Martin Chase

title.none: Mortensen, ed., Christian Myths (Martin Chase)

identifier.other: baj9928.0707.018 07.07.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Martin Chase, Fordham University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Moretensen, Lars Boje, ed.,. The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom (c. 1000-1300). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. Pp. 348. $59.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 87-635-0407-3, ISBN-13: 978-87-635-0407-2 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.07.18

Moretensen, Lars Boje, ed.,. The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom (c. 1000-1300). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. Pp. 348. $59.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 87-635-0407-3, ISBN-13: 978-87-635-0407-2 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Martin Chase
Fordham University

The articles in this volume were originally presented as papers at a conference held at the University of Bergen in November 2003. Lars Boje Mortensen's introduction to the book identifies the two main themes that unite the collection: the appropriation of the late antique and early medieval model of local sainthood as a decisive factor in the cultural assimilation of peripheral societies, and the theme of periphery and center with respect to economic, geographical, and cultural relations. The conference was inspired by the work of historian Patricia Crone and anthropologists Roy Rappaport and Jan Assmann. Nine of the twelve articles deal with hagiographical texts, which are interpreted as foundational narratives or "myths".

Mortensen states in his introduction that in medieval parlance the terms "periphery" and "center" were used only in discussions of geometry and theology, and that "no city was spoken of as the 'center of the earth'"(13). That might be saying too much; the phrase centrum terrae also appears frequently in medieval writings on astronomy and cosmology, as well as in hymns--the twelfth-century hymn Festum crescens calls Jerusalem "centrum humi" and, relevant to this volume, Gallus Anonymus refers to the Hungarian "Civitas Alba" (Szekesfeherver) as "centrum terrae". Mandeville says that Jerusalem is "in the middle of the world," and that a circle drawn in the (circular) Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the "midpoint of the world." Indeed, Mandeville's Travels has the same goal as the hagiographical texts that are the subject of this collection: to re-present the central in the peripheral and thereby facilitate the participation of the peripheral in the central.

Central to this volume is Lars Boje Mortensen's comparative essay, "Mythopoiesis in Norway, Denmark and Hungary." He examines "the first Literature on the local past" intentionally avoiding "the traditional genre division between hagiography and historiography" (250), in the three countries: the Old Norse Kings' Sagas, Saxo's Gesta Danorum, and the anonymous Gesta Hungarorum. He notes that these examples of "codified national mythology" did not develop gradually over a period of time, but in "mythopoietical moments," short periods of creative activity surrounding the establishing of the archiepiscopal see of Trondheim (1152/1153), the celebrations in Odense for the Translations of King Canute (1100) and "Canute the Duke" (1170), and the Elevatio Stephani celebrated by King Ladislas of Hungary in 1083. Mortensen attempts to develop "a model of semiotic relations between old and new" using Charles Sanders Pierce's theory of signs, and concludes that these culturally-defining "constructions" of the past were locally-conceived responses to external impulses that emphasized sanctified beginnings (269).

Hans-Werner Goetz's contribution, "Constructing the Past in Adam of Bremen," examines the ways in which Adam regards the see of Hamburg as the ecclesiastical center of Northern Europe, while at the same time being aware of its situation on the periphery: Hamburg is the "center," after all, only because of its legatio or designation as the metropolitan see by Rome. Carl Phelpstead, in "Pilgrims, Missionaries and Martyrs: The Holy in Bede, Orkneyinga saga and Knýtlinga saga," discusses the themes of sanctity of place and the role assigned to royal saints in a people's history. Both Bede and the saga writers consider themselves to be writing from the periphery, far from the center, Rome. But Phelpstead shows how "the texts which construct Rome as a holy center focus not on events at Rome, but in England, Orkney or Denmark. For the historian of the periphery it is in fact the peripheral which is central . . . the act of writing history itself not only relates the periphery to the center, but in fact also constructs the peripheral as central" (62-3). He shows how the English royal saints likewise make the peripheral central, both by the miracles they perform locally and by the consecration of the peripheral, yet central places where their relics are enshrined. One might add yet another layer to the periphery/center dynamic by pointing out that many of their miracles are typologically related to the miracles of Roman saints or of Christ.

Marie Bláhová writes about "The Function of the Saints in Early Bohemian Historical Writing." She discusses the hagiography of Wenceslas, Adalbert, and Procopius, as well as the Chronicle of Cosmas of Prague. She shows how the chronicle, foundational for Bohemian cultural identity, draws on classical sources (especially Sallust) and the Bible, reflecting its author's perception of being situated on the periphery while simultaneously participating in the tradition of classical Rome and Mediterranean Christianity. No medieval society identifying itself as Christian was more geographically peripheral to Rome or Jerusalem than Iceland. ásdís Egilsdóttir ("The Beginnings of Local Hagiography in Iceland: The Lives of Bishops Þorlákr and Jón") shows both how firmly situated the earliest Icelandic saints' Lives were in the mainstream of European hagiography, and, at the same time, how distinctively Icelandic: they draw on local, oral sources as well as on learned conventions. ármann Jakobsson ("The Friend of the Meek: The Late Medieval Miracles of a Twelfth-century Icelandic Saint") examines the miracles of St. Þorlákr and concludes that they show an awareness of both periphery and center. The precision of the details in these stories suggests both that they reflect the experiences of local people, and that the implied audience was unfamiliar with them, i.e. they were written for export.

Norbert Kersken's "God and the Saints in Medieval Polish Historiography" looks at three aspects of Polish historiography: "the beginnings of the people and the country, the beginnings of the dynasty, and the beginnings of Christianity" (154). His thorough survey is a good introduction to the subject and outlines a process rather different from that we see in England and the Nordic countries. The earliest Polish hagiography (e.g. the twelfth-century Chronicle of Gallus Anonymus) deals exclusively with non-Polish saints whose posthumous intercession was believed to have secured military victories. The hagiographical writings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, produced primarily in the context of the mendicant orders, celebrate the patrons of these orders. All of the members of Polish ruling families who came to be venerated as saints were women who were revered for their patronage of the friars. Finally, in the fifteenth century, Jan Dlugosz produced new editions of older Lives of both local and imported saints. Kersken concludes that "The examination of the evidence...may not so much lead to an exemplification of the medieval concept of history than to a deeper insight into the position and work of the medieval historian" (187).

Karsten Friis-Jensen's "In the Presence of the Dead: Saint Canute the Duke in Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum" is a close reading of the passages in Saxo that deal with "Canute the Duke," the saint who receives fullest treatment in this non-hagiographical, classicizing work. Canute was officially canonized at Ringsted Abbey in 1170, with the written approbation of Pope Alexander III. That this local canonization of a local saint sought legitimization from Rome bears witness to a dynamic relationship between periphery and center similar to the one that Goetz points out in Adam of Bremen. Friis-Jensen observes that "Saxo recognizes the Holy Roman Empire and its emperors as the heirs to the secular traditions of ancient Rome, but all his endeavors as a writer are focused on showing that Denmark is a nation which for century after century has been independent of Rome" (207).

László Veszprémy ("Royal Saints in Hungarian Chronicles, Legends and Liturgy") shows the importance of liturgical texts and visual art in the veneration of the "three kings" Stephen, Ladislas, and Prince Emeric. The cult of the kings was important locally as the basis of Hungarian national identity. Veszprémy shows how this was ritualized in the development of the Hungarian coronation ritual from traditions surrounding St. Stephen. Yet the cult also had a significant international dimension. It was modeled on the veneration of the three Magi at Cologne, and was highlighted by the foundation of the Hungarian chapel by Louis I of Anjou in Aachen in 1367. Veszprémy documents the distribution of the relics of the Hungarian royal saints, along with liturgical books, to pilgrimage centers such as Rome, Cologne, and Bari. In Hungary, where a national chronicle was not produced until the fourteenth century, the most important early literary works were the liturgical texts associated with the saints.

Mary Garrison's contribution, "Divine Election for Nations--a Difficult Rhetoric for Medieval Scholars," marks a shift in approach and tone. After a twenty-three page warm-up ("Introduction: Continuity or Invention, Universalism or Chauvinism," "From the Augustinian Starting Point to Reformation and Modern Preconceptions," "The Reformation Shift"), we arrive at the heart of the article: ten pages on "Alcuin and the formation of Frankish ideas on divine election." Here Garrison, an Alcuin specialist, argues convincingly that "rather than imputing an identity to Charlemagne's countrymen as Carolingians, God's Chosen people," as some recent scholarship has done, "it appears that we instead have Franks, loved by God since the time of the Salic law, and Franks, God's blessed people, blessed indeed according to Alcuin, because of their wonderful ruler Charlemagne" (306). Her long introductory section, a piece of culture criticism ranging from St. Augustine to the rhetoric of George W. Bush, lacks the nuance of her scholarly treatment of the Franks. In a discussion that relies heavily on works by Donald Harman Akenson and Conor Cruise O'Brien, the broadly-defined points of reference (the Afrikaner Trekboers, the American colonial Puritans, and the modern state of Israel) are difficult to harness. There is a lack of attention to detail: she points out the "contrast" between the views of "Governor Bradford" and "Governor Winthrop" without noting that they governed rival colonies that represented different religious sects and had different founding ideologies; she identifies Richard Mather as "one of the original group" without stating whether she means Bradford's or Winthrop's; she refers to Roger Williams, mistakenly, as a Quaker--the one sect the tolerant Williams would have no truck with (295). As the article fast-forwards to the present, "the Afrikaners" and "the U. S." seem too disparate in too many ways to warrant a useful comparison. On the question of Israel, we are told (gratuitously, I hope), that not all Jews favor the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine (298).

The book has two short summarizing and concluding chapters. The first, "Constructing Religious Pasts: Summary Reflections," by Håkon Rydving, seems to take issue with the premise of the volume. Rydving asserts that "Christianity is not a religion one would characterize from a comparative perspective as having a clear geographical center. Contrary to Muslim and Jewish rituals... Christianity seems to have many centers" (319). Perhaps, but certainly not from the perspective of medieval Europeans. As Carl Phelpstead and other authors of this volume demonstrate, the periphery can "become" the center--but not a new or alternative center, or one center competing or on a par with others. From the perspective of the texts here under consideration, a place on the periphery can "become" the center by re-presenting and participating in the center in one of the many ways shown by the articles in this collection. The cartography of the period, another topic that might have been taken up in the volume, visually illustrates this point: the circular T-O maps of the world, of Jerusalem, and of Rome (always with a center designated) are nearly indistinguishable in form, because conceptually they represent layers of the same reality (see e.g. Alessandro Scafi, Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, 2006). A related local example is the medieval city of Lund, where the placement of churches built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries reflects its conception as a model of the Christian world with Rome as the center. Rydving concludes by citing William Blake's "Jerusalem" as a proof-text of "the tradition" that "the New Jerusalem will be built, not in the Middle East, but 'in England's green and pleasant land'" (320). I suggest that this may be a misreading of Blake, whose point is not that a New Jerusalem in England will replace the old one in Palestine, but that the promises of the Apocalypse will be fulfilled universally, extending even to England, so far on the periphery.

The last word is given to Patrick Geary ("Reflections on Historiography and the Holy: Center and Periphery"), who refocuses the discussion of the book's theme along the lines laid out by Mortensen at the beginning. He draws highlights from the various contributions and introduces ideas that merit further consideration: the shift of the "center" from Rome to Jerusalem in the eleventh century as Rome's political power increased; the importance of religious conversion as an acknowledgement of the center.

The book is beautifully produced with fine, carefully-chosen illustrations (including the front and back covers), useful maps, and elegant initial vignettes at the chapter headings. There are a few typos and some editorial inconsistencies: alternation between British and American spelling (most notably centre/center); hagiographical texts are referred to variously as "lives", "Lives", "vitae", and "biography"; some authors use the form "Ólafr", others use "Olav"; there is likewise variation among "Knútr lávarþr", "Canute the Duke", and "Duke Canute Lavard"; "Gallus Anonymus" competes with "Gallus Anonymous".

My necessarily brief summaries of the authors' conclusions do not do justice to what is most interesting about this book: the application of interdisciplinary method in new and fruitful ways. It suggests a new direction for the interpretation of medieval hagiographical texts, and it will be an inspiration and a model for future study.