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  • Thomas of Cantimpré: The Collected Saints’ Lives: Christina the Astonishing, Lutgard of Aywières, Margaret of Ypres and Abbot John of Cantimpré
  • Elizabeth Freeman
Newman, Barbara, ed., Thomas of Cantimpré: The Collected Saints’ Lives: Christina the Astonishing, Lutgard of Aywières, Margaret of Ypres and Abbot John of Cantimpré (Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 19), trans. Margot H. King and Barbara Newman, Turnhout, Brepols, 2008; cloth; pp. x, 321; R.R.P. €60.00; ISBN 9782503520780.

This book continues Brepols’ welcome republication of Low Countries saints’ Lives from the high Middle Ages. Following recent volumes focusing on the vitae written by the Cistercian monk Goswin of Bossut at Villers (published 2003) and texts concerning the holy laywoman Marie of Oignies (2006), this volume presents English translations of four of the five vitae written by the Dominican Thomas of Cantimpré. There is also an excellent Introduction involving original insights into such topics as the twelfth- and thirteenth-century religious re-awakening in the Low Countries, the role of commerce and urban expansion in this re-awakening, the endlessly fascinating topic of the mulieres religiosae, and the interactions between mendicants and these holy women. Thomas’ vitae of John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières are all included, but Thomas’s supplement to the Life of Marie of Oignies is excluded on the grounds that it appeared in the 2006 Brepols volume on Marie. The Life of John is translated here for the first time, while the other three Lives are revised translations, with some additions to footnotes, of Margot King’s important (but no longer so easily accessible) translations as published by Peregrina Publishing in the 1990s.

Despite writing two popular preaching aids filled with great stories (Liber de natura rerum and Bonum universale de apibus), which together survive in more than 220 manuscripts, Thomas of Cantimpré (c. 1200–c. 1265–70) is today, understandably, best known for his five vitae. Although certainly not surviving in hundreds of manuscripts, the vitae were still influential in the Middle Ages (some of the Lives were translated into vernacular languages) and, more to the point, the many cross-references between these Lives and the Lives by other authors such as Goswin of Bossut and Jacques of Vitry permit us to compile a picture of Low Countries spirituality which teaches us about far more than just the named individuals who are the subjects of the Lives.

Thomas was in his early twenties and still an Augustinian canon at Cantimpré in Cambrai when he wrote his first Life, a hagiography of John the founder of Cantimpré. An interesting fact, the implications of which deserve reflection, is that Thomas did not finish the Life until 40 years later. [End Page 188] In other words, he wrote almost all of the Life, but left it sitting in his desk drawer for decades until he was asked by the abbot of Cantimpré to send the biography to him. Thomas reports that it took him scarcely one day to finish the work (all he needed to do was ‘finish what remained to be said about [John’s] death’), which leads one to ask why it was that he had not finished the work earlier. Perhaps in the 1220s his literary energies would soon be fully expended in writing about holy women such as Marie of Oignies, Christina, Margaret, and Lutgard?

The Life of John shows us a canon, who was in many ways a model Dominican. (John died in c. 1205, so he lived just before the Dominicans entered the region in any numbers.) John preached to heretics and confounded them, he converted influential secular lords to lives of Christian charity, and, following a practice that foreshadows the strong relations between mendicants and holy women that Thomas of Cantimpré himself would exemplify, John gave strong support to Cantimpré’s female community at Prémy and in fact seemed to rely on female spiritual counsel.

About five years after writing the Life of John, Thomas supplemented Jacques of Vitry’s Life of Marie of Oignies. A few years later, in the early 1230s, at around the time that he joined the Dominican order...


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pp. 188-190
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