Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.04.09 Katajala-Peltomaa et al. (eds.), A Companion to Medieval Miracle Collections

22.04.09 Katajala-Peltomaa et al. (eds.), A Companion to Medieval Miracle Collections

When I was first introduced to medieval miracle collections two decades ago, this hagiographical sub-genre was a little known, and much under-appreciated, historical source. As the editors of A Companion to Medieval Miracle Collections explain in their introduction, historians of previous generations had tended to view miracle narratives as “an emblem of the backwardness in the Middle Ages” (1) and had accorded them little serious consideration.

Much has changed in the last two decades. Scholars have increasingly come to esteem miracle stories for the historical insights they offer into the social, cultural, political, and religious realities of medieval Europe, and miracle collections are now a valued resource in academic disciplines ranging from church history to disability studies and the history of the emotions. They are especially prized for providing the kind of evidence for everyday life that is absent from other, more traditional sources.

As interest in miracle collections has grown, so too has new research in the field. In particular, the last ten years have seen a proliferation of new printed editions and modern-English translations of miracle sources, making the genre ever more accessible to wider audiences and to new cohorts of students and scholars. Given this upsurge of interest, it is surprising that there are so few monographs dedicated to miracle collections (6). For this reason, this rich and detailed study through fifteen scholarly essays is a very welcome addition to medieval scholarship.

Accounts of miraculous events can be found in a wide range of medieval sources from chronicles and travel narratives to romance and poetry. For contemporary scholars, however, miracles are particularly associated with hagiography, a genre dedicated to promoting saints and their cults, where they can be found grouped together in saints’ lives (vitae), in collections of saints’ post-mortem miracles (miracula), in canonization documents, and in other related texts. The essays in the volume under review, which cover the later Middle Ages (13th-15th centuries), focus mainly on posthumous miracles and canonization procedures, although some attention is given to life-time miracles and to exempla collections.

The volume covers a wide geographical area: England, Scotland, France, Italy, the Low Countries, Portugal, and Hungary are all represented. Case studies are mostly taken from Benedictine, Cistercian, Franciscan, and Dominican collections, and include some well-known examples such as Caesar of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum, Thomas Cantilupe’s canonization miracles, and the miracles of Louis IX of France. Margaret of Hungary and Thomas Aquinas are among some of the saintly celebrities featured. Many of these make more than one appearance in the volume, allowing readers to gain a multi-perspective understanding of the historical circumstances, religious motivations, and cultural predilections which influenced the writing of these texts.

Although the structure of the book is not obvious from the contents page, nor indeed from a deeper perusal of the book, the essays are divided into two parts. The first part, chapters one to six, provides readers with background information on the source material considered in the volume, namely monastic miracle collections (chapters one and two), canonization documents (chapters three, four, and five), and exempla collections (chapter six). These are nicely ordered, leading readers through the various processes which shape miracle stories as they develop from oral testimonies into a variety of finished, or sometimes unfinished, forms. Taken together, these chapters deliver a solid introduction to the practicalities of miracle-collection production. Chapters three, four, and five also unpack some of the more complex technicalities involved in the canonization procedures which underlie the selection and representation of miracles used to validate sainthood.

The second part of the volume, chapters seven to fifteen, delves more deeply into different aspects of the sources and highlights some of the ways in which miracle collections uncover evidence for religious and everyday life in the later Middle Ages. This section begins with two chapters exploring devotional behaviour associated with saints’ cults: chapter seven discusses how ritual uses of monastic space are revealed through canonization depositions, while chapter eight asks to what extent miracle narratives reflect the “lived experiences” of medieval pilgrims. Categories of miracles come to the fore in chapters nine to fourteen. Well-known modern classifications such as healing, demonic possession, childbirth, liberation from captivity, protection from danger, and dreams/visions are all covered. Many of these taxonomies come under scrutiny in these chapters. The pairing of chapters on physical disability (chapter nine) with madness/demonic possession (chapter ten), and that on liberation miracles (chapter twelve) with protection miracles (chapter thirteen), is particularly informative in problematizing conceptual categories of miracle types. The difficulty in distinguishing between “healing” and “non-healing” miracles is also examined (chapters twelve and thirteen), as is the imprecise use of terminology for dreams, visions, and apparitions by contemporary hagiographers (chapter fourteen). The final chapter offers a more in-depth exploration of miracle typologies with reference to the canonization miracles of Margaret of Hungary.

In their introduction, the editors state that one of their aims is “to offer practical tools for the methodological understanding of miracle narratives” (2). This commendable objective is achieved in several ways throughout the volume, but two struck me as being especially pronounced. The first is the oft-repeated warning about “straight” historical readings of these hagiographical narratives. In the words of Iona McCleery in chapter twelve, “miracles are not transparent windows into actual experience, but carefully constructed texts used for preaching, to encourage pilgrimage and to enhance the prestige of shrines” (250). Most of the authors in the volume emphasise the difficulties and challenges in interpreting miracle stories, and the collective result leaves readers in no doubt of the importance of understanding the specific contexts and circumstances in which each miracle collection was conceived and produced.

The second methodological point raised in the volume is the importance of turning away from the generalised, quantitative, and structural approaches which have characterised so much scholarship on miracle collections in the past. The case for a more nuanced appreciation of these sources comes in various forms. Two chapters (five and eight), for example, critique the popular/elite dichotomy which divided the illiterate laity from the literate clergy in the minds of some earlier medievalists. Both chapters observe that while miracle books and canonization dossiers take their ultimate shape within monastic milieux, the development of saints’ cults and the recording of miracle stories entailed a complex, and negotiable, collaboration--or “dialogue” (103; 124)--between the laity and ecclesiastical cult promoters.

However, perhaps the most striking note of caution raised against reductionist readings of miracle narratives emerges from the chapters which identify ambiguities in medieval practices and terminology. In their chapter on canonisation procedures, for example, Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Jenni Kuuliala note that the “ideal” model of canonization was rarely followed in historical reality and that actual practices varied considerably from case to case. As the authors say, canonization was “neither a standardized process nor a monolithic one” (81). An absence of homogeneity is also brought out in the chapters scrutinizing the vocabulary adopted by miracle authors. Unsettling inconsistencies are teased out from many of the texts, so that we discover that there is “no monolithic view of physical difference” (chapter nine, 188-9), no “one single discourse or one universal definition of demonic presence” (chapter ten, 224), “not one way that medieval scholars define, present, or study protection miracles” (chapter thirteen, 281), and a “conceptual vagueness” about the differences between dreams and visions in Middle Dutch texts (chapter fourteen, 305).

While none of these broader methodological insights are particularly new, their prominence in the volume gives it a fresh, updated feel, and serves to remind readers that digging deep into sources “filled with ambiguities and full of lacunae” (chapter ten, 224) is a rewarding way of unearthing valuable historical insights and gaining new perspectives.

In gathering together the expertise of specialists working on different aspects of miracle narratives, this volume provides an indispensable resource for both students and scholars. It provides a comprehensive introduction for those new to miracle collections, as well as offering a more nuanced and stimulating approach for those already familiar with this versatile and popular genre.


List of chapters

Introduction. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, Jenni Kuuliala, and Iona McCleery, “Miracle Collections in Their Contexts,” 1-14

1. Louise Elizabeth Wilson, “Writing Miracle Collections,” 15-35

2. Emilia Jamroziak, “Miracles in Monastic Culture,” 36-53

3. Roberto Paciocco, “The Canonization of Saints in the Middle Ages: Procedure, Documentation, Meanings,” 54-77

4. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Jenni Kuuliala, “Practical Matters: Canonization Records in the Making,” 78-101

5. Donald S. Prudlo, “Heretics, Hemorrhages, and Herrings: Miracles and the Canonizations of Dominican Saints,” 102-24

6. Jussi Hanska, “Miracula and Exempla--A Complicated Relationship,” 125-43

7. Marika Räsänen, “Rituals and Spaces of Devotion in Cistercian Everyday Religion,” 144-63

8. Leigh Ann Craig, “Pilgrimage as a Feature of Miracles,” 164-85

9. Jenni Kuuliala, “Physical Disability and Bodily Difference,” 186-205

10. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, “Madness, Demonic Possession, and Methods of Categorization,” 206-25

11. Jyrki Nissi, “Death in a Birth Chamber: Birth Attendants as Expert Witnesses in the Canonization Process of Bernardino of Siena,” 226-48

12. Iona McCleery, “Escaping Justice? The Politics of Liberation Miracles in Late Medieval Portugal,” 249-73

13. Nicole Archambeau, “Protection Miracles as Evidence for the Shifting Political Landscape of Fourteenth-Century Provence,” 274-98

14. Jonas Van Mulder, “The Mobilization of Thought: A Narratological Approach to Representations of Dream and Vision in Late Medieval Miracle Collections in the Low Countries,” 299-326

15. Ildikó Csepregi, “Miracle Types and Narratives: The Case of Saint Margaret of Hungary,” 327-54