Translations of saints' lives composed in the French of England have lagged well behind translations of lives composed in Old and Middle English. Fortunately, more are becoming available, thanks in part to the French of England Translation Series (FRETS) published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. That series was launched in 2008 with a translation by the general editors, Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, of Matthew Paris's History of Saint Edward the King, followed two years later by Paris's Life of Saint Alban, also translated by Fenster and Wogan-Browne. Delbert W. Russell's Verse Saints' Lives Written in the French of England is the fifth volume in the series and the third to feature saints' lives. It is a splendid addition to this most welcome series.
Russell translates for the first time four lives dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries: "Saint Giles" by Guillaume de Berneville, "Saint George" by Simund de Freine, "Saint Faith of Agen" by Simon de Walsingham, and "Saint Mary Magdalene" by Guillaume Le Clerc de Normandie. This selection represents well the variety of saints venerated during the Middle Ages: Giles is a recluse and later an abbot, George a martyred soldier, Faith a virgin martyr, and Mary Magdalene a penitent and preacher. The selection also showcases the diversity of social issues that medieval hagiography routinely addresses, particularly gender roles, marriage, and family relations.
Readers new to hagiography may be surprised by the representations of George and Mary Magdalene. George is today scarcely recognizable as anything but the dashing knight who rescued a princess from a dragon; however, the dragon-slaying episode was a thirteenth-century accretion and thus does not figure in Simund de Freine's rendition from circa 1186-1198, which instead recounts George's many gruesome tortures. Likewise, most readers will know Mary Magdalene as the Biblical sinner who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair, but Guillaume Le Clerc makes only a fleeting allusion to Mary's sinful past ("sweet sinner," 194) and no mention of her years of penitence; instead, he recounts Mary's successful mission to Marseille following the Resurrection. His narrative focuses on Mary's intervention in the lives of the king and queen of Marseille, who, following their conversion, undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Russell begins with a brief (just over two pages) general introduction that provides basic information about each life and its author. He proceeds with extended introductions to each saint's life, a discussion of his approach to translation, and a bibliography. The translations follow, and the volume concludes with an appendix containing selected passages from each life in the original French along with Russell's commentary, followed by an index of proper names.
Verse Saints' Lives is exemplary in most respects. Russell's introductions provide a wealth of information about the narratives--authorship, sources and analogues, distinctive themes and stylistic features. He considers the adaptation of each life to current tastes and preoccupations. Each introduction also assesses what, if any, evidence exists that the saint was a historical person and surveys the development of the saint's cult. The bibliography directs readers to editions of the texts translated, editions and translations of related materials, and criticism on the individual lives and their literary and historical contexts. The translations themselves are eminently readable and generously footnoted. Tricky points of interpretation are duly noted, as are significant departures of the French translations from their Latin sources. Russell sensibly chooses to render his verse originals into modern English prose, which allows for more flexibility and, in consequence, more accuracy. At the end of each paragraph, he indicates the corresponding lines in the verse originals for easy citation and comparison. The appendix's selection of extracts and thorough commentaries allow readers to appreciate the style and language of the originals.
I have only two criticisms of substance. First, I would have preferred that the translation of each text directly follow its introduction. The typical reader, I suspect, will want to read a life immediately after its introduction. Since Russell does not draw connections between the four lives, it makes little sense to group the introductions together. That leads to my second criticism: I wish Russell had done more to relate the lives to each other. The volume would have benefited from a more extensive general introduction situating these four lives within the broader hagiographical tradition.
Even without such an introduction, however, by bringing together the lives of different saints composed by different authors, Russell equips readers to better appreciate the hagiographical tradition in England as a whole. The lives he translates exhibit features that are broadly found in French-language English saints' lives. The protagonists are at once courtly and holy. They labor to persuade their non-Christian adversaries rather than simply to humiliate and denounce them. More vulnerable than their closest Middle English counterparts, they express doubts and fears. Less contemptuous of the world, they acknowledge that responsibilities towards others should sometimes take precedence over the pursuit of heaven. The legends' narrators, moreover, are more prone to editorialize about events and characters. These features, in my experience, are rarely found in English-language saints' lives until the fifteenth century.
Russell's translations further our appreciation and understanding of the literary landscape of post-Conquest England. I would love to teach them alongside selections from the South English Legendary, Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend and/or its English translations, and later the saints' lives of Lydgate and Bokenham, so I wish this volume were available as a more affordable paperback. Scholars of medieval English hagiography will welcome this addition to the French of England series.