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  • Reforming Saints: Saints' Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530
  • Robert Bireley
David J. Collins . Reforming Saints: Saints' Lives and Their Authors in Germany 1470-1530. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. viii + 228 pp. index. illus. map. bibl. $65. ISBN: 978-0-19-532953-7.

Recent years have seen an expanding scholarly interest in the cult of the saints, especially for the early modern period. We have now learned that Renaissance [End Page 1317] humanists produced a significant hagiographical literature. Alison Knowles Frazier showed this for Italy in her Possible Lives: Authors and Saints in Renaissance Italy (2005). David Collins in this impressive and important book demonstrates the extent of humanist hagiography in Germany for the years from 1470 to 1530, an activity, he writes, that made them more rather than less similar to their Italian counterparts. The period, and their role in it, must be evaluated for itself, he argues sensibly, not merely as an anticipation of Erasmus and Luther. This volume contributes to our evolving understanding of the nature of humanism, and especially of its relationship to religion, and of the religious mentality in Germany in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The humanists' use of medieval sources, according to the author, reflected a respect for the Middle Ages not normally associated with humanism but also the typical humanist intent to learn from history.

The author sets out "to investigate how and why the early German humanists composed so much about the saints" and his book "exposes the strategic ways that these authors made writings about the saints into a literature for religious and cultural reforms that German humanists promoted through much else of their activity" (9). He bases his account principally on forty freestanding Latin lives of German saints that appeared in published or manuscript form during the period under discussion. But beyond this he draws on a wide variety of primary sources, including further editions of the forty lives and their translation into the vernacular German. He rebuts the anticipated objection that being in Latin the lives reached only the elite by affirming that readers of the Latin texts passed on their contents in sermons and in other ways, especially at the respective pilgrimage sites. Of the forty lives there were three types: original or largely original works, old lives minimally altered, and old lives largely reworked. The author determines whether a saint's life could be considered humanist or not by looking at its language, rhetoric, and literary allusions, and by taking into account the career of the author, whether he received a humanist education, composed other humanist works, and associated with other humanists.

The first two chapters deal with the two most popular types of saints in Germany during this period, bishops and recluses, nearly all of them local saints. Most bishops were drawn from the earlier Middle Ages. The fondness for bishops reflected a desire for a pastor who protected his see from temporal lords and corrupt clergy and undertook missionary activity. One might say that this pointed toward the future Tridentine ideal. Collins pays special attention to the Life of Saint Benno, an eighth-century bishop of Meissen, by Jerome Emser that was published in 1512 at the behest of Duke George of Saxony with a view to Benno's canonization, which actually did take place in 1523. A German version that came out five years after the Latin one abbreviated the biographical details and elaborated on the miracles. Emser and other humanists pursued documentation diligently but also, paradoxically, did not hesitate to invent facts such as subjects' alleged attachment to bonae litterae and the scriptures.

One would not expect humanists to extol solitaries; yet they are represented by eight saints dating from the first century and twelve of the forty lives. The [End Page 1318] authors seem to have seen in the recluse the perfection of the monastic state which came under considerable criticism at the time and to have esteemed its removal from the dangers of the world and the opportunity it provided for study. Collins devotes his final chapter to two lives of the Swiss hermit Nicholas of Flue (1417- 87), the living "saintly superstar...


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Archived 2009
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