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13.05.13, Murdoch, An Incestuous Saint

13.05.13, Murdoch, An Incestuous Saint

Hartmann von Aue's religious verse narrative Gregorius (ca. 1200) belongs to one of the "classical" texts in Middle High German literature, and hence it has been studied for a very long time from many different perspectives. In recent years, the attention has increasingly turned to its sources and especially the translations into other languages, but the basic theme--the innocent sinner, the result of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister--really needs to be studied on a broad, interdisciplinary level with a very solid knowledge in many languages and medieval cultures. Brian Murdoch is just the right person for this huge challenge, and, as might be expected considering his previous publications, he meets the highest expectations once again.

He follows a chronological and a transcontinental perspective, beginning first with the apocryphal saint's life, including many parallel-text versions, since early medieval writers obviously enjoyed working with transgressive material in order to highlight God's divine workings in this life. Incest, above all, seems to have fascinated many writers, especially religious ones, so the Gregorius material proved highly attractive throughout the ages. Having laid this foundation, Murdoch turns to the Old French La vie du pape Saint Grégoire and the Middle English Seynt Gregory (although the discussion of that text follows a bit later in a separate chapter, which confused at least this reader).

The central chapter focuses, as is to be expected, on Hartmann's most famous version, as well as on the various Latin poems dealing with this material. Murdoch takes pains to provide a good critical summary of each text and discusses their differences in plot development. He also reflects intensively on the relevant research literature and has obviously read widely. Importantly, the author then turns to the Latin translation of the text by Arnold of Lübeck (Gesta Gregorii Peccatoris and highlights, apart from the close reading, the specific variations in the narrative structure and the protagonists' characterization.

Murdoch then deals with the anonymous Latin version in hexameter, Gregorius Peccator, before he takes the larger European perspective into view (chapter 4). After all, the Gregorius theme finds numerous parallels, such as in the Gesta Romanorum (here discussed only a bit later), in a French prose version, in a Middle Franconian version, in the High and Low German prose legends, in the Swedish translation by Christina Elffdotter, in the Icelandic Gregorius Biskup, and others.

In the fifth chapter Murdoch considers late medieval transformations of the medieval Gregorius-theme in chapbooks, plays, legends, and folktales on a European level, including a Spanish version. The author traces the further development of the motif far into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and eventually also considers modern adaptations by Thomas Mann and subsequent writers in the twentieth century. Most importantly, however, his investigative net also includes many different versions in the individual Slavic languages, in Coptic, Aramaic, and Caucasian. Murdoch regales us with excellent critical summaries, well supported by numerous references to the relevant research literature in every individual area. His breadth of linguistic expertise proves most impressive, and he competently frames his overall examination with theological explanations, which always support the fundamental realization that all people are sinners, but that only those who despair and no longer believe in the divine grace of forgiveness will be permanently condemned. While scholars in many of these various fields have already discussed these individual texts exhaustively, Murdoch presents here an excellent global overview based on in-depth analyses--all of which could stand on their own but form wonderful parts of a complete picture. As this great monograph illustrates once again, medieval studies cannot really be done according to linguistic or national borders. The Middle Ages were a European phenomenon.