- Flesh Made Word: Saints' Stories and the Western Imagination
The quintessentially Christian biographical genre known as the Lives of Saints has not lacked scholarly attention in recent decades. Indeed, prevailing interests in gender, sexuality, asceticism, narrative, and popular piety have made hagiography a hot topic for an entire generation of cultural and literary historians of Christianity. Aviad Kleinberg's recent book, Flesh Made Word, does not directly engage that scholarly conversation, but instead seeks to reach a broader audience. A Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and a specialist in the medieval period, Kleinberg has published earlier on a closely related topic—Prophets in Their Own Country: Living Saints and the Making of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992), and more recently, Flesh Made Word has been joined by another popularizing work issued [End Page 516] by Harvard University's Belknap Press, Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List, translated by Susan Emanuel (2008).
Saints' stories, argues Kleinberg, are powerful sites of cultural memory, imagination, and creativity; they may tell us far more about the religious experiences and aspirations of pre-modern Christians than can be gleaned from theological treatises, canon law, or even liturgical texts. The celebrities of their day, saints take the stage in narratives that are shaped, and reshaped, by the needs and desires of their audiences. This process unfolds within the tension not only between popular religiosity and the ecclesial hierarchy, but also between the lure of the exotic and the desire for conformity. Admittedly, saints' stories can be used by the elite to manipulate the masses, but the elite cannot control how the stories are interpreted or retold, nor is the elite itself a monolith. The ambiguity and ambivalence seemingly inherent in hagiography renders it productively malleable and unstable, capable of conveying "experiences and feelings as conflict-ridden and contradictory as life itself is," concludes Kleinberg (297).
The book is comprised of twelve fairly easily digestible chapters, framed by an introduction and concluding reflections. In the introduction, Kleinberg, who professes himself "a skeptic by nature," recounts an experience he had while viewing Mother Teresa on television: "I believed her." As he represents it, the momentary overcoming of his own "usual cynicism" opens a window onto the world of medieval Christians, for whom faith was a necessity and life without saints unimaginable: "the saint offered a window of hope, a consolation, and an antidote" (ix–x). In the first chapter, Kleinberg briefly extends his introductory musings on the nature of sainthood, emphasizing "charisma" as a potentially subversive, socially constituted phenomenon. Seven subsequent chapters focus on Mediterranean antiquity, interleaving broad historical discussions with readings of particular texts. An initial overview of the history of Christianity in the Roman period emphasizes martyrdom and the rise of the cult of the saints (chapter two), thereby setting up discussion of a well known early third-century martyrology, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (chapter three). An account of asceticism in the early church (chapter four) is followed by a reading of the fourth-century Life of Antony, generally lauded as the first Christian biography (chapter five). Further reflection on the social role of the ascetic saint (chapter six) is followed by readings of two more late ancient hagiographies—Jerome's Life of Paul (chapter seven) and Antonios's Life of Simeon the Stylite (chapter eight). The ninth chapter is an ambitious hinge essay, bridging the considerable gap between the fifth and thirteenth centuries: it covers the development of monasticism in the early medieval west, with emphasis on the growing rift between the monastic elite, who continued to [End Page 517] produce hagiographies, and the rest of the (less than thoroughly Christianized) population, for whom a saint's cult was far more important than his or her literary Life. It also traces the broad impact of the eleventh-century reform movements on both saints' cults and hagiography, leading up to the explosion of hagiographical literature in the thirteenth century. The last...