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09.05.14, Newman, ed., Thomas of Cantimpré

09.05.14, Newman, ed., Thomas of Cantimpré

Although published previously, the saints' lives in this volume that Barbara Newman has collected and re-edited, and in one case newly translated, have only circulated separately, and in much less thorough editions. Thomas of Cantimpré, the thirteenth-century theologian and hagiographer who was best known by his contemporaries for his Liber de natura rerum and the Bonum universale de apibus (more often called The Book of Bees), is better known by modern readers for his hagiographies, particularly those of the holy women Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières (all three of which were previously translated by Margot King and published by Peregrina Publishing in three slim volumes in the 1990s). He also authored the life of John of Cantimpré, which had been edited by Robert Godding in Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique in 1981, but is translated here for the first time. Thomas of Cantimpré's final hagiography, his Supplement to James of Vitry's Life of Mary of Oignies was previously published in another Brepols' volume edited by Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker, Mary of Oignies: Mother of Salvation (2006). Newman here extensively revises the King editions, changing some translations and adding multiple footnotes. The Godding edition is also much expanded in its glossing. This is an important edition, particularly in that it brings all of the Cantimpré lives together, but also in Newman's insightful introduction and footnoting throughout the text.

Newman's introduction does an excellent job of contextualizing Cantimpré's texts in relation to both his life and other hagiographical production of the era. The introduction is divided into helpful sub-sections, on Thomas, on his effect and relation to 13th century hagiography, and on each of the lives included in the volume. Thomas, who began his religious career at a Victorine abbey, but rose to prominence as a Dominican under the tutelage of James of Vitry, was a natural storyteller, and it is this mastery of narrative that has endeared modern scholars to his hagiographies over his other works. While his Life of John of Cantimpré has all the great elements of his other Lives, it did not appear to have great success either in the Middle Ages or as a subject of study today. The unique surviving manuscript (c. 1496) was edited for the first and only time in 1981.

Thomas's Lives of holy women, however, have enjoyed much more popularity. Thomas was disappointed in his mentor, James of Vitry, when he took up the position of Bishop of Acre, believing that he was rejecting his calling as pastor to the beguines in Liège, where Mary had lived. Thomas decided to write a supplement to James's Life of Mary of Oignies, where he first tries his hand at the hagiography of holy women, but also uses the Supplement as an opportunity to subtly rebuke his former mentor for his choices. Soon after, Thomas wrote the Life of Christina the Astonishing, another holy woman of Liège who James had eulogized and mentioned in his prologue to the Life of Mary. This text, extant in twelve manuscripts, was also translated into Dutch and Middle English, attesting to its relative popularity among medieval readers. Not long afterwards, Thomas' travels led him to Zeger of Lille, the confessor of a recently deceased recluse, Margaret of Ypres. Three manuscripts survive of Margaret's life, one in German, attesting to some contemporary popularity. Upon returning to Liège, Thomas took Lutgard of Aywières on as his spiritual "mother" (the role that Mary of Oignies played in James of Vitry's life). As a result, his Life of Lutgard of Aywières is, as Newman describes it, his "most mature, sophisticated vita and also his most intimate" (9). Lutgard's life survives in nine manuscripts, and was translated into Dutch and French.

Newman's contextualization of the lives, particularly those of the holy women, is invaluable and a major improvement over the previous editions of the texts. Thomas was writing his hagiographies in the midst of threats from the Cathar heresy, and Newman deftly points out how Thomas's incorporates responses to such a threat throughout his vitae, most obviously in his depiction of the women as fervently devoted to clergy. She also compares Thomas's texts, along with other Netherlandish ones, to other contemporary hagiographies, demonstrating how the usual devotion to place and shrine is second to the pastoral intent and exempla of the vitae. She writes that "Thomas was first and last a preacher who used all genres--anecdotes, saints' lives, even natural science--to craft edifying, unforgettable lessons...From these texts a preacher could glean memorable tales about the urgency of penance, the majesty and intimacy of Christ's eucharistic presence, the evil of usury, the malice and vulnerability of demons, the pains of purgatory, and the benefits of prayer" (17). While Thomas' most ready model for hagiographic structure was James of Vitry's heavily theological Vita of Mary of Oignies, he chooses a different structure and style for his vitae. Newman suggests, following the scholarship of Simone Roisin, that this is due to the influence of his contemporary Goswin of Bossut, who wrote the life of the holy woman Ida of Nivelles, among others.

The introduction also gestures briefly towards the scholarship done on Thomas's vitae, the vast majority of which has focused on the holy women. Anyone new to the genre would find a useful overview and bibliography as to the treatment of gender in the Lives. This area of scholarship is rather wide-ranging, and Newman does a good job of giving the "highlights" without delving too in-depth. The individual sections on each of the lives does a more thorough job of surveying the criticism, but also allows Newman to expound critically on each of the texts. As much of her previous work has looked at the Lives collected here, her introductions are products of thoughtful reflection over many years. For the life of Christina the Astonishing, especially, Newman's introduction is an important contribution to the scholarship she has already produced on the subject (most notably in her 1998 Speculum article "Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the Thirteenth Century").

The editions themselves are very well translated, and avoid the trap of the convoluted Latinate structures into which many translations of medieval Latin seem to fall. Newman has retained most of the footnotes by Goddard and King, some of these updated from their original volumes, and she has also added her own--marked by a "[BN]." Among other things, the textual notes point out textual inconsistencies, important critical scholarship, biblical allusions, historical moments, and questions of translation. Each of the lives also begins with a very helpful chronology, situating the main events of the hagiography, as well as the "life" of the text--its dissemination and translation.

The Life of John of Cantimpré (c.1155-c.1205) is "an outstanding examplar of the late twelfth-century evangelical movement" (23). A Victorine who was especially interested in pastoral care, Newman remarks that "from the vantage point of a preaching friar like Thomas, John looks very much like a Domincan avant la lettere" (24). The vita consists primarily of a series of stories about John's good works and good life. Some of these vignettes, like that of Alard the moneylender's conversion after meeting John, offer tantalizing snippets of medieval society while foregrounding Thomas' own interests in conversion and pastoral ministry. Much of the life deals with John's advisement of Marie of Flanders (also Marie of Champagne, daughter of Count Henry I of Champagne and the more famous Marie of Champagne who was herself the daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitane). The life, which was Thomas's first attempt at hagiography and begun when he was young, was finished on his own deathbed when he wrote the last chapter about John's death. The last line of the vita reads "I omit these events [about what happened after John's death] and many more because I too am caught in the grip of sickness" (121).

The Life of Christina the Astonishing (c.1150-1224) recounts one of the most incredible hagiographies, as its subject enacts "miraculous resurrection and superhuman feats of penance" that Newman notes are "not so much saintly or idealized as just plain weird" (30). Newman tries to separate what is the "real" life of Christina from the mirabilia that shape her vita in her introduction, as well as pointing to Thomas' agenda of promoting penance throughout his narrative. The vita itself is a litany of Christina's bizarre miracles, from throwing herself into burning ovens and freezing waters and emerging unscathed to subsisting on her own breast milk (when tied up and left for dead by some townspeople). Newman and King have retained the Acta Sanctorum chapter titles, which are rather descriptive in their own right, such as "of her second death and of how she once again lived, and of how she died a third time" (153). The last death of these three, by the way, is the final one.

The order of the vitae follows their order of composition, so Christina's life is followed by The Life of Margaret of Ypres (1216-37). Newman writes that there are two layers a modern reader can impose on the text: "Reading with pious eyes, we discover an exemplary mulier religiosa, embodying all the traits that contemporaries would expect to find in a saint. But the vita is anecdotal enough to furnish a pair of secular lenses as well, through which we glimpse a troubled, rebellious teen trying to carve out her own niche in what she clearly saw as an oppressive matriarchal family" (39). Indeed, much of the life deals with Margaret's choice to thwart her mother's desires for her and her decision to break off a promising romance and live the life of a recluse, under the tutelage of Friar Zeger (from whom Thomas receives most of his information). Even though the point of view is his, it is obvious throughout the vita that he had a lot of control over Margaret. She died very young from a painful "internal haemorrhage" (198), and part of the interest in this life is that it describes such a young girl, living the life of a recluse while in her home with her mother.

The last of the four lives is The Life of Lutgard of Aywières (1182-1246), whose extremely intimate and personal relationship with Thomas causes him to produce a very different kind of narrative than the other three. Newman writes that the vita "has earned the status of a classic in mystical hagiography," and that Lutgard is the only of Thomas' subjects who "ever enjoyed a significant cult" (43). Thomas follows the most formal conventions of hagiography in this vita, but it is interspersed with his own recollection, emotion, and dialogue with Lutgard. Like Christina, Thomas stresses purgatorial piety and penance throughout his narrative, and Lutgard comes through as "a uniquely gifted intercessor" for the souls in purgatory. The reader can also see Thomas' great affection for James of Vitry (despite his disapproval of James' career decisions) in the vita in the ways that he truly emulates James' own relationship to Mary of Oignies. For example, after Lutgard's death, Thomas wears her finger as his personal relic, as James did with Mary's. One major change from King's 1990 edition of the Life is that King took a fifteenth-century shortened Life of Lutgard as an early draft of Thomas' (following a 1978 hypothesis by Guido Hendrix), and footnoted her edition accordingly. Newman accepts a new theory put forth in 1996 by J.-B. Lefèvre that the shorter version is actually a later abridgment, and changes King's notes to that effect.

This volume is a terrific addition to the bookshelf of any scholar who works on late medieval hagiography, the beguines, women in the Middle Ages, or Dominican spirituality, among other topics. The expansions and new translations by both Newman and King of Thomas' vitae of the holy women, as well as the added introduction and glossing, make the individual editions more complete than the earlier Peregrina volumes. In addition, Newman's English translation of the life of John of Cantimpré is welcomed. Having all of the texts in the same volume allows for a real sense of Thomas as a writer and permits a survey of his hagiographical works that previously would have been difficult to envision. My only criticism is that the Supplement to Mary's life is not included in the text. While it certainly belongs in Mulder-Bakker's collection, it seems that printing it here would not have been redundant and would have enhanced the whole. Finally, the book underscores the need for further translations and editions of medieval texts as it points to the wealth of possibility for scholarship and future study.