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LHMP #260 Price 2003 I Want to Be Alone

Full citation: 

Price, Paul. 2003. “I Want to Be Alone: The Single Woman in Fifteenth-Century Legends of St. Katherine of Alexandria” in The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation, ed. by Laurel Amtower and Dorothea Kehler. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-06698-306-6

Publication summary: 

A collection of articles on the general topic of how single women are represented in history and literature in medieval and early modern England. Not all of the articles are clearly relevant to the LHMP but I have included all the contents.

I Want to Be Alone

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The legend of the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria became immensely popular in the 14-15th century. It presents the fairly standard story of the Christian daughter of a pagan ruler who resists marriage and supports the Christian community despite increasingly violent threats and punishments. With her increased popularity in the later middle ages, there is a shift from the tone of the earlier texts as “passio” (focused on suffering and martyrdom) to a more detailed “life story” (focusing on the details and context of the subject’s life).

Unlike legends of virgin martyrs who resist marriage after--and due to--converting to Christianity, Katherine is still pagan when she initially resists marriage. She is not resisting as a “bride of Christ” who is therefore unavailable to an earthly bridegroom (which stories omit singlehood as an option) but rather because she sees no need to marry in order to be an effective ruler to her people. She envisions the perfect husband who might overcome her objections but only as a hypothetical impossibility (not recognizing that she is describing Christ). Thus, her legend creates a transition between “bride of Christ” as the only alternative to marriage, and singlehood for its own sake.

This theme is even more developed in John Capgrove’s version of the biography (mid 15th century) which focuses on individual and personal details of Katherine’s life and the reasons for her choice of singlehood. He depicts Katherine as expressing a desire for a single vocation apart from a focused dedication to Christ. Capgrove’s Kathering uses the idea of the “perfect man” whom she’d be willing to marry as a rejection of marriage, not a premonition of Christ.

Price considers the question of why a text with this angle should become particularly popular in 15th century England. He suggests it is part of a trend for lay people, and especially lay women, taking ownership of their religious lives. Price provides as supporting evidence other works by Capgrove that are clearly designed and intended for a female patron and reader. There is a shift in women viewing religious life as requiring rejection of the world to including religious devotion as part of a secular life. There is a comparison to anchorites (religious recluses not part of a convent community) who reject the model of religious devotion as a “bride of Christ” and for whom a broader set of options and motivations are considered valid.

Time period: 

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