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17.06.04, Epstein, The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine

17.06.04, Epstein, The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine

Less of a household name than his contemporaries Aquinas and Dante, the late thirteenth-century archbishop of Genoa Jacopo da Varagine is better known in English in the Latin form Jacobus de Voragine. Although a prominent Dominican and a prolific author whose works include some seven hundred sermons, he is today almost exclusively remembered in the English-speaking world for his hagiographic masterpiece the Golden Legend. In The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine--the title of which refers to Jacopo's peculiarly Genoese pun on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25--Steven Epstein applies his expertise in the social, economic, and environmental history of medieval Genoa and the Mediterranean world to exploring the "mental world" revealed by Jacopo's works and cultural milieu.

Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the book's five chapters analyze Jacopo's sermons (ch. 1); the church feasts (ch. 2) and saints' lives (ch. 3) of the Golden Legend; and his History of Genoa, both in general terms (ch. 4) and for its unprecedented consideration of family life (ch. 5). Since only the Golden Legend has so far been translated into English, the book serves as a useful English-language introduction to the others. Throughout, Epstein analyzes Jacopo's subject matter, structure, and style as well as key themes and use of scripture. The result is the best sort of intellectual history, sharply illuminating a particular time and place through the works of a particular author. In this case, both Jacopo and his context (medieval Genoa) deserve to be better known.

Chapter 1, "The Preacher," provides an introduction to the genre of Jacopo's most prolific output: his sermons, which Epstein estimates at approximately 674 in number, most of them written during Jacopo's midlife career as a prominent Dominican preacher and administrator (12-13). These are in Latin, each about ten minutes long; they are generic models intended for Jacopo's fellow preachers, whom he imagined would translate, expand upon, and otherwise repurpose them for particular audiences. They are consciously generic because originality was not generally considered a homiletic virtue, and Jacopo wanted them to be relevant to a broad audience. Acknowledging the challenge of synthesizing such a large body of work, only about 15% of which exists in modern edition, Epstein first summarizes the major divisions and themes of Jacopo's sermons (those on the saints, those for Sunday preaching, those for Lent, and those on the Virgin). He then moves to a close analysis of "one manageable collection," the ninety-eight paired Lenten sermons, an overview of which is followed by a close analysis of Jacopo's two sermons on John 8:1-3, the episode of the Pharisees and the adulterous woman. Epstein notes the contrast between the first sermon's focus on adultery and the second sermon's focus on humility and the Virgin. (Also, while the adulterous woman gets off with simple contrition, Jacopo notes that his Genoese audience cannot expect forgiveness without penance.) The rest of the chapter focuses on Jacopo's use of his sources, from classical authorities to biblical citations. Epstein's approach here is methodical, analyzing the New Testament verses most often cited in the Lenten sermons, and then looking more closely at Jacopo's citations from the First Epistle of John. The chapter closes with general reflections on Jacopo's attitudes toward penitence and humility and the nature of sin (especially adultery and usury), as well as Jews, Muslims, and slavery.

Chapters 2 and 3 turn to Jacopo's best-known work, the Golden Legend, crediting Jacopo with the overall vision of the work while seeking to "disentangle what he decanted or reprocessed from the writings of others, and what was truly original about his book" (66). Epstein notes that while the Golden Legend is best known for its hagiographical material, as a collection of saints' lives, it is actually focused on the feasts of the church. This is the subject of chapter 2 ("Holy Days"), which largely consists of close readings of Jacopo's chapters on these feasts, beginning with Advent and proceeding through major feasts such as Christmas and Easter but also incorporating those less well known today such as the Circumcision, Septuagesima, the Discovery of the Holy Cross, the Litanies, and All Souls. Epstein uses these to draw out themes in which Jacopo was particularly interested--not only chronology, cosmology, and the cults of the saints, but also martyrdom, suicide, and family life--and what he thought about them. Chapter 3 ("Saintly People") then turns to the saintly feasts of the Golden Legend (116). Epstein describes much of Jacopo's work in these chapters as "the ordinary toil of an industrious compiler," but again notes that these narratives provided frameworks within which Jacopo could develop more original ideas. Here Epstein's goal is to bring out "the distinctive and revealing aspects of Jacopo's work and his original contributions to standard narratives" (117). He then analyzes three groups of lives: first, those of the evangelists and four key biblical figures (the Archangel Michael, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and Paul) for Jacopo's views on sacred history and the early church; second, major theologians (Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bernard of Clairvaux) for the history of theology; and third, recent saints (Dominic, Francis, Peter Martyr, and Elizabeth of Hungary) for Jacopo's views on his own world. Like chapter 1, chapter 3 closes with "Clues about Jacopo's Thinking" on topics such as miracles, women, and natural disasters.

The last two chapters consider Jacopo's History of Genoa. While the design of the History draws heavily on universal and local histories such as Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards, as well as the medieval annalistic tradition, which inspired so many civic chronicles of medieval Italy, Jacopo mixes and recombines their elements into a new twelve-part thematic structure. Epstein states emphatically, "I do not think it is possible to overemphasize the originality of this plan, which seems to be Jacopo's own and was his most important decision as a historian" (171). His consideration of the work's overall structure and Jacopo's own statements in his prologue in chapter 4 ("Genoa's Past") are followed, as in earlier chapters, by thematic close readings of Jacopo's work with regard to topics such as heresy, the Jews, religion and holy objects, government, and citizenship. (The reappearance of the same themes in different parts of the book can seem a little abrupt at times, but it also reinforces the idea that Jacopo's own, relatively consistent ideas and values underlie his various works.)

These themes segue into chapter 5, "Genoa's Own Historian," the first half of which considers "the remarkable ninth section of Jacopo's chronicle" concerning family matters. Epstein argues that "Jacopo's analysis here makes him in my view the father of social history" (211)--in other words, that Jacopo's great original contribution is to integrate a profound interest in marriage and family life (visible in his sermons) into a narrative structure (historiography) that usually privileged war, politics, and other concerns of male public life. He therefore gives detailed attention to relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. While his views are undeniably patriarchal (and in places misogynistic), "he is an excellent, if biased, witness to kinship and family life in Genoa" (212). The second half of chapter 5 deals with Jacopo as a historian--the accuracy (or otherwise) of his facts, and the brief account of his own life that he provides.

The book concludes with an epilogue that places Jacopo's late Marian sermons within a broader consideration of intent and audience: "as a preacher, hagiographer, and historian, Jacopo hoped his listeners and readers would apply what they learned from him to the duties of being a citizen, a member of a family, and a Christian" (270). As Epstein's goal is to illuminate the world as perceived by Jacopo and his audience, contextualization is the analytical core of his study. Most helpful here is how the book considers all of Jacopo's major works, thereby reducing the siloed effects of considering any one of them--sermons, Golden Legend, or History of Genoa--in isolation. Epstein digs deep into Jacopo's thought processes, analyzing what he read and works that influenced him; his remarks on Jacopo's extensive but relatively conservative reading habits and his paramount goal of preacher training are therefore enlightening. Most interesting, perhaps, are Epstein's reflections on Jacopo's originality, which demonstrate the fascinating--and somewhat alien to the modern reader--authorial choices of a keenly insightful thinker within an intellectual milieu in which originality was not especially valued.

If Epstein's Jacopo is an "exemplar of the Genoese scholastic mind" (275), and it is useful to consider what a scholastic version of a Genoese mind looks like, it is perhaps even more instructive to consider what a Genoese version of a scholastic mind looks like. Since Jacopo is best (and often only) known in the English-speaking world as the author of the Golden Legend, Epstein's conscious contextualization of the author and his presumed audience within their Genoese environment is the book's great contribution. Here Epstein's career-long familiarity with medieval Genoa--from Wills and Wealth (1984), to Genoa & the Genoese (1996, and still the only major monograph in English on medieval Genoa)--provides an unmatched introduction to the world and individual that produced the Golden Legend. In so doing, it reminds us that "medieval bestsellers" weren't necessarily conceptualized that way, and that however widespread and influential they later came to be, the classic texts that we often think of as belonging to the entire medieval world actually had very particular, idiosyncratic historical moments of origin.

The Talents of Jacopo da Varagine will therefore be useful not only to specialists on medieval Genoa, but also to a broad range of scholars interested in medieval religious practice, homiletics, the mendicant orders, the institutional church, medieval historiography, and scholastic thought--in particular, those seeking a better understanding of the Golden Legend and its author. I recently used chapter 1 ("The Preacher") to good effect as part of a classroom discussion of medieval urban religion. The book is especially helpful for the introduction it provides--either in summary or direct translation--to the large portion of Jacopo's works that are not presently available in modern edition and/or English translation. Epstein has done medievalists a signal service by beginning to close the gap between the heavily-studied Golden Legend and its understudied author.