The Middle English Life of Saint Dorothy in Trinity College, Dublin MS 319: Origins, parallels, and its relationship to Osbern Bokenham’s Legendys of Hooly Wummen

Traditio, 62: 259–284 (2007)

By Larissa Tracy

During the Middle Ages, collections of hagiography were among the most widely circulated texts, serving as both inspirational and instructional stories. The legends of virgin martyrs were some of the most popular. These young women were venerated for their ability to withstand torture in defiance of tyranny and served as models for medieval piety. One of these accounts, the legend of Saint Dorothy, is extant in at least three different Middle English versions, including select manuscripts of the 1438 Gilte Legende and Osbern Bokenham’s 1447 Legendys of Hooly Wummen. The earlier history of the legend of Saint Dorothy, unknown in Greek tradition and venerated in the West since the seventh century, has been well described by Kirsten Wolf in her edition of the Icelandic redaction.[i] Despite its relationship to many of the other fictitious hagiographical legends that came into existence in the fourth and fifth centuries based on the various calendars and martyrologies, and its development as a virgin martyr legend, Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230­–1298) did not include the legend of Saint Dorothy in his Legenda aurea, compiled between 1252 and 1260.[ii] In 1483, William Caxton included her life in his Golden Legend, a printed collection of saints’ lives in English compiled from manuscripts of the LgA, the Légende dorée of Jean de Vignay (ca. 1282–after 1340), and the GiL. She does not appear in any of the Légende dorée manuscripts, nor does she appear in any English versions of the LgA, except the newly discovered manuscript found among Sir Walter Scott’s collection at Abbotsford House.[iii] But Dorothy does appear in several continental LgA manuscripts.[iv] Bokenham included Dorothy in his Legendys which survives only in BL Arundel MS 327, a version it seems he also inserted in his LgA with very little alteration.[v] The later inclusion of Dorothy’s legend in vernacular versions of the LgA was the most significant contribution to the spread of the legend; it exists in no fewer than eleven legendaries and thirteen independent texts from Germany and the Netherlands and was included by Christine de Pizan (ca. 1365­–ca. 1430) in her Livre de la cité des dames, even though the legend was less popular in France.[vi] Despite the existence of her legend in numerous manuscripts and its later inclusion in the LgA, scholars have been unable to identify the source of the later Middle English translations and adaptations, specifically the version of Dorothy found in Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 319 and Bokenham’s version in the Legendys.[vii] I will argue that TCD 319’s Dorothy and Bokenham’s Dorothy both go back to the same Latin original represented by Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria Cod. 2800, fols. 65r–66v (Bibliotheca hagiographica latina [BHL] 2325d), and that Bokenham used the version in the Dublin manuscript as the model for his own rendition.


[i] Kirsten Wolf, The Icelandic Legend of Saint Dorothy, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Studies and Texts 130 (Toronto, 1997), 1. See also Wolf, “The Legend of St. Dorothy: Medieval Vernacular Renderings and Their Latin Sources,” Analecta bollandiana 114 (1996): 41–72. Wolf’s study of the Icelandic version of Dorothy is the most comprehensive study on this virgin legend to date; she provides examples and redactions of the legend stemming from the earliest Latin hagiographical calendars through the vernacular traditions of the fifteenth century, and the circulation of this legend into the nineteenth century. However, her study is primarily concerned with the “standard” version of Dorothy as found in the manuscripts of the GiL, its possible Latin predecessors, and its evolution in Icelandic. She acknowledges the version of Dorothy found in Dublin, Trinity College Library (TCD) MS 319 and its variance from the other GiL versions, but only touches on it, following Manfred Görlach’s lead in The South English Legendary: Gilte Legende and Golden Legend, Braunschweiger Anglistische Arbeiten 3 (Braunschweig, 1972), reexamined in his Studies in Middle English Saints’ Legends (Heidelberg, 1998), 94 n. 153. Görlach provides a comprehensive and invaluable discussion of GiL scholarship and a detailed analysis of the GiL manuscripts in both works. For further information on the South English Legendary, see Oliver Pickering, “The Temporale Narratives of the South English Legendary,” Anglia 91 (1973): 425–55; idem, The South English Ministry and Passion, (Heidelberg, 1984); and idem, “The Outspoken South English Legendary Poet,” in Late Medieval Religious Texts and Their Transmission, ed. A. J. Minnis (Cambridge, 1994), 21–37, among others.
The first mention of the virgin martyr from Cappadocia is in connection with Theophilus, the scholar and notary converted through her miracles and tortured after her execution, in the Matryrologium Hieronymianum falsely attributed to Saint Jerome (ca. 341–420) and drawn up in northern Italy in the second half of the fifth century (Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 1–2). According to Wolf, the oldest manuscripts of this legend date from the eighth century and depend on a single Gallican recension made either in Auxerre between 592 and 600 or at Luxeuil between 627 and 628, whose source was a series of liturgical calendars that merely mention the saints’ names, date of commemoration, and place of martyrdom. These include: the work of the Chronographer of 354 continued to 420, the Syriac Breviary or Calendar of Antioch compiled between 362 and 381, and an African calendar, as well as other unknown sources (Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 2). These calendar references are the only known mention of Dorothy before the Middle Ages, when her legend seems to have been written; the oldest known version of the legend is found in Saint Aldhelm’s (639–709) didactic tract De laudibus virginitatis, addressed to Abbess Hildelitha of Barking Abbey, Essex (Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 2). From that point on, Dorothy is mentioned in Bede’s (673–735) martyrology ca. 720; the martyrology of Rabanus Maurus (776/784–856), archbishop of Mainz, who added more details to Bede’s brief account, including the names of Dorothy’s sisters listed as “Christae and Calistae”; and the martyrology of the Viennese archbishop Ado (ca. 800–875) (Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 6). Ado’s text served as the foundation for the monk Usuard (d. 877) whose work would become “the model for every later Roman martyrology” (Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 3–6).
This article is based on “TCD MS 319: A Version of Bokenham’s Life of Saint Dorothy or His Source?” delivered at the Early Book Society sponsored session of the International Medieval Congress at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, May 2000. I would like to thank Richard Hamer, Vida Russell, V. J. Scattergood, A.I. Doyle, A.S.G. Edwards, Simon Horobin, Penn Szittya, Raymond Cormier, J. Patrick Hornbeck, Carolyn Craft, and Owen Delaney for all of their insightful suggestions on this article, and the Trinity College Library for granting me access to this manuscript during my research. I would also like to thank Traditio’s anonymous reader and editorial board for their useful comments.
The following abbreviations are used throughout: ALL = Additional Lives of the Gilte Legende; BHL = Bibliotheca hagiographica latina; GiL = Gilte Legende; LgA = Legenda aurea; Legendys = Legendys of Hooly Wummen.
[ii] Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 8. The LgA has been translated and edited by both William Granger Ryan and Christopher Stace; see Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. and ed. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1993); and The Golden Legend, ed. Christopher Stace with an introduction by Richard Hamer (Middlesex, 1998). Richard Hamer edited the lives of three male saints from all the GiL manuscripts in 1978. Auvo Kurvinen completed an edition of the life of Saint Catherine from seven manuscripts in 1960 for her Oxford D.Phil. thesis “The Life of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Middle English Prose” (Oxford, 1961). The Middle English manuscripts are being fully edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell who are currently working on a critical edition of the manuscripts of the GiL for the EETS. Also see Richard Hamer, Three Lives from the Gilte Legende Edited from MS BL Egerton 876 (Heidelberg, 1978); Hamer, Gilte Legende, vol. 1, EETS, o. s., 327 (Oxford, 2006); and Richard Hamer and Vida Russell, Supplementary Lives in Some Manuscripts of the Gilte Legende, EETS, o. s., 315 (Oxford, 2000).
There are eight more or less complete manuscripts of the GiL, and three additional manuscripts containing selections that date from the beginning to the latter half of the fifteenth century. Some of these manuscripts contain material not derived from LgA, so the process of translating the collection also involved adding cognate material. From a very early stage there was a tendency for extra lives, often of local interest, to be added to these manuscripts as well. The legend of Saint Dorothy appears in a large number of LgA manuscripts, some of them early and most of them written north of the Alps, which correlates with her popularity in Germany.
There is some question whether all the GiL manuscripts were translated only from the French, as stated in the colophon to Oxford, Bodleian MS Douce 372, which also gives the date 1438, or if some were translated directly from Latin sources, as suggested by the inscription at the end of Harley 630: “Here endeth the Boke of the life of Seintes called in latyn legenda aurea compiled and drawen into englissh bi worthi clerkes and doctors of Diuinite [suengly] aftre þe tenure of þe latin.” Görlach highlights this disparity in Studies, 71 n. 99. For further information on the GiL manuscripts see Görlach, Studies, 71–145; Hamer and Russell, Supplementary Lives; Larissa Tracy, Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints’ Lives (Suffolk, 2003); and eadem, “British Library MS Harley 630: Saint Alban’s and Lydgate,” Journal of the Early Book Society 3 (2000): 36–58.
[iii] For more information about this new and exciting find, see Simon Horobin, “The Angle of Oblivioun: A Lost Medieval Manuscript discovered in Walter Scott’s Collection,” Times Literary Supplement, 11 November 2005, 12–13. Horobin convincingly dates this manuscript at 1449 or later, according to a reference in the text to poet John Lydgate’s death. He also notes that Bokenham included additional lives in his version of the LgA, including the saints in his Legendys of Hooly Wummen. Further work on this manuscript may yield more evidence relating Caxton’s version of Dorothy to the one in the Abbotsford House LgA, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
[iv] Görlach, Studies, 96 n. 154; Barbara Fleith, “Studien zur Überlieferungsgeschichte der lateinischen Legenda Aurea,” Subsida Hagiographica 72 (1991), quoted in Görlach, 96.
[v] For additional information concerning the contents of Advocates Library Abbotsford MS, see Simon Horobin, “A Manuscript Found in the Library of Abbotsford House and the Lost Legendary of Osbern Bokenham,” Regional Manuscripts: English Manuscript Studies, ed. Peter Beal, vol. 14, English Manuscript Studies, 1100–1700 (in press).
[vi] Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 18, 32. Wolf gives a full discussion on the vernacular versions of Dorothy, including German, French, Icelandic, and English, but my focus here is the Middle English redactions, primarily the one found in TCD 319.
[vii] Cf. Görlach, South English Legendary; see also idem, Studies, 94 n. 153; and Wolf, Icelandic Legend, 36–37.