The Medieval Review 11.06.40

Koopmans, Rachel. Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 328. $65. 978-0-8122-4279-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Sara Ritchey
University of Louisiana, Lafayette

Rachel Koopmans discovers in the miracle stories collected in England from roughly 1080 to 1220 an exquisite means of examining high medieval religious culture. Wonderful to Relate asserts that this period saw a sharp rise and fall of miracle collecting, creating a peak moment of cultural "mania" for miracle stories that merits the closer inspection of miracle collections as a body of texts, an independent genre. Koopmans thus turns to the more than seventy-five miracle collections from this period in order to examine the patterns of production of the collections, how miracle collectors generated, circulated, and regulated their stories. The result of Koopmans' deft scholarship is a literary history of miracle collecting in high medieval England that foregrounds above all an appreciation for a wonder-filled "story," that is, a cultural penchant for rendering personal accounts in terms of everyday perceived encounters with the divine. Koopmans deserves high praise for listening to these stories. She refuses to mine the collections for statistical information about, for example, the gender make-up of saints' cults or the literacy rates of pilgrims, information that is certainly useful but may not have existed as a relevant category of experience for the culture under investigation. Rather, Koopmans listens to the sick, the vengeful, and the prayerful telling the stories that explained in their own terms how their bodies were healed and their amends made.

Wonderful to Relate starts from the premise that miracle stories, which circulated orally, were the lifeblood of a saint's cult. The first two chapters of the book seek to elucidate how miracle stories circulated first orally and then textually, and to outline the general characteristics and patterns of those stories. The most vexing task for historians in this regard is certainly that of reconstructing a sense of oral culture through the written texts. For assistance in this task, Koopmans turns to methods and theories found in sociology and linguistics. The basic building block of miracle collections, she argues, is the "personal story," an emotionally intense oral narrative that attempts to make sense of real-life situations. Taking cues in particular from folklorist Sandra Dolby Stahl's 1989 Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative, Koopmans orients her investigation to the dynamics and characteristics of personal stories, noting, for example, references to speech. Chapter two, on the "plotlines and patterning of oral miracle stories," outlines the characteristic formal features of miracle stories. Koopmans identifies the core miracle plotline as one that unfolds according to a formulaic sequence of problem, divine intervention, and solution. She argues that personal miracle stories, which were living, oral, and local, adapted to more formal and stable narrative templates. She appreciates the full context of miracle stories, that they are personal, and therefore not wholly conducive to clear-cut typologies and statistical analysis. Counting up petitions and cures for blindness in miracle collections therefore should not lead the historian to assume that blindness was the most fearsome condition faced by high medieval English women and men, but that some saints were perceived as particularly adept at ocular healing. Miracle collections, she advises, demonstrate fads, not facts.

After issuing these general observations governing her use of miracle collections as historical sources, Koopmans moves in chapters three through seven into an examination of the collections themselves, to the circumstances of their composition during the earliest moments of English miracle collecting. Lantfred of Fleury's Translation and Miracles of Swithun, composed in the 970s at Winchester, is the only surviving miracle collection from late Saxon England. Koopmans asks why Lantfred, a foreigner, would create a collection of miracles performed by a saint for whom he might reasonably reserve a great deal of skepticism. Lantfred's collection has been explained by other historians (Michael Lapidge, Mechtild Gretsch, Robert Deshman) as an attempt to bolster the monastic reforms imposed by Aethelwold, but Koopmans locates the collection's meaning and rationale in Lantfred's Frankish heritage. She interprets his collection as a volume written for a non-English readership, specifically for his brethren back at Fleury, who had built such an esteemed tradition of miracle collecting. Lantfred knew from his own exposure to miracle collecting at Fleury that the stories of Swithun that circulated orally at Winchester needed to be preserved. Nevertheless, Lantfred inspired little enthusiasm for English miracle collecting and thus the next English miracle collection would not appear until the 1070s, again, composed by a foreigner. Goscelin of St Bertin, from Flanders, was responsible for igniting the English craze for miracle collecting. His early corpus--which included the lives and miracles of Wulfsige, Edith and Kenelm--forged a model for English miracle collecting. These three saints all lived in different centuries but his collections of their miraculous workings bear a similar structure--in all three, miracles are the endpoint that conclude and give meaning, power, and authority to the saints' lives, deaths, burials and translations. In composing these collections, Goscelin relied on conversations he conducted in-house, in the communities of Sherborne, Wilton and Winchcombe. He formed close relationships with the inhabitants of these communities, and his resulting texts bear a remarkably conversational tone. Once again resisting the current stream of interpretation of Goscelin's motives, Koopmans understands Goscelin not as collecting in order to promote saints' cults, but as working to promote his own activity, leaving his texts as calling cards.

The next two chapters round out Koopmans' examination of the first phase of miracle collecting in England. Chapters five and six function much like companion pieces, offering side-by-side examinations of the goals of two miracle collectors of Christ Church, Osbern and Eadmer. Both monks collected the miracles of Saint Dunstan, but with far different methods. Osbern's would be the first English-authored miracle collection, and one that clearly demonstrates the influence of Goscelin. In Osbern's Miracles of Dunstan, Koopmans finds evidence for the role of saintly miracles in amalgamating Normans and native English. Osbern's was one of the first texts of any kind to be written by an Englishman after the Norman conquest. Perhaps counter to what one might expect, his collection demonstrates that Anglo-Saxon saints may have served as points of integration for English and Normans: the acceptance by Normans of Anglo-Saxon saints and their miracles may have worked as a powerful force to weld Norman churchmen to their new communities and to enable English monks to accept Norman leadership. Osbern expressed a fabulous approach to miracle collecting. He was ever on the lookout for saints in his midst, as witnessed by his fawning treatment of Lanfranc. Eadmer, by contrast, was more critical. When Eadmer rewrote Osbern's Life and Miracles of Dunstan, he excised much of the "chattering" quality of his elder colleague's collection, ridding it of its many personal stories. Eadmer's efforts demonstrate a changing tide--he found frustration in oral traditions and wished to create reliable written sources. His zeal for preservation is glimpsed in his attraction to minor saints. Koopmans distinguishes major from minor saints by the fact that major saints were perceived as alive, working in the present, the subject of many circulating miracle stories. Minor saints were not the subject of orally- circulating miracle stories and therefore must have been perceived as remote, lifeless, and unlikely to grant a miracle when beseeched. Eadmer's dedication to maintaining reliable sources of information on saints is shown in his selection of subject matter, choosing Aelfheah, Ouen and Bregwine over more obvious candidates. He tellingly resisted preserving contemporary stories circulating orally, as he feared the endless nature of such a task. Nevertheless, Eadmer did take up the duty of writing the life of Anselm, which required him to give ear to seemingly endless personal stories. The case of Eadmer and his "unrealistically egalitarian" (105) collection allows Koopmans to put forth some of her most poignant conclusions about the oral circulation of personal miracle stories and their transmission into writing. In writing the lives and miracles of obscure saints, Eadmer was asking his readers to care about the past despite the fact that cults were not operating actively around them. But Eadmer's was a fairly hopeless endeavor because, as Koopmans explains, "cults went where they would text or no text. They grew and developed and appeared and disappeared according the interests of the living and their own oral rhythms" (111).

The remainder of Wonderful to Relate examines the second phase of miracle collecting in England, from 1140 to 1220. When generalizing, Koopmans describes this phase as more secretarial than the previous one, expressing interest in the medical details of cures, and increasingly focused on garnering tales from lay visitors, including women. Koopmans uses the collections of Becket's miracles, in particular those of Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury, rough contemporaries at Christ Church, to express the changes in approach to miracle collecting in this period. She explains, "in their size, themes, rhetorical ambitions and striking individuality, the Christ Church collections exemplify the late twelfth-century cultural climate. Becket died and Benedict and William took up their pens at a point when large collections were already being written, when collectors were increasingly intrigued by and willing to listen to the stories of the laity visiting their churches, when a more technical, testing and medical approach to miracle stories was becoming common, and when miracle collecting was still an individual and unprofessionalized pursuit" (127). In terms of influence, Koopmans shows, and diagrams through a helpful appendix, the geographical extent of all known medieval manuscripts of Becket's miracles, which circulated originally in five twelfth-century collections. These collections, she argues, were not read to lay listeners, nor were they adapted for use in sermons. Rather, Becket's miracles served an increasingly professional class of elite, literate, and religious men in the study and ascertainment of miracles as a whole.

In these final chapters, Koopmans compares the collections of William and Benedict, their aims, and personalities, by attending to their different treatment of the so-called parallel miracles, eighteen stories that both monks included in their collections. This analysis makes it possible for Koopmans to demonstrate that Benedict handed over notes and letters to William at some point, and to argue that William used those notes rather differently in order to create not an addendum but a wholly separate, autonomous miracle collection. Benedict, Koopmans shows, responded to reports of miracles according to a social hierarchy. The first category through which miracles were granted authentication and included in his collection were those that occurred in the cathedral itself, in the presence of Benedict and his brothers. Forming a secondary category of acceptance were those stories Benedict "learned from the testimony of religious men," whose vows demonstrated an alliance he could trust and whose stories he willingly copied. The third category of miracle story, the one with which Benedict was least comfortable and which he subjected to the greatest degree of scrutiny, was composed of those miracles told by "ill people already healed." Koopmans interprets Benedict as a doubtful gatekeeper guarding the integrity and veracity of a monastic genre. William, by contrast, tended to luxuriate willy-nilly in the personal stories of Becket's miraculous interventions. The most characteristic distinction of William's collection is his intent reliance on medical terminology to describe Becket as a good doctor capable of healing incurable diseases. William was most interested in what happened to people's bodies in the process--the causes of the illnesses, the development of their symptoms, and how their illnesses progressed. He was concerned to know their stories--the details of what they believed happened to them and why. To William, a person's status did not matter, nor in many cases did their name or geographic location. What mattered was their story. He was not an investigator and voiced his frustration with those who expressed doubt.

In her conclusion, Koopmans briefly ponders the decline of miracle collecting in the thirteenth century, which took place with the advent of formalized canonization procedures. The act of telling a miracle story had become by this point--far from the personal, emotionally exuberant narrative it once conveyed--an examination. The men that oversaw the validation of miracles sought evidence, not stories. As more and more layers of bureaucratic accretions were added to the proper procedure for canonization, there appeared fewer prologues, personal reflections, and rhetorical flourishes characteristic of the earlier miracle collections.

Wonderful to Relate traces the development of the monastic fad for miracle collecting in high medieval England, arguing that, in terms of the propagandistic power of a saint's cult, the textual preservation of miracle stories was always only secondary to their oral circulation. But there is another cultural transformation that Koopmans suggests, though only in fits and starts, leaving the reader yearning for more overarching statements about the role of miracle stories in shaping behavior and social expectations more generally. The faint picture that emerges--the outlines of which the reader might wish to detect more clearly--projects a uniquely high medieval, though surely not uniquely English, love and pure delight in the explanatory power of personal stories of individuals transformed through holy encounters. What remains unclear is precisely what these stories tell us about who these people were, what mattered most to them, and how they understood their world to work. Wonderful to Relate provides a vibrant depiction of monastic miracle collectors like the woebegone Goscelin and the astute Eadmer, suggesting that we should mourn the cultural loss of their fantastical stories to bureaucratic asphyxiation at the hands of thirteenth-century papal procedure. But omitted is a rich, cohesive sense of what exactly was excised from English culture with the decline of the miracle collection, why we should mourn its loss, and what that loss meant to the development of literature and devotion, to story-telling and the veneration of saints. These lingering concerns are far less significant than the powerful and important scholarship represented by the whole of Wonderful to Relate. Koopmans has done medievalists a great service in directing our attention to the English miracle craze, and offering a sharp method for understanding how miracle collections worked.