The Legend of St. Catherine: Its Meaning and Literary Coordinates

The poet who wrote The Legend of St. Catherine sometime in the third quarter of the fourteenth century is as deeply veiled in anonymity as the authors of most other works of Old Czech literature, but he nevertheless attracts more attention than they do. It is with him that the tradition of the Czech versified epic – which began around 1300 with The Dalimil Chronicle, the Alexandreida, and the first legends in Czech – and indeed Czech medieval literature in general starts to feel the unprecedented need to express creative individuality and to materialize personal and personally nuanced life experience in verbal form. There is no simple and direct way to characterize The Legend of St. Catherine. To understand it by and large as a religious work and see it exclusively in connection with the tradition of versified legends would be to obstruct the path to understanding it and its true place in literary history. To all appearances, the author of The Legend of St. Catherine was a cleric in a court environment, and two worlds intersect in his poem: ecclesiastic and laic. We will not understand the work so long as we underestimate the importance of this fact.

There is no Czech expression corresponding to the term “cleric” [klerik] as I am using it here. The French and the Italians use this term to designate a medieval scholar who has completed a Latin education that has prepared him for a profession in the Church. However, he is not necessarily a member of the clergy, and he often has not even passed the first level of holy orders. Many clerics were active at feudal courts, to which they brought the ideal of a cultivated life, enlightened by education and art, and they in turn absorbed the ideal of heroism, which had taken root among the military nobility. As a result of the intertwining of these ideals, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries the European West-Provence and northern France – saw the emergence of a chivalrous – courtly conception of life, which became a driving force behind the expansion of national literatures.

This type of writer was common in the early days of Czech literature as well. We know but little about the authors of the oldest epics, which – unlike previous, isolated attempts to use the national language in lieu of Latin – gave the Czech literary language permanent validity. However, if we reduce what we can read with certainty in the texts that have been preserved to a common denominator, we find that they were written by clerics working either among or in close contact with the laic nobility. The author of The Dalimil Chronicle, for instance – who has been identified in older studies, with typical cheerlessness, sometimes as a nobleman in the clergy, sometimes as a laic nobleman – joined the ideal of heroism with a call for books to preserve the nation’s history, the buttress of the nation’s existence. Similarly, through his cultivated paraphrasing, meant for the politically and culturally maturing nobility of the time, the author of the Alexandreida liberated Gautier of Châtillon’s poem about Alexander the Great, which was renowned at the time, from the spell of Latin and the burden of classical erudition, becoming the first to introduce the model of the chivalric hero into Czech literature. The authors of the first versified legends on the one hand transplanted education, which until then had been accessible only to those who knew Latin, into the realm of the nobility, and on the other hand used motifs taken from the chivalric lifestyle in stories, usually added to the life of Jesus Christ and his disciples.

The intersection of the ecclesiastical and laic realms that influenced the writing of the oldest Czech epics had direct social and political causes relating to the development of the Czech state at the turn of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The upper feudal layer of society, which until then had been fascinated by German culture, opened up to national consciousness, which was emerging from ecclesiastical circles. Like the latter before them, the feudal lords were starting to become aware of the danger of mounting German influence in their lands. As they became more conscious of their national identity, they felt the need for literature in their native tongue. Writers in Czech were sometimes quite different from each other: so-called Dalimil was a staunch advocate of venerable national identity, whereas the author of the Alexandreida was a refined, European-style man of letters. Nevertheless, the fervid activity that we can discern in their work and the shared characteristics of the oldest epics constitute a permanent contribution to the young national literature, from both a literary and a cultural-historical point of view. Until the Hussite era, the penetration of the worlds of education and the Church into the environment of the nobility, enriched by new cultural initiatives, is one of the constants of this period.

Against this background we shall elucidate what it was about the subject of The Legend of St. Catherine that fascinated the author, or, more precisely, perhaps, what he found in it. Our knowledge about St. Catherine as a historical figure is hazy at best. Her martyrdom is dated to the year 305 or 307 in Alexandria, but since the eighteenth century Catholic scholars themselves do not consider the other information that has been given about her life to be historically conclusive. However, the cult of St. Catherine, which began to circulate in the Western Church in the eleventh century, gave recognizable shape to her character. It focused on her martyrdom, the extraordinary miracles attributed to her, and her erudition, for which she became the patron of the faculty of free arts of the university in Paris and later the protectress of universities in general. In Bohemia, Charles IV himself propagated and advanced the cult of St. Catherine, ascribing to her aid his 1332 victory in the battle by San Felice Castle in northern Italy and the very fact that he survived it. The favor enjoyed by the saint in Bohemia from the second half of the fourteenth century, thanks in large part to Charles IV, doubtlessly influenced the author of the legend; indeed, it has even been suggested that the Emperor may have commissioned the work. It is possible that a powerful sponsor may indeed have chosen the subject, but the poem offers no evidence to support the hypothesis that it was written for Charles IV. On the contrary, overall, its themes differ significantly from the Emperor’s literary and intellectual interests. Whether the author was guided by the period’s interest in the saint, someone else’s request, or deeper, personal reasons, one thing is for sure: his chosen subject was in harmony with the cultural influences that had formed his personality.

As Franz Spina has shown, he took the material for the legend from two Latin prose legends: Fuit in insula Cypri rex quidam, nomine Costus (There Was a King Named Costus on the Island of Cyprus) and Tradunt annales historie (Historical Annals Recount). However, he emphasized in his heroine the conjunction of erudition, which triumphs over pagan heresies, and beauty, which is illuminated by noble birth and courtly sentimental culture. He thus imparted new meaning to the borrowed material.

The beginning of The Legend of St. Catherine could just as easily be the beginning of a courtly novel. It is full of motifs borrowed from courtly poetry, and the account of the heroine’s parents’ lives before her life recalls the “genealogical” compositional scheme frequently used by authors of courtly novels. Catherine is portrayed as a beautiful and educated girl who, after the death of her father, King Costus, refuses to marry, for she is convinced that no one is her equal. Legenda Fuit in insula Cypri, which the poet draws from in the first part of his work, is a simple, pious narrative, but it unwittingly contains a much more profound conflict: what prevents Catherine from marrying is her sense of a transcendental world. In comparison with the scope of the Latin model, which is narrow, but full of sincere feeling, the Czech poem may seem intrinsically poor at first. However, by replacing exceptional humanity with a proud princess, it in fact sets up a character development that is incomparably more dramatic.

When Catherine refuses to marry the son of the Emperor Maxentius himself, her mother persuades her to accompany her on a visit to a Christian hermit whom she trusts, hoping the hermit will overcome her daughter’s inflexibility with his wisdom. At her request, the pilgrim does exhort Catherine to marry, and he even describes to her a king who would not only be her equal, but would be superior to her in everything. He has in mind, however, not an earthly ruler, but the Son of God. When at the beginning of the poem the sober statement of the legend of Fuit in insula Cypri that Catherine “was superior to all other girls in the city” is transformed into a hyperbolic image similar to those used in courtly poetry to evoke feminine beauty, it may seem that this is merely a nod to fashion. However, when the pilgrim uses typical images of loveliness inspired by both ecclesiastical and courtly poetry to describe the mother of Christ, about whom the Latin legend dryly states that she “is supremely beautiful above all women and most merciful and her name is Mary,” we recognize that the hyperbolic image of beauty and other components of the courtly romance are an organic part of the author’s conception.

Catherine does not understand that her counselor is talking about the King of Heaven, and the mystery of his counsel agitates her. Before they leave, the hermit gives her a picture of the King about whom he was speaking and His mother, and he tells her to kneel in front of the image when she is alone and humbly ask the mother to reveal her son to her. Pride gives way to longing, and Catherine cannot wait for evening to come. When the time comes, something difficult to define captivates us: the quotidian bustle has quieted at the royal residence, everyone has gone to bed, the lights have been extinguished, and the beautiful girl, alone with her perplexity, lights a small flame in the darkness and immerses herself in her longing.

One moving detail best illustrates the inspiring power of feminine beauty and the enchanting potential of loving tenderness that the poet felt. When Catherine falls asleep, the Virgin Mary urges her son to show the girl his face, because, she says, the girl is so beautiful, and her love has caused her such pain. Christ explains that Catherine’s virtues are not yet sufficient to warrant this favor, because she is a pagan. What is strange is that he responds as though the Virgin Mary had included among Catherine’s virtues erudition, wisdom, noble birth, and wealth, although she had not said a word about them. This discrepancy strikes us and we do not know how to understand it until we realize that the reason for it is simple: Christ is not responding to the Virgin Mary’s words in the Czech text, but her words in the legend Fuit in insula Cypri, where she says, “Do you not see, my Son, the girl Catherine, who is longing to see your face and desires you as her groom, how beautiful, wise, rich, and noble she is?” In other words, in Christ’s response the poet kept to the Latin legend without realizing that he had left out all of Catherine’s virtues except beauty in the preceding lines. He was so captivated by her image that it made him forget the coherence of his narrative.

We have said that images and motifs from courtly poetry are woven through The Legend of St. Catherine from the beginning. With Catherine’s budding love, the model simply blossoms with them in the hands of the Czech poet: the simple statement that Catherine “longed to be not the bride, but the servant” of the Son of God is transformed into a promise of a service of love; the colorless sentence, “it truly seemed to her that she was in a most beautiful and lovely place,” into the motif of spring nature, borrowed from courtly love songs; the remark that Catherine “was sorrowful” when Christ refused to show his face, into grief caused by both her own amorous feeling and the disfavor of the object of her love. Moreover, the central idea of the entire dream is the image of distant love, one of the primary and most typical motifs of courtly poetry. The Virgin Mary herself is touched by it here. It is a source of moral self-perfection and an ideal value almost bordering on mysticism, and it thus quite naturally merges with the ecclesiastical subject.

Upon awakening, Catherine cannot wait for day to come, and at dawn, her heart overflowing with love, she rushes to her counselor. The hermit baptizes her, thus removing the obstacle preventing her from looking at Christ’s face, and that very night she has a second vision. A hall, its walls dazzling with the colors of precious gems, replaces the joyous nature of the first dream. Christ is no longer a charming child, but a sublime king on his throne with a scepter in his hand, and Mary is not a lovely woman blossoming with amorous beauty, but the Empress of Archangels. It is as if everything had become heavy, for love itself has become heavy: the fragile sentiment tinged by the categories of courtly casuistry has been swallowed up by the powerful element of the fated amorous relationship. The courtly conception disappears at this point, seemingly brushed aside. It returns to the surface, however, when Emperor Maxentius arrives in Alexandria to eradicate Christianity, which is taking over. Even with the help of fifty scholars, Maxentius is unable to divert Catherine, whom he wants to marry his son, from the faith and her heavenly groom. He therefore orders her to be scourged.

The flagellation of Catherine is a brilliantly constructed passage that juxtaposes opposites such as sublimity and humiliation, tenderness and violence; symbols of colors representing the elements of Catherine’s service of love; and details of her tortured body. The power of the imagery comes from its unrelenting violence balanced by formal control. Categories derived from the courtly conception of love permit the poet to peer into emotional depths of dizzying profundity. Here ethereal idealism comes together with dark emotions, and the author of The Legend of St. Catherine balances between dangerous extremes. The fact that he does not succumb to them is evidence of his literary greatness. After bringing the scene’s terrifying beauty to a climax, he disperses its stifling atmosphere in a single stroke with a sort of liberating exhalation, paying homage to the celestial Tristan, and thereafter imbuing all of the remaining action with a sense of moral victory.

If The Legend of St. Catherine resembles a courtly novel – or more precisely: if in some sense it is the counterpart of a courtly novel – this does not mean that it is simply secularized. We will not grasp its meaning through the categories of “secular” and “ecclesiastical” literature, inherited from the schematic thinking of positivism. Medieval works of literature and art had both practical and aesthetic purposes, and the former was often the most important at the time the work was created. The purpose of a legend, if it was not written for the liturgy, was above all to educate the reader or listener in religion. Before it was a poem as we understand that concept today, The Legend of St. Catherine was a religious-educational work, which, like every legend, was meant to convey the image of a saint, i.e., the concrete incarnation of a Christian virtue. Moreover, it had a practical mission determined by its time. Thanks to the subtle analyses of Bohdan Jedlička, we know that its author was possessed of vast theological erudition. In the passages where he ostentatiously emphasizes it, such as the one on Catherine’s university education, where he creates Czech equivalents for literal and allegorical meaning (“littera” and “glossa”) and the method of allegorical explication (“glossatio”), he is merely evoking the atmosphere of an intellectual environment. In the passages where he does not explicitly draw attention to it, as in Catherine’s disputation with the pagan scholars when he distinguishes between simple faith (v. 1983–2035) and rational, speculative proof of God’s existence (v. 2050 –2084) in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy, scholastic conceptual distinctions serve him as a flexible interpretive tool. It has been persuasively illustrated, however, that Catherine’s disputation, during which the assembly of scholars do not actually engage in polemics, but repeatedly ask for explanations, is not a real theological debate, but a lesson on the fundamentals of Christian doctrine according to the individual tenets of the Creed meant for an audience of the nobility, and that the author’s didactic intentions were evidently based on the repeated decrees of Arnošt of Pardubice, which stipulated that believers must be familiarized with the basic articles of faith in order to protect the purity of Christianity against heretical sciences.

In addition to this practical educational purpose, a clear aesthetic intention is also discernible. Jan Vilikovský and Antonín Škarka have shown in detail that the author of The Legend of St. Catherine was a great artist who created a new form from the material of his models, a new world through verbal skill. Without being influenced by their differing styles or conceptions, he took his raw material from his models and gave it new shape in an independent composition with a unified linguistic, stylistic, and poetic organization. The work’s affect, however, is heightened through the use of courtly images and motifs. To study how The Legend of St. Catherine merges a hagiographic subject with courtly poetry means to trace the genesis of its poetic meaning.

We have defined the author of The Legend of St. Catherine as a cultural-historical type; now we may characterize him as a poetic type. He was a medieval intellectual. He was not a poet of the intellect, though, but a poet of sentiment and the senses. He does work to a certain degree by rational calculation, but the essence of his creative work is literary instinct. It is his instinct that keeps the precipitous epic character of the poem in balance with its powerful lyric potential. The lyrical element does not disrupt the epic composition of the poem, but reveals the life of the soul beneath the external action and the internal world of the human being beneath objective reality. We are not presented with a precise image of Alexandria, the royal palace, the mountains Catherine climbs with her counselor; the flowering meadow and the hall decorated with gems that Catherine sees in her dreams dazzle us with glittering lights and colors; people are portrayed not by description, but through the impression they arouse. Nevertheless, the poem creates the powerful illusion of life, but not through plasticity of vision, not by incarnating characters and settings sensually and vividly, but through emotional intensity. When the poet does use a vividly rendered detail, an expressive gesture, an elaborate description, it has a precisely delimited function, either conscious or poetically intuitive. It is a reminder of the phenomenal world, which appears as though in a flash, evokes fear, and thus emphasizes the emotional urgency of the story.

It has been said that the author of The Legend of St. Catherine tends towards decorative expression and that his style is verbose to the point of unruliness. But decorativeness, which is generally a sign of disjunction between form and content, is actually almost completely lacking in the poem, for everything that is artistic for its own sake is foreign to the poet. The presumed unruliness of his style is a manifestation of a complex imagination and sensibility welling up from depths never before and never again probed in medieval Czech literature. Because we know what literary grounding the author gained in school, we cannot, for that matter, overlook one significant feature, which, although it is quite striking, has so far escaped attention: like the author of the Alexandreida, who was among the first to transplant the methods elaborated in Latin poetics to the national language when Czech literature was first emerging, the author of The Legend of St. Catherine gave preference to stylistic devices that the schoolbooks classified as less artistic. This was not a capitulation in the face of more complex formal tasks; both poets handled the methods of Latin poetics masterfully. It was evidently intentional, and for the latter it expressed a sense of formal continuity. The fact that the spiritual disposition of the author of The Legend of St. Catherine lacks a positive intellectual counterbalance entails, however, an appreciable danger. The sensuous magic through which the language of the work functions sometimes conceals the poet’s tendency to overlook the need for the clear, coherent expression of a thought or a precisely chosen word. Radical sentimentality that plays on the strings of emotional sensuousness and roused sensuality is nonetheless an amazing unifying force that places the poet’s personality and the uniqueness of his experience in the foreground like never before.

Between the uniqueness of The Legend of St. Catherine and the anonymity of the only early fifteenth-century transcript in which it has been preserved there is a troubling discrepancy that has led to repeated attempts to imagine its author more vividly and locate him within more precise biographical and literary relations and in a more precisely delimited time period. There have been attempts to concretize his profile indirectly, through the person of a presumed patron, who was thought to be, as we have mentioned, Charles IV, but this hypothesis was evidently erroneous. Other poetic works by the author have been sought, but the fragment of the well-known poem on the heroic death of Jan Lucemburský of Kresčak, thought to be possibly his, was attributed to him without sufficient evidence. He has been juxtaposed to authors of other versified legends of the second half of the fourteenth century, specifically the legends of St. Dorothy, of the 10,000 knights, of St. George, of St. Margaret, and the so-called Brno Martyrdom of St. Catherine, but these literary works do not constitute a homogeneous group in either ideological orientation or formal character, and The Legend of St. Catherine is not intrinsically related to any of them. Traces of a Moravian dialect discovered in the text have made it possible to determine the author’s origin, but they do not indicate where he was active. The dating that is generally accepted today is approximate, and there is little hope that it will be made more precise, as it is based exclusively on arguments deduced from the character of the language.

The more diligently we attempt to reconstruct at least approximate biographical data and the setting in which The Legend of St. Catherine was written, the less comprehensible the poet and his work seem to us. If we attain a bird’s eye view, however, The Legend of St. Catherine will no longer appear to us as a riddle that does not fit in anywhere, and we will find that it is firmly connected to literary tradition. When we speak of a connection with literary tradition, we have in mind a deeper phenomenon than direct relations to specific literary works that have been – usually without satisfactory evidence – sought in The Legend of St. Catherine. “Literary works disappear,” Max Dvořák once wrote, “but the spiritual essence that was incarnated in them remains, outlasting their material existence, an integral part of all ensuing development.”

With the exception of vocabulary, the richness of which has no analogue in any Old Czech text that we know, the author of The Legend of St. Catherine makes full use of all of the devices of the preceding period. However, he does not just borrow them, but renews them by descending to the depths of his personal impressions, to a new life. It is well known that in his rhyme technique he draws from the practice of the Alexandreida and the first Czech legends. He continues the tradition of the octosyllabic line elaborated in these works, varying them first through the use of “divided rhyme,” i.e., a discrepancy between a syntactic pause and the limit of a couplet, and secondly through the systematic use of enjambment, which in the Alexandreida and the oldest legends was only a “piquant rarity,” as one scholar has jokingly written. But the poet’s practice of breaking up a sentence with a rhyme anywhere at all is nothing new; it simply transfers to epic poetry a technique used before him in lyric poetry, e.g. in the old song “In Honor of the Virgin,” under the influence of Latin poetry. He continues the tradition of the Alexandreida and the first Czech legends also in his use of complex syntax both in the narration and in direct speech, the latter of which constitutes almost one half of the text. The accumulation of two- and three-word phrases, adjectives, and adverbs, and the emphatic euphony are not new either, but constitute a general characteristic of all Old Czech poetry, and if it is new in epic poetry for a vowel to emphasize the semantic congruity of words, this too is an older device, found as early as the late thirteenth century in “The Prayer of Lady Kunigunde.” The author of The Legend of St. Catherine does not crave new formal devices, he does not invent them or have need of them, for, immersed in a mature literary culture, which is the legacy of preceding development, he finds the path to a revolutionary artistic breakthrough by organizing old elements in a novel way. In The Legend of St. Catherine the poet added the emotional function to the communicative function of poetic language elaborated in the Alexandreida and the oldest legends. The need to express feelings and dreams, which are essentially indefinable, outweighed the effort to express a precisely defined content in clear terms.

The tradition of legends, courtly poetry – both lyric and epic, and the formal achievements of the existing poetic tradition are not the only sources that influenced The Legend of St. Catherine. As F. X. Šalda has noted, in the Czech lands in the fourteenth century, “all of the arts are intimately connected, and poetry is often imbued with synthetic elements.” The author of The Legend of St. Catherine was surrounded by artistic activity whose suggestiveness is difficult for us to imagine today, for although a significant number of Gothic works have been preserved, they are but a fragment of the body of art produced at the time, and we may assume that the poet, so open to sensual experiences, was not indifferent to the artistic activity of his day. We should thus seek influences on his work and stimuli that he reshaped not only in the literary tradition, but also in the visual arts.

This is by no means a novel idea. Spina has already linked the heavenly hall in Catherine’s second vision to the Chapel of St. Wenceslas in the Cathedral of St. Vitus and above all to the chapels of the Holy Cross and St. Catherine at Karlstein Castle. Spina’s idea fell by the wayside. Jan Vilikovský, who believed to have found the poet’s true model in the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation, refuted this idea, and his view became domesticated in later works. Vilikovský, however, was mistaken: Revelation describes a large city shining like a gem, then the gems, pearls, and gold from which the city walls, twelve gates, and square are constructed, whereas The Legend of St. Catherine leads us into a room in which the gaze surveys precious stones on the floor, the walls, and the windows. Moreover, six of the gems listed are different from those specified in Revelation, and, whereas the city in Revelation has no need of sun or moon for light because divine glory illuminates it, the Czech poet puts a sun, a moon, and stars on the vaulting of the hall. Spina’s speculation, which contextualized The Legend of St. Catherine within the life of the second half of the fourteenth century, deserves more credit than he has been given. True, despite much care and ingenuity, Spina was unable to reach a foolproof conclusion: against the claim that the decoration of the room was inspired by the walls of the Chapel of St. Wenceslas at Prague Castle and the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Karlstein and that the description of the sky on its vaulting recalls the ceiling of the latter it is always possible to argue that the enumeration of gems in the poem in and of itself does not conclusively prove such inspiration, and that the motif of a starry sky was common, and there is thus no reason – if we are discussing the influence of the visual arts – to link it specifically to Karlstein. Nevertheless, the fact remains – and it is a very compelling fact – that at the time when The Legend of St. Catherine was probably written, three structures were completed, which, if only because they were an integral part of the spiritual culture of the time, probably fascinated the poet’s contemporaries even more than us, and he may indeed have been struck by the impression they made on him, which may have become fixed in his imagination.

The view that The Legend of St. Catherine resonated with contemporaneous artistic activity and was even directly inspired by it may also be supported – albeit only hypothetically – by yet another significant motif. The Latin text that the Czech poet used as a model clumsily relates that in her first vision Catherine:

saw the virgin queen holding her son in her arms, sitting on a magnificent throne, and when she recognized from the aforementioned image that this was the mother and son about whom she had heard so much from the pious man and whose great beauty she admired, she began to look more closely at the boy. However, because the Virgin’s son had his face turned towards his mother, Catherine could see him only from behind. Recognizing his ineffable beauty from the splendor of his neck and his golden curls and from the snow-white luminosity of his vesture, Catherine was sorrowful and longed overwhelmingly to see his face. And therefore, when she turned here and there, looking closely, the boy kept turning his face away from her, and this perplexed her greatly.

The passage on the second dream similarly says about the Mother of God: “She then saw the heavenly queen, the Virgin Mary, carrying in her arms a son so beautiful and shining that no beauty could measure up to him.” These two scenes are strikingly transformed in The Legend of St. Catherine. Not only are they notably intensified; even more importantly, they are set up as effective opposites. The simple statement that Catherine “was sorrowful” is transformed into the sorrow of love conceived in the spirit of courtly poetry, and in accordance with that motif the heavenly queen is replaced by a lovely woman, and tenderness and love unite her and her son. In the second vision, the Virgin Mary and Christ appear to Catherine in an entirely different guise, as monumental, royal figures, sitting on thrones with scepters in their hands.

Jaromír Pečírka has written that the Madonna is a subject on which all transformations, oscillations, and variations in the development of form and content in the Middle Ages may be traced. The difference between the portrayals of the Virgin Mary in the first and second dreams corresponds to the difference between two types of Madonna in the visual arts. The conception of older art, which conceived of the Madonna as a ruler, is synonymous with the solemn rigidity of the second apparition, while the smiling Mary of the first dream, on the contrary, parallels the new artistic conception: the subject has become more human, the ruler has been replaced by a beautiful woman, and motherhood has created an emotional bond between her and her son. This new conception of the Madonna emerges in literature at the same time as the visual arts, and the beautiful Virgin Mary of the first dream is not surprising in and of itself, because it was precisely The Legend of St. Catherine that, to some extent, introduced trends leading in that direction into Czech literature. What is surprising is the dual conception of the Madonna used for effective contrast. If we attempt to derive this dual conception from the visual arts, we must consider the objection that The Legend of St. Catherine was probably written before the later type of Madonna appeared in the Czech lands. Nonetheless, it is possible to give at least a hypothetical response to this objection: it cannot be ruled out that the new artistic trends may have come to Bohemia with the artists summoned from France by the bishop Jan of Dražice, whose work was destroyed during the Hussite period, or that the poet may have encountered them abroad. We cannot expect the poet to have reproduced works that affected him simply by describing them in his writing. However, behind the juxtaposition of the two Madonnas in The Legend of St. Catherine we sense a sensuous experience that foregrounded the difference in representation and ideological attitudes in the poet’s mind. We feel that we are justified at least to a certain extent in positing an inspirational encounter with Gothic visual art.

Compared with large topical works, such as The Dalimil Chronicle, “an early bugle of the Hussite wars,” as it has been called, which appeared several decades earlier, and The Legend of St. Procopius, written at about the same time, which is imbued with national and social pathos, The Legend of St. Catherine is often considered to be a work that is overly absorbed in exclusively formal problems. This is untrue: its author did not create in a void, and if we are able to comprehend it, we will find that The Legend of St. Catherine is a unique source of knowledge about the contemporaneous collective mentality.

If we read it from this point of view, it will be clear that it contains the double face of Janus. On one side we see the Middle Ages in full force and at the peak of expansion. The refined sentimental culture of courtly poetry that inspired the author is everything but a cold convention devoid of life. The symbolism of colors, woven into the most extreme passage of the work, its fiery poetic center, speaks to us with its inner richness. Stiffness and the externalization of symbolism is one of the most typical characteristics of aging medieval culture, which we do not see in the Czech lands until several decades later, in the poetry of the Hussite period, when the symbol becomes a mere image added to literal meaning to make description more vivid and eventually becomes superfluous. Symbolism in The Legend of St. Catherine is as yet entirely untouched by this process, because its psychological prerequisite – the ability to enliven the surrounding world with further meanings through emotional enthusiasm – has not yet been eroded in the author.

On the other hand, we see indications of cultural, ideological, and moral fatigue. The transferal of courtly imagery from the secular to the religious realm is a result of cultural synthesis, which is typical of Czech literature beginning in the second half of the fourteenth century, and indeed was once considered the peak of typical spirituality of this period. If it is its peak, it is also so because it validates Jean Gerson’s oft-cited remark that spiritual love easily declines into unconcealed physical love. When he formulated that thought, one of the brightest theologians of the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries grasped a general tendency of the emotional life of the time. We have seen that at one point the erotic imagination of the author of The Legend of St. Catherine touches on even more extreme, dangerous, and obscure limits, and it is impossible not to notice here a shadow of emotional satiation that calls for arousal by even more powerful emotions. This is an omen of the exhaustion of social consciousness, a symptom of the political, economic, and spiritual crisis of the fourteenth century that, secretly under Charles IV and openly under his unfortunate son Wenceslas, was beginning to undermine the prosperity of the Czech kingdom and to prepare the soil for the Hussite movement.

We will as yet not be able to connect The Legend of St. Catherine with the life attitudes and reactions of the author’s contemporaries generalized on the background of social structures, as the Czech Middle Ages have been systematically researched only from the point of view of political development. Because we still lack a detailed history of institutions, a history of feudal courts, a coherent social and cultural history, we also lack an attempt at a coherent description of the development of the mentality of the people who lived in the Middle Ages. Whether we want to or not, we must be content to limit ourselves to what The Legend of St. Catherine narrates as an isolated source. Nevertheless, we may say with certainty that its author, like none of his contemporaries, was able to incarnate the wonderful thrill of his age and, at the same time, through the power of his imaginative intuition, he anticipates, without succumbing to them, the disintegrative tendencies of its spiritual development. This intimate fusion with the period is the mark of a great work of literature that has found its place and its raison d’être in the very center of national existence.

Translated by Kirsten Lodge

(Published as the foreword to Legenda o svaté Kateřině, ed. Světová četba, n. 524, Odeon, Praha 1983, pp. 9–27)