19.04.04 Krötzl/ Katajala-Peltomaa, eds., Miracles in Medieval Canonization Processes

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Rachel Koopmans

The Medieval Review 19.04.04

Krötzl, Christian, and Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, eds. . Miracles in Medieval Canonization Processes Structures, Functions, and Methodologies. International Medieval Research . Turnhout Belgium: Brepols, 2018. pp. ix, 290. ISBN: 978-2503-57313-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Rachel Koopmans
York University, Toronto

As the editors of this volume note, scholars working on medieval canonization processes and miracle collections have become increasingly aware of the critical importance of considering how such texts were compiled and the functions they were meant to serve. It is no longer good enough to cherry-pick stories out of such texts without doing any contextual analysis and with no methodological framework in mind. With its introduction's focus on structures, functions, and methodologies, therefore, this volume marks a way-stage in the serious scholarly study of miracle stories--a study that is still quite young, compared to other genres and categories of medieval texts. The workshop and conference that generated this volume took place in 2012 and 2013, and unfortunately most of the bibliographies included with the essays have little or no citation of items published after 2013. Still, a very wide range of processes and collections from across the European continent are discussed by the contributors to this volume, and a number of the essays very successfully demonstrate how careful attention to structure and function can lead to important new insights about the larger world in which these texts were made.

The volume begins with a meditation on paradoxes and changes within canonization and inquisitorial processes by Gábor Klaniczay. His chapter is focused on the processes for Elizabeth of Hungary (Elizabeth of Thuringia) and Margaret of Hungary, the subjects of Klaniczay's previously published work, along with brief reflections on the processes for Francis of Assisi and Thomas of Cantilupe. Next is a particularly strong essay by Laura Ackerman Smoller entitled "Choosing Miracles for Vincent Ferrer." Smoller demonstrates that a saint's promoters could shape a saint's portrait not just by selecting certain incidents in a saint's life to highlight, but also, importantly, in their choices of which posthumous miracles to emphasize. Smoller examines such choices at three stages within the cult of Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419), beginning with the surviving canonization inquests. There are three of these, and Smoller shows how each was conducted differently and resulted in different types of miracles being stressed. Next she looks at the evaluation of Ferrer's case at the curia. This phase is more difficult to analyze due to scanty source material, but Smoller nevertheless shows that certain miracles carried more weight than others. Finally, she looks at three 15th century vitae written after Ferrer's canonization (in 1455). She shows that here, too, "each author created his own portrait of the new Dominican saint, picking a different set of miracles to reinforce his portrayal" (92).

In demonstrating how varied were the strategies towards, and selection of, posthumous miracles by promoters of this single saint's cult, Smoller's larger point is to argue for a more expansive view of canonization processes conducted after the conclusion of the Schism. Following André Vauchez's characterization, processes are supposed to have been more strictly controlled by the curia in this period, with more weight being given to the saint's life rather than to his or her miracles. Smoller decisively proves, however, that this was a far more "free-wheeling world," with much more emphasis being given to miracles, than such generalizations would suggest.

Next in the volume is Letizia Pellegrini's article on another saint canonized in the mid-fifteenth century, Bernardino of Siena (d. 1444, canonized 1450). Pellegrini too demonstrates the variety of approaches taken to posthumous miracles both in the surviving canonization processes and in other collections compiled alongside the official inquests. Pellegrini also uncovers geographical differences in the ways miracles were investigated and reported, and shows how, "in the various forms of miracle collecting, we can also see a reflection of the web of relationships between different institutions that supported the candidate" (120).

The next two essays address miracle collections and canonization processes in Scandinavia. Anders Fröjmark's contribution, "Telling the Miracle: The Meeting between Pilgrim and Scribe as Reflected in Swedish Miracle Collections," begins with a discussion of the texts surviving for four Swedish saints (Eric of Uppsala, Birgitta of Sweden, Bishop Nils Hermansson, and Katherine of Vadstena), and then scans through some of the ways in which these texts can reveal specifics about the meetings between pilgrims and the recorders of their stories, such as the venues of the pilgrim's story-telling. Christian Krötzl's thought-provoking article, "Miracula post mortem: On Function, Content, and Typological Changes," addresses a major shift in the typology of medieval miracle stories: a move from miracles said to occur at a saint's tomb (termed "shrine miracles") to a greater preponderance of those that occurred at a distance (termed "invocation" or "distance" miracles) in texts compiled in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Krötzl sees this shift in his own data set of 825 Scandinavian miracles and cites other examples as well. He rejects the notion that this shift resulted from a tightening of canonization procedures, concluding instead that it reflections a new and different kind of "appropriation" of saints into the daily life choices of individuals, a development parallel to others in the late medieval period such what he terms "the democratization of visual imagery." One of the most interesting parts of this article is Krötzl's discussion of lot drawing to decide which saint to invoke, a characteristic of Northern miracle stories. For a medieval individual, an invocation of a saint at a distance, whether by drawing lots or by some other method, meant that a pilgrimage was only necessary if a miracle was thought to occur. This, Krötzl notes, saved time and energy compared to a potentially fruitless journey seeking a miracle at a saint's tomb.

In "Des miracles incroyables: Doutes ou intérêt social et politique dans les procès de canonisation des XIIIe-XIVe siècles," Didier Lett examines the expressions of doubt or disbelief that can be found within the miracle stories recorded in canonization processes. He points out that such doubts do not add up to a kind of wholesale atheism, but rather reveal denial or skepticism about a specific saint's ability to perform miracles still within a Christian framework. Moreover, he shows that such expressions of disbelief are frequently tied to other political, institutional, or social allegiances, such as disagreements between members of different religious orders.

Jenni Kuuliala's essay, "Proving Misfortune, Proving Sainthood: Reconstructing Physical Impairment in Fourteenth-Century Miracle Testimonies," foreshadows her 2016 book on descriptions of children's disabilities in canonization processes. In this chapter she examines 37 stories about mobility impairments found in two canonization dossiers, the first that of St Louis of Toulouse, compiled in 1308, and the other that of St Yves of Tréguier, compiled in 1330. While this sample is restricted, Kuuliala makes interesting points about how the pain of these sufferers is discussed and how rare it is to find descriptions of "negative social or economic consequences of mobility impairments...perhaps because...they did not cause significant marginalization" (221).

In "Narrative Strategies in the Depositions: Gender, Family, and Devotion," Sari Katajala-Peltomaa analyzes two miracles that concern the lack of belief in a parent and the cure of a child, found in two fourteenth-century canonization processes. Both of these cases, one found in the process of Charles of Blois (d.1371) and the other Nicholas of Tolentino (d.1325), provide evidence of the ways in which the parents provided different narrative constructions of the reasons why their child became ill and later was cured. Katajala-Peltomaa carefully discusses why one must be wary regarding the accuracy of records of oral statements found in canonization processes, particularly for female informants and those of lesser status. She nevertheless argues that it is possible to utilize these texts for "a new investigative angle into the lived religion of the laity" (229). She makes some interesting comments along the way, pointing out, for instance, that while the interrogative methods between canonization processes and inquisition trials were in many ways similar, the former were "not coercive," and so unpleasant details were less likely to be articulated (231). Moreover, because descriptions of tears and grief were expected from witnesses describing the illness or death of a family member, such emotive details in canonization processes should not be taken as "a sign of openness or of intimacy," as they might well be by historians analyzing an inquisition trial (243). She also notes that while husbands' testimonies were generally considered to be more believable by those producing the processes, this was not always the case. Indeed, in both of the specific cases she examines, the ways in which the stories were summarized and labelled shows that, in the end, the wife's testimony weighed more heavily with the notaries than the husband's. Katajala-Peltomaa is able to "detect(s) elements in how the participants chose to construct an image of themselves" in her two rich case studies (251).

The final essay in the volume is Jonas Van Mulder's study of miracle stories with accounts of dreams, visions, or apparitions experienced by lay people. His sources are four Middle Dutch collections compiled at Marian cultic centres, namely Amersfoort, Delft, Halle, and 's-Hertogenbosch. As Van Mulder notes, despite all the attention paid to visionary experiences of the literate "spiritual elite," accounts of lay visionary experience in miracle stories have received far less attention. He discusses the ways in which such visionary experience was thought to be corroborated or authenticated; the fuzziness of the categories of "dream" vs. "vision"; and the fact that far more male visionaries are to be found in his sources than female--and moreover, that female visionary experience tended to be on behalf of family members rather than of the women themselves. The essay concludes with a description of the visionary experiences of Agnes van Ilpendam, a nun who has two visions of the Virgin after she felt guilty about how she bore an illness. This story probably does not belong in Van Mulder's essay, as Agnes was not lay, but it is nevertheless a fascinating account that deserves to be more widely known. After being ordered to write down her miracle by her superior and feeling compelled by God to describe her visions, Agnes did so, but then poured ink over the passage about her visions to blot it out. A novice was nevertheless able to read through the ink, and Agnes was eventually led to feel she should discuss her visions in full. Eventually Dirck Adamsz, the compiler of the miracle collection, investigated her miracle, and when, in the early 16th century, the governing body of Delft promulgated instructions for the festival of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, they instructed that priests should tell the public about Agnes' experiences.

The editors announce in the introduction that the volume is meant to be a "comprehensive methodological analysis of miracle collections from the high and late Middle Ages in Western Christianity" (4). It falls well short of this lofty goal, in part because the structures and functions of medieval miracle collections are so various and so time- and place-specific that it is difficult to make generalizations about them. Nevertheless, the essays in this volume will serve to spark new, more creative, and more rigorous investigation into the tremendously rich sources left by medieval writers, promotors, and investigators of saints' cults.

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