19.08.19 Smith, Excessive Saints

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William Robert

The Medieval Review 19.08.19

Smith, Rachel J.D. Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies. Gender, Theory, and Religion. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2018. pp. 320. ISBN: 978-0-231-18860-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
William Robert
Syracuse University
wrobert@syr.edu

Thirteenth-century Dominican theology is--so the standardized story goes--systematic, philosophical, and incorporeal. Thirteenth-century Dominican theology is, in other words, practically synonymous with Thomas Aquinas. Excessive Saints tells a different story. It offers a non-standardized counter-narrative, one that features a different Dominican Thomas: Thomas of Cantimpré. By attending to and revaluing this Thomas's theological inventiveness, Excessive Saintsdisrupts such myopically standardized stories.

Theological is key. In its clear and vibrant prose, Excessive Saints tells a story of Thomas of Cantimpré as a theological innovator. It does so by closely and creatively reading stories: the hagiographies and exempla that Thomas wrote. Thomas's theological innovations came in and through these hagiographies.Excessive Saints shows that Thomas's hagiographies are a "site of theological work filled with debate and experimentation" (6).

Chapter 1 locates Thomas in his social, cultural, and religious worlds. The remaining chapters attend to Thomas's texts. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the Life of Christina the Astonishing, in relation to the Supplement of the Life of Marie of Oignies (in chapter 2) and to the Life of Abbot John of Cantimpré (in chapter 3). Chapter 4-6 focus on the Life of Lutgard of Aywières. Chapter 7 focuses on a non-hagiographical text, the Bonum universale de apibus.

This review focuses on two of Thomas's innovations, ones (among others) that Excessive Saints develops.

First, Thomas of Cantimpré refigures relations of word and body, and of sign (signum) and thing (res). One of Excessive Saints's own innovations is to read Thomas as, above all, a semiotician. And Thomas is a self-conscious semiotician, "interrogating his own use of signs and of things as signs" (201). By reading Thomas as a semiotician, Excessive Saints reminds us that theology is a semiology. It is a way of using signs to refer to things (or to other signs). That makes Excessive Saints a book that complicates "what we mean when use the word theology in terms of its methods, aims, addresses, and content" (17). So the hagiographized saints--the specific, saintly, female bodies that are Thomas's hagiographical subjects--become signs whose bodies refract the light of another sign, Christ. They are signs who gain "significance and shape" in relation to "God, the divine res whom the saint makes manifest" (7). These refractive relations do not distance humanity and divinity. Saints offer a significant path of approaching God. Saintly signs are sacramental. Reading them, hagiographically, becomes a sacramental practice, and saints become sacramental media. By reading the saints "rightly, interpreting the signs, one may unite with the saint and so taste divinity" (9).

The theology that Thomas fashions via hagiography, Excessive Saints shows, is an imaginative and devotional one. An imaginative theology works "by way of figures (typically female) who emerge out of an inventive, if unstable, alliance between story and image" (200). So an imaginative theology is a refractive, semiotic theology. It is a theology that entangles its form and content.

Entangling form and content points to another important insight that Excessive Saints offers: Thomas's refusal to disjoin sign and thing. That fits with Thomas's refusal to detach theology (or transcendence) from corporeality. The signs and things of Thomas's hagiographies--and, so, of Thomas's theology--are specific. They are these specific, saintly, gendered body-signs. Any broader claims that Thomas's theology makes "are tied back to these bodies and the stories that produce them" (3). These bodies, produced in these stories of Thomas's, are located. They existed in specific contexts, of the saintly bodies and of Thomas's hagiographies (and their initial readers). These hagiographies grapple with the timely, pressing issues of their contexts. They enable Thomas "to wrestle with the profound and, in his time, unresolved theological issue of the status of signs and the correct move of reading them" (15). But wrestling with does not mean resolving. More than anything, Thomas's hagiographical, semiotic, imaginative, devotional theology complicates relations of signs and things.

The second of Excessive Saints's innovations that I consider develops these complications. Thomas of Cantimpré pushes on theology's bounds by pushing beyond hagiography's bounds. Thomas does this by using rhetorics and tropes of mystical theology in writing his hagiographies. For example, Excessive Saints reads Thomas's Life of Christina the Astonishing in terms of Pseudo-Dionysius's theory of dissimilar similarities. This reading highlights how Thomas alters inherited models of female sanctity (e.g., virgin martyr, desert mother, mulieres sanctae).Thomas presses these alterations until they become "wondrous horror" and render Christina's body "a monstrous spectacle," mixing categories and identities and revealing to a reader "the limits of his or her understanding of how the divine is manifest" (70). So "the Life of Christina turns to monstrous figuration and the singularity of its wondrous saint in order to offer an apophatic logic" (82). This apophatic logic refuses readers of the Life of Christina easy (or maybe any) identification with her, as "Christina's monstrosity evades ultimate signification" (82). It also subverts the ways hagiographies usually operate.

An apophatic logic--a dissimilarly similar one--also animates Thomas's Life of Lutgard of Aywières. In this hagiography, Thomas makes extensive use of whatExcessive Saints calls "the ineffability topos." Using this topos, Thomas "attempts to unsay his descriptive efforts" and acknowledge--in a hagiography, a representation of a saintly life--"the limits of representation" (159-60). Relations to Lutgard become plays that manifest tensions "between external and internal inscriptions of divine union, witnessing and believing, the veiled and the unveiling" (160). These tensions undermine hagiography's requirement to externalize its subject's internal states. The Life of Lutgard "presses against the possibility of teaching or transmitting such an experience even as it seeks to elicit the reader's desire for such experience" (178). It presses against the possibility of the genre called "hagiography."

The Life of Lutgard, on Excessive Saints's reading, also subverts genred operations by concentrating on relations between subject (Lutgard) and writer (Thomas), not reader. Thomas's use of "the ineffability topos" writes Thomas into the Life of Lutgard. Thomas becomes a character, and a desiring one, in the story he writes (like--in terms of an anachronistic analogy-- the Charlie Kaufman character in the film Adaptation). Thomas further subverts genre by staging the Life of Lutgard not only as a hagiography, and not only as a commentary on William of Saint Thierry's commentary on the Song of Songs, but also "as a kind of scripture" (154). And this "kind of scripture" calls for an appropriate--non-hagiographical--hermeneutic.

I have dwelled on this pair of Excessive Saints's innovations to illustrate how creative and compelling Excessive Saints is as a book. That owes largely to how deeply Excessive Saints dives into its titular subjects' stories (especially Lutgard's). It does so by offering careful readings, focused on smartly chosen details smartly interpreted.

Excessive Saints also reads Thomas's hagiographies in view of authoritative Christian precursors. For example, chapters 4-6 read the Life of Lutgard in relation to Augustine of Hippo and his systematic De doctrina christiana, William of Saint Thierry and his exegetical Exposition on the Song of Songs, and Sulpicius Severus and his hagiographic Life of Saint Martin of Tours. These conversational partners contextualize the Life of Lutgard in insightful ways. They demonstrate, for example, the vital importance of Lutgard's Cistercian and hermeneutic contexts in Lutgard's life and Life. But these thematic, textual, and intertextual considerations do not supplant the hagiographical subjects. Excessive Saints, like Thomas of Cantimpré, keeps its focus on these saintly bodies, these complicating signs, for hagiography and theology.

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