18.10.14, Grange, Saints and Monsters in Medieval French and Occitan Literature

Main Article Content

Elizabeth A. Wiedenheft

The Medieval Review 18.10.14

Grange, Huw. Saints and Monsters in Medieval French and Occitan Literature: Sublme and Abject Bodies. Research Monographs in French Studies. Cambridge: Legenda, 2017. pp. ix, 128. ISBN: 978-1-781884-89-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Wiedenheft
University of Nottingham
uazeaw@nottingham.ac.uk

In Saints and Monsters, Huw Grange offers us a book that is at times beautifully rendered, with a complicated argument that Grange picks apart and explains in a way that is wonderful to behold. At other times, however, the book is so dense and Grange's argument so nuanced that the reader loses focus and risks turning into one of the beasts Grange is examining. It is a good thing, then, that the book is about the boundaries between the sublime and the abject, between extraordinary beauty and astonishing beastliness, as readers may often find themselves on the border as well, this time between understanding and incomprehension.

Grange analyzes French and Occitan vernacular hagiographies from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries; particular attention is paid to how authors represented saints' bodies. The book offers discussions on the relationship between Latin and vernacular hagiographies, the application of texts in material and haptic culture, and advances nuanced arguments using a variety of theoretical frameworks. Each of the four chapters forms a vignette on a particular theme, using each saint's story to explore a different topic. For example, discussions of St Margaret of Antioch focus on how female saints could both fully inhabit and exhibit their gender while also transcending it; the discussion of St George of Cappadocia turns this focus to race relations; St Honorat is used to explore medieval conceptions of time; and the discussion of St Enimia focuses on the use of landscapes and place to construct cultural frameworks of "otherness." Tying it all together is a focus on the body and transgression, in the ability of the saints to cross boundaries and occupy zones that are forever in the in-between: in between life and death, the miraculous and the ordinary, the extraordinary and the wretched.

Another strength of Grange's seems to be his writing style, which is, especially in his introductions, engaging and charming. The introduction to the book begins with a gripping (and surprising) comparison between medieval saints' lives and modern comic books, where saints and their bodies are compared to the extraordinary and sometimes magically-modified bodies of today's superheroes. The idea does much to ground the analysis that follows in a relatable way, as Grange is concerned throughout to highlight the extraordinary ways that the holy bodies of the saints and their villains (in this case dragons, or sometimes the devil in the form of a dragon) were manifested by late medieval authors as being either "sublime" or "abject", terms that he adapts from the works of Slavoj Zizek and Julia Kristeva, respectively.

Grange seeks to draw "attention to the discursive production of the body" and to "situate extraordinary bodies in relation to the body qua body of bodies," i.e. the community or the audience reading the manuscripts. This idea of those within and those outside of the texts permeates his argument, and helps him to analyse his manuscripts for meaning both within their own narrative and in their meaning for their audiences. As both the "sublime" and the "abject" are socially constructed concepts, it is useful that Grange seeks to understand their meaning both within the manuscripts that he analyses, as well as their meaning to medieval audiences who may have read these texts. Sublime bodies, according to Zizek, inhabit a "seemingly uninhabitable symbolic space between 'symbolic' death (death in the eyes of society) and 'real' death (biological death)" (6).

Contrasting this theory of the sublime saint's body is the "abject" body of the villain: in this case, the dragon. The notion of the "abject" object is drawn from Julia Kristeva, where it is "the mirror image" of the sublime (7). The abject body is one that has been cast away, "produced by an arbitrarily drawn line" by societal conventions that makes it extraordinary through its refusal to adhere to those conventions and in its embrace of cultural taboos.

Grange's theoretical framework, while complex, does much to ground his analysis, and is (for the most part) well done. As he writes, the sublime body "acts as the guarantor of the individual's subjectivity but must nonetheless be socially sanctioned (in the sense of approved): it is simultaneously the part-object expected to preserve bodily integrity and/or the other that promises to oversee the solidarity of the collective body. Kristeva's abject, meanwhile [...] must be socially sanctioned in a different sense (that is, penalized): it is the part-object that undermines bodily integrity and/or the social minority that menaces the cohesiveness of society" (8). This dynamic, between the collective and cohesive and the destructive and strange, maps quite nicely onto the four saints' lives that Grange chooses to explore, all of which feature the saint facing off against a dragon, that symbolic menace that both binds communities together and tears them apart, depending on the context.

Chapters 1 and 2 are based on the sublime/abject dichotomy more heavily than chapters 3 and 4. In the first chapter, Grange focuses his attention on St Margaret of Antioch, who, as the virgin patron saint of childbirth, is well-placed for more scholarly analysis. It is also the position of her manuscripts, however, in "haptic memory" that Grange does well to call attention to. The biographies of St Margaret were often used as contact relics in the prevention of house fires and during childbirth, promising safety to mother and child if touched during the birthing process. As Grange writes, "if ever there was a saint's life in need of studying in its manuscript context, then, it is that of St Margaret," and I think other scholars would tend to agree with him (14). It is a shame, however, that the discussion of these manuscripts in haptic culture is limited to the final section of the chapter; instead, the chapter is devoted to a thorough analysis of how St Margaret's body appears in French and Occitan hagiographies by turns abject, sublime, gendered, transcending its gender, virgin, and mother, all at the same time.

Chapter 2 sees Grange turning his focus to the story of St George of Cappadocia and his dragon. Considering current debates in medieval studies on the use of the medieval by right-wing fundamentalist groups, Grange's discussion of race in this chapter is timely and useful. As he writes, the chapter "explores the role of strangers in the formation of community"; "Strangers are not all the same," he writes, and "the boundary between objects (to be converted) and abjects (to be annihilated) is in flux" throughout the vernacular manuscripts of St George (42).

Chapter 3 was by far the strongest chapter of the book, as its application of queer theory advances Grange's argument with outstanding results. Beginning with an engaging story of the Provencal town of Draguignan, named after the event where St Honorat defeated a pair of dragons, Grange is here in his element. Contrasting the dragon as friend with the dragon as enemy, he points out the transgressive qualities of the beast throughout the vernacular versions of St Honorat's story, where the dragon is by turns beneficent and maleficent, and even saint-like, with its bones displayed as if they were relics (67). Also particularly satisfying for historians is the discussion of historical anachronisms in the manuscripts, or, as Grange more correctly terms them, "asynchronies," which are the acts of the saint playing out in multiple time zones simultaneously. This chapter analyzes how Raimon Feraut's Occitan verse life of St Honorat has been (quite mistakenly) construed as anachronistic, when in fact it more likely demonstrates that Feraut was operating with a different understanding of time. As Grange asserts, the application of queer genealogies "function to 'straighten out' ancestral genealogies in the temporal sphere (both within the text and outside of it)" (11). Finally, Chapter 4 shows Grange focusing his theoretical lens on Lacan's zone entre-deux-morts, or, as he puts it, "the space supposedly beyond representation where sublime and abject creatures eke out their impossible existences" (11). Grange here analyzes the use of wilderness to map out the "extraordinary" aspects of the saints' body in late medieval vernacular hagiography, to satisfying results.

While most of the book sees Grange handle his material adroitly, there are a couple of flaws that hold him back from creating a truly outstanding monograph. The first of these flaws is best described by the ambitious level of terrain covered in the monograph. The first chapter alone considers approximately forty manuscripts, most of which are identified only by their manuscript or cataloguing number (i.e. BHL, BnF, etc.) And while I would not deny Grange's expertise with these, it can be confusing to the reader as he moves quickly from one text to another. This is compounded by the fact that not enough of the manuscripts are contextualised in the text (this is relegated to appendices that appear at the end of the first two chapters). In general, differences in the manuscripts by decade or even by century are, while mentioned in the text, not satisfactorily analysed, especially when considering the possible effects of these differences on their audience. Grange might have benefitted from having more space to explore this territory in the detail that it deserves, and with the nuance that it deserves. It is, after all, a very short monograph; more space might have given Grange room to fully realise his ambition.

Overall, Saints and Monsters is a promising monograph, with a nuanced and complicated argument. Grange's use of a variety of theoretical frameworks functions very well, for the most part, and could be useful for scholars and students alike.

Article Details

Section
Reviews