Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Francesca Canade Sautman

Committee Members

Michael Sargent

E. Gordon Whatley

Subject Categories

French and Francophone Literature | Medieval History | Medieval Studies


Old French literature, Medieval spirituality, Medieval history, Materiality


Spirituality has been increasingly studied to determine the laity’s role within Church history in the Middle Ages. However, secular literature is often overlooked as a source of understanding lay spirituality, even though it is a crucial aspect of cultural and social history. I fill this gap by analyzing nine important vernacular texts to uncover several distinctive definitions of holiness, all of which blend the religious and the secular. Close reading of these texts reveals various paths to holiness, which undermine the Church’s attempts at sole control over spirituality. This study demonstrates that secular authors were concerned with exploring spiritual matters; that their notions of holiness transform, and often oppose, values sanctified by the Church; and, ultimately, that their constructions of holiness close the gap between religious and secular worlds by permitting lay persons access into religious realms not granted by the Church while, at the same time, not betraying their secular values.

I explore the varying definitions of holiness in five chapters. The first chapter, “Sacred and Secular Spaces,” explores secular spaces that take on religious functions—for example, the domestic space as site of miracle in Ami et Amile—and traditionally religious spaces that become secularized—when a quasi-magical, folkloric cure is administered in a hermit’s chapel in Eliduc. The second chapter, “Renunciation,” examines instances where secular heroes/heroines withdraw from temporal society to pursue the religious life; it is on the spiritual path that these individuals reap secular benefits such as autonomy, an elevated reputation and land holdings. Chapter three, “Women as Victim and Vehicle of Redemption,” concentrates on how victimization results in three heroines becoming the vehicles for redemption for those around them. They challenge traditional womanly passivity in moments of rebellion that grant them agency and influence. The fourth chapter, “The Ecology of Relics,” analyzes moments of divine touch through miraculous instances, particularly bodily restoration. Those who are touched become relics, and are thus religious objects in addition to living beings. The final chapter, “Conversion,” focuses on the fourteenth-century text La Belle Hélène de Constantinople, which features several individuals who convert from Islam to Christianity. This chapter concludes that conversion falls into distinguishable patterns that frequently divide along gender lines. I posit in the conlusion that all of the examined texts, in addition to Perceval, can be reconsidered under the guise of intra-religious conversion.

The intersections of the sacred and the secular that I outline in these chapters establish a new lens through which to read these non-religious texts, incorporating a heretofore neglected tradition into the conceptualization of religious and social history.