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23.03.14 Henriet/Elfassi et al. (eds.), Valère du Bierzo: Écrits autobiographiques et Visions de l’au-delà

23.03.14 Henriet/Elfassi et al. (eds.), Valère du Bierzo: Écrits autobiographiques et Visions de l’au-delà

This volume presents a dual-language, facing-page French/Latin edition of the works of Valerius of Bierzo, a seventh-century hermit from the Astorga region of the northwestern Iberian Peninsula. His known works include several autobiographical tracts and three otherworld visions. The volume is a collaboration involving five scholars working over a period of fourteen years and seeks to focus attention outside the Iberian peninsula on this important figure. It presents the first French translation of Valerius’s corpus.

The volume begins with an essay (xiii-xxvii) by Jacques Elfassi on the life and work of Valerius. The facts that we have are few and vague and based entirely on his own writings. He was born in the Astorga region c. 625-630. His origins were aristocratic, and he received a classical education, perhaps at Astorga. He experienced a conversion to religious life sometime around 648-650. He attempted to join the monastery of Compludo (Ponferrada) founded by Fructuosus of Braga (595-665). For some unknown reason, he retreated from the monastery to the nearby mountain of Castro Pedroso, where he committed himself to an eremitic life based on the Vita Antonii by Athanasius of Alexandria. In his own writings, which he began in earnest at this time, he claims to have followed that life for twenty years, remaining at Castro Pedroso from c. 650 to 660. His stay was cut short when a local priest named Flainus, possibly backed by the hierarchy, created an unwelcome situation. During the decade from c. 660 to 670, he resided at Ebronato, where he is associated with Ricimer and his family. When that family fell into ruin, Valerius moved once again, and for the last time, to the monastery of Rufiana (most likely San Pedro de Montes), where he composed his surviving works. He died in 695.

Céline Martin provides an historiographic introduction (xxix-li) to Valerius’s autobiographical works. She covers the political context of his writing, describing the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo and the relationship among its kings, aristocracy, and archbishops. She discusses Hispanic society in the seventh century and Valerius’s place in it as a member of an aristocratic family. His writing shows a familiarity with law and geography as well as the classics, much of which was second-hand from Isidore of Seville. She discusses the relationship between his class and the slaves and freemen of the region, including families like the Ricimers who hired priests, like Valerius, for their family chapels. She explores the geographical elements of Valerius’s work, which focused exclusively on the region of Bierzo situated between the high plateau of Leon and the mountains of Galicia. The region, which was the entire range of Valerius’s habitat, often operates as a metaphor in his works. Martin discusses the various names for the region and its administrative designations, as well as the principal places mentioned by Valerius.

Florian Gallon devotes an essay (liii-lxxxii) to the eremitic and monastic backgrounds of Valerius’s work, covering models, ideals, and practice. Despite a varied tradition throughout the Iberian peninsula, in the less urbanized and less Romanized northwest, a monastic practice developed more aligned with the ascetic and solitary traditions of the Fathers of the Desert. Valerius was influenced in this tradition by various authors including Martin, archbishop of Braga, who promulgated an eastern type of monasticism, translating the Sententiae patrum Aegyptiorum from the Greek. Additionally, Pachase, perhaps a disciple of Martin, is responsible for a compilation entitled Liber geronticon. Both served as models for the instruction of the monks of Galicia with Valerius citing the latter directly. He was also influenced by Fructosus of Braga, another disciple of Eastern monasticism and an advocate of both the eremitic and cenobitic type. His translations include the Vita Antonii by Athanasius and the Conlationes of Cassian. Other monastic works that formed part of Valerius’s library included theVita Pauli of Jerome and the Historia monachorum in Aegypto. Valerius himself compiled a collection of lives of ascetic saints, which displayed his familiarity with both the Liber geronticon and the Historia monachorum in Aegypto.

Gallon characterizes Valerius’s asceticism, which is explored again later in this volume, as based on an imitation of the apostles and martyrs. As a result, Valerius was confronted with the longstanding monastic dilemma of balancing isolation from, against engagement with, society in an effort to imitate the life of Christ. Valerius’s ideal of removing himself from the world of “affaires” and “femmes” (lxi) in pursuit of perfection approached only limited success since his solitude was often breached by followers, including his nephew Jean, and by those who provided him with food, security, and emotional support. He had a servant who tended his plot of land, he accepted offerings from followers, and he earned a teaching income. His way of life may have given rise to jealousy and envy among a group at Rufiana that Valerius labeled “pseudo-monks.” Since the ecclesiastical authorities usually considered hermits as outsiders and often attempted to bring them into line, Valerius was often at odds with those around him. For example, at Ebronata, Ricimer demolished the church, including Valerius’s cell, then offered him a position as a cleric in a new church that he would build.

Finally, Gallon investigates Valerius’s legacy. Benedict of Aniane was aware of his De genere monachorum--in fact, fragments of it mainly survive thanks only to Benedict who cited it in his Concordia regularum--but Valerius’s autobiographical works did not travel beyond the Iberian peninsula. Gennadius of Astorga, however, was aware of Valerius and his work, particularly his autobiographical works. In restoring and amplifying the monastery of Rufiana as San Pedro de Montes in the late ninth century, Gennadius specifically mentions Valerius as an inspiration and refers to him as “saint.” Despite dissensions at this monastery in the eleventh century, probably related to monastic and liturgical reforms, the monks apparently remained faithful to the spirit of Fructosus, Valerius, and Gennadius. Although definite proof is lacking, Gallon proposes that Valerius’s concept of monasticism may have survived in this region past the ninth century since Benedictine monasticism seems to have arrived there late.

Patrick Henriet’s first essay of two, entitled “Érémetisme, société, construction du moi: Le projet Valérian” (lxxxiii-cxxx) looks into the failure to consider properly the significance of Valerius’s writing. He wrote, most unusually, in the first-person singular. Within the context of the history of the self from the Middle Ages to the present, a line is often drawn from Augustine to Peter Abelard, sometimes including Guibert of Nogent and Otloh of Saint-Emmeram. This line ignores Valerius, whose self-consciousness bridges the gulf between Augustine and Abelard when he writes of his conversion, his struggle with the devil, and his reflections on church and society. With a reevaluation of Valerius, the origins of a sense of self or self-consciousness would have to be located in the seventh, not the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Henriet explores possible literary models for Valerius’s first-person form, including Augustine, Boethius, and the Desert Fathers, but dismisses them and proposes instead Visigothic letter-writing as practiced by Isidore, Braulio of Zaragoza, Ildephonsus of Toledo, Eugenius of Toledo, and Julian of Toledo.

Henriet examines how Valerius’s autobiographical works, which reveal this sense of self, provide a lens through which to view his attitudes toward society. He envisioned his role as a struggle against the evils of this world, including the institutional church and its priesthood, as well as against the devil. As a monk who, not unusually, probably remained a layman for his entire life, he did not willingly combine sacerdotal duties with his eremitic life. For him, however, that life was a practice of solitude, not of physical humiliation or chastisement.

Valerius particularly emphasized the exemplary function of the ascetic experience. Although he is difficult to understand outside his identity as an author or to identify his intentions with regard to his autobiographical writings, he used his life as a model of what to do and what not to do and thus brought his writing close to the realms of hagiography and saints legend. Henriet considers whether Valerius might have considered himself sanctus but warns that this is a complex word with various uses. Valerius himself does not claim any miracles, presents himself as an ordinary monk, and a sinner in combat with evil, the devil, and even perhaps himself, but also as a man who is never wrong. He emphasizes his own name repeatedly, asserting his individuality, but it is an individuality that he humbly asserts within his community. Henriet addresses again a topic covered by Gallon: the gap that persisted for monks in the Middle Ages between the idea of solitude and the reality of an eremitic life. Valerius never totally abandoned the world: he received gifts, maintained relations, gave orders and instruction, and tried to create a community of like-minded men, a textual community around himself and his work. The point of meeting was the myth of a primitive eastern monasticism.

Henriet also contributes an essay on Valerius’s three otherworld visions (cxxxi-cl): the Vision of Maximus, the Vision of Bonellus, and the Vision of Baldarius. (Another Hispanic vision entitled Vita cuiusdam sanctae virginis quae in ecstasin fuit conscripta is sometimes attributed to Valerius, butHenriet lays out his reasoning for doubting this attribution.) All three visions begin in Valerius’s first-person singular before the visionaries take over their own stories, which they allegedly had reported directly to him. The first two are visions of heaven and hell. Considering Valerius’s repeated concern with his struggle against the devil, it is interesting to note that the Vision of Bonellus presents a rare description of the devil in an otherworld vision before the twelfth century. The Vision of Baldarius is a cosmic vision from heaven of the world below. Henriet provides a synopsis of each vision and discusses possible influences. He characterizes them as exemplary texts for monks and ascetics. Their aim is to exhort monks to embrace conversion within the monastery or hermitage for the sake of eternal salvation. In this goal, we see how closely the intention of these visions maps to those of Valerius’s autobiographical writings.

Jacques Elfassi provides a linguistic analysis of Valerius’s writings (cli–ccx), covering phonetics and orthography, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, and language level. His admittedly schematic exploration of Valerius’s linguistic competence concludes that although he had a high level of skill--a classic competence--when he tried to stretch beyond that his writing becomes at times incomprehensible. Elfassi calls for more work in this area.

In a chapter on the establishment of the text (ccxi-cclxxii), José Carlos Martín-Iglesias and Jacques Elfassi survey the fifteen surviving manuscripts of Valerius’s works. They include detailed manuscript descriptions and a chart of the Valerian works in each. They discuss two missing manuscripts and nine previous editions. Separate stemmata for his autobiographical works and his visionary texts are included. Finally, the authors explain the criteria used in the present edition.

The remainder of this impressive volume provides dual-language French/Latin editions of the texts. The French texts (left) are annotated, while the Latin texts (right) are supplemented with critical apparatus. The texts are presented in the following order: Poème sur ma nécessité / Epitameron proprie necessitudinis (EPN, 2-9); Récit de ma plainte inspiré par ces épreuves / Ordo querimonie prefati discriminis (OQ, 10-75); Reprise du récit depuis le début de ma vie religieuse / Replicatio sermonum a prima conversione (RS, 76-131); Poème personnel sur les vicissitudes déjà mentionnées / Epitameron proprium prefati discriminis (EPPD, 132-135); Suit ce qui reste à ajouter aux plaintes précédentes / Quod de superioribus querimoniis residuum sequitur (QDSQ, 136-149);Récits du bienheureux Valère adressés au bienheureux Donadeus / Dicta beati Valerii ad beatum Donadeum scripta (Vision of Maximus, DBD, 150-167); Le moine Bonellus / De Bonello monacho (BM, 168-181); Une révélation céleste / De celeste revelatione (Vision of Baldarius, CR, 182-191).

The texts are followed by a section of complementary notes on particular aspects of Valerius’s texts, a catalogue raisonné of historic individuals, a table of concordances to the Díaz y Díaz edition (2006) for OQ, RS, and QDSQ, a bibliography of primary and secondary texts, and indexes of sources, names, and places.

This volume provides an excellent resource for scholars already interested in Valerius of Bierzo but more significantly, it has the potential to highlight the importance of this figure for those working in the related areas of early Western monasticism; biography, autobiography, hagiography, and saints’ legends; and medieval vision literature.