University of Hawai'i Press
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  • Imagining the Sacred Past: Hagiography and Power in Early Normandy
Samantha Kahn Herrick . Imagining the Sacred Past: Hagiography and Power in Early Normandy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. 256 pp. ISBN 0-674-02443-5, $49.95.

The potential of hagiographical writings to offer more than just insights into sanctity has long been known. Hagiographies were generated by clerks and religious communities within their social—as well as religious—contexts, and they can insensibly and sometimes deliberately unveil much about their contemporary worlds. This sort of potential is never more tempting to exploit than when the historical record is otherwise slight. Paul Fouracre and Patrick Geary explored Merovingian and Carolingian society in this way some decades ago. There has been a rising number of such studies of late in English, and Samantha Kahn Herrick's is the second to take Norman hagiography as a principal focus for such a study.

Herrick studies three less well-known Norman works: the Vitae of St Taurin of Evreux and St Vigor of Bayeux, and the Passio of St Nicaise, a Norman saint particularly curious in that in his imagined lifetime he never actually entered the duchy. Herrick argues for their composition by different authors in much the same era, the third or fourth decades of the eleventh century. They were composed by authors well acquainted with traditions of past Frankish hagiography, working with precious little in the way of historical or legendary material concerning their early Christian subjects. They are [End Page 635] therefore mostly works of pious fiction, and have thus escaped much serious scholarly attention.

Throughout the book, Herrick's arguments are cogent and well constructed. Her writing style is clear and elegant. The book is a delight to read. There are many other things to commend about it. Her command of Norman historiography is considerable, as is also her knowledge of the other hagiographies associated with the duchy. Besides that, she has worked hard to construct a much broader context for her study, comparing her body of texts with others across eleventh-century France. This enables her to observe similarities, such as the concern to establish contact between the heroes of the text and the apostolic era of Christianity, however implausible. She is also able to reach a persuasive conclusion about some singularities of Norman hagiography—for instance, that it had an atypical concern with the conversion process. She puts this down to continuing Norman insecurity in the 1020s and 1030s about the damage done to its religious infrastructure by the Vikings.

There is much to praise and commend in this admirable work of analysis. Its most contentious conclusion needs some reasoned assessment, however. As in the work of Felice Lifshitz on which it is partly modelled, there is a presupposition in Herrick's monograph that hagiographers had political concerns as much as a political context. This is at odds with an alternative tradition that sees hagiography arising from clerical communities with ecclesial concerns. Thus the similar rash of hagiographies that appeared out of the religious communities of Southeast Wales in the 1110s and 1120s has been seen as the defensive reaction of the native collegiate churches to changing ecclesiastical structures in their region, not as a response to any political need.

Herrick sees the three works considered here as, in part, a program with a secular concern, a "common vision" to be found in all three. This was the affirmation of early eleventh-century Norman ducal authority in the portrayal of the relationship between the lay power and the saint. In the Vita of St Taurin, this is represented by the consul Licinius, whom he converts. In that of Vigor, it is King Childebert, who assists the saint with the strategic grant of a site of pagan worship, which he then suppresses. Since the lay power martyred Nicaise and his companions, the relationship in that third case is not obvious, but it is implied to lie in the territoriality of the Vita's author about the French Vexin, the district in which Nicaise was martyred. The relationship between "prince" and saint is said to be a deliberate construction, putting lay power in partnership with that of the sacral. The political point is that after the saints' day, ultimately the dukes of Normandy will inherit the saints' power and take responsibility for the conversion of Viking Neustria, and so the hagiographies legitimize the power of Rollo's dynasty. [End Page 636]

It is a pity that this model is pushed so hard by the author, and is allowed to exclude other possible explanations. It is arguable, for instance, that King Childebert plays so prominent a role in the Vita of St Vigor because his association with Vigor would thus boost the monastery of Cerisy, a newly founded house of the 1030s dedicated to Vigor, where the Vita was composed. It gave Cerisy some status against longer-established rivals, like Jumièges and Mont-St-Michel, which claimed to possess Carolingian royal diplomata. It is arguable also that the territorial concerns with the French Vexin so evident in the Passio of St Nicaise (composed at the abbey of St-Ouen of Rouen) had nothing to do with establishing ducal claims in the region, but more to do with affirming the archiepiscopal authority of Rouen in a region which was politically outside Normandy. The features Herrick identifies can be interpreted equally as the product of ecclesial as political concerns, but these are not considered, even to be argued against. This is not to say that Herrick's theory is not worthwhile, but it is the job of the historian to consider multiple theories, even if it does not make the resulting work easier to read.

The quality of Herrick's work is not in doubt, however. There is, in addition to the text, a learned appendix on the manuscripts and manuscript traditions of the Vitae of Taurin and Vigor, and another on the transmission of the Passio Nicasii. The endnotes are models of erudition. This book could not be bettered as an example of the new school of early medieval hagiographical criticism.

David Crouch

David Crouch is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull. He is the author of a number of books on the Anglo-Norman period, including The Normans: History of a Dynasty (Continuum, 2002).

Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
635-637
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-10
Open Access
No
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