contributor.author: John C. Eby

title.none: Abou-El-Haj, The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations

identifier.other: baj9928.9604.001 96.04.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John C. Eby

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Abou-El-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xviii, 456. $90. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-39316-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.04.01

Abou-El-Haj, Barbara. The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xviii, 456. $90. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-39316-7.

Reviewed by:

John C. Eby

Barbara Abou-El-Haj's The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations is a book historians of medieval religion and art historians will find interesting because of its interdisciplinary nature and its contentions about the purposes of illustrated saints' lives in the twelfth century. Her argument is "that the visual topography for cults was newly configured from diverse sources and that the cluster of eleventh- and twelfth-century pictorial hagiographies are no accident of survival, but rather part of the competitive expansion of cults during the centuries of pilgrimage" (67).

The monograph is broken up into two parts. The first part, entitled "Historical Formations of the Cult of Saints," provides the reader with an overview of monastic and ecclesiastical uses of cult up through the twelfth century and of the historical application of pictorial hagiographies to these uses. The second part, "A Case Study: St. Amand D'Elnone, 1066-1180," is meant to be read as a test for the general theories set forth in part one. These essays are closely linked to a series of five well-conceived appendixes (part three) and a marvelous assembly of illustrations, all together constructing an impressive multimedia presentation. Though the essays are short, the reader will spend some time with them, for Abou-El-Haj has thoroughly cross-referenced the three parts to each other and to the illustrations so that the reader can easily check her analysis and conclusions against the evidence. The reader need not worry about whether to read the appendixes or study the pictures before or after the essay, since the author helpfully directs and guides her audience on what to look at when throughout the monograph.

Chapter one, "Formations and Transformations of the Cult of Saints: Fourth through Twelfth Centuries," based entirely on secondary studies, is a useful survey of the political and economic uses of the cult of the saints in the first half of the Middle Ages, though much of what she says is not new. Relying especially on the excellent work of Sumption, Ward, and Geary, she argues that the major transformations in saints' cults in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were the result of changing needs of monasteries to find new ways to raise revenue and affirm claims to property because of the transition from a land based economy to a money economy. "In the 11th and 12th centuries, building a monastic economy meant acquiring a pilgrimage by renewing and expanding the cult of a founding saint" (63). More uniquely, she suggests that pictorial hagiographies supported local cults in a similar fashion to the way building programs served supraregional cults, to encourage pilgrimage as a way to raise revenue and legitimate the claims of the promoters of local cults. This leads her to conclude that "perhaps pilgrims do not produce cults; cults produce pilgrims" (31).

Pictorial hagiographies, "a virtually new category of mostly monastic art in the eleventh and twelfth centuries" (26), are given more direct attention as a genre in the second chapter, "The Historical Character of Pictorial Hagiographies." While most recent studies of pictorial hagiographies emphasize the distance between image and text in order to isolate the content of the pictures contemporary with their production and specific to their site, Abou-El-Haj examines in this chapter common features in cycles (episodic pictorial representations of the lives of saints) in order to suggest that pictorial hagiographies are a peculiar characteristic of one particular stage in the history of the cult of the saints. Scenes do not simply illustrate the main elements of a story in a Life, but often take brief "textual moments," things which the original writer mentioned only briefly, as their main object. Illustrations, though not completely divorced from the text, do not necessarily match it either.

The arguments of these first two chapters are presented and supported well with examples and copious, thorough notes. Both chapters, especially the first, are based on the cumulative work of modern scholarship, and thus not only provide arguments which seek to pull many different analyses together, but also serve as rather nice essays on the state of studies of saints' cults. The second chapter on picture cycles will present historians (as opposed to art-historians) with important information that may be less familiar.

This book has many qualities to recommend it. However, the author follows a tendency of recent scholarship to essentially ignore and downplay issues of belief central to the cult of saints. Clearly, monasteries and shrines promoted saints' cults for the sake of economic gain and social control, but could such manipulative political designs have been effective without a strong foundation in ideology and psychology on the part of promoters and participators? If one wishes to see cult as a political tool, one must ask first why it should be an effective political tool. The uses and abuses of cult surely had an effect precisely because they often went unrecognized, like a small spot ovewhelmed by the brilliant light of faith behind it, making it difficult to see. Even if cults produce pilgrims, as Abou-El-Haj contends, and not vice versa, it still remains unclear why certain cultic forms had such a tremendous impact. How they could be used is an important question, but more important is to ask why they could be used that way. A more complete picture of the "Medieval Cult of Saints," as the title promises, should therefore have concerned itself with the ways devotion and piety influenced the directions which cult forms took.

Another weak point is that she doesn't really show how a ms. could be a draw to pilgrims, in a way similar to building shrines would be. Pictures in a book are much less visible and accessible, and may be at least partially dependent upon a literate audience. A-E-H's fine analysis of the cult of St. Amand d'Elnone clearly establishes that the development of picture cycles was contemporary with periods of cult promotion, but it is less convincing on the issue of audience. At whom were the picture cycles aimed -- the monks, looking to contemporize their patron for their own spiritual and territorial benefit, or laypersons seeking objects of devotion?

Part two, the case study of St. Amand of Elnone, is nicely done. Three chapters are linked to the impressive appendix 5, which provides text or paraphrase of each chapter of the 8th century life written by Baudemond and detailed analytical descriptions of the pictures which correspond to each in the three illustrated mss. produced between the late 11th and late 12th centuries. The reader should read appendix 5 before the chapters in part 2. Almost all of the pictures from these mss. are duplicated in the back. Despite the constant flipping back and forth required to do this section justice, it makes for a very pleasant and illuminating read. A-E-H's eye for detail is striking, and she uses it to open up the world of meaning embedded in the pictures. Her chapters discuss at length what is readily apparent from the appendix and pictures, that the illustrators dealt with contemporary issues, even to the point of subverting the text and changing earlier representations. She shows that pictures can reveal much about the changes that the cult of saints underwent in the 12th century.

A-E-H first provides an overview of the types and styles of representation in the Amand cycles, with the objective of setting out thematic continuities and discontinuities between scenes. Chapter Four, "St. Amand and Its Cult between 1066 and 1107: Manuscript 502," discusses the development of the cult in the late 11th century and how it is reflected in pictures of ms. 502, a period framed by two relic journeys. This ms. has four main emphases: spiritual enhancement of the text, authentication and inauguration of the cult, encounters between spiritual and secular authority, and the "saint's power over sacrilegious and unconverted people at a time when the convent engaged in increasing numbers of disputes with its feudal vassals" (85).

One of the most interesting examples of pictures reflecting contemporary concerns relates to the investiture controversy. By showing the saint submitting to the king for his consecration as bishop, and yet emphasizing the saint's authority over the king in his rejection of the see of Maastricht, the monastery was able to visually represent its close ties to the local counts of Flanders while at the same time favoring the papal position on the issue of investiture. The ms. of the late 12th century, on the other hand, shows that investiture has ceased to be an issue, completely deleting the king from the consecration scene, and putting a royal scepter, rather than a crozier, in his hand for the investiture scene.

In ways such as this, argues chapter five, ms. 500, of the late 12th century, revised and modernized the pictures of ms. 502. "By means of these adjustments, ms. 500 emerges as a genuinely new, if sometimes boring, version of Amand's life that relies less on narrative and topographic detail or terrorizing visions of saintly power to coerce or destroy, than on the image of authority and dignity derived from the public, ceremonial appearance of the clergy inside and outside their churches" (129). The later version shows great interest in consensus and hierarchy.

One of the main points of the early chapters was that a newfound prevalence of posthumous miracles reveals the concern of monasteries to build pilgrimage centers. The pictorial cycles of Amand, however, show no posthumous miracles, a sticky point for A-E-H's analysis which she addresses in an intriguing, albeit too brief, manner. She contends that the representation of Aldegond's vision of the saint and those he converted being taken up into heaven was intended to stand in the place of posthumous miracles, because the ascent of his converts would by extension apply to pilgrims as well. Certainly a very interesting idea, such an important issue should deserve more than the two sentences of attention it received.

The five appendixes all help support A-E-H's arguments well. A combination of charts, a map, and comparative histories, texts and descriptions, they are neatly thought out and presented. As mentioned before, appendix five, "Contents and Analytic Comparisons of the Illustrated Lives of Saint Amand," is especially stimulating, but there is also "Cult Development for Saints Whose Lives Were Illustrated," "Chronology and Synopses of Pictorial Hagiographies," and "Chart Showing Distribution of Subjects in Illustrated Saints' Lives." Like all the aspects of this book, the organization of the pictures is thoughtful and easy to follow. The production of the book by Cambridge University Press is excellent, with the exception of the chart in appendix four, in which the coloration of dots is hard to differentiate.

Despite the potential for this book to become ponderous because of A-E-H's meticulous attention to detail and innumerable cross-references, it actually reads quite well due to the clarity of style, organization, and presentation, and her remarkable descriptive abilities. No one will struggle with the mechanics of working through it. The cost is prohibitive ($90), all the more unfortunate because it could be useful for both research and teaching. Though it may not appear on many personal shelves, academic libraries will undoubtedly find its purchase worth while. Although The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations is somewhat mistitled, not because of the constraints of a case study but because of its limited thematic and chronological scope, in the end, I was very glad to have read the book.