Jas Elsner

title.none: Ashley and Sheingorn, Writing Faith (Elsner)

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.009 01.05.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jas Elsner, Corpus Christi College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Ashley, Kathleen and Sheingorn, Pamela. Writing Faith: Text, Sign and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. x, 205. $27.50. ISBN: 0-226-02966-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.09

Ashley, Kathleen and Sheingorn, Pamela. Writing Faith: Text, Sign and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. x, 205. $27.50. ISBN: 0-226-02966-2.

Reviewed by:

Jas Elsner
Corpus Christi College

Sainte Foy is the funny three-dimensional reliquary (all gold encrusted with jewels, whose face was once a late antique portrait of a male) visited by those intrepid modern tourists who head away from the more famous and accessible French medieval venues to Conques. No one who has gone there has been disappointed: it is the most tremendous romanesque site, with a wonderful carved tympanum and of course the old relic. Ashley and Sheingorn, who -- writing together and separately -- are responsible for a good deal of interesting discussion of the medieval cult of Sainte Foy (and not least Sheingorn's English translation of the book of her miracles, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1995), have now produced a major monograph. Despite its silly assertion on p. 2 that this is a "post disciplinary" book (whatever that could ever mean), it is actually a very good one and well worth reading.

The introduction is a brilliantly pithy summary of the numerous problems faced by a reader in confronting medieval hagiography. These move from the early recensions of the text (including losses and the impositions of editors) via significant shifts of emphasis in a text's meanings in the transmission from high to late middle ages to the problems of post Reformation interpretations in producing editions as well as those of positivism in using hagiography. This admirably clear and precise exposition ends with an account of the modern scholarship.

Chapter 1 confronts us with a complex and playful author in the monk Bernard (author of at least the first two books of the Miracles). It takes us to issues of ideological and generic play in the typologies of hagiography (including emulation of earlier models such as the various accounts of St. Martin of Tours from Sulpicius Severus to Gregory of Tours). I think the authors underestimate the extent to which other medieval writers beyond Bernard engage in complex self representations with their own subjectivity on the line. Examples that spring to mind in the related genres of travel-writing and pilgrimage are the 'false' travel-text of Sir John Mandeville and the 'true' one by Gerald of Wales. But they are surely right about the ways Bernard appropriates various tropes from autopsy to self-humiliation for his own authorial ends. Certainly, the self-portrait of Bernard extracted by the authors -- as a collector of stories (of which he is also writer), a sceptic turned believer and a key witness of miracles -- functions as a kind of implicit spiritual autobiography that is itself propaganda for the efficacy of Ste Foy. It certainly seems convincing. I am less sure about the suggestions of irony and parody. The subtitle of this chapter is "the trickster text" (picking up work Ashley has earlier done on tricksters) and I suspect that the tickster image may somewhat have taken over here. An effect of too much post-disciplinarity?

Chapter 2 claims to "historicize Bernard's trickster strategies and social ideologies", emphasising issues such as classical education, tradition and rationalism. The authors show the richness of Bernard's literary allusions, as well as his deliberate choice not to signal them. They also develop the way in which Bernard's eleventh-century text not only embroiders and promotes an older monastic ideology reaching back into the early middle ages, but at the same time provides a critique of this in the light of rationalist influences at play in Chartres, which Bernard claims as the site of his own education. Broadly, this chapter begins to take the discussion into the arena of social semiotics promised in the introduction at p. 19.

Chapter 3 deals with the monastic appropriation of Bernard's text and its extension in Books 3 and 4. I am unconvinced by the use of intertextuality to assert that "we can, in other words, read through Bernard's egocentrism to an insight about the ways he was manipulated by monastic agendas" (p. 68). He is a clever enough author to have got us there deliberately and to be laughing at our insight behind our backs. It is interesting that his continuator(s) is as reflexive and aware of literary tradition as Bernard, but he (they?) is clearly writing with a clear and different ideological agenda that puts Conques at the centre of a pilgrim world -- both "numinous center and cultural margin" (p. 81). The authors do not cite Victor or Edith Turner at this point (nor any of the Turners' works on pilgrimage) but VT should be dancing in his grave, since this is a strong version of his thesis of pilgrimage sites as ideologically central but also geographically peripheral. The jump to the authorship of books 3 and 4 at pp. 83-5 seems rather abrupt, but the discussion of different authorial agendas and constructions of Ste. Foy is very interesting. According to Ashley and Sheingorn, that old relic (itself topped with what may once have been the head of an old idol) moved from trickster in Bernard's account to the 'Bride of Christ' by the later middle ages.

Chapter 4 is a very interesting comparison of the Book of Ste. Foy with later recensions and traditions. In particular, the authors trace changes in attitudes to the Other, with Conques --- in the south of France -- helping to create a monolithic Christian identity in relation to (nearby) Muslim Spain. Chapter 5 develops the "social semiotics" announced at the inception with acute discussions of gender (the Book of Miracles is not mysogynistic, perhaps a surprise), innocence, the body and laity. The conclusion examines the cultural work of the Book of Miracles, comparing it with the miracles of St. Benedict compiled at about the same time at the monastery of Fleury.

Altogether this is a highly sophisticated and intelligent reading of a text rarely subjected to such careful scrutiny and clearly perfectly worthy of it. In that sense, it is a model for pilgrimage studies more broadly, which have rarely brought the skill and insights of high level literary criticism to texts that are more usually read as historical or, still worse, documentary sources. The very cleverness and generic promiscuity developed by Bernard should be sufficient warning against temptations to find facts in literary prose. But such sophistication may itself also be much more common of pilgrimage narratives than has been acknowledged to date. I think, for instance, of Lucian's fiendishly clever pre-Christian account of the Syrian Goddess (De Dea Syria) which similarly puts its narrator's identity on the line, and treads the tightrope between piety and humour with panache.