03.01.26, Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket

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Mary Francis Giandrea

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.026


Stanton, Michael, trans. and annot.. The Lives of Thomas Becket. Manchester Medieval Sources Series. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 255. ISBN: 0-7190-5454-0.

Reviewed by:
Mary Francis Giandrea
Marymount University

Michael Staunton's translation of The Lives of Thomas Becket fills a long-standing gap in the historiography of this important medieval English saint. Despite the intense interest in King Henry II's chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury, interest that began immediately following his murder in 1170 and continues to this day, the mostly Latin Lives have only been printed in four volumes in the Rolls Series and therefore have not been easily accessible to students. That the Lives deserve to be translated cannot be questioned, and Staunton's edition should prove a valuable teaching tool. It will be less useful to the student of hagiography, however, as it is not based on several or even a single vita in its entirety. Rather, Staunton has excised passages from some fourteen lives and strung them together to form a cohesive chronological narrative. As he notes in the preface, Staunton hopes that "this book will allow students and scholars an accessible form in which to read what Thomas's intimates, admirers and critics had to say about his life and death, his personality and character, and his world" (viii). While the book accomplishes this goal, the reader should keep in mind that major interpretive decisions were made as to how the story would be told. These are, indeed, the words of Thomas's contemporaries, but the overall framework is Staunton's. While he could also have included material from the Becket letter collection, which comprises another three volumes in the Rolls Series, Staunton made the sensible decision not to include material from this very different literary genre. The only exceptions are two letters written by one of Becket's harshest critics, Bishop Gilbert Foliot of London, as part of a final brief chapter entitled "Dissenting Voices."

Staunton begins with a forty-page introduction comprised of brief descriptions of each of the hagiographers followed by a synopsis of the story with numbered references to the corresponding passages in the text. For those unfamiliar with the textual tradition, the biographies are indeed useful, in particular the author's comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the hagiographers. Becket's hagiographers were indeed a diverse lot, although they had in common the fact that most wrote within a few years of the archbishop's murder. More than half of the fifty-eight short passages were excerpted from the works of three authors -- Herbert of Bosham (13), William Fitzstephen (13), and Edward Grim (7). Herbert's is the "longest, most complex and perhaps most rewarding of the Lives" (10). As Thomas's clerk and a theologian and exegete in his own right, Herbert of Bosham was well situated to write a detailed life of the archbishop he served; he was, lamentably, in France on business when the murder occurred. William Fitzstephen was also one of Thomas's clerks (and Henry II's as well), and was present at significant events in the archbishop's life, including his murder. Unlike the previous authors, Edward Grim was not in the archbishop's service but a clerk from Cambridgeshire who happened to be in the cathedral when Thomas was attacked and who attempted to shield him. Not surprisingly, Grim's vita is superficial in its treatment of Becket's early life and career and is best when it deals with the murder and its aftermath. These three vitae supply more than half of the episodes and provide a wealth of detail about Thomas's career, the workings of the English Church, and the nature of the dispute between Thomas and King Henry II. The remaining episodes are spread among vitae attributed to William of Canterbury, the closest the cathedral had to an official biographer (5), 'Roger,' purported monk of Pontigny, where Thomas spent his exile (4), John of Salisbury, a prolific letter writer, author of works such as Policraticus, and clerk at the papal court and the courts of subsequent archbishops of Canterbury (2), Benedict of Peterborough, a monk of Christ Church who was present at the murder (2), Garnier of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, who never met Becket but whose French verse life was based on Edward Grim's vita with additional unique information, and Alan of Tewkesbury, a Canterbury cleric and editor of Becket's correspondence (2). Two anonymous texts contribute a further four episodes.

The texts are organized into five chronological sections: The road to Canterbury (?1118-62), Conflict with the king (1162-64), Exile (1164-66), Diplomacy and Discord (1167-70), and Martyrdom (1170-74). A sixth and final section is devoted to three dissenting voices, the first two selections excerpted from letters attributed to Gilbert Foliot and the others excerpts from Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum and William of Newburgh's Historia Rerum Anglicarum. Because Staunton was able to pick and choose the texts that best illuminate particular aspects of Becket's life, the overall story is remarkably full, especially when compared to complete vitae, which are generally much spottier in their coverage. The introduction briefly rehearses the events discussed in the texts but also identifies many of the topoi that control the writing of hagiography. Staunton also provides some counterweight to the telescoping tendencies of the genre, underscoring, for example, the complexity of the negotiations that took place between 1167 and 1170 and involved King Louis VII of France, Pope Alexander III and a host of continental prelates in addition to leading members of the English court and church. In both the introduction and in the footnotes to the text, Staunton defines difficult terms, identifies scriptural and other literary references, corrects errors made in the texts, and provides bibliography for further study. Altogether, then, the contemporary texts and the author's attentive comments provide remarkable insight, not only into the life, career and death of this unforgettable prelate, but also into the political, social and ecclesiastical worlds of twelfth-century England. The protagonists that emerge from this collection are often larger-than-life, but they are also complex and often flawed human beings. While this format will not appeal to every reader, the details and nuances that Staunton is able to elicit make this book a useful resource for students and scholars alike. I did not test Staunton's skill as a translator, but instead deferred to the judgment of the series' editor, Janet Nelson, and the strength of Staunton's previous work in the field.

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Mary Francis Giandrea

Marymount University