09.11.13, Stouck, ed., Medieval Saints

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Sarah Salih

The Medieval Review 09.11.13

Stouck, Mary-Ann, ed.. A Short Reader of Medieval Saints. Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures, XII. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pp. 191. ISBN: 9781442600942.

Reviewed by:
Sarah Salih
King's College London

Mary-Ann Stouck offers a judicious and opinionated selection of hagiography in an anthology of extracts of pre-existing Modern English translations of medieval Latin texts. The volume is intended as a primary text for "two or three weeks reading in a...course on medieval culture and history" (7), and includes most of the variables of medieval sanctity. There are men and women; martyrs, virgins, hermits, monastics and mystics; saints of the desert, the monastery and the town. The selection includes some of the best and most influential Lives: the terrible, unforgettable martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, St. Antony the Hermit's paradigmatic tale of withdrawal, the mendicant spirituality of Francis of Assisi and the penitential and visionary practices of Catherine of Siena. Saints who wielded institutional rather than charismatic power--bishops, kings, queens-- are under-represented, but since such figures are likely to appear elsewhere in history courses, this decision is understandable. Supplementary material from the Pilgrim's Guide to Compostela and from Einhard's Translation of SS Marcellinus and Peter, an entertaining tale of double-crossing and unabashed relic-thievery, show the importance of the material and local to cultic practices.

There is a deliberate bias towards historical saints: the headnote to the exception, four "Lives" from The Golden Legend, casts some light on the rationale of this choice: "Although many of the 'lives' in this collection are legitimate retellings of accounts of major saints, the emphasis on the miraculous and the extraordinary in the hagiographic 'romances' nevertheless made it difficult for Roman Catholics to defend the cult of the saints during the Reformation." (142) The majority of the Golden Legend, and, indeed, the majority of medieval hagiography, is thus implicitly dismissed as illegitimate and indefensible. There is no room here for literary appreciation of hagiography, nor even for the historical interest of fictive lives. The preference for historical material gives a partial picture of medieval saint-cult. Fictivity, miraculousness and extraordinariness were no bars to successful cults: indeed, saints could be wholly constructed from cultic activity, and fictive and folkloric saints were amongst the most popular and the most powerful.

Nevertheless, the selection shows what hagiography can teach the historian. The chronological arrangement of the material offers the student an outline history of Christian practice, from the martyrdoms of early Christians, through withdrawal to the desert, monastic foundations and the establishment of pilgrimage sites to the urban spirituality of the high Middle Ages. The materials show the mutual reinforcement of cultic practice and hagiographic text. The Life of St. Benedict theorises how miracles may be performed at the site of a saint's relics or at a distance from them; the Pilgrim's Guide explains how prayers to the holy dead will be repaid at Judgement; the Translation of SS Marcellinus and Peter shows how publicity, procession and miracles validated dubiously sourced heaps of dust as true relics. There is much to interest historians of women and gender, including Perpetua's visionary sex change, or Radegund and Catherine's use of asceticism to resist expectations of proper feminine behaviour. The body is insistently and usually horribly present: Felicitas appears in the arena with milk dripping from her breasts; Benedict wallows naked in thorns and nettles; Radegund's flesh grows over iron bonds; Catherine induces vomiting with a branch of fennel. Their practices were often controversial: hence accounts of Catherine's fasting and of Francis's stigmata are clearly written to counter scepticism. There is psychological interest in the struggle to discipline the body's desires for food, rest, human contact; in the demonstrations of how vigil and fasting lead to visionary states; in the increasing density and boldness of Antony's demons as he withdraws from human society. Some saints fight furiously against the values of their families and communities, enabling the student to identify contested zones in late medieval culture. Their distance from normal life, however, was also a source of power. Saints, whether living or dead, become focal points for the healing of individuals and communities. Battling demons in the desert gave Antony the authority to pronounce on doctrinal controversy; ascetic and visionary practices enabled Catherine to intervene in papal politics.

And then there are incidental details, of which hagiography is such a rich source: the Life of Antony tells us how Thebans keep bread fresh for up to a year, and how Egyptians keep the corpses of holy men in their homes. The Pilgrim's Guide is full of information about the perils of travel, of unfamiliar foods, poisonous waters, dishonest ferrymen, biting insects, and the strange dietary, sartorial and sexual preferences of the peoples encountered along the pilgrim route.

There is much to recommend in this volume. My only significant caution is that some of the undergraduate students envisaged as the readership are likely to require rather more explanation and annotation than is provided here. There is no introduction, only a foreword which explains this selection's relationship to the editor's previous anthology, Medieval Saints: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 1998). The headnotes introduce individual texts effectively, but do not add up to an overview of the larger issues of sanctity and hagiography. Students might easily fail to grasp how the genre of hagiography combines history, fiction, anachronism, polemic, folklore, and how it might reimagine historical figures in conformity with its generic norms. Nor would they necessarily understand the processes by which historical and fictional figures come to be revered as saints. Notes and glosses are rare, and as far as I can tell, random: it is not clear whether they are editorial or derived from the source editions. Even within texts practice is not entirely consistent: if "catechumens" (10) needs to be glossed, does not "love feast" (17); if we need to be told that Foligno is 10 miles from Assisi (125), might we not also like some help locating Apulia (123)? Do we really need to know, in the Life of St Radegund, that monacha is used in the Latin text for "nun," and sestaria (80) for a measure of volume, when other more ambiguous terms presumably go unspecified? Students will no doubt raise further questions, some consequential: what did Venantius Fortunatus mean by "barbarian fashion" in ladies' dress (76); who were the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter whose relics Einhard was so eager to obtain; who was the nobleman whose military expedition Francis was tempted to join? How important was Catherine's part in persuading the Pope to return to Rome, and did Sir John Hawkwood take any notice of her urging him to crusade? Teachers intending to use this anthology to teach undergraduates with only a basic knowledge of medieval culture and history may find it necessary to supplement it with additional preparatory work. But the richness of these texts as sources for medieval religion, society and culture would make such an effort worthwhile.

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Author Biography

Sarah Salih

King's College London