07.05.01, Johnson, Saint Michael the Archangel

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Paul J. Patterson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0705.001


Johnson, Richard F.. Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend. Woodbridge, Suffolk UK, Rochester NY: Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 174. ISBN: 1-84383-128-7 (hb).

Reviewed by:
Paul J. Patterson
St. Joseph's College of New York

Saint Michael the Archangel is only mentioned by name five times in the Bible. Despite this small number of scriptural citations, his cult and legends proliferated throughout England during the Middle Ages, growing to such an extent that by the Reformation over six hundred churches were dedicated to the archangel. Richard F. Johnson's short volume, Saint Michael the Archangel in Medieval English Legend focuses on the foundation and dissemination of St. Michael's legends. The biblical and extra-biblical accounts of St. Michael cast him in the roles of psychopomp (conveyor of souls to Heaven), commander of the Heavenly Host, intercessor on mankind's behalf, and guardian angel. Each of these varied roles emerged from a series of non- biblical and biblical sources and was solidified throughout as the legend developed.

Johnson's book is divided into two parts, which are followed by four appendices: a facing page Latin/English translation of the De apparitione Sancti Michaelis, an annotated bibliography of textual references to the archangel, an index of motifs, and an essay titled "Saint Michael in Medieval English Iconography." The first two chapters comprise Part I of the book and focus on the development and transmission of St. Michael's legends. Chapter One outlines the literary origins of St. Michael's medieval legendary roles by examining the representations of the archangel in biblical and extra- biblical texts. The most important of these texts, and the focus of much of Johnson's discussion throughout the book, is the De apparitione Sancti Michaelis, which helped establish St. Michael as worthy for adoration "by documenting...his foundation of the grotto-chapel at Monte Gargano" and became the "principle vehicle of the further diffusion of the archangel's cult" (4). Johnson points out that all of the biblical and apocryphal texts acted as the primary source for early medieval English authors' understanding of the archangel and secured St. Michael's traditional responsibilities within his legends. He argues that early Hebrew literature established the roles that later medieval authors would extend and alter within the archangel's legends. The apocryphal writings of the New Testament also played a part in expanding the archangel's roles. They associated St. Michael with the Virgin Mary, whose soul he conveyed to Heaven, and they related how he accompanied Christ in the harrowing of hell and guided the Old Testament faithful into Heaven.

Chapter Two charts the migration of St. Michael's myth from the Near East, Italy, and France to medieval England. By examining the three main Michaeline cultic sites (the Micaelion, Mount Gargano, and Mont- Saint-Michel), Johnson shows how the cult spread into Italy during the fourth and fifth centuries, overtook existing cultic sites as its own, and was in turn taken up for nationalist causes by the Lombards and the Carolingians. The legend continued to spread when Irish monks, studying at Bobbio in Italy, brought the continental traditions of devotion to the archangel back to their homeland. Throughout these transitions St. Michael was consistently portrayed as an eschatological hero "responsible for protecting the souls of the faithful in life, conveying their souls to heaven in death, for slaying the Antichrist, and for summoning the dead to the Judgment on the Day of Doom" (46). These roles, according to Johnson, set the foundation for the wider circulation of the legends and the increasingly multifaceted nature of the representations of St. Michael in medieval England.

The final three chapters of the book comprise Part II and deal primarily with the representations of St. Michael in Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English legends. Chapter Three outlines the transmission of vernacular versions of the Mount Gargano foundation- myth, focusing on Aelfric's homily for the feast of St. Michael. Johnson argues that the Garganic myth acted as the basis for most of the vernacular accounts, though he does point out some important exceptions including the South English Legendary, which adds other material and attributes more roles to the archangel. While some works were used to extend the roles of St. Michael in his legends, Johnson points out that the widespread popularity of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea brought about a "normalising effect" (70) and provided the details for many of the later retellings of the archangel's legends, including those in John Mirk's Festial and the Speculum Sacerdotale.

Despite the increasing number of tasks attributed to St. Michael, his legends, as transmitted in medieval England, retained the traditional roles ascribed to him by the biblical and extra-biblical accounts of the New Testament period. The final two chapters are taken up with St. Michael's principal role as guardian and defender of the faithful, slayer of evil, and benevolent judge of all that is good (70). Chapter Four emphasizes the archangel's role as guardian angel and purveyor of souls by primarily focusing on the Life of Wilfred, the Gospel of Nicodemus, and the narratives dealing with the Assumption of Mary. Acting as protector and conveyor of Mary's soul was one of the most important assignments as psychopomp attributed to St. Michael. Chapter Five explores St. Michael's role in the judgment of human souls in English legend. The archangel takes on extensive duties in this capacity. Many of the apocryphal scriptural accounts place St. Michael in the role of defeating Satan and, sometimes along with Gabriel, sounding the trumpet to call human souls to the judgment. He takes the role of psychostasis (weighing the souls at Judgment) despite no biblical warrant for such a position.

Johnson's book is a vital contribution to medieval English legends and his account of the growth and dissemination of St. Michael's legends will act as an important starting point for future studies of the saint and his legends. Even so, the volume is not without its shortcomings. In the later chapters, there is some repetition in the writing, particularly in the last two chapters and the conclusion, which repeats sentences nearly verbatim from the introduction. The focus of the study is on earlier texts, and when Johnson turns to the medieval period, the majority of the works discussed are from the Anglo-Saxon period. As Appendix B, "The Michael Inventory," points out, there are many more Anglo-Saxon works that deal with St. Michael's legend and since Johnson's dissertation, "The Cult of Saint Michael the Archangel in Anglo-Saxon England," from which this book is taken, focuses on the Anglo-Saxon period, it makes sense that the book retains a similar focus. In Chapter Three, for example, when Johnson states that the Norman's conquest of southern Italy and their consequent possession of Mount Gargano increased devotion to the hagiographical foundation myth of the archangel, he only gives a minor acknowledgment to the Anglo-Norman texts. However, despite these shortcomings, this study provides a clear historical overview of the development of St. Michael's legends in medieval England. Any future study of St. Michael in the medieval period will rely on Johnson's work and anyone wishing to expand his work on Anglo-Norman and Middle English accounts of the archangel will find the necessary resources in Johnson's discussion and the invaluable appendices he supplies.

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Author Biography

Paul J. Patterson

St. Joseph's College of New York