15.03.17, Kreiner, The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom

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Constance B. Bouchard

The Medieval Review 15.03.17

Kreiner, Jamie. The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought: Fourth Series, 96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 329. ISBN: 9781107050655 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Constance B. Bouchard
University of Akron

Merovingian-era hagiography has attracted a great deal of discussion in the last twenty or twenty-five years, having successfully shed the label of superstitious scribblings of the Dark Ages. As the most abundant source from the sixth through eighth centuries, saints' lives certainly deserve historical attention. Here Jamie Kreiner, building on the last generation of scholarship, suggests that this hagiography needs to be seen as written for a social as well as religious purpose. She presents a nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of these "lives," arguing that their authors intended not only to advance the cult of the saints, but also to influence the morality, culture, and politics of the Frankish kingdoms.

The volume appears in a Cambridge series that has published the majority of recent work on the Frankish early Middle Ages, under the editorship of Rosamond McKitterick. It is the product of an enormous amount of research in both secondary and primary sources, including manuscripts that are analyzed in an appendix. It began as Kreiner's dissertation at Princeton, and there are still a few remnants of the dissertation, such as a periodic listing of the people who have previously written on a particular aspect of Merovingian hagiography, and occasional forays into fairly tangential subjects such as a critique of how the MGH reconstructed a seventh-century text. Nonetheless, this is a work of mature scholarship that should make specialists reexamine some of their assumptions.

A constantly recurring theme is that one should not oversimplify the Merovingian era. Theirs was a complex society, with many influences and many competing norms, and especially given the skimpiness of surviving sources, we often cannot say with confidence to what an author might have been referring, even if it was clear to his audience. The multifaceted nature of the sources is reflected in Kreiner's choice for the book's cover, the image of a "tetramorph" from an eighth-century book of the gospels produced at Echternach (and now in Trier). In it all four evangelists are portrayed together, as a man (Matthew) morphs into the conjoined lower halves of an ox, an eagle, and a lion, symbols of the other three. To further complicate the symbolism, the man, arms crossed, holds a short sword and an apparent flowering branch, also crossed. It is a shame that this striking image, discussed at length in the text, will not be seen by the many readers who get the book from the library.

Kreiner's central point is that the saints' lives were intended to influence the establishment of a Christian society in the Merovingian kingdoms, a process in which kings, bishops, and other members of the elite were also engaged. The lives, she argues, were designed to be persuasive as well as descriptive, establishing new standards for justice and order and seeking to ensure that these were met. Bishops came in for both nudging and criticism if they seemed unappreciative of the necessity of generosity to the poor. Throughout, Kreiner connects hagiography with Frankish law, using it to analyze how both kings and bishops were persuaded to take responsibility both for the church and for the population as a whole.

Because the Merovingian era stressed the importance of the written word, saints' deeds too had to be written down, their gesta becoming at some level the equivalent of acts enregistered in the gesta municipalia. The laws of the Franks and the ways that documents were drawn up connects, she demonstrates, to the ways that hagiographers depicted the merits of their subjects. For example, one future saint had all her sins written down on a sealed parchment, spent the next year in penitence, and then had the parchment opened before witnesses--when it was revealed to be blank, thus proving, by use of good legal procedures, that her sins were washed away.

Throughout, Kreiner turns a number of previous assumptions about Merovingian-era sanctity on their head. Rather than seeing the prevalence of elite men and women among those declared to be saints as an indication that the powerful were using an aura of sanctity to bolster their standing, she makes the excellent point that the hagiographers chose to write about rich and powerful saints because they were trying to convince the rich and powerful to become saintly. The hagiographers' accounts especially stressed the negative results of greed and abuse of power. Saints' lives were not written as justifications of royal or noble power so much as efforts to shape the conversation about what form power should take.

Perhaps the most intriguing discussion is found in chapter four, where Kreiner discusses the reasons why churches and holy places multiplied during the Merovingian era. It was not as simple, she demonstrates, as the powerful wanting to add to their personal luster, for loca sanctorum were quite new then, certainly not a well-known tool for self-aggrandizement. Arguing that powerful men and women who founded churches were seeking more than prestige, she suggests that they saw themselves as reaching out to the populace the churches would serve, and thus that their gain was more public and political than personal. This distinction is nuanced enough that some readers will see it as one without a difference. But it is still refreshing to see a reading of saints' lives that takes seriously the reluctance of many powerful parents to see their children entering the religious life, rather than assuming families wanted the power that came from such conversions and dismissing accounts of reluctance as a mere topos.

In the final chapter, Kreiner turns to the Carolingian era, when the lives of a number of saints from Late Antiquity were copied--we would have substantially fewer lives of Merovingian saints had not Carolingian-era scribes preserved them--even though, interestingly enough, extremely few new saints were added to the mix. But Carolingian authors also reimagined and rewrote the lives of Gaul's saints. Earlier Kreiner had already added to the growing consensus that the last Merovingian kings were not merely the weak half-wits whom Einhard portrayed. In chapter five she suggests that hagiography indicates that the writers of the ninth century did not reject the norms and religious ideals of the seventh century with anything like the force that the Carolingian dynasty rejected the Merovingians, and thus that the narrative of a sharp cultural break in the age of Charlemagne needs to be reconsidered. This chapter is also intended to serve as a conclusion, although one wishes Kreiner could have drawn all her themes together in a real concluding chapter.

As intriguing and indeed convincing as the central points are, they are to some extent undercut by Kreiner's belief that she had to bolster them with cognitive theory. This leads to a long discussion of what she terms a double-scope representation. It is not at all clear how this jargon, which frames chapter three, gives us a better understanding of how the hagiographers used legalistic arguments to persuade kings to consider the effects of their acts on the more marginalized sectors of their population. She uses the term to mean a blending of two different narratives, as for example a biographical account of a saint's acts would be blended with accounts of social events and consequences in order to create persuasive force. But the same point could have been made more clearly (and, shall I say, persuasively) without an awkward terminology that requires a great deal of explanation.

In the same way, a methodological discussion of close reading, of contextualizing the lives of the saints within the legal, liturgical, social, and moral framework that other texts provide and within which the hagiographers worked, veers off into poststructuralism. Yet one does not need a habitus from semiotic theory to appreciate that the lives were not written in a vacuum. Kreiner ends up having to justify why theoretical models developed for societies very different from Late Antiquity can still be applied to its history, when her own perfectly sensible approach would have worked fine without importing terminology from other disciplines. She seems to realize this herself when she says, "It may seem like a stretch to turn to...the modern developments that show up in digitized print materials to explain how it was possible for Merovingian culture to change" (28).

In spite of such caveats, this is an important and original book. It will attract a lot of attention (and doubtless some controversy) and is well worth the effort spent dodging the tangents and reading its sometimes dense prose.

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Author Biography

Constance B. Bouchard

University of Akron