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22.05.10 Defries, From Sithiu to Saint-Bertin

22.05.10 Defries, From Sithiu to Saint-Bertin

Bishop Omer of Thérouanne (638-pre-683) established the Christian infrastructure of the village of Sithiu (now the French town of Saint-Omer). There he built a church of Notre-Dame, which he chose as his own burial site, as well as a men’s monastery, to which he donated the church of Notre-Dame; Omer placed the abbey under the governance of a fellow migrant from the Cotentin named Bertin. Abbot Bertin (661-c.698) built a church of Saint-Martin at Sithiu, which he chose as his burial site, as well as a men’s monastic cell in the hamlet of Wormhout (25 kilometers northeast of Sithiu); Bertin placed the cell under the governance of a Breton named Winnoc, who was buried in the church of Saint-Martin at Wormhout in approximately 716. In From Sithiu to Saint-Bertin, David Defries examines texts concerning Omer, Bertin, Winnoc, a handful of other individuals, and the monastic house of Sithiu (eventually known as Saint-Bertin) that were produced at Sithiu beginning in approximately 740, with the goal of understanding the contours and evolution of the monks’ collective memory over several centuries.

Defries’ approach to the texts in question is methodologically innovative and represents a rejection of the thinking that informed his 2004 Ohio State University dissertation “Constructing the Past in Eleventh-Century Flanders: Hagiography at Saint-Winnoc.” In the 2019 monograph under review, he distances himself from scholars who employ the “‘constructing-the-past’ variation of social constructionism” (20), scholars who understand medieval authors as deliberate creators of “usable pasts” expressed in narratives that are frequently rewritten to account for new conditions in the present. Such narratologically-oriented scholars claim to find medieval authors’ intended meanings in the specific ways that the latter place “individual elements in a linear structure based on their chronological and causal relationships--in a ‘plot’” (25). In Defries’ view, monastic authors at Sithiu did not “narrate the past” as an historiographical endeavor; instead, their formation as biblical exegetes taught them to discern spiritual patterns, and so they “composed narratives to make plain the meaning of the spiritual patterns” (15). Defries claims to find Sithiu authors’ intended meanings in the ways they linked particulars to generalities and placed “specific instances into general categories” (25) through tropology and typology.

In addition to drawing attention to the ways in which Sithiu authors consciously utilized allusions to biblical tropes and types in their writings, Defries also draws on Cambridge psychologist Frederic Bartlett’s 1932 Remembering to suggest that both tropes and types belong to a larger category of cognitive structures he calls paradigms or schemas that (semi- or even unconsciously?) “shape what and how a person can remember” and “make sense of new stimuli through pattern recognition” (46). According to Bartlett, schemas (once established) are extremely persistent; groups that remember with and through schemas generally “assimilate” new information to conform to and preserve pre-existent schemas, but sometimes “accommodate” enough new information to cause a structural change in pre-existent schemas. What Defries attempts to trace, diachronically, in the texts produced at Sithiu (later Saint-Bertin) from c.740 onwards, is a shifting series of exegetical schemas governing how Omer, Bertin, Winnoc, et al. were remembered.

Many of Defries’ paradigmatic and allegorical analyses were certainly both compelling and enlightening. For instance, the Vitae Audomari, Bertini, Winnoci, whose composition Defries persuasively dates to c.740 (against the current consensus dating of c.811), does appear to adhere to a “tripartite [saintly] cultic schema” that (among other tropological and typological traits) evidences a strong Columbanian ethos (sense of belonging to the Columbanian monastic familia) in the collective memory of the first generations of monks at Sithiu. To cite another example, Arnulf I of Flanders (and his advisors) clearly instrumentalized Judah Maccabee as a typos in their justifications for the count’s dealings with monastic communities in the territories he controlled, and I very much appreciated how Defries’ typological analysis of Arnulf’s activities deepened my understanding of the latter’s thought processes and goals. As a final example, I was very impressed by Defries’ deployment at various points in his monograph of what he sometimes calls “the theodicean schema.” Although I knew that medieval ecclesiastics often interpreted misfortunes as divine chastisements for sinfulness, I had never thought to apply this understanding to discursive strategies surrounding movements for reform; as a result, I have long accepted the idea that proponents of “reform movements” were (without and indeed against all “actual evidence”) willfully misrepresenting communities as corrupt, decayed, morally lax, and so on in order to justify the introduction of desired changes, when “in reality” many communities targeted for reform were thriving. Defries’ typological analysis of Simon of Gent’s Gesta abbatum sithiensium (written between 1095 and 1148) has definitively cured me of this error, and deserves to be quoted in extenso: “[Simon] actually did have evidence for the abbey’s decline--the fire and the plague. Where modern historians search for empirical evidence of monks disregarding monastic norms, medieval authors were on the alert for signs of divine anger. They believed that empirical evidence was often deceptive. A monastic community might be rich, produce many texts, and conduct beautiful liturgies ceaselessly, but God might still judge it deficient because he had access to the monks’ innermost thoughts. Misfortunes, not practices, were the real evidence for decline” (253).

Nevertheless, at times I experienced Defries’ appeals to (topographical, ecclesial, and cultic) schemas more as obfuscatory obstacles than as clarifying aids. I sometimes felt that there were simpler, clearer, and better ways to explain the developments at Sithiu, and that Defries’ sophisticated vocabulary and conceptual framework was getting in the way. For instance, when the ninth-century Vita III Bertini revises the story of the original foundation of Sithiu to give all the credit to Abbot Bertin and none to Bishop Omer, surely the most important thing to notice is the monks’ narrative reconstruction of their past, not some possible typological resonance between that text’s use of the phrase “loca regiminis” and Gregory the Great’s use of the phrase “locum sancti regiminis” concerning Abbot Benedict of Nursia (145-146). In this case, Defries’ focus on the supposed paradigmatic linkage of Bertin and Benedict (instead of the “constructing-the-past” dimensions of the text) left me shaking my head in skeptical bemusement at his conclusion that “whatever had happened in the temporal world when...the community was first built, the later community...discarded accuracy about events in the saeculum for accuracy about the saint in the eternal world and the proper authority of the abbacy” (150). Such assertions may land differently for other readers, but I suspect that Sithiu’s historiographical vision of historical independence from the bishopric of Thérouanne was not primarily a function of the abbey’s desire for “accuracy about the saint in the eternal world.”

Even more problematic were the passages in which Defries shifts away from treating the schemas as analytical tools to reveal the values embedded in texts and towards treating the schemas as external forces determining the real-life actions of historical personages (e.g., the discussion of Fridegis on p. 135) or the content of texts (e.g., the chapter summary on p. 157). I am not at all convinced that there existed a “normative Carolingian schema” that outright pushed eighth- and ninth-century Christians to venerate saints as solo individuals (e.g., 188); Defries takes the existence of this “normative” schema for granted as he traces the rise of Bertin to prominence over Omer and Winnoc at Sithiu, without ever explicitly demonstrating widespread Carolingian rejection of cults to chaste couples (such as Julian and Basilissa), martyred groups (such as the Theban Legion), or collectively-venerated personages (such as the Twelve Apostles or the abbots--“Holy Fathers”--of Fontenelle). I would never deny the power of discourse, but I am reluctant to prioritize schemas (even cognitive ones) over socio-political, military, and economic developments as the prime drivers of saint veneration practices. But then, I am probably a prime example of a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of the “‘constructing-the-past’ variation of social constructionism” (20).