The Medieval Review 14.06.07

Wolf, Kristen. The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose. Toronto Old Norse and Icelandic Studies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 405. $80.00. ISBN: 9781442646216.

Reviewed by:

Martin Chase
Fordham University

The stated intention of this book is to provide an updated version of "The Lives of the Saints in Old Norse Prose: A Handlist," by Hans Bekker-Nielsen, Ole Widding, and L. K. Shook, C.S.B. The "Handlist" appeared in Mediaeval Studies 25 (1963): 294-337, preceded by the introductory "On a Handlist of Saints' Lives in Old Norse," by Hans Bekker-Nielsen, in Mediaeval Studies 24 (1963): 323-334. The "Handlist" was a groundbreaking resource for Old Norse-Icelandic hagiographical research, and the same can be said of this update after the fifty years of study the "Handlist" facilitated. The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose, like the "Handlist," is a purely bibliographical work: it lists all of the extant saints' lives in Old Norse, the manuscripts in which they occur, and most of the editions and scholarly studies of them. The "Handlist" takes up forty-three pages in Mediaeval Studies: The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose, at 405 pages in a similar format, is ten times as long.

The book follows the basic format of the "Handlist." It begins with thirteen pages of preliminary bibliography: "Catalogues and Bibliographies," "Collections and Anthologies," "General Works," and "Essay Collections, Festschrifts, and Conference Proceedings," followed by "Individual Legends," which is the heart of the book. The saints are listed in alphabetical order, according to the anglicized forms of their names that appear in The Book of Saints compiled by the Benedictine monks of St. Augustine's Abbey, Ramsgate (4th edn, New York: Macmillan, 1947). In general, this form of citation works well, although in a few instances ("Brendan the Voyager," "Canute," "Mary the Blessed Virgin," "Mary of Oignies") the names are not those now most commonly used. "St. Gregory on the Stone," the "Handlist's" calque on the German "Gregorius auf dem Stein," does not otherwise occur in English, and might better be replaced by the more familiar "Gregorius Peccator," which the "Handlist" and Wolf supply as a cross reference. Brian Murdoch's recent study of this extraordinary saint (Gregorius: An Incestuous Saint in Medieval Europe and Beyond [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012]) unfortunately appeared too late to be included in the bibliography. Both the "Handlist" and The Legends of the Saints identify saints who were members of religious orders with the modern (and sometimes anachronistic) abbreviated designations. These can be tricky, but if they are to be used, Peter Monoculus should probably be called "O. Cist." rather than "O. S. B. Cist." This kind of citation may be a quagmire best entirely avoided, as is done in some instances (St. Martin is not identified as a Benedictine, for example, nor St. Þorlákr as an Augustinian). The Legends of the Saints lists six saints not mentioned in the "Handlist": St. Gereon and St. Maternus, portions of whose vitae appear in Mártíuss saga; St. Pantaleon, possibly treated in manuscript fragments of early-seventeenth-century treasurer's office accounts from Odense; St. Salinus, who appears in Karlamagnúss saga in a tale based on the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais; and Saints Tiburtius and Valerian, whose passio occurs in Ceciliu saga. The dictionary-style format of the book means that one can easily turn to the listing for a particular saint and find all the relevant material in one place. Each entry begins with the saint's feast day (as celebrated in the pre-1970 Roman Calendar), followed by a list of the Old Norse versions of the vita. These range from the "Two small fragments of what may be a legend of Saint Pantaleon" to the two miracle collections and five sagas of Þorlákr. Where sources (or possible sources) have been identified, these are noted. Many of the legends are based on Latin encyclopedic works: the Speculum ecclesiae of Honorius Augustodunensis, the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais, and the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine. I suspect that at least some users of this book would have appreciated references to the standard editions and translations of these in the general bibliography, as well as to Der Heiligen Leben, likewise a source for many of the legends listed here. Twenty-eight legends occur in miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The "Handlist" list all but one of these (Gangulphus) under the heading "The Miracles of Mary," but Wolf gives each its own entry, making them more noticeable and easier to locate.

Following the heading for each text are the manuscripts that contain it and their dates. The "Handlist" records primarily vellum manuscripts, with just a few exceptions made for paper manuscripts that clearly represent an earlier tradition. Wolf's manuscript lists are much more comprehensive and give a better picture of the sometimes tangled traditions of transmission. An index of manuscripts at the end of the book makes it possible to form an idea of the contexts in which the legends occur. Next comes a list of editions. Again, Wolf is more generous than the "Handlist," which provides "only references to the best edition(s)" where more than one exists ("Handlist," 332). In The Legends of the Saints, we get a full bibliography of vernacular editions, at least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. The earliest editions cited are the Biskupa sögur of Jón Sigurðsson and Guðbrandur Vigfússon (1858-1878) and the monumental works of C. R. Unger (Mariu saga, 1871; Postola sögur, 1874; Heilagra manna søgur, 1877). Now that electronic versions of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century editions (Scriptores Rerum Danicarum Medii Ævi, the Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiæ of Bishop Finnur Jónsson, etc.) are becoming available, references to them would be welcome. To the list of modern scholarly editions Wolf adds editions in Modern Icelandic as well as translations into the Scandinavian languages, English, and German. She acknowledges her (quite reasonable) bias towards these languages and French, but an exception might have been made for the Italian edition and translation of the Life of Nicholas of Tolentino by Giovanna Salvucci and Simonetta Battista (La saga di san Nicola da Tolentino, Tolentino [Macerata]: Biblioteca Egidiana, 2004).

After the citation of scholarly editions of each text comes a more-or-less comprehensive bibliography of secondary studies up to 2011, and finally, cross-references to the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL) and the "Handlist." The BHL is still the starting point for all research on Latin saints' vitae (as The Legends of the Saints will henceforth be for Old Norse-Icelandic hagiography), but with a publication date of 1911 and a supplement in 1986, it does not reflect the most recent scholarship. Where Old Norse texts rely on a Latin exemplar, it would be helpful to include references to now-standard scholarly editions too new to be cited in BHL (as is done for Carl Selmer's edition of Navigatio Sancti Brendani).

The entry for St. Margaret of Antioch is a good example of how much is new in this book. The half-page entry for Margaret in the "Handlist" lists three versions of Margrétar saga in fifteen manuscripts, followed by one reference to a scholarly article, one to Paul Lehmann's literary history Skandinaviens Anteil an der lateinischen Literatur und Wissenschaft des Mittelalters, and a reference to Unger's edition in Heilagra manna søgur. The entry in The Legends of the Saints, on the other hand is five pages long, and lists thirty-one additional manuscripts, five more editions of the text, a translation, and thirty-one scholarly studies. This is by no means to disparage the "Handlist," but it shows how much progress has been made in the time since its publication and how useful the present study will be.

As with the "Handlist," the publication of The Legends of the Saints will surely lead to a new wave of interest and research in Old Norse-Icelandic hagiography. A student looking for a dissertation topic or a scholar contemplating a new project need only read through the book to recognize the many possibilities it can reveal. Another fifty-year wait for an update will never do. Now that the status of the field as of 2011 has been codified, it may be time to think about an electronic version that can be continually revised. The new material that Wolf's bibliography will generate could be added as it appears, and the capacity of an electronic database would make it possible to include material beyond the scope (vernacular prose legends) of this already-large volume.

For example, Lilli Gjerløw's Liturgica Islandica (2 vols., Bibliotheca Arnamagnæana 35-36, Copenhagen: Reitzel, 1980) has Latin liturgical texts related to forty-seven saints not mentioned in vernacular hagiography, and other Icelandic manuscripts contain brief references to saints (invocations, dedications, calendar entries, illustrations) that would be interesting to study alongside the legends. Wolf includes references to a few texts (and many manuscripts) younger than Bekker-Nielsen's cut-off date of 1540. She notes, for example, a late version of the Origo crucis legend not mentioned in the "Handlist" and in a tantalizingly brief reference identifies as its sources "Sethskvæði, Krosskvæði, and a prose version of the Latin legend." The idea of a prose legend based on late-medieval (possibly post-Reformation) devotional poetry is remarkable, and more such references surely remain to be noticed and added to the bibliography. Including Old Norse-Icelandic hagiographical poetry along with the prose legends would increase the size of the list by at least half again, but it would certainly be useful. Cross-referencing to ongoing projects like the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose and Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages, already initiated in the present book, could be updated as these projects are completed.

But The Legends of the Saints in Old Norse-Icelandic Prose: as it stands handily achieves its goal. My only disappointment is the absence of a contextualizing introduction--perhaps precluded by the already-substantial size of the volume. Hans Bekker-Nielsen's "On a Handlist of Saints' Lives in Old Norse" is still useful, and I was looking forward to something analogous in this book. Reading the book from beginning to end, which I enthusiastically recommend, reveals how successive generations of scholars have shaped the study of Old Norse hagiography over the past half-century, and few are as qualified as Kirsten Wolf to summarize the evolution of the field and suggest the directions in which future research might turn. The book has been carefully produced--I did not notice a single typo--as befits a tool that will be a valued and well-worn companion on the desks of hagiographers for years to come.

Copyright (c) 2013 Martin Chase

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login