16.02.27, Keufler, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint

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Scott G. Bruce

The Medieval Review 16.02.27

Keufler, Mathew. The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. pp. 306. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4552-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Scott G. Bruce
University of Colorado at Boulder

Mathew Kuefler's book offers a drastic and not altogether convincing reinterpretation of the textual history of an important Cluniac saint's life from the tenth century as well as an examination of the success of the cult it was written to support from the Middle Ages to the present day. For two and a half centuries, from its foundation in 910 until the death of Peter the Venerable in 1156, the abbey of Cluny was governed by a small number of long-lived abbots. Many of them--Odo (927-942), Maiolus (954-994), Odilo (994-1049), Hugh the Great (1049-1109), and Peter himself (1122-1156)--were hailed as saints and inspired robust hagiographical traditions. Despite the importance of Cluny in medieval monastic culture and the influence wielded by its abbots at the highest levels of religious and secular society, many of these abbatial saints' lives have received very little study. Indeed, some of them still lack modern critical editions. Instead, historians have turned their attention time and time again to an unusual saint's life written in the early tenth century by Odo of Cluny: The Life of Count Gerald of Aurillac. This vita is atypical because it provides a portrait of a virtuous layman--a perfectissimus laicus--in an age when most works of hagiography celebrated the virtues of holy abbots and bishops. An increased interest among historians in texts related to the ideals of the Carolingian nobility and martial Christian piety before the First Crusade accounts for the popularity of this vita in recent historiography.

The Bollandists have identified two different versions of the Life of Gerald: a "long" version attributed to Odo of Cluny written around 930 and an anonymous "short" version composed in the decades around 1000. A new critical edition of the "long" vita by Anne-Marie Bultot-Verleysen has recently replaced the early modern edition published in the Biblioteca Cluniacensis (1614) and reprinted in vol. 133 of Migne's Patrologia Latina. [1] In addition to these hagiographical accounts, there survives a sermon for Gerald's feast day and a collection of his posthumous miracles, all of which date to the later tenth century. Historians interested in Odo's oeuvre have generally accepted the claim that the vita prolixior (the "longer" version of the vita) was authentic and the vita brevior (the "shorter" version) was a later redaction by an anonymous monk who added Odo's name to it to lend it authority. It is the primary argument of Kuefler's book that these attributions of authorship and dating are fundamentally wrong. He claims that that vita brevior is actually the work of Odo (and thus the earliest text in the hagiographical dossier of Gerald). Moreover, he maintains that the rest of the corpus of texts related to Gerald--the vita prolixior, the sermon, and the miracles--were in fact written in the 1020s by the well-known early eleventh-century monk and notorious forger Ademar of Chabannes.

Kuefler spends the first half of his book arguing against a well-established scholarly consensus. In Chapter 1 ("Prologmenon on the Dating and Authorship of the Writings about Gerald of Aurillac"), he contents that "the traditional dating and attribution of the texts about Gerald" are "erroneous" (9). He begins by arguing that the vita prolixior contains many errors and anachronisms that are difficult to explain if Odo was indeed the author of the work. After surveying and dismissing as "highly speculative" (21) the late nineteenth-century scholarship that established the traditional relationship between these vitae and the twentieth-century scholars who followed it, Kuefler lays out the differences between the two texts (the ordering of the narrative, variations in phrasing and word usage, etc.) in order to show that the vitae were written by two distinct authors. It is unclear to me why he bothers to do this, because this is not point of contention in current scholarship; no one believes that one author wrote both texts. The chapter then proceeds by making the case that the sentiments and language of the vita brevior, with its emphasis on "monastic reform" (22) and "the positioning of Gerald as almost a monk" (23), match those of Odo's other writings. In contrast, the vita prolixior is replete with a vocabulary of peace that, according to Kuefler, expresses the concerns of the early eleventh century rather than the early tenth century. Moreover, he argues that the textual relationship between the vita prolixior and other documents related to the cult of Gerald (the transitus and the miracula) point to a single author for all three texts. Kuefler then arrives at his central argument: "the likeliest candidate for their authorship is Ademar of Chabannes" (31), the notorious and successful early eleventh-century forger of the hagiographical dossier of Martial of Limoges. [2] There follows a list of ten reasons why Ademar "forged" the vita prolixior. The first item on the list is an exercise in tautology: "First, Ademar was a master forger" (31-32). The remaining eleven points are impressionistic and speculative.

At this point in the book, the reader's reaction will depend very much on how far s/he wants to trust Kuefler's instinct that Ademar played any role in this hagiographical tradition. In my opinion, the major weakness in this argument is Kuefler's complete neglect of Odo's other writings. Instead of speculating about the authorship of the vita prolixior and the vita brevior in a vacuum, it would have been much more fruitful for Kuefler to examine the vocabulary and themes of these two vitae in the context of Odo's known writings: his long treatise on the virtues and vices (Collationum tres libri) and his sprawling 5,755 line poetic meditation on salvation history (Occupatio). Both works are mentioned once or twice in passing in Kuefler's book, but neither appears in the index. Kuefler dismisses the relevant scholarship by Isabelle Rosé, Christopher A. Jones, and others on the outlook, vocabulary, and meaning of these uncontested writings of Odo, which are inconveniently consistent with vita prolixior. [3] To take one example, Kuefler states that "[t]he Vita prolixior relies heavily on an eclectic range of words borrowed from Greek...whereas the Vita brevior uses only two..." (21). Anyone familiar with Odo's other writings, particularly the Occupatio, would immediately recognize the affinities, for like other tenth-century Latin poets, Odo delighted in the deployment of rare and difficult Greek loan-words. [4] In short, even a casual engagement with Odo's other extant work does much to challenge and undermine Kuefler's thesis.

There are three other aspects of Kuefler's approach that should inspire circumspection on the part of the reader. First, his insistence that the rewriting of hagiography and the attribution of an authority's name to the new product constitutes "forgery" does not represent a medieval view of the ways in which medieval monks wrote and rewrote hagiographical texts. To be sure, monastic communities forged administrative documents to defend their interests and advance their claims; there is a large bibliography on this topic, none of which appears in this book. But since late antiquity, saints' lives drew their authority on the replication of stories about holy men and women, sometimes verbatim. This "sampling" of earlier monastic texts never drew the reproachful eye of medieval authors; it was, in fact, a time-hallowed way of demonstrating the affinities between new saints and their venerable predecessors, going all the way back to the model of Jesus and the apostles. A second and related point: in the eleventh century the Cluniacs actively wrote and rewrote abbatial hagiography, openly and creatively "sampling" each other's works--often verbatim, sometimes amplifying, sometimes redacting earlier vitae. One would expect that the robust hagiographical traditions written in the eleventh century to extol the virtues of Abbots Maiolus (d. 994) and Odilo (d. 1049) would provide useful comparanda in considering the vitae of Gerald, but surprisingly Cluniac hagiography is never brought to bear in Kuefler's study. Third, I am not sure what we gain in our understanding of the early eleventh century if we conclude with Kuefler that Ademar was indeed responsible for "forging" the majority of this dossier. The book asserts bluntly and repeatedly that its hypothesis is correct without ever telling readers what they gain in historical insight by accepting the argument as plausible.

By the halfway point of the book, as the argument shifted from the eleventh century to the trajectory of the cult of Gerald from the later Middle Ages to the modern period, it was clear to me that the idea of the argument of this book had taken precedence over the evidence necessary to support it. The later chapters of the book confirmed this suspicion for me. For some reason, Kuefler decides to portray the later cult of Gerald as a story of "decline and fall," despite evidence to the contrary. A very short Chapter 4 ("Saint Gerald and the Swell of History") treats information about the cult from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, when Gerald was apparently "a thriving saint" (100), but the meager evidence about Gerald's cult from this period does not warrant the "swell" of the title. Similarly, the much meatier Chapter 5 ("Saint Gerald and the Ebb of History") attempts to "track the declining fortunes of the devotion to Saint Gerald" (117) in the early modern period, but the abundance of textual and art historical evidence marshalled in this chapter concerning the seventeenth-century revival of Gerald's cult suggests that this was not a period of "ebb" at all--quite the opposite, in fact.

This study of the cult of Saint Gerald of Aurillac puts forward a forceful, but ultimately unconvincing, thesis that a good portion of the hagiographical dossier of the saint was written by the eleventh-century forger Ademar of Chabannes, and not Abbot Odo of Cluny. I would have found the argument more convincing if it was grounded in a thorough comparative study of Odo's extant writings and if it was more explicit about how this new view of Gerald's dossier changed the way that we think about the religious currents of the early eleventh century. The latter half of the book shares the faults of historical judgment present in the first half. By putting his ideas before his evidence, Kuefler presents a distorted picture of the trajectory of the cult of Gerald in the late medieval and early modern period, which was clearly much more complicated than the descent from "flow" to "ebb" presented in Chapters 4 and 5. Caveat lector.



1. Odon de Cluny, Vita sancti Geraldi Auriliacensis. Édition critique, traduction française, introduction et commentaires, ed. Anne-Marie Bultot-Verleysen (Société des Bollandistes: Brussels, 2009).

2. The definitive study remains Richard Landes, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History: Ademar of Chabannes, 989-1034 (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1998).

3. Christopher A. Jones, "Monastic Identity and Sodomitic Danger in the Occupatio by Odo of Cluny," Speculum 82 (2007): 1-53; Isabelle Rosé, Construire une société seigneuriale: Itinéraire et ecclésiologie de l'abbé Odon de Cluny (fin du IXe-mmilieu du Xe siècle) (Brepols: Turnhout, 2008), passim.

4. See, for example, Kurt Smolak, "Zu einigen Greca in der Occupatio des Odo von Cluny," Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 24/25 (1989-90): 449-457.

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