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23.03.21 Herrick (ed.), Hagiography and the History of Latin Christendom

23.03.21 Herrick (ed.), Hagiography and the History of Latin Christendom

Medieval hagiographers assembled, composed, and reworked their materials to depict the world around them and the impacts and traces left upon that world by holy men and women, whether as living saints or the very special dead, in ways that confound the positivist principles of modern historical scholarship. Put simply, their texts contain tall tales that wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of Turnitin. In this book, Samantha Kahn Herrick offers a brief and invaluable introduction to modern critical encounters with the genre, starting with Hippolyte Delehaye, and collecting insights from Marc Bloch, Peter Brown, Patrick Geary, and Felice Lifschitz, to set a platform for the chapters to follow. The book doesn’t disappoint in showcasing current trends in the study of the hagiography of Latin Christendom, understood in its broadest sense, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries. Such is the vastness of what Froude called this singular Christian mythology, its imaginative scope, the range of subjects treated, its abstruse mix of topoi and incidental detail, that Herrick is quite right to stress the continuous and varied scholarly interest it can sustain. To prove it, twenty-one chapters are evenly gathered here under five thematic headings, although readers will easily find their own associative pathways through this rich collection.

The first theme, “Creating and Transmitting Texts,” includes five papers directly addressing questions and issues fundamental to the production of hagiographical material that recur throughout the book. These include: the scope hagiographers had to elaborate and embroider upon the raw biographical material available, to make decisions about the biblical, patristic, or canonical hagiography they might reference, the use of eyewitness testimonies, oral traditions, and topoi to fill out a biography; how to adapt the text, to adorn it with incidental detail, invented or reported; which miracles or vignettes to include, and whether to add new ones; how to attune all these variables to the needs of the commission, and target key audiences; and, how to adapt form to practical purpose, and serve specific functions. Helen Birkett compares these processes of “creation, adaptation, and compilation” in the Life and Miracles of St Bega and the Life of St Bartholomew of Farne, both written c.1200 (16). Laura Ackerman Smoller compares the posthumous hagiographical trajectories of two well-known fifteenth-century preacher-saints, Bernardino of Siena and Vincent Ferrer, through phases of canonization and biographical commemoration in vitae. Cynthia Hahn helpfully outlines the critical issues particular to reading pictorial hagiographical narrative discretely from the texts it often accompanies and demonstrates the benefits of doing so by comparing materials belonging to the cults of St Gerald of Aurillac and St Wandrille. Samantha Kahn Herrick makes remarkably efficient use of limited evidence to trace the transmission of apostolic legends across centuries and between monasteries, to draw insights into how medieval communities shared information, and how different branches of tradition might be forged across different institutional networks from common foundational texts. Giovanni Paolo Maggioni guides us through the Legendae Novae, abbreviated legendaries of saints, generated in the first half of the thirteenth century as devotional ammunition for Dominican preachers in the field, noting that its most famous example, the Golden Legend, “supplanted its predecessors and suffocated imitators” (118).

Part 2, “Constructing Religious Life, History and the Self,” looks at the corporate uses to which communities put the texts they produced. In his reading of theLives of Antony and Martin, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, the Life of Pachomius, and two ninth-century Lives of St Gallus as examples of “narrated rules” (129-30), Albrecht Diem encourages us to think afresh about the relationship between form and practice, and between self and community, in the function of the genre. Charles Mériaux takes a sample of hagiographical work from the sixth to the eleventh centuries as evidence of the kinds of changing circumstances that led ecclesiastical institutions to seek to re-invent themselves through commemoration of the lives of saints. In a fascinating pendant to Hahn’s chapter, Catherine Saucier’s “Singing the Lives of Saints” uses liturgical analysis and musical notation in the liégeois rites associated with the cults of John the Baptist and St Lambert to explore the adaptation of hagiographical materials by cantors to produce new liturgical vignettes in the service of changing civic and political identities. Ineke Van ’t Spijker’s chapter interestingly explores saints’ lives through the lens of self-fashioning, and, in its Christo-mimetic approach, might be fruitfully read in conjunction with Diem’s chapter.

Four chapters on “Power and Violence” explore the wider political cultures in which these texts commented and intervened. Jamie Kreiner shows how Merovingian hagiography framed political discourse in terms that privileged certain channels of influence and power over others, namely, the episcopal influence of kings over those mediated by commerce and martial conduct. Matthew Kuefler compares tenth- and eleventh-century Lives of St Gerald of Aurillac as emblematic of contemporary hagiographers’ complex engagements with the representation of violence and sexuality in their framings of sanctity. David Defries uses quasi-hagiographical treatments of Duke William I “Longsword” as a martyr to point to the work of political advocacy that saintly idioms might do on behalf of ruling dynasties, even when they ultimately failed to promote a popular cult. Edina Bozóky expansively surveys the ways secular powers attempted to co-opt relics into their own ambitious political plans.

In “Urban Life and the Natural World,” Klaus Krönert echoes Bozóky’s claim for hagiography as testimony to political history with a study of the Vita Eucharii, composed c. 900, and subsequent additions to its tradition, which culminated in the acquisition of archiepiscopal primacy in 969 for the see of Trier over its Gallic rivals. The theme is sustained in Paul Oldfield’s examination of three southern Italian urban cults between 1090 and 1140, including the rival cults of St Nicholas at Bari and Benevento, and the third, of St Nicholas the Pilgrim at Trani, painting a fascinating picture of changing civic identities and intra- as well inter-urban conflicts and rivalries played out through hagiographical mobilizations of saints’ cults. Adrian Cornell du Houx detects in the hagiographical commissions of the eleventh-century Lucchese reform movement a taste for the exotic linked to an apostolic turn in the religious imaginations of its regular canons and popularized in its famous image of the Holy Face of Christ. Ellen Arnold’s chapter reminds us that “monks said prayers, but also weeded gardens” (370), and of the hitherto untapped potential for hagiography--in its capture of daily life and everyday material cultures--to contribute to environmental histories of the middle-ages.

The final section, “Gender, Health and Beauty,” is grouped largely around sources of the later middle ages, and examines hagiography’s implication in the aesthetics of gender, of health regimes and the body, and in various Christian materialities. Emma Campbell explores the degree to which vernacular French hagiography of the thirteenth century might be considered to subvert, even as it participates in, the reproduction of social norms through literary experimentation with holy subjects in narratives that suspend gender expectations associated with sexuality, marriage and kinship. Katherine J. Lewis similarly finds in fifteenth-century Middle English hagiographies associated with St Katherine a genre adapted to teach young urban men of mercantile class civic duty through the saint’s modelling of masculine traits of husbandry, rule, and moral conduct; in this case, Lewis irresistibly concludes, “sometimes, the best man is a woman” (415). Sara Ritchey’s chapter on health and healing very effectively takes what used to be called (perhaps slightly defensively) a “holistic” approach to the body and health that opens hagiographical sources up to a more seamless and inclusive understanding of human embodiment and the mutual implications of religion (understood as emotion, affect, faith, ritual and sensual stimulus) with more formally understood systems of medical knowledge, in the heavily gendered division of labour that constituted healthcare. Finally, J. K. Kitchen selects from late antique and early medieval examples of writing about holy corpses, their clothes, and other material accoutrement, to draw out their importance as an aesthetic provocation to Christian doubters in the bodily resurrection.

A strong theme of the book is that medieval politics was in considerable part a liturgical phenomenon, a fact that only increases our need to engage with this vast literature as evidence for political history, as well as ecclesiastical history and the history of religious cultures. In all three areas, the book makes a satisfying contribution. Chapeaux to Keith Bate, Francine Michaud, and George Ferzoco for their English translations of certain of the chapters.