Joanne Findon

title.none: Thompson, Everyday Saints (Joanne Findon)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.016 05.01.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joanne Findon, Trent University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Thompson, Anne B. Everyday Saints and the Art of Narrative in the South English Legendary. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xii, 224. $80.00 0-7546-3293-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.16

Thompson, Anne B. Everyday Saints and the Art of Narrative in the South English Legendary. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003. Pp. xii, 224. $80.00 0-7546-3293-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Joanne Findon
Trent University

In this fascinating study, Anne B. Thompson considers the saints' tales in the South English Legendary (SEL) as narratives first and foremost. Grounded in the social, cultural and political context of late thirteenth-century England, and growing out of a newly flourishing vernacular literature, the SEL is, Thompson argues, a surprisingly creative text whose author(s) deploy humor, colloquial language, and romance conventions to connect with medieval audience(s). In a series of remarkably attentive close readings that hold a magnifying glass to this text, Thompson shows how the SEL reshapes its source materials to create a collection of saints who are "saints of the here and now, saints who through their lives celebrate the ordinary as well as the extraordinary" (17).

In the introductory section (chapters 1 and 2 of the book) Thompson sets the stage for her discussion by defining her main focus: the apparent interest of the SEL both in "narrative for its own sake" (19) and in the everyday life of this mortal world. Thompson locates her approach within the context of recent work in hagiographical studies by such scholars as Winstead, Ashley, Sheingorn, Reames, and Wogan-Browne which view the hagiographical text as emerging from a cultural context that reshapes and redefines it. Thompson sketches out the issues involved in writing in English at this time by considering two other late-thirteenth/early fourteenth-century texts written in English: Cursor Mundi and Handlyng Synne, both poems of popular religious instruction which defend their use of the English language. As a further analogue to the SEL, Thompson includes a discussion of the earlier Ormulum, a late twelfth-century verse translation of the Gospels of the massbook, with homiletic commentary, by an exceedingly anxious writer struggling with the task of writing in English. In all cases, the poets are writing religious narratives and use a variety of strategies--some derived from secular models--to tell their stories. The SEL shares in these interests, and extends the connections with the everyday world of its audience by at times even articulating political resistance against oppressive overlords.

Part II, "The Art of Narrative," narrows the focus to the particular narrative strategies deployed by the poet(s) of the SEL. In Chapter 3 of this section, Thompson takes us through comparisons of SEL--sometimes line by line--with analogous passages in the Ormulum and Cursor Mundi. Thompson chooses the story of John the Baptist as the point of comparison between these three texts, in order to highlight the strategic narrative decisions made by the SEL poet(s). Even in the earliest text, the Ormulum, it is clear that narrative was being consciously reshaped with the needs of audiences in mind. Thompson analyzes in detail the ways in which the Ormulum poet alters the chronological order of events in his source for the beheading of John the Baptist, showing how these alterations result in events being presented from a variety of different perspectives. Similarly, she shows how the Cursor Mundi author, much more at home in English idiom, departs from his sources in adding romance motifs to the story, as when Herodias and her daughter faint and weep like romance heroines. In the SEL, the events leading up to John's beheading become "a mini-narrative of its own" (78), departing even from its closest source, the Legenda Aurea, in elaborating in great detail on the love-triangle of Herod, his brother, and his brother's wife Herodias. The demise of mother and daughter, described as "ssrewen" ("shrews," 82) is told with great relish and with little emphasis on their royal status: they are simply a pair of bad women, such as one might find in any English town.

In Chapter 4 of the same section, Thompson considers the generic influence of medieval romance on the SEL in greater detail, arguing that although none of these stories is drawn directly from a romance, the romance influence is pervasive throughout the collection. The SEL's introduction even deploys metaphors of romance in depicting Christ as a king going into battle with his 'hardy knight' John the Baptist; and the saints whose lives are retold here are described as knights of the rearguard who will reap great rewards for sacrificing their lives. Thompson chooses two particular legends, those of Mary Magdalen and Saint Eustace, to illustrate the lively blending of religious and romance conventions. Mary Magdalen's miraculous rescue of the young prince of Marseilles (as told in the Legenda Aurea and other texts) was already deeply colored by romance; and Saint Eustace had his own secular reflection in the popular romance Sir Isumbras. Thompson's attentive analysis of these two tales demonstrates the depth of the romance influence on both, and highlights the ways in which romance motifs and metaphors coincide with the SEL's interest in representing the real lives of the characters. In both tales, Thompson finds clear evidence of a reshaping to highlight the connections between the heroic characters and their society. Mary Magdalen's dealings with the king and queen of Marseilles, her aid to the wife in conceiving a longed-for heir, and then her miraculous intervention when the wife dies in childbirth at sea, all point to a concern with family life and with emotional love between husbands and wives and their children. Similarly, the legend of Saint Eustace also focuses on the love between members of a family, outlining the hero's loss of first his wife and then his children in a series of Job-like misfortunes, and his reunion with them twenty years later. Thompson's reading of the SEL's version again highlights its artistry: unlike all other versions of the saint's legend, this one allows neither the audience nor Eustace himself to know that his family will eventually be restored to him. Thompson concludes that "The SEL's decision to privilege suspense over divine omniscience aligns it with writers of romance in general" (107). She notes that unlike even the romance Sir Isumbras, the SEL version maintains a tight focus on the emotional bonds between the various family members, thus affirming as no other version does the value of earthly human experience and relationships.

In Chapter 5 of Part II, "The Idea of a Collection," Thompson considers the SEL within another major generic tradition: the collection of saints' lives. Included in this category are the liturgical texts of saints' lives as found in medieval breviaries. The extent of liturgical influence on the SEL is still a matter of debate, and Thompson briefly sketches out the most important positions on the question. This is also the point at which she must address head-on and in detail the thorny question of the SEL's "authorship." While acknowledging the invaluable work of Manfred Gorlach and O.S. Pickering in illuminating the SEL's manuscript tradition, Thompson rightly points out that the hunt for a text's sources can obscure the originality of the text itself. She sides with Paul Strohm in viewing each text instead as "a product of 'complicated immersion within its textual environment'" (117, citing Strohm) [[1]]. This stance allows her to argue for an ongoing process of "authoring" in the SEL (121) which over time allowed a series of poets to introduce and strengthen a type of originality grounded in concerns about storytelling itself. This impulse was, Thompson argues, perhaps strengthened by the generic expectations engendered by the very idea of the "story collection" of saints' lives. Indeed, the idea of a collection might even provide "one of the most significant 'sources' of the SEL's 'originality,' influencing every 'author' who has had a hand in the composition of individual items" (122). In advancing this argument, she singles out the opening episode of the legend of St. Dunstan, which is both close to the SEL tale's earliest form and not rewritten by the later poet who Pickering argues is the source of much of the SEL's originality. Again, through an attentive reading of the episode, Thompson highlights the ways in which the SEL version emphasizes both the homely Englishness of the tale's location, and the drama of the Candelmas miracle that reveals the special nature of the unborn saint. The influence of the "idea" of a story collection is further seen, Thompson maintains, in the ways in which the SEL selects details from the Legenda Aurea's section on the feast of All Souls to focus exclusively on six out of a possible fifteen exempla, bringing them to life dramatically and emphasizing the powerful, redemptive effects of the love between friends, husbands and wives. In her remarkably close readings, Thompson shows again and again how the SEL reworks its source, in this case the Legenda Aurea, to locate the characters in time and space, both physically and emotionally. She suggests that the SEL poet(s) responsible for this reworking seemed to be "open to letting narrative find its own way" (134) rather than being hemmed in by the sources.

In the final section of the book, Thompson narrows her focus to what she sees as the SEL's interest in representing everyday life, a move that necessarily throws the spotlight on the culture of the SEL poet(s). In Chapter 6, "Escaping the Virgin Martyr Plot," Thompson concentrates on representations of women, both virgins and non-virgins, in the SEL tales, acknowledging Winstead's contention that "virgin martyr legends both reinforce and subvert cultural norms" with regard to women (140) [[2]]. Thompson notes, however, that almost half of the female saints in the SEL are not martyrs at all, and wonders if these women saints might be subversive in different ways from the virgin martyrs, because they "live to fight another day" and may thus be more like the real women in the text's audience (141). To explore these issues, Thompson chooses several SEL texts in which women play major or supporting roles: the legend of St. Frideswide of Oxford, whose protagonist is of course a woman, and the legends of St. Julian the Hospitaller and St. Clement, in which wives play supporting roles in the action. In the case of St. Frideswide's tale, Thompson compares the SEL text with its likely source, Robert Cricklade's Vita to show how the SEL transforms her from a rather unworldly woman of high birth (daughter of a Mercian king) to a more ordinary daughter of a good Christian man, not only grounding her story in English time and space but also representing her inner feelings and volition at various crucial moments. This Frideswide emerges as an accessible saint who "moves back and forth between private and public worlds without having these movements ascribed to fearfulness and selfabnegation" (151). Turning to the women who lack stories of their own, Thompson suggests that although they act at the margins of their narratives, this may actually be a liberating space for female characters, since here they are free from carrying the moral weight of the text's meaning. They are thus able to act as themselves: as sympathetic and faithful wives who do their best for their husbands and families. In the oedipal plot of the Legend of Julian the Hospitaller, Julian's wife unknowingly welcomes his estranged parents into their house and gives them the marital bed while Julian is away. On his return, Julian mistakes the couple for his own wife in another man's arms, and murders both of his parents. Thompson carefully compares the SEL version with its source, the Legenda Aurea, to show how the former expands and enlivens the dialogue between the characters and portrays the relationship between Julian and his wife as one of mutual love and faithfulness. Devastated by his horrific deed, Julian determines to go away and do penance, but his wife's eloquent insistence on coming with him reveals the depth of their marital bond. In the story of St. Clement, love between a married couple and their children similarly drives the plot through years of separation. Although it is the uncle's lust for Clement's mother that drives the family apart, the SEL version emphasizes the wife's love for her husband and children over her striking beauty, thus avoiding the potentially misogynist implications of the source, the Legenda Aurea. Moreover, rumors of the wife's adultery do not, in the SEL version, turn the heart of Clement's father from his wife, and the bond between them survives for twenty years before the family is reunited in a scene of intense drama. In both of these legends, marriage seems to be portrayed in positive terms - perhaps, Thompson suggests, a reflection of the church's new emphasis on companionate marriage and marital consent between partners.

Thompson concludes her study in Chapter 7 by connecting the SEL and with the "real world" of medieval towns and villages. The poet(s) reveal a level of intimate experience of this everyday world in the attention paid to the details of life, including the frustrations of servants and the lower classes. So, for instance, even a brief episode in the legend of Anastasia where the would-be rapist attacks a collection of pots and pans is revealing of this interest, using slapstick humor to ridicule the rulers of this world. Thompson further situates this focus on the everyday world within an intellectual movement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries toward a new mode of scientific observation and study, as epitomized in the writings of Robert Grosseteste. This interest, with its emphasis on observing and delighting in natural wonders, may well have influenced the SEL's rootedness in the real world. Perhaps significantly, the scholars who cultivated this scientific mode of thought were clustered in the area of Worcester and Hereford, the very region considered to have given birth to the original SEL.

Thompson's excellent book is a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship that seeks to look beyond generic boundaries--particularly those between religious and secular literature--to situate medieval texts within their particular cultural moments. It illuminates the ways in which poets writing in English struggled to create a narrative style that would convey divine truths in a language rooted in real human life. An appendix provides an overview for those seeking more detail about the SEL's textual history.


[[1]] Paul Strohm, Hochon's Arrow (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992), 93.

[[2]] Karen Winstead, Virgin Martyrs: Legends of Sainthood in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997), 105-07.