Mirabile translatu: Translating women and the miraculous in the later Middle Ages

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Medieval|Religion, History of|History, Medieval|Literature, English




The dissertation explores how illiterate holy women in the later Middle Ages were imagined to serve as both Latin and vernacular translators through the gift of xenoglossia, the sudden, miraculous ability to speak, understand, write, or read a foreign language. It argues that holy men and women experience their gifts of miraculous translation in strikingly different ways. Because gifts of xenoglossia could potentially challenge the clergy's control over scriptural access and interpretation, the clerical authors of the women's vitae strongly emphasized the limits experienced by the holy women in their practice and performance of their xenoglossic gifts, thereby demonstrating that the women translated in socially acceptable ways. ^ The first two chapters, “Mirabile Translatu: Gifts of Vernacular Tongues in the Later Medieval Vitae of Holy Men and Women” and “Novice Translators: Donum Latinitatis in the Vitae and Visionary Texts of Medieval Holy Women,” explore the vastly different roles for women as public and private vernacular and Latin translators in medieval saints' lives. These roles range from holy women rejecting their xenoglossic gifts because they consider it inappropriate for women to practice scriptural translation, to women engaging in all aspects of literate activity, including translating the Gospel discreetly for their confessors and teaching Scripture to fellow nuns. The third chapter, “Miraculous and Mundane Translation in The Book of Margery Kempe,” examines the Book's preoccupation with Margery's experiences of miraculous (xenoglossic) and mundane (everyday, non-miraculous) translation. It argues that both Margery and her scribe claim events of xenoglossic and mundane translation in the Book in order to associate Margery and her text with other saintly and visionary models, as well as to demonstrate her desire to control both her own access to religious practice and her own representation as a holy women. The fourth chapter, “Translating Women in The Canterbury Tales: Xenoglossia in the Tales of Custance and Canacee,” explores how Chaucer adapts the popular trope of women's Latinate and vernacular xenoglossia in order to explore questions of women's “appropriate” practice of translation in the genres of romance and hagiographic romance. ^