16.02.35, Mesley and Wilson, eds., Contextualizing Miracles in the Christian West, 1100-1500

Main Article Content

Rachel Koopmans

The Medieval Review 16.02.35

Mesley, Matthew M., Louise E. Wilson, ed. Contextualizing Miracles in the Christian West, 1100-1500. Medium Ævum Monographs, 32. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2014. pp. 231. ISBN: 9780907570240 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Rachel Koopmans
York University, Toronto

Originally of interest to social historians and anecdote hunters, miracle stories are now the quarry of scholars of a wide variety of specialities. This volume of nine essays attests to the increasing sophistication and diversity of recent analysis of miracle stories. Though displaying the unevenness and wide focal range characteristic of most volumes of essays resulting from conferences (in this case, a conference held at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in April 2011), this volume makes progress towards its goal of "contextualizing" and re-evaluating methodological approaches to medieval miracle stories.

The introduction to the volume by Matthew Mesley is a helpful contextualization of the nine essays collected within it and also, to some degree, of the field itself. The footnotes in Mesley's introduction provide very useful citation of a wide range of recent English-language studies of miracle stories. In the lead-off essay, entitled "Peter Brown and Victor Turner Revisited: Anthropological Approaches to Latin Miracle Narratives in the Medieval West," Anne E. Bailey reviews the impact of anthropological studies on medieval miracle scholarship and then works to rejigger anthropological models for textual analysis of miracle narratives. As one might expect, the names of Durkheim, Turner, Geertz, and Lévi-Strauss are invoked, and Bailey, like these theorists, does not shrink from large generalizations. She states that most modern scholarship on medieval miracle stories falls under a "structural-functionalist" methodological umbrella, points to the central value of "ritual" for the study of miracle stories, and argues that Victor Turner's "rite-of-passage" model applies to most medieval miracle stories themselves. Bailey works to make a new contribution in her suggestion to "adapt ritual theories as textual analysis," so enabling us "to look at the ritual function of the text, rather than the ritual function of medieval pilgrimage" (36). These are promising ideas, though Bailey leaves the precise application and payoff of this approach rather vague. Exploration of recent literary theory, rather than such well-trodden anthropological ground, might be a more productive route to enhanced textual analysis of miracle stories.

The second essay in the volume, "Miracles, Belief and Christian Materiality: Relic'ing in Twelfth-Century Miracle Narratives," by Simon Yarrow, begins with a discussion of the persistence of two-tier analysis of medieval miracle cults, in which scholars implicitly or explicitly contrast "elite" with "popular" mentalities. Yarrow argues that this approach "risks reproducing the rhetorical grain of the sources" (51), and so proposes an intensified focus on relics, the material objects of cults, as a means to bypass two-tier thinking and better "appreciate the social significance of saints' cults" (62). Adding his voice to those of other scholars calling for new attention to the medieval object and material culture, Yarrow seeks to demonstrate the value of "reconstruct[ing] religious belief in terms of Christian materiality" (52). Though briefly stated, Yarrow's ideas for how to go about "relic'ing" in medieval miracle narratives are insightful and supported by a range of examples drawn from twelfth-century texts and references to recent anthropological studies.

The next essay, one of the longest in the volume, is an important addition to the study of collections of Marian miracles composed in England in the early twelfth century. Unlike the shrine miracles that are the focus of most of the other contributors, the miracles in the Marian collections are unattached to any specific relic or resting place. These Anglo-Norman texts would form the basis for the very widely circulated Marian collections of the later medieval period. In her essay, entitled "Marian Miracles and Marian Liturgies in the Benedictine Tradition of Post-Conquest England," Kati Ihnat draws attention to the "centrality of liturgical practices" in many of these Marian stories. Earlier scholars made connections between the Anglo-Norman celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the composition of Marian miracle collections, but Ihnat shows that the liturgical content of these stories is not limited to this single feast. She points out that specific Marian masses, prayers, and antiphons are also highlighted in these stories, convincingly demonstrating that "the diverse forms of liturgical practice present in the miracles suggest a concern with the development of the Marian cult in its many varied expressions" (93). An attention to liturgy may not in itself constitute a new methodological approach, but Ihnat's essay certainly reveals the worth of liturgical study of miracle stories, particularly, though not only, for the Marian miracles.

Louise Elizabeth Wilson contributes an essay entitled "Conceptions of the Miraculous: Natural Philosophy and Medical Knowledge in the Thirteenth-Century Miracula of St Edmund of Abingdon." In it, she works to bridge the gap between early scholastic inquiry into the relationship between nature and divine intervention and the ways in which miracle collectors discussed nature and medicine in their accounts of specific miracles. This is a valuable but challenging task, and Wilson's conclusions are limited by her narrow source base. She examines two collections of the miracles of St Edmund of Abingdon, one written by Albert of Amaugh as part of a canonization inquest, and another, considerably longer collection written by an anonymous author sometime in the mid- to late thirteenth century. It is not clear from the essay whether the reader is supposed to see these two texts as broadly representative of thirteenth-century collections, nor whether these two writers' discussion of humoral theory, medical treatments, or of events as contra naturam is significantly different from what one finds in collections written in the late twelfth century. Still, the essay points to the importance of this kind of study and room for future research. Wilson observes that these authors understood nature as being prone to imperfection, and it would be interesting to know how widespread that viewpoint was.

Iona McCleery's "'Christ More Powerful Than Galen'? The Relationship between Medicine and Miracles" is a particularly strong essay. McCleery provides a trenchant review and analysis of the changes within the study of medicine and miracles in recent decades. She points out that the study of medicine has been largely separated from the study of religion and culture, and argues strongly for a "more integrated" approach. She then examines three different Portuguese cults that will likely be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers. The essay contains some generalizations that strike me as too broad or simplistic. Is it really true, for instance, that "on the whole historians still view the pope as the arbiter of sanctity" (137)? Despite such quibbles, McCleery's essay is a very useful starting point for anyone seeking to analyze medicine and miracles in a more informed and sophisticated fashion.

Irina Metzler's essay, "Indiscriminate Healing Miracles in Decline: How Social Realities Affect Religious Perception," begins with the statement that healing miracles, "so popular and numerous during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, take a numerical nosedive from the fourteenth onwards" (155). She then explores a number of reasons for such a decline, pointing to changes in late medieval culture which, she argues, made such miracles "scarcer." Metzler is surely correct to point to late medieval ideas about voluntary and involuntary poverty and suggest that they had an impact on cultural views of healings, at least among the elite. A critical question, though, is whether there was an absolute decline in the number of people claiming miraculous healings in the late medieval period, or whether the "nosedive" is simply a decline in recorded stories, the result of fewer late medieval writers being interested in recording large numbers of healing miracles. Since late medieval canonization inquests are stuffed full of healing miracles with all the variety one sees in earlier texts, I find it difficult to agree with Metzler that there was a "rationing" of healing miracles to a specific type of deserving person in the late medieval period.

Rebecca Pinner's essay, "St Edmund of East Anglia: 'Martir, Mayde and Kinge,' and Midwife?" is centered upon a somewhat unusual miracle story recounted in a letter written by King Henry III to the abbot of Bury St Edmunds. The king describes how his queen, Eleanor, was in a difficult labour in 1245 when "we had the antiphon of St Edmund chanted for her," and she gave birth to a son. Pinner notes that this is the only childbirth miracle in St Edmund's recorded miracles. To place this story in context, Pinner examines antiphons of St Edmund, accounts of a fertility ritual involving a white bull in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Bury, and other texts related to St Edmund.

The volume's final essay by Fiona Kao, "John Foxe's Golden Saints? Ways of Reading Foxe's Female Martyrs in Light of Voragine's Golden Legend," is an interesting piece, but has little to do with miracles and sits uneasily in the volume. It is a study of how Foxe portrayed female martyrs in his Acts and Monuments. Kao argues that Foxe was influenced by medieval hagiography, to the extent that these martyrs can be seen as the "Protestanized Bride of Christ." Kao refers to woodcuts in the course of her essay, but they are unfortunately not pictured.

It is a shame, more broadly, that this volume contains not a single chart or figure. It also lacks an index and comprehensive bibliography. Still, when so much work on miracle stories has appeared in articles scattered among a wide array of scholarly journals, it is encouraging to see a volume such as this appear. The very reasonable price of the paperback would make it possible to assign the book to seminar students. As a whole, this volume serves as a marker of some of the current strengths and the considerable future potential of study of the medieval miracle story.

Article Details