This essay discusses the various ways that scholars over the past half century have used hagiographic material to explore medieval European perceptions of embodiment and health. Covering statistical analysis, the social construction of sanctity, miracle cures, and the anthropology of medicine and religion, the essay argues that hagiographic materials offer an important picture of health reckoning that exposes new categories for thinking about how the body itself was conceived and experienced in Latin Christian Europe. Throughout the essay, examples from saints’ lives, miracles, feasts, relics, and manuscript transmission reveal potential new avenues for illuminating the history of medicine.
Hagiographical sources often offer the life of the saint not only for his or her powers of intercession or as that of a person to be admired as more than human, but also as a model to be imitated. In this they fit into a broader literature aimed at the reader’s formation. Concentrating on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the article discusses the relation of this function of vitae offering a model with other aspects of the hagiographical sources, and some of the underlying ideas about formation—the idea of “crafting” the person as in the medieval view one does with a work of art—and points also to correspondences with other literature of formation. The saint, according to the hagiographer, having modelled himself or herself after earlier saints, and ultimately Christ, becomes a model for the readers of the saint’s life.
St Katherine of Alexandria was the most popular female saint in late-medieval England. Studies to date have often focused on her relevance to women and considered what her life and cult tells us about ideologies of femininity. However, St Katherine was also a very popular saint with male devotees, and in some instances copies of her life are known to have been owned by individual men. Therefore this essay uses the popular fifteenth-century prose life of St Katherine to explore the contribution that interactions between piety and masculinity made to the social self-fashioning of affluent urban lay men. Drawing on ideologies of ideal kingship and their predication on masculine norms, it argues that the relevance of St Katherine to this type of man derives from her status as an exemplary ruler, especially the account of her household management.
This chapter investigates how medieval saints’ lives traveled and what their travels imply about the circulation of information in the Middle Ages. It focuses on apostolic legends, which proliferated between c.750 and c.1250 as numerous cities (particularly in modern France) claimed founding bishops close to early Christian leaders such as Peter and even Jesus. It traces the legends’ circulation, with particular attention to the vitae of one founding bishop. Evidence reveals that these vitae could travel relatively far, relatively fast, and that they remained in circulation for centuries. Such circulation is often quite difficult to explain, however, due to lack of evidence. This chapter outlines the riddles posed by the circulation of apostolic legends, and suggests plausible explanations to their travels. These explanations propose models for the ways in which medieval communities shared information.
As a distinctive component of the annual liturgical cycle proper to each medieval community, musical profiles of the saints voiced in the chants of the Mass and Office became one of the most familiar and internalized forms of hagiographical narrative. Because musical settings of excerpts from a saint’s vita typically varied according to place and time, these carefully crafted vignettes at once betray the ideals that were prized by a given community and document the changing meaning of saints and their veneration at defining moments in history. Yet how, exactly, might music intersect with history to meditate on the spiritual, and at times political, meaning of a saint’s life? This chapter examines a variety of methods by which singing clerics combined, adapted, and re-interpreted hagiographical, biblical, exegetical, and historical sources through case studies of chants for two saints venerated prominently in the medieval diocese of Liège: the universally-recognized apostle John the Evangelist, and the local bishop Lambert.
The vita of St Gerald of Aurillac provides an excellent example of how often chastity served in medieval hagiographical writings in tandem with violence: to disguise or discount that violence, to hide its connection to power, but also to give it a new meaning, even to sanctify it. Monastic authors of hagiographical texts had their own complicated relationships with the ubiquitous violence of the Middle Ages, having been raised with it and then having, mostly, rejected it. Their praise of chastity in its various forms was real, and stemmed from ancient origins, but also tried to make sense of the senselessness of violence.
Dominican Legendae novae, including the Golden Legend, did not promote the cult of saints, which had existed for centuries in Western Europe and needed no encouragement. These Dominican authors intended instead to provide material for preachers to use in their sermons in order to communicate deeper doctrinal and ethical teachings. That is, the stories in the Golden Legend were only a starting point to debate problems of doctrinal knowledge and ethical behavior. When interpreted in the scholastic structure of a sermon, even a fabulous legend could be used to explain the psychological dynamics of sin. There was, therefore, a veritable communication system: Jacobus de Voragine wrote in Latin addressing preachers who read and used the Golden Legend to preach, in the vernacular. In this communication system, the authors of the Legendae novae had (at least) two targets: one more immediate, the preachers who read Latin, and one more indirect, namely the audience of those preachers.
The modern categorization of medieval literary texts about saints as a genre called “hagiography” can sometimes cloud our understanding of medieval texts. In 942, the count of Flanders had William I “Longsword”, the Norman count of Rouen (r. 928–42), killed as part of a campaign to brand the Normans as pagan Vikings. The Normans responded with quasi-hagiographical texts that bolstered their claims to a Christian identity by promoting recognition of the assassinated leader’s sanctity. This essay illustrates the ambiguity of the boundary between hagiography and other types of literature, as well as between politics and religion, by studying two authors’ efforts to convince audiences that William was a martyr.