Performing women takes on a key problem in the history of drama: the ‘exceptional’ staging of the life of Catherine of Siena by a female actor and a female patron in 1468 Metz. These two creators have remained anonymous, despite the perceived rarity of this familiar episode; this study of their lives and performances, however, brings the elusive figure of the female performer to centre stage. Beginning with the Catherine of Siena play and broadening outward, Performing women integrates new approaches to drama, gender, and patronage with a performance methodology to trace connections among the activities of the actor, the patron, their female family members, and peers. It shows that the women of fifteenth-century Metz enacted varied kinds of performance that included and extended beyond the theatre: decades before the 1468 play, for example, Joan of Arc returned from the grave in the form of a young woman named Claude, who was acknowledged formally in a series of civic ceremonies. This in-depth investigation of the full spectrum of evidence for female performance – drama, liturgy, impersonation, devotional practice, and documentary culture – both creates a unique portrait of the lives of individual women and reveals a framework of ubiquitous female performance. Performing women offers a new paradigm: women forming the core of public culture. Networks of gendered performance offered roles of expansive range and depth to the women of Metz, and positioned them as vital and integral contributors to the fabric of urban life.
In the spring of 1468, a special jeu – probably taking the form of a theatrical representation in verse – was mounted in the courtyard of the Dominican convent of Metz. This performance portrayed the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, the charismatic urban visionary and reformer who had been canonised just seven years before. Two living women shaped the play, however, both of them also called Catherine: an actor who played the saint, and a patron who sponsored the performance. This event and its female creators point to a richness of female practice in contrast with the old stereotype of the ‘all-male stage’. This first section thus introduces the historical Catherines who anchor the book as well as the performance methodology used to access their hidden lives and activities beyond the play. It integrates theories of bodily performance with new approaches to patronage, personal devotion, and drama; this makes it possible to see a broader picture of women’s contributions to late medieval public life and urban culture. Women’s lives must be studied within a wider social and cultural framework to uncover the full scope of public performance that the Catherines and other women engaged in.
Female performers exist in a shadowy and illusory state, fashioned as such by our histories. Medieval chronicles systematically exclude women, inhibiting an understanding of them as actors in Metz and beyond. Yet the performing women of the 1468 Catherine of Siena jeu staged an interplay among personal devotion, political affiliation, and gendered notions of urban sanctity; this multiform and yet cohesive undertaking becomes fully visible through the triangulation of new material and familiar narrative evidence. This chapter first uncovers the distorting effects of written histories upon the Saint Catherine actor and constructions of female performance. It then turns to the archives and material culture to reveal the hidden family identity and social status of the actor: the role transformed its player permanently, positioning her as the living symbol of the saint within Metz. The patron, Catherine Baudoche, also secured a lasting connection to the saint by referencing her personal foundations at the Dominican convent. It aligned her with an elite group of regional women who promoted Catherine of Siena through liturgy, architecture, and manuscript illumination. The Saint Catherine jeu thus situates the actor and patron amid a community of practice that depicted women at the forefront of shared devotions to Saint Catherine within the urban public sphere.
Biography, documentary culture, and public presence
Catherine Baudoche’s versatile patronage illustrates that, in Metz, female performance fed broader currents of cultural patronage and financial agency. This chapter develops a multifaceted portrait through the biographies of Catherine and her stepmother, Catherine Gronnaix, revealing a family history that positioned these women at a nexus of social and economic power. Through ceremonial practice and entertainments, these two Catherines forged connections with local and trans-regional elites that reinforced those created by the Saint Catherine jeu. Moreover, at multiple points in their lives – early childhood, youth, marriage, widowhood, old age – the Catherines took part in financial transactions that put them at the centre of performative legal acts. Catherine Gronnaix, for example, enacted her vassalage to the dukes of Lorraine through a combination of spoken oath and physical sealing. Such performances served as a sign and representation of identity that was affirmed through public rite. Personal wealth enabled the financial power that supported acts of dramatic and liturgical patronage. Yet economic ownership and agency also positioned the Catherines to represent themselves in seals, legal language, ceremonies, and household performances that established them as full participants in the Messine legal and political spheres.
Individual women employed performance in parish settings as well; in Metz, such practices permitted female performers to ‘write’ fresh meanings upon the histories of existing bodies, objects, and spaces. Catherine Gronnaix made sizable foundations at her parish church of St-Martin and at a nearby Celestine monastery; together, these formed an integrated programme of liturgy that represented Catherine in the context of personal, family, and public memory. The resulting performances mapped social and spatial geographies onto the buildings and streets of Metz in ways that connected the various family identities that Catherine could claim. Confraternal devotion and material culture also played equally vibrant roles in the parish performances of women, however. Catherine participated in two religious associations at St-Martin and founded masses to be celebrated in their chapels. This chapter brings together these collective practices with the surviving late medieval elements of the church: sculpture, murals, and windows. Building on recent work that positions devotional images as active objects within performance, it traces the impact of female ‘matter’ and personal practice upon a shared sphere. At St-Martin, bodily performance situated women within privileged places and integrated them into a larger environment of memory, while distinguishing individuals through social and devotional hierarchies.
Two male monasteries – and their roles in the religious observances of laywomen – illuminate another facet of the relationship among gender, devotion, and performance in Metz. This chapter first revisits the Celestine community, deepening the findings of the third chapter by examining the institution that housed the family chapel of the Gronnaix and the burial place of Catherine Baudoche. Its spaces reveal a culture of performance that was grounded in women’s material contributions and spiritual needs; contemporary institutional histories construct a performance “edifice” that depicts the partnership of laywomen and the Celestine brothers. A second Messine religious community documents an alternative perspective on the role of women in long-term history-making and performance practice. Through liturgical performance, the monastery of St-Arnoul had claimed a past that tied Carolingian-era imperial identity to female sanctity and patronage. Catherine Gronnaix’s foundation of masses at St-Arnoul took place during the decline of this institutional narrative, however, when the preservation and appropriation of older traditions of female performance had lost appeal. In distinct eras, the cloistered spaces of St-Martin and St-Arnoul – both permeated by the presence and remains of laywomen and their devotions – sheltered collaborative performances that intertwined monastic and familial aspirations.
Female actors, impersonation, and cultural transmission
The final chapter returns to the figure of the female actor, examining the performances of a young woman who claimed to be Joan of Arc and the implications of her role. In the spring of 1436, just five years after Joan’s execution in Rouen, an enigmatic young woman appeared to the citizens of Metz. Representing herself as the Pucelle, this actor asked the gathering audience to call her Claude; in the following days and weeks, Claude publicly assumed the Pucelle role through a series of ceremonies that formally recognised her as ‘Joan’. Interpretations of Claude’s playing of Joan have been dominated by histories – both medieval and modern – that read her actions as being the ‘false’ gestures of an impostor. This chapter approaches the role afresh, however, by considering embodied performance methods and contemporary reception to investigate how and why Claude persuaded her audiences to embrace a new iteration of Joan. Multiple women took part in the Pucelle scenario, using impersonation-based performance techniques to store and communicate Joan’s identity and an associated body of knowledge. Like the Saint Catherine actor, Claude’s example reframes ‘exceptional’ female actors as instead being exemplary: performing women represent the visible face of poorly documented, yet widespread, performance strategies.
Although the Catherines and Claude slowly passed from memory, their performances and those of the women around them continued to represent their interests. The book concludes with an integrated portrait of women’s performance in fifteenth-century Metz that emphasises four significant themes: the production of history, collaboration, material and bodily practice, and continuity. The discussion traces interactions among the actions of the Catherines and Claude and explores the echoes of their practices over time. From a Pucelle character in the fifteenth-century Mystère de Saint Clément de Metz to a modern depiction of Joan of Arc at the church of St-Martin, female performance remained relevant to local constructions of identity and history. The section closes by suggesting that Performing women, having transformed female performance from ‘rare’ to representative within Metz, offers a model for discovering the hidden histories of other urban centres and regions.