Saint Margaret and the Medieval Impression of Memory

I am currently studying for a Masters in Medieval English literature and had two term papers to hand in over Christmas. The first, which had to broadly be about sex, gender and culture in medieval literature, was an essay on the thirteenth century Seinte Margarete: the story of a Christian virgin martyr tortured by a lusty pagan named Olibrius, whose offer of marriage she refuses because of her spiritual marriage to Christ. Margaret is stoic and steadfast and not only survives her tortures, but also miraculously bursts forth from the belly of a dragon who has swallowed her (an exciting subsidiary detail). My essay was about textual materiality – the partible text and the textual relic – and took as its starting point a wonderful quotation from Jocelyn Wogan-Browne’s ‘The Apple’s Message’:

‘[Saint’s] Bodies are partible yet whole […] texts are partible, but when they too are a form of relic, their fragments, like their material components, retain the meaning and force of the whole text.’

The best part of the essay though, was having an excellent excuse to book an appointment with the British Museum’s Medieval department to handle some of the seals and rings associated with Saint Margaret.

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13th century personal seal matrix, front view, Museum no.1858,0218.1

Any member of the book can book an appointment with a small selection of objects and get inside the curators’ offices. I was particularly interested to see the seals associated with Saint Margaret as the text I was working on introduces an original use of the metaphor of sealing to think about the virgin’s relationship to Christ, and to authorise her body as saintly. I wanted to think of seals as functioning as ‘textual symbols’ and therefore partible textual relics of Seinte Margarete.

Like the contact-relics of medieval saints’ cults, these symbolic signatures functioned to present rather than re-present the signatories. This thirteenth century seal from the British Museum collection (see image 1) depicts the Virgin Mary with a clerical figure to her left and St Margaret with the dragon at her feet on the right. Below the Virgin, we see Christ on the cross with St John and the Virgin again (this time with a dagger in her bosom), on either side of him. The matrix is made from silver, a divine metal used to imbue the impression with its purity, and is elaborately engraved on its back (see image 2), suggesting that the matrix was more than a simply functional object and may have had its own religious symbolism.

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13th century personal seal matrix, rear view, Museum no.1858,0218.1

There are also later St Margaret seals held in the British Museum collection which depict the saint alone (see image 3 and 4). There has been very little research into what function seals with religious imagery may have performed, or what significance such sealing imagery may have had, but like the other objects associated with the saints’ cult, the seal worked as a contact relic in presenting the wishes of the owner, and therefore the owners themselves. The use of the saint’s image on a seal appears to invoke the saint’s presence as another witness in the authorisation of the document. The saint may have been remembered with each new impression of matrix into wax, (a satisfying reflection of the process of memory itself) but there is space for a possible imagined contact here too, a contact made between sealer and saint in the act of sealing.

Seals were highly personal objects, usually marked by a ‘design’ and a ‘legend’ which constructed personal identity for the authentication of a document’s source. But they were also evidence of a bodily contact, as seals often retained fingerprints and hairs pressed into the wax, an incredibly corporeal re-presenting of the sealer’s wishes. This textual symbol had a powerful connection to the body of its owner, much like the relationship between saint and hagiography.

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14th Century St Margaret seal, belonging to the Guild of Horsham. British Museum No. 1987,0403.20

Unrelated to my essay in the end, but as something of an extra treat, I also saw two gold black letter inscribed rings from the 15th century, which both included textual mnemonics in some form. The one ring was inscribed on the inside so that words touched skin.

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15th century St Margaret gold ring, inscribed in black letter.

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1 comment
  1. pattyplum said:

    An excellent and interesting piece.

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