The Medieval Review 10.02.10

Collins, David J. Reforming Saints: Saints' Lives and Their Authors in Germany, 1470-1530. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 227. $65 ISBN: 978-0-19-532953-7. .

Reviewed by:

Jeff Tyler
Hope College

At first glance the relationship of German Humanists to the cult of the saints appears to be an unfortunate and unproductive subject for scholarly research. After all, were not Renaissance humanists with their passion for classical languages and ancient texts often the sworn enemies of medieval devotion and its excesses? In his new monograph Reforming Saints David J. Collins offers a close reading of forty saints' lives (vitae)--some original and some revisions of earlier works--penned in Latin in Germany between 1470 and 1530. In these texts the "authors show their humanist colors" (16), not only in their use of classical diction, grammar vocabulary, and imagery, but also in their support of reform of church and society. In place of a superficial reading of these vitae as unworthy forerunners to Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam, Collins advocates careful attention to the patrons, authors, and multiple audiences of saints' lives. In fact, German humanists emerge here as significant supporters of the late medieval cult of the saints. Their works provide a crucial and often overlooked stage in the development of hagiography--between the Golden Legend of the thirteenth century and the Acta sanctorum of the seventeenth century. Throughout this volume, Collins resists the temptation to construct an ideal template of Renaissance Humanism or to hold late medieval authors to current standards of historical accuracy. Rather, the vitae themselves attest to the varied nature of humanist scholarship and display the complex conceptions of the holy on the eve of the Reformation.

The heart of this book is devoted to specific humanists, the saints lives' they wrote or revised, and the models of church and society they envisioned and supported. Collins discerns several distinct and predominant types in the humanists' vitae: Episcopal saints, holy recluses, and monks and nuns "whose cults to single churches and small regions" (16). Among the most common works are narratives of revered bishops, who appear for the first time in sacred vitae, in minor revisions of previous texts, or in considerable "reworkings of older lives" (22). Characteristic of Collins' careful attention to local and literary context is his discussion of Jerome Emser's Life of Holy Benno, written in 1512. Duke George of Saxony assigned Emser--a priest, distinguished humanist, and court secretary--to this task as part of his campaign to see Benno, an eleventh-century Bishop of Meissen, promoted to sainthood. Emser's narrative reworking of this vita not only included classical diction, grammar, and phraseology, but also recast Benno's education in the guise of fifteenth-century humanism, enhanced his monastic and ascetic credentials, confirmed his profile as an exceptional bishop devoted to reform and missionary activity, and amplified the impact of Benno on Meissen, Saxon society, and beyond. Though many of Emser's elaborations and inventions violate modern standards of historical scholarship, Collins directs the reader to focus instead on this humanist's particular approach to saints' lives. Emser, along with colleagues such as Jacob Wimpfeling and Veit Bild, wrote vitae that reveal a humanist passion for reform of the church. In their eyes Episcopal saints most fully exemplified the promise of reform; centuries before they had imbibed monastic virtue, rescued their sees from corrupt clergy and rapacious lords, and directed missions to pagans and heretics. At the end of the fifteenth century bishops of similar fiber and influence offered the greatest hope for renewal of the church.

Holy recluses were likewise the frequent subjects of saints' lives. Although one might expect Renaissance humanists to prefer more communal forms of monasticism or activist expressions of Christianity, recluses had a singular appeal, most likely due to the resonance of the hermit's solitary life with a career devoted to quiet academic study, a career unperturbed by worldly concerns. Collins chooses here to focus on two examples of humanist hagiography: Sigismund Meisterlin's Life of Saint Sebald, requested by the city council of N├╝rnberg, and Albert von Bonstetten's The Life of Holy Ida, sought by the abbot of the monastery in Fischingen. These examples show the nature of collaboration between patrons and humanist authors, especially as illustrated by several versions of the vitae for Saint Sebald and Holy Ida. Meisterlin and Bonstetten produced multiple lives, which reflect negotiation with patrons and adjustment to a variety of audiences. Patrons and readers displayed both conservative and contemporary sensibilities; they were beholden to traditional narratives of beloved saints and yet were attracted to the new approaches of learned culture as well. Such collaboration is striking; it unveils how deeply humanists were engaged with very traditional expressions of late medieval devotion, and how they contributed to the reinvigoration of the cult of the saints in specific places and times.

Beyond the directly religious uses of the vitae, Collins describes both the Germania illustrata project and the vitae of Nicholas of Flue, also known as Brother Claus, to show how saints' lives served to enhance regional, German, and Swiss identity. Collins applies to such humanist composition the label Chorography, that is, writing fully attuned to specific geographical features, familial and dynastic networks, temporal and ecclesial jurisdictions, and the ethnography of ancient European peoples. Indeed, the saints' lives of German humanists embodied and sharpened an emerging sense of distinct regional identities within the Holy Roman Empire and contributed to a broader sense of German history as a whole. Thus, a traditional form of medieval literature was refashioned to envision religion, place, and society in new ways. These developments appear sharply in the case of Nicholas of Flue (1417-87), whose saintly story and qualities humanists championed. Nicholas' profile as a civic leader, family man, renowned hermit and fierce ascetic presented challenges and opportunities to his biographers. His life incarnated afresh the experience of ancient Christian hermits and displayed the preference for religious devotion and simplicity over worldly accomplishment and scholastic learning. Most of all, humanist authors explored the life of Nicholas as a distinct and profound expression of Swiss character and identity, a crucial step on the way to making him the patron saint of the Swiss Confederation.

In Reforming Saints David Collins provides a vivid and convincing reappraisal of German Humanism on the eve of the Reformation. His discoveries and conclusions are rooted in a precise and thorough reading of pertinent sources long dismissed or poorly studied. Collins manages to put aside the limits of previous interpretations in favor of an approach that opens up a world of late medieval devotion in which humanist scholars played a natural, integral and indispensable role. Ecclesial, civic, and princely patrons called on these linguists and poets to write a literature native to the church and yet steeped in the latest in scholarship. In this way, humanists themselves came to be patrons of the saints.

Particularly invaluable is Collins deft handling of humanists and humanism. Although he is vitally aware of the various ways his authors and their works have been categorized in the past, Collins examines each writer and vita with a fresh appreciation for detail, variation, and audience. Moreover, he provides a helpful model of humanist literature--a continuum ranging from texts produced by fully trained and self-described humanists to those written by churchmen and yet clearly influenced by Renaissance style and learning. In this way, he shows the degree to which rulers and cities, churches and monasteries embraced humanism and the degree to which humanists worked robustly in the production of saints' lives and thereby in wider efforts to enrich and multiply religious devotion. As a result, we are now able to grasp the nature of German humanism more clearly and concretely. At the same time, we have a greater appreciation of how humanists traversed the landscape of late medieval Christianity and society.