16.02.08, Camp, Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England

Main Article Content

Tamara Rand

The Medieval Review 16.02.08

Camp, Cynthia Turner. Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015. pp. xiii, 246. ISBN: 978-1-84384-402-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Tamara Rand
Cleveland State University

Hagiographic literature has long been studied by medievalists for insight into the process of creating useful histories and as a way to more deeply understand the interactions between monasteries, the communities that surrounded them, and the government. The life and miracles of a saint were written to present an image of the distant past that allowed the monastery associated with that saint to justify and defend its privileges and lands. These works were written in Latin in the early and high Middle Ages, with the intended audience being the religious community as well as learned lay people. More recently, the study of hagiographic literature has expanded to include the late medieval period and the hagiographies written in vernacular languages during this time. Cynthia Turner Camp's book, Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England, is the latest addition to this study.

The book is an examination of Anglo-Saxon saints' lives written in Middle English during the long fifteenth century (roughly 1377-1534). It is organized into five chapters that discuss specific hagiographies of Edith of Wilton, Audrey/Etheldreda of Ely, Werbergh of Chester, Edward the Confessor, and Edmund of Bury. It includes an introduction and an extensive bibliography. The bibliography is divided into manuscripts and printed sources. Further division of printed primary sources and secondary sources would have been helpful. The organization within the chapters, especially the beginning, is often difficult to follow, and the book lacks a concluding chapter, which leaves the reader feeling somewhat jarred as the discussion seems to simply drop off. Likewise, a modern English translation of at least some of the Middle English passages she quotes would benefit those readers who are not experts.

Camp's statement that Middle English saints' lives were used to create a useful memory of the past because "deeper roots equaled higher holiness and prestige" that could be used to strengthen claims and justify the practices and prerogatives of a monastery (4) is not a unique insight in hagiographic studies. Her argument that saints' lives are institutional and historiographic productions written to bolster the reputation of the monastery, monarchy, or both has been covered by earlier scholars as it is central to the idea that these works were meant to create a useful vision of the past for the monasteries that commission them. Of greater interest is her approach to the question posed by Virginia Blanton as to what specifically makes hagiographies written in Middle English different from their earlier Latin counterparts. The central issue here, according to Camp, is the new dilemmas fifteenth-century hagiographers faced in rewriting the past to address contemporary concerns (3).

Her introduction shows too much dependence on the works of other scholars in justifying her theses and theoretical approaches. While historiographic context is undeniably important, the excessive discussion here eclipses her own ideas. This is a shame, since Camp's ideas and methodology are quite good. The underlying (though unstated) thesis is that the hagiographers of the great Benedictine monasteries in England during the long fifteenth century, tasked with creating a useful image of the past to justify the monasteries' traditional prerogatives and rights, faced issues earlier hagiographers did not. This is an important addition to the fields of hagiography and memory studies that gets lost in the litany of scholars upon whose shoulders Camp stands. It deserves to be the primary focus of the introduction. Likewise lost is the excellent insight that these monasteries not only had to justify their existence in light of the political changes that occurred during the long fifteenth century, but they had to renegotiate their social and spiritual roles as well. The issues facing religious institutions in the wake of events such as the Black Death and Protestant Reformation were vastly different from problems monasteries had to deal with when the Latin hagiographies of Anglo-Saxon saints were written.

Her discussion of hagiographies as constructions of the ethical-temporal relationships between saint and religious community is quite good, and her explanation of ethical and institutional bodies is particularly relevant to the theses mentioned above. Using the framework established by Ernst Kantorowicz in The King's Two Bodies, she describes the monastery as a corporate entity. As such, it is an institutional body that is more than the sum of the individuals within it--transcending time in a way that allows continuity and links its current members to the prestige and excellence of the monastery's history as well as implying the corpus mysticum's continuation into the future. Within the institutional body are the "ethical bodies" of the monks who make up the community in any given year. They are linked trans-temporally to communities in the past, but are individually fallible and thus disciplinable (8). Her use of chronotopes to organize her analysis has a good deal of potential for comparative analysis of hagiographic literature across time. She finds three chronotopic structures common in late medieval English hagiographic writings: the period between the Augustinian conversion and the Norman Conquest ('Anglo-Saxon chronotope'), institutional origin and development ('monastic chronotope'), and the timeless tradition of the saint ('iconic chronotope') (17-20).

The first three chapters address the use of female Anglo-Saxon saints in creating monastic histories that show not only spiritual excellence and continuity but political agency and authority. All three saints discussed in these chapters were daughters of kings, and Camp does an admirable job of showing how late medieval hagiographers tied sanctity and politics through these women to promote the prestige of the monasteries associated with them. The greatest criticism of these three chapters is that, as in the introduction, there is too much discussion of secondary sources as well as a need for a bit more historical context. This addition would have made the contrast between earlier, Latin, hagiographies and Middle English hagiographies stand out more.

Chapter 1 deals with the Middle English life of St. Edith of Wilton, which makes up most of The Wilton Chronicle. Camp begins with a discussion of the Vita et Translatio Edithae that was written between 1080 and 1082 by the Flemish (not Norman, as Camp has it) hagiographer Goscelin of St. Bertin at the request of Wilton's abbess, Godiva (26). It would add more to her analysis of The Wilton Chronicle if she had included the reason Godiva commissioned the Vita et Translation Edithae--infringement upon and theft of lands belonging the convent. Goscelin wrote this vita, and dedicated it to Archbishop Lanfranc, in order to assert the convent's historical rights and privileges and appeal to the ecclesiastic authority of the archbishop for protection. The fifteenth-century life of Edith, on the other hand, was written at least in part to add legitimacy to the Lancastrian monarchs (32). Addressing Edith's political viability and literary slight-of-hand to shift the focus away from a potential future where she could have been one of England's great rulers following the death of her half-brother, Edward the Martyr. Refusing the throne, Camp points out, made her potentially culpable for the troubles England suffered during the inept reign of Æthelred, Edward's other half-sibling. The Chronicle's writer diverted blame away from Edith by recording that England's troubles under Æthelred began after Archbishop Dunstan's death, suggesting that it was Dunstan that was able to control the young and impulsive king. This also allowed the hagiographer to emphasize Edith's role as a saint and her post-humus agency in converting Cnut (37-41).

The political aspect of these female saints is particularly relevant for creating memory in the fifteenth century. Camp's treatment of this topic is generally well organized and thoughtfully presented. Her skill at trans-temporal analysis, as well as her facility with Middle English, allows a very good discussion of the shifting focus of hagiographic production. Her analysis here, as mentioned earlier, would have benefitted from more historical perspective, although she strikes a good balance in chapter 3. She ties Edith's saintly history to secular history in a way that shows the issues facing the chronicler in the first chapter. In chapter 2 she discusses the religious and genealogical prosopography of St. Audrey/Etheldreda of Ely, and in chapter three she shows how Bradshaw used Werbergh's relationship to the ancient Mercian rulers to assert Chester Abbey's independence.

Audrey's cult extended well beyond the monastery of Ely, and her importance as a virgin saint of royal decent began with the founding of the monastery in 673. More than a few abbeys, monasteries, and convents linked themselves to Audrey because of her status, and the nature of these ties is very clearly discussed within this chapter. Camp argues that Audrey's genealogy lent legitimacy to other institutions (85), and she clearly explains the usefulness, or lack thereof, of tying an institution to Audrey's holy blood relatives such as her sister Sexburgh. Her discussion of spiritual kinships in Cambridge University Library's MS Add 2604 (91-101) is particularly insightful, showing the psychological as well as social and political importance of a convent's non-biological relationship to Audrey (91-92). She uses the vernacular Audrey rather than the saint's Old English name--Etheldreda or Æthelthryth--because the it emphasizes the distance between the actual abbess and the late medieval hagiographic literature, a device that is quite effective (4, n.10).

Her analysis of Henry Bradshaw's Life of Werburge (Chapter 3) shows the power struggles between Mercia and southern England in the long fifteenth century as well as the way Bradshaw resolved the problem of Werbergh's no-longer-incorrupt body. She does an excellent job in showing how this Middle English hagiographic poem about St. Werbergh was used Mercian exceptionalism to champion the rights and privileges of Chester Abbey and reestablish its civic rights and authority in the face of Henry VII's increasing encroachment (105-106). She successfully argues the poem establishes a complementary vision of Chester and Mercia by establishing Werbergh's spiritual authority as derived from her Mercian royal heritage (106). This, in turn, helps assert the abbey's independence from centralized authority (123). Camp's analysis on pages 109-112 elegantly illustrates how Bradshaw resolved Werbergh's gentleness and piety with the violent nature of her forebears. Camp uses Bradshaw's solution to another problem--that of the saint's disintegrated body--to illustrate the process of recreating historic memory to address a contemporary problem. Trans-temporally analyzing Bradshaw's poem against Goscelin's Vita Werburge, she illustrates how Bradshaw reminds the audience that a saint's bodily decomposition is the saint's way of her devotees that the greater reward is in heaven, not on earth (130-131). Noting that the Middle English word "resolve" more accurately translates to changing from one state to another (119), Camp argues Werbergh's corporal decomposition was used to show the potential to change and reform-- that the ethical bodies of the monks in Chester Abbey could change from a state of sin and weakness to a state of spiritual strength with the saint's help (131). She shows how Bradshaw gave Chester Abbey the means to reassert its ecclesiastic independence as well as create a new and credible image that provided the abbey's current residents a way to renegotiate their spiritual position within the secular community.

The final two chapters concern the visual hagiography of Edward the Confessor and the portrayal of St. Edmund in Lydgate's Edmund and Fremund found in London, British Library, MS Harley 2278. These two chapters take a different, and perhaps more intriguing, approach to late medieval hagiography. Both saints are hagiographically removed from historicization. Instead, they are made part of the larger culture of England. In discussion Edward, Camp points out that had two characteristics that made narrative hagiography difficult: his virginity and his reputation as an inept ruler. So, though Edward was not a good candidate for a narrative hagiography in late medieval England, he was an excellent one for pictorial hagiography (153). This allowed the king-saint duality to link English and sacred history (143). Camp's analysis is subtle and well argued, and opens a new line of inquiry in memory studies. Her discussion of Edmund is equally nuanced. She argues that in Edmund and Fremund, the focus is less on the chronological history of the saint and more on the relationship between saint and petitioner (175). This created an image of the monastery as shrine-keeper, thus enhancing its prestige. As Camp illustrates, these different approaches to memory creation allowed kings to be more closely associated with the saints which, in turn, helped Westminster and St. Edmunds monastery.

There is much that is good about this book. It offers interesting new ways of looking at the nature of late medieval English hagiographic literature and innovative paths of inquiry for hagiographic and memory studies. Though it is sometimes difficult to get past the meandering narrative, especially in the beginning, the last three chapters are written more clearly than the introduction and first two chapters. The addition of a concluding chapter to sum up Camp's arguments would be a welcome addition to subsequent editions, as would the judicious extraction of unnecessary side discussions that detract from Camp's arguments and theses. However, the book in its current incarnation does add important insights into the way hagiographies as created memory changed in the long fifteenth century as well as the reason for these changes.

Article Details