Jennifer N. Brown, Fruit of the Orchard: Reading Catherine of Siena in Late Medieval and Early Modern England

Jennifer N. Brown, Fruit of the Orchard: Reading Catherine of Siena in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2019. £56.99, ISBN 978-1-4875-0407-6 (hardback), pp. 312.

Reviewed by: Lisa Tagliaferri, Villa I Tatti, The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, May 2020.

Recent scholarship has been advancing our understanding of continental female religious figures in England including Catherine of Siena and the reception of her texts. Jennifer N. Brown’s Fruit of the Orchard is the first monograph-length treatment in this area, offering a thorough foundational study and the first complete survey of Catherine’s works and related texts in English. Brown’s contribution is very welcome, signalling increasing growth and interest in the field of Catherinian studies, and her careful book historical research has revealed important new findings. However, there is still work to be done, and as additional scholars approach these texts, there are opportunities to apply critical lenses on the English reception, especially in terms of comparative, gender, and translation studies.

Brown’s chapters offer a longitudinal study on texts related to Catherine of Siena. The first chapter addresses Stefano Maconi’s (referred to as “Stephen”) letter included in the Processo Castellano written in Latin and brought into an English context for a Carthusian audience. The second chapter discusses the relationship between William Flete and Catherine, and how their texts were influenced by a shared spirituality. Chapter 3 focusses on texts authored by Catherine herself, discussing their presence in the Medieval English miscellany tradition, and demonstrating how Catherine is almost entirely removed from her own writing and made a generic “sely soule” standing in for the reader (p. 87). The fourth chapter concerns the manuscript tradition of the English translation of Catherine’s Dialogo, considering its context within the Syon Abbey, from which the Orcherd of Syon derives its name. This chapter treats male translation, female readership, and the negotiation of feminine spirituality within the English context. Chapter 5 discusses the English translation of Raymond of Capua’s Latin hagiography on Catherine, the Legenda major or The Lyf of Katherin of Senis, and the wider print tradition of Catherinian texts (those by and about Catherine of Siena). The Conclusion is a chapter in its own right, discussing how the figure of Catherine in Early Modern England serves the purposes of many different readers, whether they were Catholic recusants or Protestant leaders.

The English interest in Catherine throughout this period is intriguing considering how few continental holy women were incorporated into the spiritual culture of England: the primary figure is Bridget of Sweden, but Brown demonstrates that Catherine is also quite significant. The monograph examines the provenance, production, distribution and reception of Catherinian texts, exploring questions related to authorship, authority, gender, reception, and practice. Brown’s successful efforts provide a comprehensive examination of the English texts dealing with Catherine, and provide a framework for the reader to understand how they fit into English spirituality of the period.

Brown’s rigorous approach to book history serves this monograph well. She builds on a 2014 article’s important attribution discovery that the “Cleannesse of Sowle” — which had previously been believed to be an excerpt of Catherine’s Dialogo — is instead a translation of William Flete’s Documento Spirituale.[1] The Latin original predates Catherine’s writing and concerns Flete’s account of one of her ecstatic visions. This finding will influence the way scholars read these texts in the future. Brown not only amends errors in authorship, but also traces the provenance of texts; she offers the compelling argument that Bridgettines — including Bridgettine nuns — were ultimately responsible for Catherine’s integration into English culture. The Bridgettine double monastery known as the “Paradiso” in Florence disseminated Catherine’s texts through nun scribes and disseminators, and Symon Wynter (a Bridgettine scribe and translator) likely brought these texts back with him to Syon in the early 15th century (113). Brown also introduces the conception of Catherine of Siena as a figure that can serve various needs. She demonstrates this by considering how Catherine is perceived across pre-Reformation Catholic orders (male and female), and during the Reformation by both Protestants and recusants. Brown’s arguments bring light to how Catherine has continued to resonate throughout history and diverse contexts.

While the historical research contributes significantly to the field, the close reading of these translated texts can create confusion for the reader. There is no theoretical apparatus undergirding the approach to translation, and textual agency is largely granted to the author writing in Latin or Italian rather than to the Middle English translator or reader. Discussion of Middle English diction with “wrecche”, “feigning”, and “shewed of deuocyone” being attributed to Maconi who wrote in Latin; and the collapsing of the Orcherd of Syon with Catherine’s intentions behind the Dialogo(except for the framing narrative) make it difficult for the reader to separate the linguistic strands and cultural contexts being discussed (p. 49; pp. 122-127). When close reading between languages is done, more attention could open intriguing arguments. Brown writes, “Indeed, the Latin in [Raymond of Capua’s Legenda major] speaks to any ‘lector,’ but it is the English translator who calls the reader a ‘maiden’…” (p. 153). Though we may read “lector” as neutral today, Raymond’s Latin reader is not “any ‘lector’” — he is a male reader in grammar and personhood (contemporary women lacked Latin literacy). Significantly, the English translator of the hagiography intentionally recasts the gender of the reader, creating an entirely new text that offers agency to a female audience. Greater attention to these translated texts could serve the reader well through discussing how English writers’ intentions may differ from those of the Latin and Italian authors.

Throughout, the Fruit of the Orchard is quite aware that it is treating a female writer: “Although this book is in many ways about women … it is bookended by men” (p. 200). Male figures are highlighted through considerable discussion on how Catherine was influenced by men, how her texts were reimagined by men, and how she as a figure was reinterpreted by men. In the fourth chapter, Brown underscores that “a woman’s text, a woman’s devotion, a woman’s house” does not mean that the Orcherd should be read as “unavoidably gendered,” pointing to the continuous male ownership of the surviving manuscripts (p. 128). While an argument for the universality of Catherine’s writing is worthwhile (if that is what being “ungendered” signifies), this is more evidenced in the male figures who championed her work and found value in translating her texts, than by emphasizing the financial inequity that benefitted men throughout history via their ability to purchase objets d’art like medieval manuscripts.

Despite the attention given to men, Brown brings female figures to light who are central to the propagation of Catherine’s texts and her spiritual construction in England. These women were among those who advanced the idea of an “English Catherine”; brought into being by the contributions by English nuns and their networks of lay women, the women who were connected to printers in England (like Margaret Beaufort), historical women likely influenced by Catherine (like Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Elizabeth Barton), and even Mary Tudor who championed the reopening of Syon. Significantly, this network of English women mirrors the community of Italian women contemporaneous with Catherine, who served as scribes and teachers, provided her with resources and housing, and worked alongside her to spread her spirituality. While this volume begins the crucial work of bringing new findings to the fore, analytically considers the fruitful literary atmosphere of the Syon Abbey, and uncovers overlooked historical figures, future work can continue to reach in these directions towards a greater understanding of an English Catherine.

1 Jennifer N. Brown, “The Many Misattributions of Catherine of Siena: Beyond The Orchard In England.” The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, vol. 41 no. 1, 2015, pp. 67-84. [return to text]