the ninth and tenth centuries, once her cult gained momentum she became one of the most universally beloved saints of the Western Church. In the Eastern Church she was venerated as Marina and depicted with similar iconography, though without the same intercessory powers that were gradually attributed to her in the West.1 The earliest extant lives of Saint Margaret are in Greek, and there are various Latin versions that circulated widely; all the lives agree on the major details of Margaret’s life and death. A virgin raised near Antioch, she is sought by the pagan Olibrius, who offers to marry her or make her his concubine. She refuses, proclaiming her love of Christ, and Olibrius impris­ons her and sub­jects her to increasingly brutal tortures, which she endures cheerfully until her final martyr­dom. In its basic elements, especially the lust of a pagan ruler that turns into sadistic torture, her life resembles those of other female virgin martyrs, and it often appears along­side the lives of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, Saint Agatha, Saint Juliana, Saint Lucy, or Saint Barbara.2

Two differing Latin versions are responsible for the major differences in subsequent ver­nacular lives, including the half-dozen surviving Middle English lives. In one early Latin ver­sion, when Margaret is threatened by a dragon in Olibrius’s prison, she makes the sign of the cross and the dragon vanishes. In another early Latin version, later printed by the fifteenth-century Mombritius (and thus called the “Mombritius recen­sion”), Margaret is swal­lowed by this dragon, but bursts forth unharmed from the dragon’s belly before subdu­ing another demon.3 Jacobus de Voragine, in his influential Golden Legend, testifies to the medi­eval awareness of these differing accounts. He dismisses the “Mombritius” account as unbeliev­able, but that version remained very popular, no doubt for the spectacular enter­tainment it offered audiences. The life pre­sented here was probably written in the middle of the fifteenth century, based primarily on an earlier stanzaic version in Middle English de­scended from the “Mom­britius recension.”4 This text shares none of Jacobus’s doubts about the believability of Mar­gar­et’s triumph over the dragon and revels in the story’s outlandish plot.

Modern readers are as likely to be struck by the gruesome violence of Margaret’s torture as by the fantastic elements of the tale (such as the dragons). Graphic accounts of torture appear in the passio sections of many martyred saints, but legends of female virgin martyrs often concentrate on the bodily effects of torture to an even greater extent. As Elizabeth Robertson has argued, this seems to derive from the strong asso­ciations of women and the flesh; just as the body was imagined to be women’s greatest source of spiritual weakness, the body was also the potential source of their spiritual victory.5 Margaret’s virginal body at­tracts the unwanted attention of Olibrius, and then becomes the battleground of their en­counter, as Olibrius tries to demonstrate his “posté” over her body while Margaret demon­strates the insignificance of this power.

This in turn relates to an underlying theme of the Life of Saint Margaret, the proper rela­tionship of the physical and spiritual worlds. Olibrius, as Margaret consistently points out, worships sticks and stones; he also believes that since Christ was killed on the cross, he cannot be worthy of worship (lines 149–53). This literalism is compounded by the “nygramansy” of both Margaret’s pagan father and Olibrius, sorcery which attempts to imitate God’s power over the physical world. Margaret, on the other hand, is supported by legions of angels and never seems troubled by the physical pain she en­dures. She also manages to turn Olibrius’s tortures into spiritual signs of her Christian faith, as her immersions in boiling oil and water recall the sacraments of holy unction and baptism. There may even be, as Ruth Evans has suggested, a connection between the body of the virgin and the Eucharistic body of Christ, subjected to similar tortures in anti-Semitic legends.6

The strong emphasis on Margaret’s bodily suffering also develops the close resem­blance between Margaret’s passio and the Passion of Christ. Some of the many points of connection include the scourging, the prayers preceding the climax, the atten­dant natural wonders of eclipse and thunder, and the forgiveness of witnesses (in Jesus’ case, the penitent thief; in Mar­garet’s, Malcus the executioner). Margaret’s defeat of the dragons recalls the Harrowing of Hell, and the cross provides her with strength.

As this careful interweaving of themes and allusions suggests, though this legend of Margaret is luridly entertaining, medieval readers might find plenty to reflect upon here. The first to suggest that there is value in hearing or reading the legend is Margaret herself, who asks for and receives great benefits for all those who remember her. Her intercessory powers, described in careful detail within the legend itself, ensured that many people had good reason to keep her in mind. The most important of the powers ascribed to Margaret was her pro­tection of pregnant mothers and as a guard against birth defects. Though a defiant virgin martyr, Margaret’s miraculous escape from the belly of a dragon seems to have created this connection to childbirth, and this in turn ensured her considerable popularity throughout the later Middle Ages. Expecting mothers carried amulets depicting Saint Margaret and wore parchment strips containing her legend during labor.7

Margaret’s life was also likely to have been recounted on her feast day (July 20), and it was recommended reading for both cloistered women, who might imitate her commit­ment to virginity as brides of Christ, and young women of all kinds, who might read the legend as a broader lesson in chastity. Though Margaret’s fierce rebukes of Olibrius’s authority may have been appreciated by many female readers, the reliably misogynist Book of the Knight of the Tower nevertheless recommends that young women read the life of Margaret as a reminder that “many grete and evylle temptacions shall befyght and assaylle yow.”8

Manuscript Context

The nurse who raises Margaret outside of Antioch includes saints’ lives in her oral in­struction, another hint that the text sees itself as pedagogical, and this version of the life emphasizes Margaret’s upbringing more than most.9 Though the behavior of Margaret might not fall under the accepted standards of How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter (item 4), the two texts mark twin poles of pedagogical norms; where the one counsels prudence, industriousness, and a careful management of the goods of this world, the other insists on the limits of prudence and the demands of earning treasure in heaven. Both see a woman’s chastity as her most important means of earning honor in this world and the next.

Saints’ lives presumably made useful pedagogical tools partly because of their capacity to entertain, and Saint Margaret is certainly designed to entertain. As in Saint Eustace (item 1), the romance elements of Saint Margaret have been strongly emphasized. The persistent trope of sorcery, the two villainous brothers who appear as dragons, Margaret’s manner of victory over them, and even her brash confidence all recall the elements of Lybeaus Desconus (item 20).10 Margaret’s exile from her noble birth and fervent adherence to her absent lover/hero are also the stuff of romance, as is much of the language and narrative technique.


The text presented here in rhymed couplets derives from an earlier life of Margaret in four-line stanzas, which it closely resembles in many details and phrases, though it has cut out several of Margaret’s speeches in order to hasten the narrative.11 Another copy of this couplet version appears in the Brome Manuscript, Br, though that text breaks off at line 365. Fragments of the text also appear in two early prints by Pynson and Redman (STC 17325 and 17326). The Brome text may have been written a few years before Ashmole 61, and in any case Rate does not seem to have been the author who turned the stanzaic life into couplets. That author introduced a few confused readings, further compounded in a few cases by Rate’s mistakes and revisions. But Rate does not seem to have altered his text very considerably, and in several cases his readings are preferable to those in the Brome manuscript.

Printed Editions

Horstmann, Carl, ed. Altenglische Legenden, neue Folge mit Einleitung und Anmerkungen. Pp. 236–41. [Prints the text of Ashmole 61, with variants from early prints.]

Smith, Lucy Toulmin, ed. A Common-place Book of the Fifteenth Century. London: Trübner and Co., 1886. Pp. 107–18. [Prints the incomplete text of the Brome MS.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 2673

See also Delany, Duffy (1990), Gravdal, Krahl, Larson (2002 and 2003), K. Lewis (1998 and 2000), Price, Reames, Robertson, Winstead, and Wogan-Browne (1994 and 2001) in the bibliography.

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