Matthew Paris (d.1259), best known as a chronicler and author of the Chronica Majora, was also the author of four saints' lives in French verse. The subjects of these vitae were Edward the Confessor (d.1066), Thomas Becket (d.1170), Edmund of Canterbury (d.1240), and Alban, the "protomartyr of the English," in Paris's words, and the major saint of Paris's own monastery of St Albans. Paris's La Vie de seint Auban, composed between 1230-1250, has never before been translated into English. This fascinating text will interest students of the Crusades, lay piety, Christian instruction, violence, and medieval conceptions of the past as well as scholars of hagiography, manuscript illumination, and French verse. It is very much worthy of the attention given to it by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Thelma Fenster in this fine volume, the second in the French of England Translation Series [FRETS] published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Paris's Alban survives in a single manuscript, Dublin, Trinity College MS. 177 (formerly E.I.40). This manuscript was illustrated and largely written by Paris himself, and Wogan-Browne and Fenster repeatedly speak of its digitization as a desideratum. Made up of scrappy parchment and "surprisingly small" in size, the Dublin manuscript was likely meant as a prototype for a fair copy (18). In the later medieval period, it was shown to important guests at St Albans, kept on the high altar, and served as "an embodiment of the house's identity" (17). Paris's Alban is the manuscript's longest text. It also sports a series of fifty-four illustrations drawn by Paris (eight more were once present but are now lost), Paris's French rubrics to these illustrations, William of St. Alban's Passio sancti Albani (the key source for Paris's rendition of Alban's life), Ralph of Dunstable's Vita metrica sancti Albani, charters purportedly from Offa and Ecgfrid concerning the foundation of St Albans, and liturgical texts, miracle stories and treatises on the inventions and translations of Alban and Amphibalus.
Wogan-Browne and Fenster's translation of Paris's Alban is something of a companion volume to their translation of another of Paris's French saints' lives, his Estoire de seint Aedward le rei, or The History of Edward the King, published as the first FRETS volume in 2008. Like Alban, Paris's life of Edward the Confessor also survives in a single, illustrated manuscript with French rubrics, though in the case of this manuscript, the illustrations were not drawn by Paris himself. In both FRETS volumes, Wogan-Browne and Fenster provide a very substantial introduction to Paris's vitae, a helpful list of suggested further readings, and then a lively prose translation of Paris's verse. The volumes also feature English translations of the French rubrics to the illustrations, appendices with selected passages from the original French verse, detailed endnotes, and indices of proper names. The 2010 volume on Paris's Alban has in addition a very welcome inset of 16 color plates, an English translation of William of St. Albans' Passio by Thomas O'Donnell and Margaret Lamont, and two essays on the Dublin manuscript by Christopher Baswell and Patricia Quinn. These additions result in a collaborative volume drawing on the energies and talents of six scholars, a volume that succeeds not just in providing the first English translations and excellent introductions to two important saints' lives, but also in defining the significance of the Dublin manuscript and Paris's Alban as "the capstone of the later twelfth- and thirteenth-century reinventions and developments of St. Alban's patron saint" (14).
Bede composed the first known account of Alban's conversion and martyrdom as part of his Ecclesiastical History, but it was William of St. Albans Passio sancti Albani, composed during the abbacy of Simon (1167-83), that became the most widely circulated and utilized account of Alban's life. In addition to serving as Ralph of Dunstable's and Paris's principal source, William's Passio was also the basis for Alban's vita in the Gilte Legende, John of Tynemouth's compilation of saints' lives printed as Nova legenda Angliae, and John Lydgate's account of the lives of Alban and Amphibalus. O'Donnell and Lamont's translation of William's text is based on the Acta Sanctorum edition. In their introduction, they speak of "William's remarkable historical imagination" in constructing the complex narrative layers of the text, creating a pagan, pre-conversion English narrator, expanding and elaborating the story of Amphibalus (whose relics were invented and translated to St. Albans in 1178), and for the "strange, almost superfluous violence at the work's end" (135 and 164-65, n. 56). This is a vita worth reading. Considering that it was much more widely known than Paris's Alban, and that Paris himself placed it before his own work in the Dublin manuscript, it may have made sense to put the translation of William's Passio first in this volume as well.
Paris's account of Alban's life is about twice the length of William's Passio. Wogan-Browne and Fenster note that Paris "closely follows" the Passio, "in that he includes all its narrative events," but that he "nevertheless produces a work of completely different tonality and effect" (51). In their introduction to the text, Wogan-Browne and Fenster provide an excellent and well-footnoted summary of Paris's career, the story of Alban, the Dublin manuscript, and the city and monastery of St. Albans. They discuss how Paris further amplified the story of Amphibalus, and how he gave a name, Heraclius, and a much expanded role to the unnamed solider who defends Alban in William's Passio. The "most startling" narrative change made by Paris, though, was his decision to make the story's narrator a Saracen (27). The first folio or two of Paris's Alban is unfortunately lost, so we do not have Paris' preface to the text (if there was one), but in the conclusion of the vita the narrator states, "I, who was at that time a Saracen of false belief, saw the beginning and end of this story...I have recorded these events on parchment as I saw them...In Rome I will seek baptism with a true and sincere heart" (103). This change of narrators, in Wogan-Browne and Fenster's words, "offers reassurance to the poem's audiences in their own time of the efficacy of the Christian narrative, of its power to convert and effect change in the world," a message with obvious appeal to elite audiences at the time of the Crusades (28). Wogan-Browne and Fenster also point out that Paris's development of the story of Heraclius resulted in "a chivalric figure of outreach to lay patrons" (30, n.72). They note that "Paris's illustrations and his French captions for them continue beyond the end of the vernacular text" of Alban, suggesting that the Latin charters in the Dublin manuscript, too, were "envisaged as a continuous part of what could be exhibited and read aloud to potential patrons" (18). On the second flyleaf of the Dublin manuscript, Paris made notes concerning the circulation of his saints' lives among contemporary noblewomen, and Wogan-Browne and Fenster devote a section of their introduction to "women readers" of his saints' lives (32-35).
Other themes Wogan-Browne and Fenster discuss in their introduction include lordship and Alban's elevated social status, conversion and the Jews, the emphasis on and importance of blood in Alban, anxiety about unburied bodies on the battlefield, and the stress placed on the cross given to Alban by Amphibalus. This cross, which becomes stained with Alban's blood at his martyrdom, is featured in both the text and Paris's illustrations. It acts, like Henry III's Holy Blood relic, as "an icon of holy violence, crusading vengeance, and intense piety" (39). Wogan-Browne and Fenster also describe Paris's use of monorhymed laisses, the variation and flexibility of the syllable count in individual lines of the poem, Paris's flair for enjambement, and his use of rhyme, in which characteristic "French of England" traits are evident. In a lengthy final section on Matthew Paris's "style and treatment of the source," Wogan-Browne and Fenster discuss Paris's use of direct speech, the contrasts he draws between noise and heat and quiet and peaceful darkness, his use of animal similes, and his transposition of Alban's life "into the shared keys of vernacular and Latin crusade and chanson de geste narrative" (56). This reviewer would have liked more discussion of Alban in the context of Paris's other French verse vitae, particularly The History of Edward the King, but perhaps this must wait for further research on Paris's other work.
Wogan-Browne and Fenster describe the Dublin manuscript as "a multimedia compilation, which would have allowed for a range of uses and literacies" (17), and it was a wise decision to include two additional essays on the manuscript in this volume. In his essay on "the manuscript context," Christopher Baswell emphasizes that the Dublin manuscript was an improvisational work with "evolving form and intentions" that appears to have been produced over a fairly lengthy period of time (173). As support for this argument, he points to evidence that illustrations were placed on the page before the text was written, that rubrics were awkwardly placed under, around, or even inside illustrations, and that an inventio narrative is strangely interrupted for the insertion of charters--a mistake, Baswell believes, of one of Paris's assistant scribes. Like Wogan-Browne and Fenster, Baswell will not commit to a tight or specific date range for the manuscript's production. Perhaps the most interesting observation in this essay concerns the coherence of the illustrations in the manuscript. Baswell writes that repeated motifs in these illustrations "serve to draw together moments across the manuscript that have no close narrative or chronological connection" (188); he also notes the illustrations' stress on Heraclius (189-90). Patricia Quinn makes further observations on the Dublin manuscript's collation, quiring, and parchment quality, noting that too heavy dependence on M. R. James' collotype facsimile of the manuscript, published in 1924, has been responsible for some difficulties and lacunae in subsequent analyses. Quinn's essay includes a helpful reconstruction of the manuscript's marginal notes (202-3) and an appendix comparing the present collation with a conjectured original collation of the manuscript. The first four color illustrations in the volume's inset are keyed, strangely, to Quinn's essay, which is the last item in the volume. These illustrations are inexplicably numbered as "3B.1-3B.4." "Plates 1-12," which follow, are keyed to Baswell's essay. It would have been better to number these illustrations as Plates 1-16 and for Baswell and Quinn to have worked more closely together, but the inclusion of these essays and illustrations nevertheless enhances the value of the volume.
Wogan-Browne and Fenster's The Life of Saint Alban will surely stimulate further study of the two texts translated in the volume, the manuscript that preserves them, and the extraordinary monk who composed Alban's life in French verse and created and illustrated the Dublin manuscript. The volume is relatively inexpensive and could be very profitably used in undergraduate and graduate courses. Wogan- Browne and Fenster's efforts have made Alban, "as original as any of Paris's highly individual and uncategorizable works" (58), accessible to a new audience.