Vashti and the Golden legend: A pagan queen turns saint?


Hagiographic texts establish a narrative template for shame, avoidance of shame, what looks like death wish in courtly literature. Scenes of shame and its avoidance through death are adapted and folded into romance and other genres and affect how characters behave and are described and gendered. This article treats saints’ lives as literary texts and identifies the language used for female saints in the Old French and Old Occitan versions of the Legenda aurea and uses that codified language to compare the hagiographic text with a vernacular Jewish narrative: the Occitan Romans de la reina Ester, written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets by Crescas Caslari in 1327.

This codification gives insight into how widespread such language and description became by the fourteenth century across language and culture barriers. Both the hagiographic texts and the romance are read as narrative, regardless of their intent for the original audiences. Acknowledging the deep-seated literary tradition of shame in a woman’s bodied existence and attempts to avoid that shame through dying, it is argued that both narratives have such substance and language in common that there may be crossover between the readers or writers of Jewish and Christian contemporary texts.

This article first establishes the critical approaches to the lives of the saints and the death wish more generally. Secondly, it shows one pattern of the death wish in the French and Occitan Golden legend, that of a desire for death to avoid shame. Thirdly, it presents the language of the death wish for a female character folded into a Jewish text and how the similarities between Christian and Jewish description of such a character could imply an even more widespread sharing of saints’ lives than just among a Christian community.



Hagiographic texts; narrative poetry; Occitan romance; Old French romance; Legenda Aurea; queen Esther; Cresques Caslari; Crescas Caslari; Crescas du Caylar; Jewish literature in romance; courtly literature; female hagiography; Judeo-Provençal; Bible

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