Category Archives: Hagiography

Business or Busyness?: The Life of St. Cecelia in Chaucer and Bokenham

In her discussion of Osbern Bokenham’s The Legend of Holy Women as part of the corpus of grossly undervalued fifteenth-century literature, Sheila Delany adds “study in fifteenth-century Chaucer reception” (4) to its list of theological, aesthetic, and historical values. As the “first all-female legendary in English” (Delany 4), the text owes a debt to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and in the case of his treatment of St. Cecelia, The Second Nun’s Tale. Though Bokenham is explicit about his use of Jacobus of Voragine’s The Golden Legend as a source, and indeed his finished product shares much with Voragine’s text, it is clear that Bokenham was “an attentive reader of Chaucer” (25). Such a famous English predecessor could not be ignored when writing another version of the same saint’s life. The major differences between the two versions are thus brought into sharp relief, as Bokenham and his audience would have been keenly aware of any deviations the later translator of Voragine rejected or retained. The most significant of these is the two texts’ treatment of economic practices, as found in Bokenham’s exchange economy and Chaucer’s “bisynesse” (SNT 5).

As with so many elements of The Golden Legend, certain features of the legend of St. Cecelia might cause theological discomfort for its readers. In particular, Cecelia’s lecture to the emperor’s men about the mercantile exchange of her worldly life for an eternal one might strike some as contrary to Christian doctrine of God’s unconditional generosity, as Delany points out. While Chaucer removes this portion entirely, Bokenham amplifies the scene, and gives it plenty of space and monetary language such as where “Voragine is considerably terser” (Delany 100). Bokenham’s Cecilia compares this life and the next to a “penny” and a “shilling” (Bokenham 152), which Delany admits may “have been theologically suspect, for the commercial metaphor is at odds with one of the most basic Christian doctrines, the definition of grace as an absolutely free and unmerited gift of God” (Delany 100). She offers as a possible explanation for Chaucer’s omission of the speech that “such attention to finances struck some readers as repulsively materialistic” (100), but his frank treatment of such matters elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales and his other works makes this squeamishness seem unlikely. Rather than an attempt to avoid repulsing his readers, especially from a writer who elsewhere in The Summoner’s Tale includes a discussion of the best way to divide a fart between 12 friars, Chaucer’s differing treatment of the mercantile theme of the legend of St. Cecelia simply takes a different form in his prologue.

Though the omission of economic language in this section of Chaucer’s text is balanced out, or exchanged, in his prologue by a lengthy discussion of “bisynesse” (SNT 5). Though Voragine briefly mentions that Cecelia is “busy” (Voragine) in his prologue, Bokenham omits busyness entirely, which seems deliberate considering the amount of space devoted to it by Chaucer. The narrator of Chaucer’s prologue, presumably the Second Nun, starts out by warning her listeners that they must do everything they can to mindfully engage in busyness, lest the Fiend exchange their industry for idleness (SNT 7). Chaucer retains the concept of having to exchange something for one’s entry into Heaven, but figures the tokens of exchange more literally as “good werkynge” (116) or even the narrator’s “translacioun” (25) of Cecelia’s legend. Chaucer’s text’s treatment of industry and exchange ensure that this element is included in his text, but in a more exegetical manner that illuminates what Cecelia means when she uses these terms

Since Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale was a well known text in Bokenham’s era, he must have had a deliberate reason for rejecting the changes Chaucer made to the tale and indeed accentuating the parts of Voragine’s text that Chaucer rejected. Delany posits that this move is in support of the Augustinian doctrine that he was committed to by holy orders, as Augustine writes of salvation that “this marvelous exchange was made, these divine transactions accomplished” (qtd. in Delany 102). In addition to these reasons, however, I argue that Bokenham had further motivation for allowing St. Cecelia to make this speech instead of pushing it to a more straightforward prologue. Bokenham was politically controversial in his time because in an era when any preaching was expressly forbidden to women, he “gave voice to his female saints” (Bokenham 90) in a variety of contexts, preacherly and otherwise. This iteration of the legend gives the most verbal agency to Cecelia, allowing her to expound on a controversial doctrinal point in a controversial manner, and move beyond the safe and easy recitation of received wisdom. Though Voragine, Chaucer, and Bokenham all deal with the theme of spiritual economy in their retellings of the legend of St. Cecelia, Bokenham uses the occasion of his translation to be politically subversive and take a doctrinal stand on women’s preaching.

Bokenham, Osbern. A Legend of Holy Women. Trans. Sheila Delany. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1992. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987. 262-9.

Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend: Selections. Trans. Christopher Stace. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hagiography, St. Cecelia, Women

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hagiography, St. Francis