Hagiography and the History of Latin Christendom, 500-1500 shows the historical value of texts celebrating saints—both the most abundant medieval source material and among the most difficult to use. Hagiographical sources present many challenges: they are usually anonymous, often hard to date, full of
topoi, and unstable. Moreover, they are generally not what we would consider factually accurate. The volume’s twenty-one contributions draw on a range of disciplines and employ a variety of innovative methods to address these challenges and reach new discoveries about the medieval world that extend well beyond the study of sanctity. They show the rich potential of hagiography to enhance our knowledge of that world, and some of the ways to unlock it.
Contributors are Ellen Arnold, Helen Birkett, Edina Bozoky, Emma Campbell, Adrian Cornell du Houx, David Defries, Albrecht Diem, Cynthia Hahn, Samantha Kahn Herrick, J.K. Kitchen, Jamie Kreiner, Klaus Krönert, Mathew Kuefler, Katherine J. Lewis, Giovanni Paolo Maggioni, Charles Mériaux, Paul Oldfield, Sara Ritchey, Catherine Saucier, Laura Ackerman Smoller, and Ineke van ‘t Spijker.
By examining passages from early hagiography, the essay brings to light the interconnectedness of holy corpses and material objects. It considers how the bodies, clothing and tombs of the special dead coalesce. Both the flesh of saints in “the sleep of death” and the transformation of saints into objects communicate the Christian teaching on resurrection. The paper’s treatment of the rhetorical strategies marking the texts tries to uncover conceptions of time and beauty, as well as the ways authors put the holy dead to work for the living, who were presented with material signs of eternity through the stories.
In Late Antiquity hagiographical literature aimed to memorialize the martyrs’ heroic actions and chronicle the manner in which they endured persecution and met their demise in the name of Christ. In the early Middle Ages the lives of saints emphasized instead the deeds of individuals involved in their own society, particularly those active within the clergy. Thus hagiography proves an invaluable resource to understand the establishment, the functioning, and the transformation of ecclesiastical institutions: monastic communities, bishoprics, sanctuaries, rural churches, and missions. The various rewritings and updatings of some vitae offer a precious vantage point to capture the stages of reform under the early Franks, starting with the great Carolingian reform. To be sure, hagiography did not merely reflect the Church’s organization: it also contributed in its own way to the transformation of ecclesiastical institutions by introducing new norms.
This essay explores the ways in which hagiographers constructed their texts through a comparative analysis of two works written c.1200: the Life and Miracles of St Bega and the Life of St Bartholomew of Farne. Both texts recorded the lives of saints active in northern England, who developed modest regional followings and whose shrines were under the care of separate Benedictine communities. The essay approaches each text by focusing on two basic, but fundamental, questions: where did this material come from and why was it presented in this form? These questions highlight the process of composition and draw our attention to the ways in which authors selected, structured, and shaped their material. It is analysis that should underlie any historical interpretation of the text.
This chapter examines the process of the move from biography to hagiography in the developing cults of two fifteenth-century preachers, the Dominican Vincent Ferrer and the Franciscan Bernardino of Siena, near contemporaries who were canonized within five years of one another. Close reading of the canonization process alongside the early hagiography reveals ways in which hagiographers manipulated their subject’s biography in order to create saintly vitae that answered a variety of purposes. The shaping of the saint’s image, which began at the moment of his death, was an ongoing process. In neither case do we see an entirely consistent or stable portrayal of the new mendicant saint in the fifteenth century. Not simply did individual authors fashion portraits of the saint that met their own purposes, but they also responded to other vitae, as the Lives of the two saintly preachers were re-constructed in an implicit dialogue between Dominican and Franciscan hagiographers.
Merovingian hagiography was a formative political discourse at a time when the kingdom was open to social restructuring, but the texts’ vision is also incomplete. On the one hand, Merovingian hagiographers were interested in redefining what kind of material and moral resources entitled people to wield political power, so their understanding of politics could be capacious. On the other hand, they quietly excluded other perspectives in the process of identifying what good government and its elite operators should look like. Two examples of selectivity that are especially interesting are hagiographers’ deliberate silences about commercial activity and warfare. Thinking about the forms of power that hagiography doesn’t acknowledge is a good way to assess the opportunities and limits of this literature, and to explain how it worked to reshape its world—not so much by idealizing certain types of individuals or groups but by representing certain frames of action as consequential and valuable.