16.05.17, Boulton, Sacred Fictions of Medieval France

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Mary Dzon

The Medieval Review 16.05.17

Boulton, Maureen Barry McCann. Sacred Fictions of Medieval France: Narrative Theology in the Lives of Christ and the Virgin, 1150-1500. Gallica, 38. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. pp. x, 380. ISBN: 978-1-843-84414-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mary Dzon
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Maureen Boulton provides an extremely informative and rich study of an important, though largely overlooked, group of medieval French texts and their readers in this selective yet extensive and detailed survey of Old and Middle French as well as Occitan literary works focusing, in some way, on the life of Jesus or Mary, or both. Such texts are referred to as "lives,'' a term that, for Boulton, is ostensibly much more extensive than what other scholars mean by "Lives of Christ." [1] Boulton's discussions and descriptions of over forty texts (roughly 40% of the material she has uncovered in archives) and her comprehensive listing (in a catalogue-like appendix) [2] of the manuscripts in which they are contained lay the groundwork for many years of further study in this fascinating field of religious literature, which has many interconnections with the secular literature of the time.

At the beginning of her book, Boulton sketches out some of the recent and noteworthy studies of later medieval piety and religious literature to introduce her overview of what she calls "sacred'' or ''pious fictions" (4, 19). Placing her book in the tradition of literary scholars who have explored the overlap between secular and religious texts and have pondered the manner in which vernacular texts engage in theology, Boulton explains how medieval French authors, using New Testament stories and apocryphal materials about Jesus and Mary, created innovative narratives that would capture the attention of their often lay audiences and would also instruct them in both faith and mores. To characterize these works in the broadest sense, she proposes the term "narrative theology" (5) as an alternative to Barbara Newman's "imaginative theology," since, in Boulton's view, pious biographical texts are not as ambitious as the works that Newman has studied. The phrase "pastoral theology" (which Newman, for example, mentions when discussing different types of theology) might seem applicable here, [3] especially given that, in the introduction, Boulton emphasizes that the texts in question deal with doctrinal issues, specifically, both official and popular beliefs concerning Jesus and his mother. These include, on the one hand, beliefs about Christ's dual nature (arguably apparent even during his childhood) and his Descent into Hell and, on the other, Mary's perpetual virginity and her Assumption. Yet Boulton does not speak of her works as a type of pastoralia, probably because, while the latter term often refers to straightforward catechetical teaching, she sees much literary value and creativity in the sacred biographies, and believes their authors consciously competed with secular writers of fiction, and rather successfully at that.

Boulton explains how the earlier medieval French authors of sacred biography employed the genres of epic and romance and seemed more interested in entertainment, while the later authors, who adopted the forms of allegory, sermon, and meditation, shifted their readers' attention from more action-packed narratives, to texts that focused more on reflection, inward visualization, and a personal, emotional involvement with the characters and events in question. On the late end of the spectrum, fifteenth-century authors Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan, in their respective texts on the Passion, are highly praised for managing to convey "the immediacy of religious truth" (6), yet all the authors Boulton discusses, in their own distinctive ways, seem to have been effective in making "theological abstractions" (5, here quoting Judith Davis) take more concrete form through the creative appropriation of literary techniques and genres. Towards the very beginning of her book, Boulton underscores the commonality of her pious biographers (lay and clerical writers, both of whom ultimately sought to lead their audiences to salvation): "They combined the religious truths of Christianity (otherwise set out in less accessible works) with apocryphal stories translated from Latin, and recast them in the narrative modes of secular literature to appeal to audiences used to lighter fare" (7-8). As the individual chapters make clear, far from being simplistic biblical paraphrases that harmonize the Gospels into a smooth narrative, the pious biographers studied here invested much artistic skill in creating engaging works of fiction that they hoped would delightfully and memorably transmit valuable truths as well as create proper dispositions in their audiences.

Boulton conveniently and also persuasively organizes her numerous texts into five broad generic categories, which highlight the different aims and techniques of the multiple sacred biographies she has chosen to include. By paying close attention in each chapter to the manuscript transmission of specific texts as well as to their formal features, Boulton convincingly argues that medieval audiences' responses to related New Testament characters and stories, and even to basically the same texts, would have varied significantly, depending upon the codicological characteristics and contents of specific manuscripts.

Chapter 1 focuses on sacred narratives that resemble medieval French romances by virtue of certain distinctive features, namely, the use of octosyllabic couplets, the pretension of relying on older Latin sources, a preoccupation with lineage and genealogy, and an emphasis upon dialogue, rhetorical embellishment, marvels, courtliness, and digressive adventures. The earliest of her pious biographers, the Norman author Wace, composed the Conception Nostre Dame before the middle of the twelfth century. This work falls into this category, as does the early thirteenth-century Histoire de Marie et de Jésus. Whereas the Conception deals with Mary's mother Anne, who is said to have been of noble lineage, and emphasizes God's blessings upon Mary's pious parents as well as her own sinlessness from the very beginning of her existence, the Histoire goes back even further to Mary's grandfather Fanuel, who supposedly became pregnant in his thigh by inhaling the scent of a flower. The latter poem embellishes the story of the Holy Family's life together by recounting a number of legendary tales, such as how the deformed woman Anastasia, who came to help Mary at the Nativity, was suddenly and miraculously equipped with hands (which she had lacked), and how the son of the good thief Dismas, who offered the Holy Family hospitality, was miraculously cured by Mary.

By contrast, the narrator of the Passion des Jongleurs explicitly rejects Jesus' childhood miracles as lies, and adheres more closely to the storyline of the canonical gospels. Reflective of its romance sensibility, the text emphasizes the nobility of Jesus and the knightliness of his associates, an emphasis likewise found in Jehan de Venette's fourteenth-century L'Histoire des Trois Maries. According to Boulton, the attention given to relics and pilgrimage in Jehan's text is a further indication of its appeal to a noble audience. Yet the fact that this text (as well as most of the others considered in this chapter and, in fact, throughout the book) was transmitted in both luxurious and humbler manuscripts, suggests that the readership of such literature was quite broad, including various social strata, religious states, and both genders.

In this chapter on romance-like biographies, Boulton demonstrates the tendency of compilers to accumulate related texts into what may be considered cycles (a practice, I would add, that is similarly seen in Latin manuscripts containing apocryphal texts) [4] and to alter existing texts and splice them with others to create longer narratives that extended both backwards and forwards in time. Whereas a modern critic may regard such significant reshaping on the part of compilers as a sign that such religious texts were not highly esteemed, Boulton instead sees such creative repurposing of pious biographies as evidence of their substantial appeal to a range of readers.

In chapter 2, Boulton focuses on what she calls "sacred epics," that is, pious biographies that imitate the chanson de geste in a few common ways: by using stanzas (or laisses); by exhibiting an oral quality, specifically, by repeatedly addressing the audience; and by celebrating the truths of the past, in order to solidify the Christian community of the present. Such narratives also frequently channel the traditional militaristic spirit of the epic into contention against Jewish characters within the narrative; at other times, this spirit is transformed into the valorization of heroic suffering. The earliest of the pious biographies belonging in this category is the late twelfth-century Bible of Herman of Valenciennes, which offers what Boulton calls a "double life" of Mary and Jesus (82). She also discusses the Venjance Nostre Seigneur, dating to around the turn of the thirteenth century. Although she concedes that it is "obviously not a life of Christ" (110), it is nevertheless closely affiliated with the life of Christ since the events it relates are presented as an immediate and violent follow-up to the Passion. Here the epic's traditional emphasis upon battles can be seen in the derogatory portrayal of the Jews' ineffectiveness at combat when the Romans attack and destroy the city of Jerusalem. After discussing three Franco-Italian poems on the Passion, which likewise denigrate Jewish characters, Boulton concludes this chapter by implying that the biographers who imitated epics were not so "pious" after all since they overlooked the Christian injunction to forgiveness, by catering to a moral weakness of their audience: contemporary noblemen's warrior-like thirst for vengeance.

Chapter 3 illustrates the attractiveness of texts with allegorical features or central structures that cast an intriguing new light on familiar tales about Jesus and Mary from the canonical gospels. According to Boulton, the "double vision" (142) of such texts would have led a medieval reader to meditative prayer and reflection, since interpretative reading and imaginative engagement with the unexpected slow the reader's pace. The earliest of the texts considered here is John of Howden's Rossignos dedicated to Queen Eleanor of Provence, an Anglo-Norman redaction of his own Latin Philomena, a meditative poem centered on the metaphorical assimilation of the vocal nightingale to the suffering lover Jesus Christ, who sang before his death when he offered the first Mass. This chapter treats another text centered on love: Matfre Ermengaud's late-thirteenth century Le Breviari d'amor, an Occitan encyclopedia organized according to an allegorical "tree of love." In this text, the lives of Mary and Jesus furnish opportunities for strengthening orthodox Christian belief against its heretical foes, at the same time as Christ's sufferings are recalled in order to excite love.

The most substantial biography considered in this chapter is undoubtedly Guillaume de Digulleville's Le Pelerinage Jhesuscrist, the third work in the Cistercian author's allegorical trilogy of dream-visions focused on a spiritual quest. Personified characters are central to this narrative, which also makes ample use of dialogue. Strikingly, Jesus' foster-father Joseph, who usually appears in the background in other texts, here plays much more of a leading role, explaining to Ignorance, for example, why it was fitting for the baby Jesus to flee into Egypt: Jesus' time for battle had not yet come. This text, which has received much less scholarly attention than the other two Pelerinage texts, was highly prized by royal and noble readers who often commissioned illustrated copies, as well as by clerics who at times took to annotating it.

This chapter closes with Jean Henry's La Gesine de Nostre Dame, a fifteenth-century allegorical prose meditation for the Duchess of Bourbon--a text that does much with Luke's brief account of Christ's birth, while ignoring the embellishments derived from the apocryphal infancy narratives (such as the additions of a great light and the arrival of midwives). The clerical author cleverly manages to expand upon this event in a new way, by having the pilgrim-narrator who travels to the scene critique it in terms of courtly standards, and by having learned theologian-personifications (like Bernard of Clairvaux) express the wonders of the Nativity, such as the baby Jesus being clothed in paltry swaddling bands rather than miniver.

Boulton's fourth chapter focuses on two late medieval universal chronicles that cover the life of Christ. She begins by considering some earlier material: thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscript compilations that have a significant historical element that, she claims, would have altered the reading of the texts relating to Christ's life also contained therein. In particular, she suggests that the historical texts pertaining to the Crusades as well as materials about the geography of the Holy Land would have resonated powerfully with the devotional works relating to Jesus and Mary. Boulton then turns to the fourteenth-century universal chronicle in prose of Jean d'Outremeuse, Ly Myreur des Histors, which, surprisingly, includes many apocryphal and other pious legends, such as the story about the Christ Child suspended on a sunbeam (found in the Évangile de l'Enfance). Concerned with precision, as we would expect of a chronicler, Jean goes so far as to date many of the non-canonical events of Jesus' life. He also mentions the whereabouts of relics pertaining to Jesus' time on earth, like the hay at Bethlehem.

Speaking in general terms, Boulton says that the historical context of such legends would have had the effect of emphasizing their historicity. Furthermore, she observes that medieval authors and readers expected more entertainment value and didacticism from their history books than we do from ours, which may imply that the historicity of a given legendary event was really not of the greatest concern to contemporaries after all. Didacticism is still at play in Jean Mansel's La Fleur des Histoires, which was written around the middle of the fifteenth century by an administrator at the Burgundian court. The Life of Christ section in the second redaction of this chronicle, which sandwiches pagan history between accounts of Old and New Testament history, seems merely informative, though it does include some embellishments to the Passion that aim at moving the reader's emotions. On the whole, this chronicle seeks to root Christ's life in historical events, which medieval readers, attuned to the liturgy, might not have always kept in mind.

Chapter 5 surveys texts of affective devotion that clearly seek to elicit emotional reactions, as well as intellectual reflection, from imaginative recreations of Jesus' Passion or of his entire life. Readers are instructed in how to visualize the events of the past with their inner eye and also how to work sequentially through a series of imaginative events, usually by borrowing the structure afforded by the days of the week or the liturgical hours of prayer originally practiced by monks. A larger number of these texts are translations or adaptations of Latin texts, such as the Livre doré de la Vie de Nostre Seigneur Jhesucrist of Jean Galopes, a translation of the Pseudo-Bonaventuran Meditationes vitae Christi made around 1420 for Henry V. Interestingly, whereas devout Christians in fifteenth-century England had at their disposal, in terms of a full English translation of a large-scale Latin Vita Christi, only Nicholas Love's redaction of the Meditationes, [5] elite French readers with substantial means had two other Vita Christi translations to choose from, besides that of Galopes: Jean Aubert's La Vie du Crist en sept parties, a translation of the Vita Christi by Michael of Massa commissioned by Philip the Good, and Guillaume le Menand's La Grant Vie de Jhesucrist, a translation of Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Christi dedicated to Charles VIII. [6] Here Boulton also discusses original works of affective devotion, such as Martial d'Auvergne's Les Matines de la Vierge. Using a French translation of Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum historiale as a source, Martial constructs an innovative Life of Mary in verse that blends legend, personal reflection, and lyricism.

All in all, Boulton has definitely proved her point that the sacred biographies of Jesus and Mary in medieval French constituted "a varied and vibrant form of literature that adopted the forms and techniques of secular literature with great enthusiasm" (19). Her argument is further reinforced by the epilogue, which discusses how vernacular texts from the early end of her study's chronological spectrum were happily adapted by later French authors, despite the challenges posed by linguistic and dialectal differences, and how many of the pious biographies found their way into print, sometimes with multiple editions in the sixteenth century alone. One of the most striking features of the literature surveyed in this book is the textual instability of many narratives, which suggests that even as medieval French authors updated centuries-old Latin stories about Jesus and Mary--often dressing them in more modern garb--individual French authors and compilers felt free to select from and adapt earlier French texts as they saw fit, in their efforts to entertain, to instruct, and possibly also to make narratives for the love of tale-telling itself. As mentioned above, Boulton has given scholars and students of medieval literature and devotional culture an extremely useful and readable guidebook for further exploration in the field of medieval religious literature. Her book certainly strikes a pleasing balance between sketching out several compelling trajectories taken by groups of sacred biographers and giving readers a sense of the attraction, charm, and subtlety of specific texts.

While this book is incredibly well organized and packed with an abundance of excellent insights, interesting passages from primary sources, and useful scholarly information (such as shelfmarks, editions, dates of texts, and facts about authors, addressees, and book owners), there are unfortunately no illustrations included, except for one on the cover (a miniature illustrating a Passion meditation by Jean Mielot). There are also a few (though hardly noticeable) typographical errors that appear in the body and notes. These include: "incurables" for "incunables" (275, n. 135); the misspelling of Historia scholastica twice (33 and 44) and of Bestul twice (72, n. 145 and 339); the mistranscription of the Latin "ne quis" as "ne equis" (33, n. 44); the omission of a shelfmark number (56, n. 108); and the disappearance, without ellipses, of part of a Latin quotation (26-27, n. 25). I would also note that the discussion of apocryphal Latin sources used by French biographers (11) makes it seem as if the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew postdated the De nativitate sanctae Mariae. The latter, which was probably composed sometime in the late ninth or tenth century, was actually an abridged reworking of the earlier (probably early seventh-century) Pseudo-Matthew. [7] Though Vincent of Beauvais and Jacobus de Voragine get mentioned a couple of times in the book, one wonders whether further attention should have been given to their Latin compilations (respectively, the Speculum historiale and the Legenda aurea) as transmitters of the apocrypha. Lastly, it is confusing that Mary's conception is referred to as "sinless" (11) and later on, also as "sexless," even though Wace, following the Latin De nativitate, says nothing about Mary's parents having conceived her contrary to the natural method. The greeting of Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gate, often with an affectionate kiss, after their prolonged separation from each other due to the shame of their childlessness, does not imply that Mary was conceived orally by a kiss; most texts, including Wace, [8] imply that Mary was conceived soon after her parents returned home.



1. For an older, though still useful consideration of the "Life of Christ" genre, see Elizabeth Salter, Nicholas Love's "Myrrour of the Blessed Lyf of Jesu Christ" (Analecta Cartusiana, 10; Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974), ch. 2.

2. Because of their joint focus on religious texts, Boulton's appendix is similar to the catalogue of medieval Latin Passion narratives provided in Thomas H. Bestul's Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). Boulton's list of sacred biographies is also analogous to James H. Morey, Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature (Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 331-343.

3. Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 295.

4. E.g., Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson D. 1236, no. 238, in Zbigniew Izydorczyk, Manuscripts of the "Evangelium Nicodemi": A Census (Sudsidia Mediaevalia, 21; Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1993), 124.

5. On related texts, see, e.g., Ian R. Johnson and Allan F. Westphall, eds., The Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ: Exploring the Middle English Tradition (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).

6. Salter, Nicholas Love's "Myrrour", 67, notes a ca. 1500 English adaptation of Ludoph's Vita, based on Menand's translation of the latter. Cf. Morey, Book and Verse, 335.

7. Rita Beyers, "Introduction générale aux deux textes édités," in Libri de nativitate Mariae, eds. Jan Gijsel and Rita Beyers, Pseudo-Matthaei Evangelium (CCSA, 9; Turnhout: Brepols, 1997), 13, 21. Elsewhere, Beyers notes the difficulty of dating both works, "The Transmission of Marian Apocrypha in the Latin Middle Ages," Apocrypha 32 (2012): 117-140, esp. 128-130, 133, 137, 139.

8. Wace, The Hagiographical Works: The "Conception Nostre Dame" and the Lives of St Margaret and St Nicholas, trans. Jean Blacker, Glyn S. Burgess, and Amy V. Ogden (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 83.

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