Christina the Astonishing (Christina Mirabilis), the never-to-be canonized and yet highly influential thirteenth-century beguine, has provided a key exemplum to scholars of medieval religion, particularly those engaged in questions of gender and corporeality, since at least the 1970s--and with good reason. Christina’s Life, originally composed in 1232 by Thomas de Cantimpré, presents an amalgam of both recognizable and unusual--even original--hagiographical tropes that, when taken together, cast the protagonist at once as guarantor and destabilizer of the ecclesiastical and doctrinal authorities of her day. As such, Christina’s place in the history of medieval devotion remains an uneasy one. Neither constrained by the laws of nature nor clearly a saint, neither enclosed nor secular, Christina tends, in book-length studies, to be domesticated by a broader analytical focus either on Thomas de Cantimpré’s hagiographical writings in general or on the alloyed vitae of a less problematic set of contemporary holy women.
Such is not the case of Sylvain Piron’s 2021 Christine l’Admirable: Vie, chants et merveilles, a rare monographic study devoted exclusively to the historical and cultural profiles of Christina the Astonishing. This is not to say that Piron excises the Life of Christina from the broader context of Thomas’ writings or that he isolates her practice from that of such contemporary holy women as Marie of Oignies andLutgard of Aywières. His consummate goal, though, is not so much to reduce but rather to showcase the uniquely alienating features of Christina’s Life bychallenging his readers to consider all elements of the narrative, including the most clearly supernatural ones--her two deaths and resurrections, for example, her levitation to the rafters of her parish church, her ability to live for long periods of time in the top-most branches of trees--with the same level of historiographical rigor as they might treat the socio-economic characteristics of her upbringing or the theological grounding of the author’s agenda. The result, for the literary scholar as for the historian, is a refreshing if at times unorthodox call to meet medieval hagiography on its own terms, and specifically to avoid lapsing into the anachronistic classification of textual elements into the categories of “truth” on the one hand and “metaphor” on the other.
Paramount to Piron’s project are the philological stakes of the Life itself and he opens appropriately with the first modern French translation of Thomas’ text, produced in collaboration with Armelle Le Huërou. Although accessible to a wide international audience of students and scholars for over thirty years thanks to Margot H. King’s 1986 English-language translation (revised in 2008 with Barbara Newman), Piron’s version of the Life of Christina is not based on the Acta Sanctorum but on a much-needed critical edition of the Latin original. Established by Piron and Le Huërou on the basis of seventeen manuscripts--three of them previously unknown--this editorial work makes up the appendix of Piron’s study alongside an abbreviated version of the Life of Christina, excerpted from Henry Bate of Mechelen’s Speculum divinorum et quorundam naturalium. Regrettably, for classroom use, this latter text is not translated.
Moving from the philological to the analytical, the first chapter, “Le Travail de la mémoire,” delves into a longue durée reception history of the Christina legend with particular attention to her remarkably stable presence at the margins of the mainstream. From her unusual role in Jewish sacred text during her own lifetime to the “rigoureusement locale” (50) cult of devotion which flourished in Sint-Truiden in the thirteenth century, Piron follows the surprisingly robust manuscript corpus to which this text gave rise both in Latin and in a range of local vernaculars, including Dutch, English, and French. He then turns to the modern period and the resurgence of interest in Christina’s life and relics sparked by an ultimately controversial decision to include Thomas’ Life of Christina in the Acta Sanctorum. This allows Piron to trace the evolving role that Christina has played both in religious and secular culture from the late nineteenth century to the turn of the current millennium.
Chapter 2, “Circonstances,” and Chapter 3, “Au fil du texte,” move on to consider the Life of Christina as historiographical record. Chapter 2 follows the most traditional lines of inquiry. Here, Piron devotes significant attention to the social context in which the vita was produced as well as the life and works of Thomas de Cantimpré and his relationship to James of Vitry, the author, that is, of the fundamental authorizing intertext of the Life of Christina the Astonishing, the Life of Marie of Oignies. Chapter 3 works in the opposite direction, mining not the context in which the Life of Christina was composed for clues about the vita but rather the narrative and rhetorical construction of this work for an understanding of the historical places and figures within it. By exerting pressure on such key details as Christina’s family situation, the geography of her adult life, and her relationships with ecclesiastical and political authority figures, Piron works at once toward a greater understanding of Christina as real thirteenth-century subject and the theological implications her written Life.
Chapter 4, “Un tissu de merveilles,” marks the beginning of a definitive shift toward the supernatural. Although, as Piron points out, the centrality of the preternatural in the Life of Christina poses the most significant threat to his stated goal of approaching the text through the lens of factual truth, he does not, at this point, shift his methodology toward literary analysis. On the contrary, he opens by challenging the overwhelming modern tendency to assimilate medieval experiences of the miraculous with what would now be identified as mental illness. What if, he posits, the real question were not what medieval people thought such tropes as levitation might represent but rather “...ce qui fait obstacle à la lévitation dans le monde contemporain” (110)? Piron proposes to address this issue through a corpus of scientific research, collected since the 1970s, on out-of-body experiences. Unusual as this approach may seem, it serves less to uphold the veracity of the paranormal in the Life of Christina than it does to highlight a similar hesitation in medieval and modern epistemes between that which is considered beyond nature and that which is considered against it.
The fifth and final chapter of this book, “L’Anomalie Christine,” while the shortest in length, is in many respects the most ambitious in breadth. Drawing at once on the Catholic literature of thirteenth-century Europe and a broad intercultural documentation of shamanism, Piron considers those elements of Christina’s Life that set the text and its subject apart as unique in their own cultural context as well as within a sweeping historical understanding of paranormal experience. Naturally, as Piron acknowledges, this goal cannot be fully brought to fruition in such a restrained space. Nevertheless, the dialogue he underscores between medieval hagiography and non-Western religious culture is a powerful reminder of the true anthropological scope of a tradition that is all too often considered for its most self-referential and hegemonic qualities.
All in all, this concise volume invites scholars from a wide variety of disciplines to rethink the ways in which they read the Life of Christina the Astonishing in particular and medieval hagiography in general. Sylvain Piron may describe his own work best when he writes of the Life of Christina, “Ceci n’est pas un livre comme les autres, mais un objet de dévotion, le souvenir d’une femme qui aurait de loin préféré l’oubli...un moulin à prières où le sel de la contemplation se mêle inséparablement au poivre de la stupéfaction” (13). It is precisely the unexpected quality of Piron’s method which makes up the strength of his work; without sacrificing scholarly rigor, he delivers on his promise to provide a study grounded in what he calls “une science sociale des pratiques de l’invisible” (148).