The Medieval Review 16.03.13

Jiroušková, Lenka. Der heilige Wikingerkönig Olav Haraldsson und sein hagiographisches Dossier: Text und Context der Passio Olavi (mit kritischer Edition): Band 1 (Untersuchung) and Band 2 (Edition und Bildmaterial). Mittellateinische Studien und Texte, 46. Leiden: Brill, 2013. pp. xxxii, 828; xx, 252. $395.00 (hardback). ISBN: x137 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Shami Ghosh
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

Óláfr Haraldsson (1015-1030) is the king to whom the spread of Christianity throughout Scandinavia is generally attributed, at least in most of the (admittedly later) Scandinavian written sources, though modern scholarship generally takes the view that the situation was more complex and Christianity had a rather longer foothold in Scandinavia than the hagiographic sources suggest. As the bringer of Christianity, Óláfr was revered, and not just in Scandinavia. Just a year after his death in battle in the summer of 1030, he was declared a saint, and his cult spread rapidly throughout Scandinavia, as well as England and Normandy (both within a Scandinavian sphere of influence, as it were), and later in the Middle Ages, to a large extent by the agency of the Hanse, through many port cities in northern Germany and the Baltic. While reports about his cult surface in non-Scandinavian sources throughout the eleventh century, it is only in the twelfth century that a written narrative tradition came into being in Scandinavia, and the first Lives belong in that period.

A large number of extant (though not contemporary) sources tell us about his life, including many vernacular sagas, some of which are quite monumental in scope: the Life of Óláfr in the Heimskringla, a collection of royal biographies produced in the early thirteenth century, takes up one whole volume of the modern three-volume edition of that compendium. Some of the earliest extant vernacular sagas about kings are, not surprisingly, those concerning Óláfr; and some of the earliest Latin narratives from Scandinavia are also, again unsurprisingly, about this sainted king. The earliest Lives (two in Latin, and one in Old Norse) are now lost; the oldest vernacular narrative fully extant, the so-called Legendary Saga, was composed around 1200; and the oldest still-extant Latin narrative, the Passio Olavi, the subject of the book under review, is extant in a number of manuscripts and, according to the author of this book, in three quite distinct recensions, the oldest of which can be dated to the last decades of the twelfth century. A study of this text is of great importance for our understanding of early Scandinavian hagiography and historical consciousness in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; of the spread of the cult of Óláfr throughout much of northern Europe; and of the place of this cult and narratives of this saint within the social and political spheres of Scandinavia, England, France, and the Baltic. This book delivers magnificently on its promise, and is thus of fundamental significance for anyone interested in any of these subjects, as well as being an exemplary edition of a hitherto insufficiently well-known Latin text.

Most of the previous scholarship has concentrated only on one manuscript (Oxford, Corpus Christi College, Cod. 209, hereafter CCC), arguably the oldest source, which contains both the narrative of Óláfr's life itself (the Passio), and a collection of miracle narratives appended to it. Jiroušková argues that not only are there two versions of what she calls Recensio I of the Passio, as has long been acknowledged by the scholarship (version A, which is longer and according to Jiroušková older, and B), but also, first, that this differentiation is true only of the Passio part, not of the miracles (this argument is based primarily on her stylistic analyses of the text); and, second, that the miracle narratives are so stylistically varied that they should not be understood as a unified text together with the Passio, but are rather individual narratives that have been appended to the Passio. We are not, therefore, dealing with one text by one author comprising both Passio and miracles. Half the miracles, moreover, are only to be found in one manuscript, CCC. On the basis of her studies of the hitherto largely ignored later manuscripts, the author further argues that there are also two later-medieval recensions (Recensio II and Recensio III), which present versions C (Recensio II) and D1 and D2 (Recensio III), and these are to be understood as quite discrete versions (Fassungen) of the text, rather than simply as later variants. The oldest witnesses to these various recensions are, respectively, from the late twelfth century (A and B), from the late fourteenth century (C), and from the 1430s (D1 and D2). With seven medieval manuscripts, Recensio I is the most widely transmitted of all of these texts; five of those manuscripts belong to the A version.

The second volume of this monumental work provides us with editions of each of the three recensions with parallel texts of A and B (Recensio I) and D1 and D2 (Recensio III), along with explanatory notes and an extensive apparatus criticus and apparatus fontium for each text. The much longer first volume comprises an introduction to the historical context (chapter I); detailed studies of the manuscript tradition (chapters II and III); of the language, style, and structure of the various versions (examined in painstaking detail with attention to syntax, vocabulary, and stylistic features such as cursus, rhyme, and colores rhetorici) (chapter IV); of the textual history of the Passio and miracles, and of possible links with vernacular traditions about Óláfr (chapter V). This more philological section is followed by a very thorough examination of the routes of transmission and the spread of the cult within and without Scandinavia (chapters VI–IX), and interpretations of the use of typology and the construction of sanctity in the Passio, including extraordinarily detailed case studies of a series of topoi in the miracles (chapters X-XII). These chapters are for the most part (with the exception of chapter II) devoted to Recensio I alone, and are thus followed by a further chapter (XIII) on the later two recensions and the transmission of text and cult through the Hanseatic trade routes on the Baltic.

The first volume concludes with a final chapter summarising the results of the foregoing studies. It also includes ten appendices with lists of manuscripts, tables of syntactic and formulaic material, and synoptic tables listing the transmission of the miracles in the texts discussed here as well as vernacular narratives (both verse and prose). There are also four indices, which are supplemented by three further indices in the second volume (these register places, sources, persons, manuscripts, citations, and ancient and medieval authors; but strangely and sadly there is no general index or Sachregister); the latter also contains maps, and some forty pages of images, including reproductions from the manuscripts and pictures of other evidence (paintings, altars, churches) of the liturgical use of Saint Óláfr. In other words: this is a masterpiece of hard work, the product, clearly, of many years of industry, and a mine of information. Was it all worthwhile?

The short answer is: a most vehement yes. As a text and a work of reference alone, these volumes will be indispensable; and the wealth of information contained in the historical studies will be equally indispensable, if less conclusive. There is too much here to go into detail about why that is so, and I shall therefore just briefly summarise some of the main and most valuable points of this book. The first is that we now have an excellent edition of the text of Recensio I with all the critical matter we could possibly ask for; the second is that we also have editions and analyses of the other two recensions, and the novel arguments both that there are indeed two other distinct recensions, and that the miracles, on stylistic grounds, cannot be considered part of the same work as the Passio. (These latter recensions, moreover, unlike the Passio, also appear to have used written vernacular sources.) Our understanding of the manuscript tradition and the nature of the textual relationships contained therein will, for the foreseeable future, be founded on the studies and the edition presented in these two volumes.

Beyond this, Jiroušková's discussion of routes of transmission and the uses of these texts within the context of the broader analysis of the growth of the cult of Óláfr are also hugely valuable, if less conclusive than the other material presented here. She is faced with an odd conundrum with regard to the origins of the texts: the miracles seem to be linked more closely to the archbishopric of Nidaros, but there are no manuscripts of the Passio with any good connections to Norway. The author nevertheless argues for a Norwegian provenance for this text, which is plausible, but not necessarily compelling. Her detailed studies of the other sources for the cult in Norway, as well as her suggestion that the Norwegian laws had an influence on the miracle narratives are, however, extremely useful and certainly enrich our knowledge of the spread and significance of this cult in Norway and Scandinavia more broadly. Her painstaking accounts of the ways in which the narratives and manuscripts could have travelled are similarly dense in information, but it is in the nature of things that there is little that is truly amenable to proof. Nevertheless, once again, the care and comprehensiveness with which Jiroušková examines the evidence are not only testament to a great deal of industry and learning, but will also make this work the first resource to turn to for anyone interested in the cult of Óláfr (or the uses of hagiography more generally), both within medieval Scandinavia and those regions with which Scandinavia was in close contact. This contact, finally, is another crucial point implicit throughout the whole book: the range of evidence discussed here demonstrates beyond the scope of doubt the intimate cultural ties obtaining between Norway and other parts of Scandinavia; and between Scandinavia and England, France, and Germany--and not just during the so-called "viking age," but through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at least, and in the case of the Baltic ports, through to the fifteenth century. Medieval Scandinavia was very much a part of Latin Christian Europe--and the narrative and liturgical traditions concerning its most famous saint are perhaps the most outstanding, though by no means only, example of how this was the case.

These volumes deliver everything that the very best German Habilitationsschrift ought to. They are thorough and comprehensive; they are meticulous with regard to every detail; they are the product of a great deal of philological skill and literary expertise and insight; and, in addition, they are not just excellent works of medieval Latin philology (to which field the author's home department and the book series in which they are published belong), but also highly informative (albeit, and probably inevitably, to a certain extent inconclusive) studies of religious, cultural, and liturgical history to which a massive amount of erudition has been brought to bear, and without which anyone with the remotest interest in the many subjects covered within these volumes will not be able to do serious scholarship.

Like many of us, I have become accustomed to complaining about the high price of Brill publications (mine included), but this one certainly delivers quite a bang for your buck. Every dollar is worth it, and given the sheer bulk of this work (and the industry that went into producing it), I have to say what I never thought I would regarding a Brill book: even at this price it's almost a bargain, especially if you consider that its value is likely to outlive most of our active lives as scholars. One can only hope that the tradition of scholarship from which this work stems can be kept alive in Germany, and perhaps that the example of a younger generation of scholars such as Jiroušková might give us some courage and incentive to maintain the institutions and skills necessary for this sort of erudition in the English-speaking world as well.

Copyright (c) 2016 Shami Ghosh

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