Virgin martyrs in pre-modern England: emulation, appropriation, and refashioning
Khomenko, Natalia N.
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This dissertation explores literary representations of virgin martyrs in England from the thirteenth century into the reign of Charles I. Previous studies have identified the social significance of the literary virgin martyrs but, viewing them as a specifically medieval phenomenon, have traced them only as far as the fifteenth century. My project takes up post-Reformation discussions and representations of virgin martyrs, from Reginald Scot's suggestion in The Discoverie of Witchcraft that St. Cecilia's angel is a witch's familiar, to the staging of St. Dorothea as a prop of religious transition in Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger's The Virgin Martyr. I demonstrate that the appropriation and re-fashioning of the virgin martyr merges with the post-Reformation project of repudiating the Catholic past and constructing a new national and religious identity. Joining the scholarly movement that revises the argument of an impassable divide between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I contend that the transformations of this popular figure point to the ongoing negotiations of literary models available to female audiences and serve as a point of access to issues of periodization and cultural self-definition. Exploring the conjunction in Renaissance texts between historiographical anxiety and the fear of the female miracle worker, I argue that the Protestant unease directed at this figure has its origins in the tension, building throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century, between the patristic ideal of the silent and hidden holy virgin and the dynamic revision of her in the South English Legendary, an extensively copied thirteenth-century collection of vernacular saints' lives. This dissertation explores the subversive conduct models offered by the virgin martyr to the female audience, with a specific focus on Margery Kempe, and the progressive revision of the female martyr model by numerous male writers. A close reading of several early modern plays, including William Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI and Pericles, identifies the virgin martyr as the focal point for coming to terms with the persistent influence of the Catholic past on the newly Protestant nation.