The Medieval Review 15.06.01

Henry of Avranches. Saints' Lives (2 vols.). Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 30 and 31. ed. and trans. David Townsend. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. pp. xxvi, 324. $29.95 and $29.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780674051287 and 9780674728653 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Laura Ackerman Smoller
University of Rochester

In this era of Kindle, iBook, and podcast, few scholarly projects have warmed the hearts of medievalists as much as the handsomely crafted and meticulously edited tomes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. The two volumes under review make a worthy addition to the growing set of "medieval Loebs," presenting an edition and en face translation of seven verse saints' lives by the virtuosic thirteenth-century poet Henry of Avranches. David Townsend, professor of Medieval Studies and English at the University of Toronto, is ideally suited to have taken up this task, having been occupied for more than twenty-five years with the work of Henry and other twelfth- and thirteenth-century epic poets. Townsend himself has previously prepared critical editions of four of the vitae presented here (those of Saints Oswald, Birinus, Edmund, and Fredemund). A fifth, the Life of Francis of Assisi, was edited in 1926 and received an English translation in 1988 (the only of the texts here to have appeared in English). The other two Lives (of Saints Guthlac and Thomas Becket) have never been edited. Townsend's concise introduction to volume 1 deftly lays out the considerable difficulties in studying the career and literary output of Henry of Avranches, for whom we have conclusive manuscript confirmation of authorship for only five works, yet to whom a considerably larger opus has commonly been attributed. The seven verse saints' lives here represent what Townsend calls "a self-consciously cautious approach to the question of Henry's canon" (1:xvii) and appear in an order reflecting "descending certainty of attribution to Henry" (1:xviii). This caution is important because much of Henry's biography has been re-constructed from clues in his presumed literary output. Townsend is also to be commended for his clear exposition of the reasons for his attributions (and the problems in considering the Life of Thomas Becket to have arisen solely from Henry's pen).

Rather than replicate (or revise) existing critical editions of the Lives of Oswald, Birinus, and Francis, Townsend has chosen here to present all seven texts as they appear in an important manuscript for the study of Henry of Avranches: Cambridge, University Library MS Dd. XI.78, a manuscript compiled by Matthew Paris. In the case of the vitae of Francis and Oswald, that decision means that the texts presented here are quite different from those in previous editions, as a "Note on the Texts" that appears in both volumes makes clear. The Lives of Guthlac, Thomas Becket, Edmund, and Fredemund appear only in the Cambridge manuscript. Given that a modern critical edition is a sort of hybrid that presents an idealized text as, perhaps, no medieval reader ever encountered it, it is refreshing to have here an edition that puts forth these Lives as one (influential) person read--and chose to preserve--them. For reasons not entirely clear, however, Townsend has chosen to omit the latter portions of the Life of Thomas, namely sections that describe struggles between King John and Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207 to 1214, as well as the ceremonial translation of Becket's relics in 1220. Since, as Townsend notes, the portrayal of the relic translation has no known prose source (unlike the Life proper, which is based on John of Salisbury), it is regrettable that this portion of the text does not appear here.

In many ways, Townsend's en face edition represents the ideal way for modern readers to encounter Henry of Avranches's poems. Henry was writing self-consciously classicizing epics, and his often playful Latin is not always straightforward or easy to read. It is nice to have the English there, and I suspect that Townsend’s translation will gain Henry many new readers. Still, many of Henry's puns and plays on words are untranslatable, as are other of his devices (such as the acrostic "Gregorius Nonus," Henry's one-time patron, spelled by the first letters of the fourteen books of his Life of Francis). Townsend signals many, but not all of these instances, in the notes. Thus, even readers who limit themselves largely to Townsend's elegant English translation will benefit from a quick glance across at the Latin to find for themselves such jewels as ut de/compedibus uinctos educat et educet agnos, rendered here as "that he might take the bound lambs from their hobbles and rear them" (1:164-165), or traxit hominem, maloque fefellit/(heu!) male fellito, whose word play is lost in the English "drew down man, deceiving him, alas, with an apple steeped wickedly in gall" (1:290-291).

Even without the verbal pyrotechnics of Henry's Latin verses, the seven Lives make for quite rewarding reading. Henry's goal of making Latin epics of saints' lives (especially apparent in the Lives of Francis, Oswald, Birinus, and Guthlac) leads to interesting authorial choices, especially apparent when these Lives are read against their sources (and Townsend does a nice job of indicating some of the major points of deviation). The Life of Francis, for example, is based on Thomas of Celano's first life of Francis of Assisi, but the poet has added a lengthy allegory on the seven deadly sins, couched in a military metaphor that has Francis, armed with a seven-layered shield, waging war against seven monsters, plus the Furies Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. Henry invokes the Muses, "sings" the deeds of his heroes, and includes epic similes in his saints' lives. Comparing himself explicitly to Virgil in the prologue to the Life of Birinus, Henry declares his poem a "Birinid" (1:262-263). And a glance at the Index of Proper Names reveals that Henry makes twice as many references to Alexander the Great in these poems as he does to Saint Peter! Still, as Townsend notes, while Henry was looking over his shoulder at (and explicitly trying to compete with) Walter of Châtillon's Alexandreis, his verses also contain much of the spirit of Carmina Burana. Surely, Henry must have smiled to himself as he described the Roman Birinus's arrival in (uncivilized) Britain: "Since it brought forth neither wine nor grapes, the population celebrated a marriage of Thetis and Ceres. Hymen shuddered...The offspring of so hateful a union--or rather an unknown monster fit for the Stygian marsh--many call 'beer'" (1:279). In addition to Henry's epic posturing and abundant wordplay, he also enjoyed showing off his knowledge of medicine and natural philosophy, as in his rather technical discussion of vision in describing Guthlac's healing of a man blinded by cataracts: "Since vision occurs through extramission, or else through taking something in, this man was granted no apprehension, since he could neither receive within nor send out" (2:121).

Townsend's fine edition and translation make an implicit case for the increased study of such verse saints' lives, texts whose purposes and readership remain somewhat puzzling. In that respect, these two volumes make a nice complement to Anna Lisa Taylor's Epic Lives and Monasticism in the Middle Ages, 800–1050 (Cambridge, 2013), which examines the form in the Carolingian era. I look forward to introducing students to Henry's balancing of the conventions of hagiography and epic, as well as pointing them to the elaborate wordplay on the left hand pages. In addition, with his high-placed patrons (Gregory IX, Louis IX, and Henry III), as well as the dedications of a number of these Lives to important English prelates and monasteries, Henry of Avranches becomes a fascinating figure for a consideration of the political uses of poetry and hagiography.

As with any rendering from one language to another, Townsend has made a series of decisions. On occasion, he modernizes vocabulary in such a way that unfortunately hides Henry's classicizing moves [e.g., "Satan" for Zabulum (291), "hellish" for Letheo (43), "bard" for poeta (209)]. In other cases, one could make a case for a different choice of words. For example, in the Life of Francis, I would have preferred "poisoning" or "magic" rather than "witchcraft" for veneficiis (1:36-37), simply because of the later connotations of witchcraft as being connected with diabolism. Likewise, although I understand why he chose to shade the word in that way, I'm not sure I would have followed Townsend in translating accidia as "melancholy" (1:26-27), especially given the context (a discussion of the seven deadly sins) and the obvious medical overtones of the word "melancholy." But these are all small quibbles with a splendid set of translations, whose fluid prose masks the extreme difficulty of Townsend's task here. These two volumes are sure to delight not simply those who study Latin poetry, but also anyone interested in medieval hagiography in all its various forms.

Copyright (c) 2015 Laura Ackerman Smoller

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