Monthly Archives: March 2013

Spiritual Leprosy, Literal Stigmata: Bonaventure’s St. Francis and Open Wounds

The Life of St. Francis, as it is depicted in St. Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior, tells the story of one of the world’s most known and beloved saints, famous among many other things as being afflicted with the sacred stigmata. Though the he is only impressed with stigmata in the later part of his Life, the beginning of his Life hints at the stigmata as a spiritual theme, and I argue that Francis’s experience with the lepers is the moment that initiates the spiritual theme.

Bonaventure’s text is organized structurally into three parts, with the first and third being more or less chronological and the center section being presented thematically according to the virtues of St. Francis’s life. In other words, the bulk of the moral and theological work that the saint accomplishes is bookended on either side with biographical material that forms a framework for the life as a whole. The beginning section portrays Francis before he dedicates himself to a religious life, and the end deals with his stigmatization and death. Many scholars have discussed the stigmata that Francis receives at the end of the text, notably Ann Astell in her discussion of the saint’s wounds as adornments that function as “a gateway to paradise for others” (129). The climactic element of the stigmata from the last section is alluded to at the end of the opening chapters through prophetic foreshadowing, but closer examination of these chapters reveals that this stigmatization is also prefigured by Francis’s dealings with the lepers.

Sacred stigmata, as Astell points out, is a phenomenon that that “corresponds to the opening wide of the saint’s soul” (128) and allows Francis to act as the aforementioned gateway. The “sacred blood” (Bonaventure 164) that flows out of his side, however, reveals that the gateway itself is dialogic, and Francis is not only allowing the world to enter but simultaneously pouring himself and Christ into the world. This productive wound is in opposition to the lesions of leprosy that manifest as open sores on the skin but do not bleed profusely as stigmata seem to. Though Francis is not himself a leper at the beginning of the text, his first ministry, even before his conversion to the religious way of life, is to kiss and care for lepers. Miraculously, St. Francis does not physically contract leprosy, but through an understanding of his connection to spiritual senses we can posit that in a certain sense he has become a spiritual leper. This state carries all of the familiar connotations of biblical lepers and their affinity with Christ, as well as Francis’s desire to be socially ostracized. In addition, however, we can understand Francis’s spiritual body as having leprosy sores, or openings on himself to the world around him that do not yet issue forth sacred blood. This spiritual leprosy has made him open to conversion and attentive to being penetrated by the needs of the poor and his brothers around him, though he is not yet prepared for preaching until he has built up a pastoral persona.

By contrasting Francis’s state as a spiritual leper with his venerated stigmatic status at the end of his life, we can track a progression in his sainthood from inexperience to readiness. Bonaventure presents is with an example of the repetition with a different valence that characterizes much hagiography, and invites his readers to meditate on the openness of their own spirit.


Astell, Ann. Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Print.

Bonaventure, Saint. Legenda Maior. London: R. Washbourne, 1868. Print.

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Filed under Hagiography, St. Francis

Translating “The Wife’s Lament”

I made this translation of “The Wife’s Lament” for a class in Translating Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was meant to be a poetic translation, so I took the musical and lamenting nature of the poem and turned it into a ballad.

“The Wife’s Lament” is one of the most enigmatic poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, a body of literature that is never transparent at the best of times. Each critic that approaches the poem highlights the disputation about its meaning, and Murray McGillivray admits that “because the number of actors in this sad drama is unknown … and because the current situation of the speaker is so mysterious … we are free to speculate about who the speaker is and what her situation entails” (162). Since the meaning of the source text is far from clear, a so-called ‘faithful’ translation has little chance of making sense to its translated text audience. In this translation, I have transposed the wife’s song into a popular ballad form, and accepted McGillivray’s invitation to speculate on the speaker’s situation. Following Stacy Klein’s notion of the lament as a critique of the restrictiveness of female claustration, I have imagined this song as the tale of a woman who is forced into a religious community when her husband leaves on a long sea journey, and is not recalled upon his return. She feels exiled and alone because she has been separated from her kin, and the religious life seems foreign to her. The final section of the text constitutes advice for others in her situation to cope with the monastic way of life.

The Wife’s Lament

I sadly sing this song of mine,
Of my journey of misery.
I tell the tale as I grow old
True now as will ever be.

My exile-journey is full of woe
Since my lord went out to the deep,
My dawn-cares have been full of him
And all I have done is weep.              (8)

A friendless wretch, I went to seek,
A household for my need.
But the man’s kin thought to part our ways,
And set out to do the deed.

They willed us to live hatefully
Spread far across the land,
And while I yearned to be with him,
They did as they had planned.                        (16)

My lord ordered them to cloister me,
Where I had no faithful friend,
My lonely thoughts consumed my heart,
My spirits did descend.

I found my suited man was sad,
And thinking of a crime,
In joy we said we’d part at death,
But that was a different time.             (24)

Near and far I must take heed
Of my dear one’s enmity,
He made me live in an earthen cave
Beneath an old oak tree.

This old earth-hall has saddened me,
Its locale is dark and dim:
The valleys, hills and brambles
Make this dwelling very grim.            (32)

My lord’s departure seizes me,
When I think on it each day;
I know out there are lovers,
But it is here that I must stay.

There I must sit the summer-long day,
There I may curse my ban;
I might not rest my thoughts and cares
From longing for my man.                  (40)

If anyone shares my sad lot
May he harden his heart and mind,
He needs a glad demeanor,
His breast-care for to bind.

If he takes joy in his worldly self
Or is wrenched from his native soil,
Then he will sit in sorrow,
His heart in deep turmoil.                   (48)

His roof will be a stormy slope
All full of frosted stone
In dreary hall mid waters,
My lord will stand alone.

He’ll be thinking of the Joyous House
And so much sorrow will bear,
All woeful is the lover,
Who abides his Love with care!         (56)




Klein, Stacy S. “Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies.” A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes. Ed. Clare A Lees and Gillian R Overing. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 113-131. Print.

McGillivray, Murray. Old English Reader. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2011. Print.


Filed under Monasticism, Old English, Poetry, Translation, Women