Marie-Pierre Gelin

title.none: Staunton, Thomas Becket (Marie-Pierre Gelin)

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.003 08.04.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marie-Pierre Gelin, University College London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Staunton, Michael. Thomas Becket and his Biographers. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, vol. 28. Woodbridge, U.K./Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2006. Pp. xiii, 246. $90.00 (hb) 1-84383-271-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.03

Staunton, Michael. Thomas Becket and his Biographers. Studies in the History of Medieval Religion, vol. 28. Woodbridge, U.K./Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2006. Pp. xiii, 246. $90.00 (hb) 1-84383-271-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Marie-Pierre Gelin
University College London

As noted by Michael Staunton in the Introduction to his book, Thomas Becket and his Biographers, "Thomas Becket's name remains familiar more than 800 years after his death because his story is a fascinating one recorded well" (2). In addition to numerous biographical accounts written in the decades following the murder of the archbishop in 1170, there is now a considerable body of scholarly--and in some cases, definitive--work dedicated to the life of Becket, to analyses of his personality, as well as to various aspects of the dispute which pitted him against King Henry II. [1] Michael Staunton's book, however, aims at providing a rather different approach to the Becket material.

The point of departure of M. Staunton's book is the realisation that, although the hagiographical and biographical narratives dedicated to Becket have long been mined for the historical insights they can provide, they have seldom been studied as literary works in their own right. In particular, he contends, the numerous literary, i.e. theological, biblical and patristic, references the authors carefully wove into their texts have never been looked at for the contribution they can make to our understanding of the historical Becket. His aim, therefore, is to "gain a fuller perspective on the Lives by exploring the individual character of each of the works," so as to show they were "literary works of high quality, more complex and sophisticated than has always been recognised" (2). This is an aim which Michael Staunton achieves very successfully.

Of the numerous accounts of the life of the murdered archbishop written in the last quarter of the twelfth century, Michael Staunton chooses to concentrate on ten in particular. They are the accounts written by clerks of the archbishop's household and by friends of Becket's (John of Salisbury, William FitzStephen, Herbert of Bosham, and to a certain extent also Edward Grim); those of the Canterbury community (William of Canterbury, Benedict of Peterborough, Alan of Tewkesbury--who also collated the first); and finally three accounts more removed from their subjects: Anonymous I ("Roger of Pontigny"), Anonymous II ("Lambeth Anonymous"), and the verse account of Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence. The book is divided into two parts. In the first (chapters 2-7), the biographers are presented, individually or in groups, in their historical and literary context, and their aims are identified, in particular in relation to their personal links with Becket and to the flourishing cult which rapidly developed at Canterbury on the archbishop's tomb.

In the second part of the book (chapters 8-12), each chapter adopts a structure which is both chronological and thematic, as the author chooses to concentrate on five themes which recur in all the ten Lives under consideration: Conversion, Conflict, Trial, Exile and Martyrdom. Each theme also corresponds to a period in the life of St Thomas. The aim of the author is here to show how the biographers deployed these themes, steeped in the biblical, patristic and hagiographic tradition, but also, to a degree, in legal precedent, in order to highlight how Becket's fate was announced and prefigured in all the events of his life.

This approach allows M. Staunton to test his hypothesis that the Lives are "imbued with a concept of Christian history which goes beyond immediate chronology to encompass past events and display them as a coherent whole, exposing the divine will at work through His agents" (16), and that their ultimate goal was to provide a justification for all of the archbishop's actions, even those which at the time appeared most controversial.

Concentrating on identifying the many quotations and references, Staunton very convincingly shows how, for the biographers, the historical Becket was first and foremost part of a divine plan which destined him to be a martyr. The chapter dedicated to Exile (153-183), where Staunton carefully prises apart all the many layers of allusion and explicit as well as implicit references in the biographers' texts, is exemplary in this regard.

The thematic structure works particularly well, as it allows M. Staunton to compare the ten Lives without ever losing sight of his aim, while at the same time allowing him to highlight the biographers whose literary achievements particularly stand out-- Herbert of Bosham in particular. As the Lives were all written after the murder, and as they all have as one of their primary goals to prove Thomas's sanctity beyond all doubt in response to sometimes scathing criticism of the archbishop, it was perhaps inevitable that the biographers would employ all the hagiographical and rhetorical means at their disposal. The author is, however, careful to point out that on occasion their efforts can appear rather strained (215, 217).

Only a few minor details could be identified as weaknesses. The first would be that the view from the Becket party can appear overemphasised, to the detriment of other opinions expressed at the time. The reader can easily come away from the book with the impression that Becket's only adversary was Gilbert Foliot, and even the case of this most formidable of opponents is often reduced to quotations from Multiplicem nobis. Other parties--notably the king's or those English bishops who were supporting Thomas Becket--barely get a mention. There can be little doubt that the royal clerks or the English bishops employed very similar methods to those of the biographers, and it would have been interesting to be able to see which authorities were invoked by the archbishop's adversaries.

Similarly, the author claims in his conclusion that "the Lives of Thomas did not occur in isolation, and parallels are particularly evident in the work of Eadmer and in much Cistercian hagiography" (219). If the Life of Archbishop Anselm by Eadmer does indeed appear as one of the main models used by Thomas's biographers, there are very few references made to other lives of saints written in the same decades. The author acknowledges that this would constitute another study altogether, but comparisons with hagiography produced in other circles and in maybe less dramatic circumstances would have allowed for a better assessment of how typical or untypical Becket's biographers were, in particular in their use of traditional sources, such as patristic authorities, as opposed to more recent theological and legal texts.

On the whole, however, this is a fascinating study, which sets itself a clearly defined remit, which the author successfully manages to explore in a convincing and always engaging manner. As it is unlikely that any major new discovery will be made to alter our understanding of Thomas Becket and the dispute with Henry II, the bulk of the research on this aspect of English history will now concentrate on how the dispute was presented, both at the time and after the murder. By examining an aspect of the work of Thomas Becket's biographers which had until now received little attention, as well as by increasing our understanding of how hagiography was conceived and written in the twelfth-century, Michael Staunton's book constitutes a valuable addition to the corpus of Becket scholarship.



1. Among many others, one can distinguish D. Knowles, Thomas Becket, Stanford, 1970; F. Barlow, Thomas Becket, London, 1986; and A.J. Duggan, Thomas Becket, London, 2004.