Since my last post, I’ve passed all my PhD exams, taken a few several weeks to recover, and gone to England for a couple of weeks. After my extended break, health issues, and a family visit, I am happy to be back and researching for my dissertation prospectus.
But first, I owe you all an adventure. Three months ago you voted on which should be my next blog post, and the tallies are in: Holy Women it is! Sorry for the delay.
In order to make up for lost time, I’ll do this in two installments.
Holy Woman #1: Constance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale: “the mediator”


Chaucer’s story is a bit more elaborate and stylized than its Anglo-Norman source, a chronicle by Trivet. This blend of saint’s life and romance could also be called “Murderous Mothers-in-Law.”
Synopsis: A syrian sultan converts to Christianity in order to marry Constance, a merchant’s daughter. She’s not particularly keen on the idea, but unlike the Wife of Bath admits that women “are born to thralldom and penance, and to be under man’s governance.” The sultan’s mother resents that he converted for the pretty little thing; accordingly she fakes conversion, kills all the converts of her own land, and exiles Constance to Italy. Constance is shipwrecked in Northumbria, where she’s saved by the pagan but sympathetic King Alla. After he and his people are converted by her “mediation,” Alla and marries Constance and goes off to war, leaving her at the mercy HIS vengeful mother. In an intricate fake-letter plot, Constance’s new mother-in-law exiles her and her son. Eventually Alla catches on, returns home, kills his mother, and takes pilgrimage to Rome.
It’s been five years since Constance and her son have been lost at sea; she’s never given up hope, and although she pales three times in the story, her faith and prayers sustain them. At long last they wash ashore in Rome, where the family is reunited.  Alla and Constance return to England, living happily for one year before he dies. Constance leaves for Rome to live out her days with her son, now Emperor Maurice.
Themes: Constance is plotted against by older, pagan women; she accepts her fate without self-pity or despair; she leads by example, giving no grand speeches but converting others (especially powerful men) by “mediation.” She is always humble, quietly accepting her fate and seeking God’s protection.
Holy Woman #2: St Cecilia in Chaucer’s formerly-known-as-second-nun’s-tale: “the big reveal”


Influenced by Richard Love, Augustine, and the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ, Chaucer’s S Cecilia is sometimes thought of as “the only good woman in the Canterbury Tales.” I take issue with that, but will let you make your own conclusions.
If Constance is patient and quietly brave, Cecilia is “busy” and urgently bold. We hear much more from Cecilia than we do from Custance, and I think part of that is due to genre: Man-of-Law’s Tale is hagio-romance, but Cecilia’s story is more strictly hagiographical. What fascinate me about Cecilia’s Tale (as I mentioned in my post on Values of the Hidden in 2011) are the visible elements of the story. There are secret angels, popes popping out of catacombs, magical golden books, covert meetings, clandestine conversions, but also spectacular confrontations and tortures.
Themes: Cecilia is nothing if not active; she engages in debates on logic and faith, and has strong ties to the secretive Christian community. She preaches for three days after being boiled and half-decapitated, emphasizing her role as one who reveals the truth of God as well as the “naked”ness of her fellow humans.

That’s all for now, but if you’re interested in reading more (and differently) about Chaucer, check out the mind-blowing Dark Chaucer: An Assortment.

Look out for my next post on holy women later this week:
Holy Woman #3: Julian of Norwich: “the visionary”
Holy Woman # 4: Margery Kempe: “the housewife”

Until then, here are some other sources of medieval holy women:

The Early South English Legendary
Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women
Bokenham’s Legends of Holy Women