In New Legends of England, Catherine Sanok examines a significant, albeit previously unrecognized, phenomenon of fifteenth-century literary culture in England: the sudden fascination with the Lives of British, Anglo-Saxon, and other native saints. Embodying a variety of literary forms—from elevated Latinate verse, to popular traditions such as the carol, to translations of earlier verse legends into the medium of prose—the Middle English Lives of England's saints are rarely discussed in relation to one another or seen as constituting a distinct literary genre. However, Sanok argues, these legends, when grouped together were an important narrative forum for exploring overlapping forms of secular and religious community at local, national, and supranational scales: the monastery, the city, and local cults; the nation and the realm; European Christendom and, at the end of the fifteenth century, a world that was suddenly expanding across the Atlantic.
Reading texts such as the South English Legendary, The Life of St. Etheldrede, the Golden Legend, and poems about Saints Wenefrid and Ursula, Sanok focuses especially on the significance of their varied and often experimental forms. She shows how Middle English Lives of native saints revealed, through their literary forms, modes of affinity and difference that, in turn, reflected a diversity in the extent and structure of medieval communities. Taking up key questions about jurisdiction, temporality, and embodiment, New Legends of England presents some of the ways in which the Lives of England's saints theorized community and explored its constitutive paradox: the irresolvable tension between singular and collective forms of identity.