14.02.15, Turner, Truthfulness, Realism, Historicity

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John Charles Arnold

The Medieval Review 14.02.15

Turner, Peter. Truthfulness, Realism, Historicity: A Study in Late Antique Spiritual Literature. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. x, 218. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6954-8.

Reviewed by:
John Charles Arnold
State University of New York-Fredonia

Peter Turner grapples here with questions that long have vexed scholars and readers of late antique spiritual biographies. What did later Roman authors intend to convey to their audiences when writing of the divine qualities and thaumaturgical capabilities of their "holy men" subjects? Did their contemporaries understand these texts to convey a notion of reality? If so, what is that truth and reality and how should we critically analyze and use them? Turner admits, of course, that these are hardly new questions. To be sure, Truthfulness, Realism, Historicity criticizes earlier attempts to answer them. Positivist scholars such as Hippolyte Delehaye long ago stressed the important factual content of hagiography. [1] Those who followed the "linguistic turn" may have begun by denying any reality beyond that of the text itself. In the end, however, they recognized the formation and shifts of discourse across time as constituting historicity in itself. [2] Even Peter Brown's classic sociological and anthropological analyses tended to accept the numinous abilities of his subject "holy men" without directly exploring how this could be so. [3] Turner acknowledges the value of these perspectives, but correctly adduces that scholars (particularly historians) too often read these texts from either the factual or the discursive level. They thus ignore the engagement between realistic detail and literary ideal that these authors and their audiences took for granted.

This revision of Turner's 2007 DPhil dissertation (directed by Peter Heather) addresses this oversight by examining these perennial issues from the viewpoint of the "cultural turn." Turner uses both Christian and non-Christian spiritual literature as guides to the meanings of truth, literary realism, and textual historicity as comprehended within late antique culture. In doing so, he candidly states that his approach and answers represent a synthesis of current knowledge more than a paradigm shift in the field. This book forms, however, a valuable synthesis, one that demonstrates a late antique view of truth as rooted in a radical transcendence that allowed for the expectation and discernment of the divine within the mundane. "Spiritual biographers" described the miraculous powers of holy men according to recognized conventions of truth and reality. As Turner insists, "since extraordinary spiritual claims often rested on allegorical interpretation of minutiae, the otherworldliness for which late antique society is so famous was often matched by a pedantic insistence on the literal truth (or untruth) of events." Therefore, any "adequate interpretation of late antique hagiography must make a place for the role of factuality, on both the textual and experiential level" (13).

These matters comprise the introductory chapter, "Boethius in Exile," where Turner ponders the limited understandings of the Consolation of Philosophy that result from either a purely "factual" or "intellectual" reading. He then develops his argument for a more integrated perspective in two parts of two chapters each. Part One compares Christian and non-Christian third-person "spiritual biographies" to reveal a pervasive preoccupation with truthfulness and verism that cuts across religious boundaries. Chapter One, "Hagiography: A Truth-Telling Exercise?" explores the traditional hagiographical insistence on truth-telling, typically understood as a mere rhetorical topos or a convention of the genre. Turner insists that hagiographers actually believed that they told the truth about their holy men, and did so in ways congruent with audience expectations. He reiterates the well-understood notion that hagiographical truth emanated from a radically transcendent Platonic mentalité. "Truth" and "reality" did not necessarily equate with fact, nor did "historicity" equate with material processes. Hagiographers, however, did not merely resort to broadly understood rhetorical techniques and patterns to guide their readers to a contemplation of higher truths. Rather, they devoted much attention to discussions of literal events and beliefs, for therein lay spiritual truths awaiting revelation. Turner uses the term "spontaneity principle" to refer to this discernment of the numinous within the unremarkable events of daily life (61). The biographer Marinus, for example, discerned omens in the events surrounding the arrival of his subject Proclus at the city of Athens. While walking up from Piraeus, the philosopher Proclus unknowingly slaked his burning thirst at the monument to Socrates and then approached the city gates just as the night watchman was about to lock them. Through these unremarkable actions, Proclus exhibited an unquenchable desire for knowledge capable of defending an ancient tradition besieged by Christians. In Turner's view, these details of appearance, spiritual state, and miraculous performance passed the plausibility test of Marinus's audience, who grasped the higher significance of these actions occurring at that particular point in time (44).

Turner admits the real lack of knowledge with regard to late antique reading audiences and their expectations of truth. These he instead infers by using semiotic theories for cultural analysis as put forward by Roland Barthes and Gérard Genette. Here a "text" stands as an interrelated series of "codes" that simultaneously function on the both the literary and the social level. "From Hagiography to Charisma," the second chapter sees the late antique holy man as a spiritual performer of broadly understood markers of sanctity. In this reading St. Honoratus consciously enacted Biblical prototypes when he selected as the site for his monastery the serpent-filled island of Lérins. It was there, he declared before an appreciative audience, that he might fulfill Christ's promise that His followers should have "authority to trample on snakes and scorpions" (91). Future monks, patrons, and a sanctioning bishop watched Honoratus operate within a "paradigmatic framework" drawn from Scripture. That the saint "succeeded in the extremely difficult aim of living up to his timeless example" distinguished him from the all-too-common "phoney holy men" that had to be distinguished and avoided (90-91).

Part Two finds in autobiographical material this same pattern of internalizing and performing codes of holy conduct. In Chapter Three, "In Search of the First Person," Turner subjects to close readings portions of Augustine's Confessions. He finds the "spontaneity principle" at work within the bishop of Hippo's accounts of the now-legendary conversion scene. Rather than read that most famous moment solely as a theologically reconstructed memory, Turner finds evidence for a truthful recounting of an expected, yet fortuitous, moment. Augustine understood that a true conversion should follow the Pauline paradigm. He would have expected his own conversion to be dramatic, sudden, and irrevocable, as with his contemporary Marius Victorinus. And so it proved to be. Yet, Providence worked through the "random, mundane nature" and "uncanny coincidence" of the "phenomena which contributed to the conversion, such as the highly symbolic fig tree, the fortuitous proximity of Scripture and of course, the mysterious child's voice" (142-143). Augustine's actions conformed to the Pauline prototype even as he understood that "his own relationship with the events of that day was fundamentally naïve and unpremeditated" (143). As such, the experience of the event conformed to hagiographical miracle stories and tropes of saintly conformity with scriptural heroes. The same patterns appears in the Emperor Julian's first-person account of his elevation to the throne by his troops (Chapter Four, "A Late Antique Spiritual Lifestyle?). While Julian sensed that something was afoot, he was the "last to know" the intentions of his army. Only when his soldiers had surrounded his palace did he hear of their plans to raise him to the purple, a move that found him unconfident and fearful of his fitfulness for the undertaking. Zeus, however, answered his prayers with signs, and "the gods who willed that this should happen spurred on the soldiers and gradually softened my resolution" (167-168). A brief conclusion reiterates the "actualization of reality" in late antique spiritual literature (181).

This is the jist of a richly textured, provocative, lucidly written, and dense book that is beautifully produced. It will prove most useful for graduate students and scholars of late antique hagiography, historians, and religious studies. It assumes rather more knowledge than the typical undergraduate possesses. Readers should appreciate the comparisons among Christian and non-Christian texts, an approach which strengthens the concept of holy men as spiritual performers, actively responding to the same cultural codes as did their biographers and peers. That these same tendencies appear in autobiographical writing deepens and strengthens the analysis. Unfortunately, as is so often case with this field, Turner must construct arguments from but few (or single) texts. He also infers audience expectations in the absence of actual contemporary evidence. Even while admitting the limitations of this approach, he provides a useful model for getting at the problem of audience. At the same time, however, he tends to create something of a "straw man" by arguing that current scholarship adheres almost exclusively to either positivist or discursive analysis. Scholars of late antique gender, for example, have long discerned the historicity of discourse. It is also impossible to apply Turner's perspectives in every case, as he admits. Hagiographers certainly used biblical prototypes to construct the sacred persona apart from the possible actual behavior of their subjects. [4] Moreover, despite acknowledging R A Markus's conclusions, Turner discounts too readily the impact of rhetorical training on both the structure of hagiography and the thought world of its audience. [5] Finally, as is so often the case with synthetic works of this sort, the specialist of some topic of inquiry will undoubtedly find fault with Turner's arguments or approach to texts.

But, Truthfulness, Realism, Historicity does what any good synthesis should: it makes readily available in one source disparate knowledge (much of it rather common). Moreover, it uses that knowledge to reframe our view of the late antique holy man, one rooted in a truth and reality as understood in that time. As such, this book offers a satisfying, sensible understanding as to how we might comprehend the miraculous and the holy through late antique eyes.



1. Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints (Notre Dame University Press, 1961).

2. Averil Cameron, whom Turner often cites, is probably the best known authority on late antique Christian discourse: Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (University of California Press, 1991).

3. Peter Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 1982).

4. As with Lynda Coon's analysis of Mary of Egypt, Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

5. R. A. Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Texts in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool University Press, 1996). Also, P. Nehring, "Die Topik von Exordium und narratio in den frühen lateinischen Heiligenviten," Eos 85 (1998), pp. 51-79.

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Author Biography

John Charles Arnold

State University of New York-Fredonia