"as if it had nothing belonged to her": the Lives of Catherine Burton (1668 - 1714) as a Discourse on Method in Early Modern Life-writing
Nicky Hallett
University of Kent at Canterbury

Hallett, Nicky. "'as if had nothing belonged to her': the Lives of Catherine Burton (1668-1714) as a Discourse on Method in Early Modern Life-writing." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 3.1-30 <URL:

  1. Catherine Burton wrote about the production of her own Life that "it seems as if I had not done it but as if some other had done it for me" (Lanherne 3, 8). [1] This statement reveals much about the cultural situation in which she wrote and of the choices within female spiritual 'becoming' available to her. It reveals, too, that there are continuities in aspects of female subjectivity and spirituality across some 200 years (or more), and between England and continental Europe, as well as significant changes effected by pressing philosophical and theological debates. Her life-writing, which on the face of it is a straightforwardly pious text, an auto-hagiographic account, is constructed at a moment of acute abutment of experiential and experimental philosophies. As such, it emerges as a sharply challenging text on the cusp between medieval and early modern self formations.

  2. "In the world," as one account of Catherine Burton's life opens, she was the daughter of Thomas and Mary Burton, born near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk on 4 November 1668. When she was around twenty five, she joined a Carmelite convent in Antwerp that had been founded there in 1619 for "English ladies" leaving England at a period of Catholic persecution. It was when she was a nun that she wrote her own Life: "she was neer thirty years of Age before she put pen to paper" (Lanherne 1, 10). Whilst she tells little in detail about her early life, she does record that "From 10 or 11 til 16 I liued a more sensual life, following too much ye bent of my own passions … I loued to be esteemed handsome tho' I had a scruple to spend much time in dressing myself" (Lanherne 1, 16, 17). During her illness with smallpox she had visions that she afterwards came to consider were of purgatory; and she records many later mystical experiences that led her to desire a religious vocation, though severe illness, and problems experienced by her family arising from their royalist and religious affiliations, initially prevented her. Many spiritual favours are described in her account. In February 1688, for example, her sisters considered that she was dying, and the last sacraments were administered:

    … I thought I saw our Bd Saviour stand like one considering whether he should take my Soul out of my Body then or no, or like one who design'd a thing but was held back by importunities of others, and after some consideration thought best to lett yt alone which he had design'd: this disapeared and I return'd to my self again … (Lanherne 1, 57)

    In another revelation, she dreamt of the convent that she subsequently joined, at Hopland in Antwerp, where she professed, as Mary Xaveria of the Angels, on 9 December 1694, and where she was for three years a Sub-Prioress, five times elected Superior "in wch office she Dyed on the 9th of February about 10 in the year 1714" (Lanherne 1, 542). Her sister, Margaret Burton, entered the Order, at the Hoogstraet convent, as Sister Agnes Francis of the Cross (Hardman, Two English Carmelites, 36); and Ann Woolmer, their widowed sister, was also later a religious at Antwerp (Lanherne 2).

  3. In its self-construction, Catherine Burton's writing shows similarities, though a very different personality, to that revealed in Margery Kempe's Book, from fifteenth century Norfolk. Both women wrote under direct influence of priestly and editorial figures, and both Lives pose compelling questions about "the complex processes through which female identity might be made in a particular community" (Aers 74). Moreover, for Margery Kempe's Book, as for the various Lives within and around Catherine Burton's life, the narrative draws attention to its own mode of production and "presents the reader with many interpretative levels, not least of which concerns the interface between orality and literacy. Furthermore, its various and conflicting voices demand consideration of the very boundaries of autobiography" (Butcher 189).

  4. Catherine Burton wrote her Life under obedience to her spiritual director. The manuscript that contains her writing (Lanherne 3) was compiled by her confessor, Father Thomas Hunter (1666 - 1725), with the full editorial paraphernalia of a Preface, chapter headings and commentary: her own words are arranged by him, and in themselves show evidence of revision between the events described, oral accounts of them and literary transcriptions, in their thinking-aloud about the dilemmas her experiences pose for a woman writing in a period of ongoing suspicion of both female mysticism and of 'proof' in a new age of science. Catherine Burton is transparent about her influences: she refers to her own early reading of St Teresa "commonly found in ye Manuals" and "ye life of Saint Catherine of Siena" (Lanherne 3, 22, 66). The latter's Life (1347 - 80) was relatively widely published in England, having been introduced during the fifteenth century and printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1519. Her didactic treatise Il Dialogo (dictated in a trance and translated for the Brigittine nuns of Syon Abbey as The Orcherd of Syon) considered, amongst other issues, the nature of intellectual, as opposed to corporeal or imaginative, vision. Teresa de Jesus (of Avila), canonised in 1622, was the influential reformer of the Discalced Carmelites, in whose Order Burton had professed. The Carmel at Antwerp, and others elsewhere in the Spanish Netherlands, had been founded by the companions or direct associates of Teresa de Jesus whose Vida, translated and widely circulated amongst them, had been completed in 1562 under the gaze of the Inquisition in Spain, who confiscated the manuscript in 1574. The text shows its author's subtle negotiation of censorship, rewriting her own life and "charismatic experience so that it would fit within the parameters of Tridentine Catholicism" (Ahlgren 31). The topoi of female inadequacy and lack of authority used by Teresa de Jesus (Weber), and common in female visionary texts, were echoed by Catherine Burton and were used by her as a means to overcome silence.

  5. In addition to these named influences, there is in her text a sense of wider exposure to philosophies of science and religion, and a knowledge of René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method (1637) had been widely distributed among Jesuit circles within which Catherine Burton's confessor, Thomas Hunter, moved. Catherine Burton's Life, then, is infused with elements of Teresian and Cartesian anxiety--indeed to such an extent that it may be questioned whether the self-construction is 'real,' bearing directly on her own Life, or whether it is literary; whether her Life is based on an experiential epistemology or constructed intertextually; whether it is personal or, as it were, displaced. Her text is an early excursion into theological-philosophical questions that are at the root of Autobiography itself. Since Foucault, we have been alerted to the ways in which contemporary discourse shapes existence. It is contended here that, perhaps unexpectedly within her pious framework, Catherine Burton writes a text that self-consciously embodies notions of method and of early "Discourse." If Margery Kempe's Book is claimed to be "the earliest surviving autobiographical writing in English" (Windeatt 9), then Catherine Burton's Life might lay claim to encapsulate the new mode of 'modern' self-construction. It is evident, too, that Catherine Burton, like Teresa de Jesus, adopts patriarchally- licensed female ways of becoming whilst constructing a counter-hegemonic discourse of her own.

  6. The Life owes its genesis to a political situation affecting the Discalced Teresian Order and which shaped what was recorded by and of Burton herself. In 1716, when the convent's 'dead cellar' was being enlarged, the 'incorrupt' bodies of Catherine Burton and of other nuns were discovered. This occasioned the procurement of various Lives by the then Prioress at Antwerp, Mary Birkbeck (Mary Francis of St Teresa, 1674-1733): she commissioned Father Thomas Hunter (1666 - 1725) to write Catherine Burton's Life, and Father Percy Plowden to write an account of Margaret Wake (Mary Margaret of the Angels, 1617-78: see Hardman 1939). Mary Birkbeck also authorised the composition of the Antwerp Carmel Annales (Lanherne 1 and 2) which contain the lives of all those who had professed in the convent from around 1619: she "order'd this little Collection that what we found and knew of might not be forever lost to the end" (Lanherne 1, ix). The compilation of these Lives of the religious were part of Mary Birkbeck's attempt to secure the reputation of her House and of the female Order more widely. This was at a time following great controversy amongst the Discalced, when Carmelite friars had sought to reduce the authority of the female religious, and were alleged to have fabricated Teresian documents to support their case. The Annales promote the sense of the Carmel as a holy place, and the sisters as being in a line of justified sanctity. Mary Birkbeck's own Life appears here, at the opening of the second volume: the daughter of Thomas Birkbeck Esq and Mary Birkbeck, daughter to John Caterick, Westmorland, she professed, the eighty-seventh so to do at Hopland, on 3 December 1702, and she was thirteenth Superior of the convent (Lanherne 2, 1). She "took the pains her self to transcribe all the Memoires for this as she allso did when they were finish'd" (Lanherne 2, 13).

  7. The texts frequently refer to each other, and from this can be gained a sense of the sequence and inter-textuality of their composition. The first of the Lanherne Annales, which has a summary life of Catherine Burton, refers to the production of the "whole Book" about her that is now "being writ on order to be printed" (Lanherne 1, 541). This is without doubt what is now the third volume in the Lanherne library, compiled by Thomas Hunter between 1716 and 1725, based on his own knowledge of the subject, on Burton's own writing from around 1698, and on the testimony of other nuns. The details of the process for the compilation of the Life is marvellously precise:

    Least ye great treasure of her vertues should be entirely lost to us, ye superior of ye monastery in wch she lived, was desired some years after her death, to order all her Religious who had been her cotemporaries [sic] to mark down wt they had observed in her, and that this might be performed with great sincerity, each one was order'd to write apart, without consulting each other, and to send what they had writ to ye person who was transribeing [sic] her writings … (Lanherne 3, 312)

    In such a spirit of 'scientific' compilation, then, the Life was drawn together. [2] The manuscript articulates its own workings, and transparently knits together Catherine Burton's own testimony with accounts by contemporaries, editorially arranged by Hunter. Hence, this Life interweaves first person accounts with third person, autobiography with biographical interventions. It combines Catherine Burton's memories of earlier events (themselves based on fifteenth and sixteenth century saintly models), originally conveyed orally then written-up under spiritual direction, with later accounts of Burton by other nuns; and Thomas Hunter's own testimony that frames and shapes the whole text. In effect, then, the Life is fragmentary, and yet attempts to construct a unified autobiographical and biographical 'self' through its over-riding narrative.

  8. Hunter's own commentaries are indicated by "virgulas," and the contemporary religious accounts are separately transcribed in the Third Part of the Life - indeed, their very acknowledgement of independent compilation is part of their strength in an evidential trail. In this sense it is fairly explicit about whose voice is operating and when: there are intricacies of interweaving, however, within Catherine Burton's own pieces (various voices can be heard there, shaping her own) and there is interplay between Burton's and Hunter's sections, so that the auto- and biographical barriers are permeable.

  9. From evidence within the texts, the various Lives of Catherine Burton can be placed in chronological order: (1) Burton's own account, previously oral and then written up; (2) Mary Birkbeck's transcription, seemingly not available as such, and incorporated into other accounts; (3) Thomas Hunter's text (Lanherne 3) which combines Burton's words, his own and the writing of other nuns; (4) the first volume of the Annales, Lanherne 1, written concurrently with Hunter's volume; (5) the second volume of the Annales, Lanherne 2, which has an account of and by Ann Woolmer, Catherine Burton's sister who died in 1740; (6) printed versions, based on Lanherne 3, edited by Father HJ Coleridge (1876) and by Sister Ann Hardman (1939).

  10. Within Catherine Burton's own account (amidst Hunter's Life) we face the issue of "reverse encounter," common to most auto/biographical excursions: because it is written from an "end point" of perceived blessedness, it appears to have been written before it began, to precede her oral one since we come to it before we know of her speaking, or, indeed, as it emerges, unable to speak. From her past and silenced body (Lanherne 3, 46) we move forward to where we in effect begin, in Hunter's writing, that is itself born from a multiplicity of voices testifying to the sanctity of Catherine Burton's silence. Such a paradox, based too on the relativities of the reader's own encounter [3] and on the inevitability of reverse exposure, is compounded by the complexity of ideas of Time, History and Memory in the Lives, and the capacity of spiritual auto/biography to engage with both the temporal and eternal, the parallel lives of body and of soul. The text has both an immediate, material existence, and an enduring metaphysical projection. Mary Birkbeck envisages a future reader of the book (Lanherne 1, v), the sister who compiles it considers that it may animate readers "with the primitive spirit and fervour couragiously to follow the examples of these their predecessors" (Lanherne 1, ix), and Catherine Burton writes "I beg ye Reader to pray for my soul" (Lanherne 3, 8). The effect is of a Russian doll, with layers of narrative within narrative, through which as they unpack we are given a description and an experience of both the worldly and the other-worldly, a space within and without human perceptions of Time.

  11. As such, the Life is formulated in conditions that testify to the importance of chronology and to an eternally-constituted temporal existence. The immediate and the infinite conflate. Like Teresa de Jesus (Vida, 74), and like countless women writers before and since, Catherine Burton feels the need to justify her use of time for writing while under domestic pressure:

    I never asked to be dispensed from any of my spiritual dutys on account of writing, only twice from half an hour of reading; neither did I exempt my self from any act of Community, nor from ye hour allotted for Recreation … but I took such by-times as I could steal to my self in our Cell. … (Lanherne 3, 8)

    In addition, in common with many female medieval visionaries (see Petroff, and Vida, 21), she claims only to write under obedience to (male) authorities. This modesty topos has its origins in the real as well as the literary: and the fact that Catherine Burton does not justify her self-writing by what might seem the obvious possibility, of a simple and authoritative reference to Teresa de Jesus' precedent, demonstrates just how far there was a residual suspicion of female author-ship that even the self-writing of a saint had not dispelled. If Teresa de Jesus' writing had paved the way for women's Lives to be written, its very success also entrenched another legacy, based on distrust of female fame, that they had to counter in order to be heard. Thomas Hunter, in presenting the Life with its accounts of further female "supernatural favours" was at pains to allay suspicions, so that the text contains a panoply of justifications and explanations; and he subjected Catherine Burton to a tortuous process of writing, amid a bewildering change of instruction that was designed to test, and demonstrate, her authenticity:

    … St Xaverius appeared to me, as I was in our Cell at work, and bid me write my life … I cannot express ye peace and joy I found in my soul; I remained an hour in rapt; yet I found great repugnance in doeing wt the Saint required of me, having no talent in writing, nor time for it … (Lanherne 3, 2-3)

    She is told by her director to write about her early life, "wch I did without alleadging any farther difficulty: I found still repugnance enough, and knowing what to say, yett as soon as I had set pen to paper, I found no more dificulity then if it had been all writen before me & yf I had transcribed it …' (3; my emphasis). Indeed, the closeness of her account to that of Teresa de Jesus' childhood illness and cure, and to Catherine of Siena's revelation of the Real Presence, means that, in many ways, she was indeed calling on the pre-written.

  12. Similarly, Thomas Hunter drew upon a tradition of authority that was embedded in Teresa de Jesus' writing. The Saint had advised her Director to burn her work if it was unorthodox (Vida, 75), thereby securing her own license: that we are reading the text at all signifies that it has been "legitimised" by the directorial sanction. Thomas Hunter's motive, some 150 years later, is affected not only by those residual concerns to "Index" orthodoxy but also by a need to demonstrate authenticity in the face of scientifically-influenced scrutiny. Whilst the period and motives have shifted, the impetus to confessorial control remains perplexingly in place. Catherine Burton wrote

    I received a letter from my Director, who order'd me without delay, to burn all ye papers I had by me … adding, that if every Nun were to write her fancyes we should have pleasant volumes … I burnt immediately all ye papers I had … two or three days after … he bid me again from my childhood, as if I had writen nothing… [I] thanked God to see my self thus imployed in writeing the same thing over again.
    I had writ half a sheet of paper, when St Xaverius appeared to me, and said I should write no more of ye same thing over again, and that I had fullfilled my obedience… I remained for above half an hour in rapt, without being able to stir my right hand or make a letter; tho I endeavour'd never so much …(Lanherne 3, 5-6; my emphasis)

    Such bodily paralysis might appear to be an understandable consequence of the conditions in which she wrote, an embodiment of a culturally disabling process. Her sense that the text was somehow pre-written suggests, too, how successful was the process of obedience in effecting disengagement. She projects herself as a ghost-writer of her own narrative, removed from both the events themselves and the process of composition: "I am even amazed to see yt I have writ in four months time, wt I thought would have cost me some years; and when I read over what I have write, it seems as if I had not done it but as if some other had done it for me" (8; my emphasis).

  13. The activation of an "other," common within women's life-writing (Mason), describes the autobiographical endeavour at various levels, where her voice is constituted by experience and testimony beyond her own. In another sense, too, Catherine Burton's Life was indeed written before she came to write it, and she was starting at its near-end and working backwards: a more mature figure shapes a younger persona. What is more, her ability to write came from a self-distancing: she describes this is terms not only of stepping back as a whole from herself, but also of self-separation, and her experience is similar to those describing autobiography which "requires a man [sic] to take a distance with regard to himself in order to reconstitute himself in the focus of his special unity and identity across time" (Gusdorf, 35).

  14. For Catherine Burton, the self-distancing takes various forms, all of them somatic. Her spiritual memory is mapped on her body. Of her childhood revelation, a turning-point in her life, she wrote

    I remember I was one day in a chamber where the chapel was set up, neither praying, reading nor thinking of God as I know of; on a suddain I had a light of some things of my life past wch I had never confessed: I thought our Bd Lord stood on my right side in mean apparel, like one wearyed out with seeking me: I found great remorse of conscience, and an alteration over my whole Body … and from that time began to change my life. (Lanherne 3, 19)

    In a subsequent illness, her family

    could find no life in me, neither puls, breath, or any other sign … I heard them talk and pray about me, I seemd to my self to be closely united to God, and lay in prayer and contemplation: I found no pain, only my hands lying upon my breast oppressed me … (Lanherne 3, 41-42)

    Whilst she attains her awareness from a state beyond Mind and Body, her knowledge is of and from her somatically-identified mental state. Frequently it is at communion (when transubstantiated relationships between body and sign are most acute) that she experiences spiritual/ bodily insight: "so great a joy seazed my Soul that it diffused all over my Body finding my self as if new life and blood were inffused into me and such an alteration all over me as gave me an extraordinary agility" (99). Her memory, then, has bodily ramifications (even in its physical absence), yet her Life is ultra-bodily, related to her spiritual and narrative life after death and beyond/ outside her body.

  15. Notions of fragmentation, and body-soul tension, are enframed, therefore, within a unity that has its own paradoxes. There are phases to attainment of her contemplative union with God and, meanwhile, some dissolution of self. And it is here that Catherine Burton's account most engages with contemporary philosophical debates, since her notion of individuation is one that is contained in the body, though not, in eternal terms, dependent on its existence. Her work shows a knitting together of medieval and early modern influences, a marriage of Catherine of Siena with René Descartes: her self is not a single, fixed entity that her memory revisits as an object, but a changing and plural figure.

  16. René Descartes (1596-1650), like Thomas Hunter, was educated at a Jesuit college, and formulated his thought in the midst of a Catholic Counter-Reformation movement in northern Europe. His work De Mundo, prepared for publication in 1633, was an ill-timed Copernican theory that coincided with the condemnation of Galileo: Descartes had conceived of it as a commentary on Christian thinking, a development of Aristotle and Aquinas. He distributed his Discourse on Method (1637) among Jesuit and other groups of Parisian society. Cartesians had, by the mid-seventeenth century, become highly influential in the Netherlands and in France (Kearney 194). I have so far been unable to trace a copy of the Discourse to the Antwerp Carmel. Though some books from this period still exist in the relocated community, the conditions of the nuns' departure, under threat of the approaching French soldiers in 1789, may easily have resulted in loss of material. It is, though, more than likely that Cartesian works and debate were known by Thomas Hunter via Jesuit circles at this period of theological challenge, and any doubt that this is so is assuaged by the fact that Hunter's whole method in his editorial handling of Catherine Burton's Life resonates not only with Cartesian concerns, but also with startling organisational and stylistic similarities, specifically with Descartes' Fourth Discourse. Hunter, like Descartes, adumbrates a reader "like himself," one who is addressed as an equal and who is constructed as anxious about the same issues. He appears to have framed the Life of Catherine Burton around Cartesian debates whilst remaining, like Descartes, firmly within orthodox Catholicism. A dialogic process emerges--similar to that seen in Galileo Galilei's Two New Sciences, published in Holland in 1638: Burton describes her mystical experience, Hunter provides some exegesis, and Burton revisits the account in a process of "rationally conducted skepticism and self-interrogation" (see Shapin, Scientific Revolution, 109, on Descartes' method). Catherine Burton's memory is accordingly remapped by the editorial process and by her active participation in the debate with Hunter around her own lived experience. Traces of the influence of earlier hagiographic and mystical texts are apparent, therefore, along with more contemporary reshapings--so that her own life is recounted in a particular form to meet lively philosophical concerns, and to persuade her reader of spiritual epistemologies that have an immediate currency. This is a "double-voiced," and distinctly early modern, discourse (Showalter in Rose, 249).

  17. Accordingly, the Life explores the relationships between mind, body and soul, of a 'medieval' kind in a thoroughly 'early modern' manner; and it enacts a debate between a patterned personal experience and contemporary scientific-like enquiry. As such it represents an early demonstration of dilemmas of later feminist epistemology, of the relative roles of experience and theory in the construction of Knowledge. Catherine Burton's Life, too, is an exposition of the second-handedness of autobiographical composition where authors, in order to be intelligible, adopt contemporary modes of delivery that effectively reshape what they now remember of themselves. [4]

  18. Descartes had written (in what has been taken frequently to be the statement that marked the emergence of the modern subject)

    … I who thought must be something; … I think, therefore I am … I could pretend that I had no body … I therefore concluded that I was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking, and which, in order to exist, needs no place and depends on no material thing; so that this 'I', that is to say, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body, and even that it is easier to know than the body, and moreover, that even if the body were not, it would not cease to be all that it is. … (1968 ed., Fourth Discourse, 53-54)

    Though ultimately Catherine Burton's "self" is not dependent on "material things," her corporeality is essential, and from it emerges, and in it resides, her experience, even of bodilessness. She situates herself within a tradition, and, indeed a moment, of Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, as well as within a Cartesian and material separation of signification. For Descartes, "intelligent nature is distinct from the corporeal" (56), yet Catherine Burton's experience is clearly based on Catherine of Siena's bodily epistemology at the scene of the holy communion:

    whanne [the priest] seyde wordis of consecracioun, I made me open to thee. And so thou saygh comynge out of my brest a light, as it hadde be a sonne-beem … And so thi bodily iye was not sufficient forto suffre to se sich a light, but thi sight oonli bilefte in the iye of intellecte, there thou say and taastist the depnesse of the Trinyte … This revelacioun and visyoun was schewid to thee of myn eendelees goodnesse, the which eendlees goodness yaf to thin iye of intellecte a cleer sight with holy feith. Therefore the iye of intellecte schulde be thi principal sight, and with that sight ye schulden biholde this sacrament of the auter. (Catherine of Siena 1992 ed, 99-101)

    Burton wrote of "our Bd Saviour… having him realy present in my breast in ye Bd Sacrament" and "I thought I saw our Bd Saviour seated in ye middle of my heart" (Lanherne 3, 99; 239).

  19. It is here, around discourses to do with the transmutable body of Christ, that the Cartesian method becomes most apparent within Burton's writing and in exchanges with her spiritual director. Her mysticism is relayed in updated terms that otherwise might unsettle them. Hunter, in other words, and through him Burton herself, incorporates Cartesian insights into the text, so that a various-voiced discourse intermeshes with her own shaping of the remembered.

  20. She revisits her own writing, and the experience it contains, in order to dispel doubt about the here-and-now:

    What I said concerning my seeing these Angels is not meant to be meant yt I saw them with eyes of my Body, for I never saw any thing of this kind in that manner, but with ye eyes of my soul, and it appeareth now much clearer to me tho these things happenend many yeares ago then any thing I have seen with ye eyes of my body. I had never read nor heard yt there was any other way of seeing things (if I may speak so) then with our corporeal eyes til I came to Religion and heard our Blessed Mother St Teresa speak of it … (Lanherne 3, 66)

    Within the Antwerp Carmel there was an eidetic tradition: visual images were produced of what had been mystically "seen" by the religious, [5] to reinforce the imaging process--justifying its reality via depiction, and stimulating future contemplative repetition as the pictorial image could be used by another nun in her own imaging. Such visual autobiographics actuated a communion, not only with the object of veneration beyond, but also with the blessed who first experienced the vision and who is incorporated into the depiction, and with the wider community of belief surrounding this. In the period in which Catherine Burton wrote, these contemplative mnemonics were augmented by processes drawn from 'scientific' discourse. The two strands may have had a common origin in a post- and Counter-Reformation problematisation of ideas of the word as truth (the Word embodying not merely representing), when individual testimony accordingly needed to be supplemented by alterior witness. Descartes had written:

    … I wanted to concentrate solely on the search for truth, I thought I ought to … reject everything in which I could suppose the slightest reason for doubt… So, because our senses sometimes play us false, I decided to suppose that there was nothing at all which was such as they cause us to imagine it …
    … there is nothing in the understanding which has not first been in the senses, in which, however, it is certain that ideas about God and the soul have never been; and it seems to me that those who wish to use their imagination to understand them are doing just the same as if, to hear sounds or smell odours, they attempted to use their eyes … neither our imagination nor our senses could ever assure us of anything, if our understanding did not intervene. … (1968 ed., 53, 57-58).

  21. These ideas had ramifications within applied method. Francis Bacon's Novum Organon, a blue-print for experimental science, had been published in 1620, and figures in the Royal Society in London developed mechanistic paradigms, in publications such as Robert Boyle's Some Considerations of the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (1663). Such writing on the nature of observation is based on notions of a breach in the seeing/believing continuum, unless safeguards are assured: "the solidity and permanence of matters of fact reside in the absence of human agency in their coming to be. To identify the role of human agency in the making of an item of knowledge is to identify the possibility of it being otherwise. To shift the agency onto natural reality is to stipulate the grounds for universal and irrevocable assent" (Shapin, "Seeing and Believing," 23). Scientists in this tradition were concerned to penetrate beyond the merely observed, questioning proof at bare eye-witness level if it could not be replicated in the absence of that observer. "To be told that an eye is the organ of sight … will give a man but a sorry account of the instruments and manner of vision itself, or of the knowledge of that Opifcer, Who, as the Scripture speaks, formed the eye". [6] This notion expands and probes Descartes' deductive concept of a Divine Engineer, as well as scholastic notions of the world as a book in which to read of its maker. It institutes empiricist terms, and an idea of "reader response," introducing, in an attempt to overcome its shortcomings, a concept of the observer as active in the production of (false or misleading) knowledge. The "ideal reader" of science, or a miracle, is a passive one, with no axe to grind in the process; and her/ his observation is justified only if it can be replicated. Hence the proponents of canonisation (or those scrutinising religious revelation) and the scientific empiricists are unlikely bedfellows--both seeking to garner reiterative proof rather than discursively to operate in independent, unverifiable assertions that destabilise meaning. The proof of any early modern meta- and physical pudding is not in the eating alone but in the recurrence of the same effect on others at separately partaken meals.

  22. The sense is, then, that Hunter's exposure to Descartes (as, indeed, of Descartes to writers such as Burton), led him to pose and answer Cartesian and inductive questions within Burton's Life. The dialogue that developed between the autobiographer and biographer is exposed here, showing how her experience is tempered by religious and philosophical encounter, and how the Life is patterned by Hunter's design to convince possible detractors.

  23. Such preoccupation on Hunter's part is evident from the very outset. His Preface sets a tone of mechanistic, empirical and male pre-eminence:

    … nothing in this kind should be made publick wch is not grounded upon sufficient testimonies to secure the Reader from being imposed upon; tho' this caution is alwayees necessary, yet more particular regard must be had to it when we treat any thing of this nature with relation to weamen, there are not wanting those and in great number, who exaggerate so much in them the weakness of nature, and the force of imagination and fancy that they value themselves upon discrediting every thing in this kind; and they seem persuaded that the only way not to be imposed upon is to belive nothing … (1-2)

    This reflects an entrenched demarcation between (male) intellectual faculties and (female) experience (or fantasy of it): in the spirit of binary differentiation, the former is privileged and the latter defined by its lack. "Masters of this Mistical Science," as Hunter terms the confessors and spiritual directors, have a responsibility to obtain authentication of accounts of direct revelation or deliverance. Authority is given to proofs since "all these visions whither exteriour or interiour; imaginary or intellectual, are allwayes to be suspected as dangerous … unless accompanyed with certain effects & signs wch may secure a director of souls yt they are ye operations of ye Divine Spirit…" (7). This expression of 'reasonable doubt' is accordingly followed by the example of Catherine Burton's restoration "to health and ye perfect use of her Limbs," a physical proof of "miraculous effects of his divine power" even to a sceptic (11). Chronologically, the Life could well have begun with this or with an early miraculous intervention when Catherine Burton first felt she had seen Christ (19)--but there was no alterior witness to such an event, so the narrator begins with a more substantive, and witnessed, later event in order to support his account of her blessed life.

  24. At other times Hunter specifically incorporates, in the first person, the testimony of other religious, who witnessed ecstatic moments in Burton's life: "I really believe she was elevated" (399). Elsewhere, Catherine Burton herself works in witnesses: her sister saw the "suddain change" in her, off-setting Burton's own doubt that "perhaps, it were not some suddain transport wch wrought on my imagination" (100).

  25. Her Life is therefore authorised, and the process of becoming herself is multi-faceted, experientially justified and experimentally endorsed. Hunter stresses the empiricism of this process, in which Burton "was so far disingaged from any tye to her self or her own performance" (10). This is seen as evidence of her impartiality in events as well as of her achievement of a contemplative ideal of self-effacement. Her miraculous encounters are treated as experiments to be redone, infinitely repeatable, even, and especially, in her absence. Repetition is an index of authenticity, even when some of the reutterance is Burton's own: Hunter is particularly impressed that her story never wavers:

    I had several times, on set purpose, put her upon recounting some particular passage wch happened many years before and allways found her as exactly precise to every minute circumstance, as if she had seen it then translated before her eyes, a convinceing proof to me, yt it was not a fiction of her own head, made at random by ye force of imagination and fancy, this would have alter'd sometimes, and by this have discouer'd it self. … (10)

    Other testimony is from 'independent witnesses,' those religious who knew Burton (see paragraph 7) and who themselves rely on a chain of evidence: "I find not only by her own writeings, but I have it also from ye testimony of others who were eye-witnesses of yt…" (411-2). This process echoes the moves towards canonisation, fresh in the extended Carmelite mind from the collective memory of Teresa de Jesus (Ahlgren 150-6), as well as the immediate imperative of the new sciences. It underlines, indeed, the close cultural affinity between religious and scientific practices within early modern discourse.

  26. Not only is this Life created from various auto/biographical strands, but it also encompasses various notions of Self, assembled from a range of temporal locations. Ostensibly, the Life contains a narrative from birth (16-17) to biological death, and within that a coming together of Catherine Burton in a state close to sanctity, yet it is actually a teleological projection backwards, from her arrival at a state of grace. Only the narratives themselves make it an organic construct, leading to its end in retrospect. Time in the accounts is constituted by memory, yet the narratives, which exist only through that memory, actually exist without/ outside it since, though the Life is held together by Catherine Burton's recollection, and those who knew her, it lays claim to a Life beyond the constraints of Time itself, somewhere beyond the possibility of recall or even prediction. The past (and the writing of it, in the narrative past) is justified by the way it has led to her present, and eternal, condition. And such a future is possible because of the "present" state of things, in memory, narrative and person. The subject and the text become one.

  27. The narrative itself has continual beginnings, textually embodying a sense of perpetuity while simultaneously, and perhaps more cynically, allowing the director to order things to support Catherine Burton's authenticity. The opening Preface by Hunter is based in the here-and-now of the reader's present, then Hunter moves on to the beginning of Catherine Burton's life (11-17), followed by her own first person account, from the perspective of informed maturity, of how she began to write (at what we later learn is thirty years of age). Interjections of directorial support for her testimony in the 'present' are followed by her account of her early life in Suffolk, and how that led to her present situation, as a religious in Antwerp. Various time zones are thus interwoven, and shaped by a larger 'knowledge' of eternity intersecting with human phenomenology.

  28. Concepts of time-space unity common to modernist auto/biographical construction are challenged, therefore, since the Lives are concerned with, and given shape by expectation of, life beyond temporal and spatial locations. The Lives contain such a challenge by their very reference to memory (Catherine Burton's own, and those of other people's of her) and by the tensions and resolutions within autobiography between unity and separation: because, like all autobiographies, it is a retrospective narrative, it is written after a (presumed) spiritual unity has been attained--yet it describes a process of coming apart, autobiographically, narratively, bodily and spiritually, at various stages of her life. Here autobiography and biography mutually reinforce each other's authority: the end justifies the end, and the 'authors' (Mary Birkbeck, Catherine Burton herself, the other nuns, and Hunter) all endorse each other's testimony to things temporal (memory, a life) and to timelessness (the soul, a Life).

  29. Though there was clearly a tradition of life-writing within the Carmelite order at Antwerp (as the existence of the Annales demonstrates), the immediate inspiration for the full-book Life was related to the suggestion of Catherine Burton's, and others', sanctity. Though Hunter claims to perceive a static-sanctifiable self, it is a shifting one, only constituted by reiteration. This is an identity that is indeed "neither innate nor simply acquired, but dynamically (re)structured by forms of fantasy private and public, conscious and unconscious, which are culturally available and historically specific" (de Lauretis xix). The construction of her identity is shared between her as her own and others' subject, and herself and others as author(s). She becomes constituted by her own access to an albeit pre-written language, in an act of self-hailing that relies upon the endorsement of male authority. Her tale is not added to, but reinforced as if it already existed, produced as a performative by herself and by others reperforming.

  30. Catherine Burton emerges not only as a malleable model in her editorial director's hands, but as a recreatively dynamic and pious self--one not singular (though spiritually exemplary) but various. She emerges in a Life where "there are many stories of self to tell, and more than one self to tell them" (Eakin xi), and which challenges the very notions upon which early modern autobiography has been formulated.


The archive material referred to in this article is listed as Lanherne 1, 2, 3 (see Note 1). I am grateful to the Prioress and her community at Lanherne for their permission to use these sources, and, indeed, for their kind support in analysing the material.

1. The manuscript of Catherine Burton's Life is one of three volumes contained in the Carmelite community library, originally in Antwerp, then at Lanherne, Cornwall, where the religious re-established themselves after the French Revolution. In 2001, the Lanherne convent joined another community, at St Helen's in Lancashire: I have continued to refer to the volumes as Lanherne 1, 2, 3, the latter being the Life of Catherine Burton. A study of these manuscripts is shortly to be published in my edition Lives of Spirit: Carmelite Auto/biography of the Early Modern Period (Ashgate, forthcoming). Booy (2002) will also contain extracts of Burton's Life.

2. The Annales use a similar method, though they are a witness to community rather than individual life. These "Short Colections of the Beginings of Our English Monastery of Teresians In Antwerp with some few Particulars of our Dear Deceased Religious" (Lanherne 1, opening) contain summary Lives of each of the sisters, presented in the sequence in which they professed. Accordingly, Catherine Burton (1668 -1714) appears in Lanherne 1 (539-546), between an account of Sister Beatrix of St Teresa (Beatrix Aurelia Gelthoff, 1664 -1729) and Mother Delphina of St Joseph (Cathrin Smythe, 1677-1721). This editorial method means that sometimes the account, written soon after a death, may not be incorporated into the Annales until the compiler reaches the appropriate profession place in the ordering.

Mary Birkbeck introduces the Annales, with a dedicatory preface to Father Percy Plowden who had written a Life of Margaret Wake (1617-78). Framed in familiar female modesty formulae , and inviting Plowden to "scratch out" anything "Contrary to true Doctrine or edification" (vi), she indicates that the work has been "this hunder'd and a 11 years neglected." If this is literally true, the Annales, based on papers from around 1619 when the Antwerp Carmel was founded, would have been compiled from 1730. This bears out the thesis that accounts written at the death of the sisters were later incorporated into the Annales at their appropriate profession place, since Catherine Burton's summary Life here states that Hunter's Life is "now being writ" (541).

The compiler of the Annales is identified when we reach her own Life. She was Mother Mary Joseph of St Teresa (Mary Howard, 1688-1756), one of several from her family who entered the convent, "who collected these lives of our Dr Deceased from the first found till ye year 1750, and left at her Death an account of her own" (Lanherne 2, 241). This, then, gives us not only detailed insight into the compilation method and impetus for the life-writing, but a time-scheme for these particular manuscripts to this point of 1730-50. The Annales were "completed" by another sister, and run to the last religious being recorded, who died in 1784.

3. For myself, even if I had approached the texts in the order in which they were written (which I did not and which is probably not possible of a first encounter with the evidence, working from print to script), then other people's interpretations quickly might have shaped my response. The manuscript opens with a fragment of what is said to be Catherine Burton's own words, and a pen and ink frontispiece of an after-death portrait of "the Venerable Mother Mary Xaveria of the Angels … who dyed in opinion of sanctity." It shows her with all the appearance of saintliness, the Holy Spirit a dove above her radiating head. There is also a much later card slipped inside the manuscript, a print of this portrait, inscribed on the rear "In memory of the happy day of your profession Feb [?] 14th 1931 Mary of the Incarnation," an indication of the ongoing devotional context of the book's use. The "original" Life is encompassed, therefore, in a paraphernalia that exposes the impetus for its composition, and which reflects the eschatological genesis of production.

4. A more detailed exploration of contemplative mnemonics is included in my study of Carmelite self-writing, Paradise Upon Earth: the Lives and (Self)Construction of Early Modern Carmelite Women (Ashgate, forthcoming); and the inter-relationship between Memory and Body is also explored in my chapter "Touching Nuns: Contemplative Identity In and On the Body," in Contesting Identities: Ethnicity, Self and Nation, c1200-1600 (Peter Lang, forthcoming).

5. For example, the convent had a picture of Venerable Anne of Jesus, companion of St Teresa, envisioning the Infant Christ in the host at communion on the Feast of the Circumcision 1578; a portrait of Blessed Mary of the Incarnation seeing a sight of heaven and cherubs; an engraving of Anne of Jesus at prayer receiving a revelation from the host; and a picture of the cure of Sister Jeanne du St Esprit, painted by order of the Infanta Isabella soon after the event (Hardman 1932, 90, 192, 242, 292).

6. Robert Boyle in The Christian Virtuoso, cited in Kearney 1971, 177.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)