Karen Winstead

title.none: Salih, Middle English Hagiography (Karen Winstead)

identifier.other: baj9928.0709.026 07.09.26

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Karen Winstead, The Ohio State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Salih, Sarah, ed. A Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. x, 182. $85.00 (hb) 1-84384-072-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.09.26

Salih, Sarah, ed. A Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2006. Pp. x, 182. $85.00 (hb) 1-84384-072-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Karen Winstead
The Ohio State University

This slender volume offers an engaging, if somewhat idiosyncratic, introduction to the vast corpus of Middle English hagiography. Framed by a general introduction and bibliography are seven essays on key areas of scholarly activity and on other matters pertinent to the study of hagiography: saints' cults; manuscript contexts; representations of power and authority, of violence, and of gender and sexuality; the use of hagiography in historical research; and the appropriation of hagiographical conventions in non-hagiographical genres. Most of the pieces are narrowly focused interpretations that demonstrate current approaches to and uses of hagiographical materials. The authors-Anke Bernau, Katherine J. Lewis, Mary Beth Long, Robert Mills, Samantha Riches, Claire M. Waters, and Matthew Woodcock-are historians, art historians, and literary critics whose work on hagiography will be familiar to researchers in the area.

In her introduction to the volume, Sarah Salih provides a good introduction to the medieval cults of and writings about saints, whom she dubs "the superheroes and the celebrities of medieval England" (1). Hagiography, she emphasizes, is only "one manifestation" of their "multimedia and interactive cults" (5, 1)-and "not necessarily the most important one" (5). A full appreciation of the function of saints in medieval society requires reading the accounts of their lives, deaths, and miracles in relation to multifarious material artifacts, ranging from architecture to amulets. Salih explains how and why saints mattered during the Middle Ages, and she warns the neophyte that, as evinced by the subsequent essays, modern scholars often "read hagiography in ways which its medieval authors probably did not anticipate, and would not necessarily approve" (23).

Samantha Riches also emphasizes that we must consider hagiography not in isolation but as "working alongside" such facets of devotion as relics, images, healings, feasts, and pilgrimages (27). Using the immensely popular cults of Edmund of East Anglia and George as case studies, she argues that "hagiographic texts formed just one aspect, and perhaps even a marginal aspect, of devotion" (27). While she provides an informative and interesting discussion of both cults, her contribution would have been still more useful, given its placement in a companion to hagiography, had she explained exactly how the abundant non-literary evidence she surveys qualifies or corrects conclusions one might draw from only the written legends of George and Edmund.

Mary Beth Long's "Corpora and Manuscripts, Authors and Audiences" similarly stresses the non-literary contexts of hagiography: "To ignore the physical context in which hagiographical texts are found- pictures, page material and thickness, and ink colour, as well as the content of accompanying texts and marginalia-is to miss a vital piece of the interpretive experience medieval readers would have of the individual vitae" (49). Newcomers to the field will find Long's essay especially helpful, with its succinct survey of important collections of saints' lives and its discussion of manuscripts containing lives composed as freestanding narratives by such authors as Bokenham, Lydgate, Capgrave, and Barclay.

The remaining five essays focus on written texts. Claire Waters treats themes of power and authority. As one would expect, she deals mainly with political figures, both historical (Edward the Confessor and Thomas Becket) and legendary (Katherine of Alexandria), showing hagiography's implication in debates about royal succession and about Church-State relations. However, she concludes by reflecting upon the exercise of "informal" social and familial power in the life of St. Anne, whose story, extant in several Middle English versions, "offers a distinctive way of thinking about power and authority . . . in a period of political upheaval and the growth of lay sanctity" (86). Robert Mills uses the widely copied and disseminated South English Legendary to discuss the ubiquitous representations of violence in martyr legends. Those representations, he avers, "provide platforms for working through anxieties about religion, race and nation"; hagiographers "subtly . . . negotiate and reconfigure relations of gender, class and language" even as they "create a forum for the expression of virulent misogyny, xenophobia and anti-Semitic sentiment" (94). Anke Bernau discusses hagiography as "a good place to look for both the ideals of and tensions within medieval representations of gender and sexuality" (105), reminding readers that, though saints' lives were largely composed by male clerics, they were "far from monolithic" (104).

Katherine Lewis addresses a disciplinary issue, namely, historians' continued reluctance to use hagiographical sources in their research despite their recognition of "the value of saints' cults as a tool to further our understanding of medieval society and its inhabitants" (122). Though historians have tended to privilege accounts of "real" saints who lived during the period they are investigating, Lewis points out that lives of legendary saints and accounts of historical figures composed long after their subjects' deaths can also be highly informative. Through a consideration of late medieval lives of Anglo- Saxon saints, she shows how hagiography "can be used to shed light on issues of national identity and the writing and rewriting of England's past" (128). The "uneasy relation" (123) between history and hagiography, she points out, is largely a modern invention; during the Middle Ages, hagiography was a form of historiography.

The volume concludes with Matthew's Woodcock's discussion of the appropriation of hagiographical conventions in non-hagiographical genres such as chronicle and romance. Woodcock briefly surveys hagiography's "afterlife" in early modern England, first considering the continued popularity of saints' lives during the sixteenth century, as evinced, for example, in reprints of Caxton's Golden Legend, then turns to the influence of medieval hagiography on Reformation authors, such as Bale and Foxe. He ends by noting the continued appropriation of hagiographical conventions in post- Reformation works, such as Spenser's Faerie Queene.

The essays in this volume are all well worth reading, and I shall certainly place a copy on reserve and assign selections next time I teach a course on hagiography (unfortunately, the volume's high price precludes making it a required textbook). As is appropriate in a "companion to" anthology, the contributions mostly set forth ideas that are widely accepted among veterans in the field. Collectively, they do a fine job of making readers aware of key issues in hagiographical studies and of modeling common approaches to the materials. However, the book may disappoint those desiring a broad overview of "what's out there" in both the primary and the secondary literature. Most of the essays are narrowly focused on particular saints or texts, and most do not provide the kind of systematic review of scholarship that would orient newcomers to the field. Those newcomers, presumably the target audience, would have been better served had each chapter concluded with either a short bibliographical essay or a listing of recommended further reading (as done, for example, in the earlier Companion to Middle English Prose), or had the volume included a topically organized bibliography rather than just an alphabetical listing of all works cited in the individual essays.