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  • Medieval Saints' Lives: The Gift, Kinship and Community in Old French Hagiography
  • Peter V. Davies
Medieval Saints' Lives: The Gift, Kinship and Community in Old French Hagiography. By Emma Campbell. (Gallica, 12). Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008. xii + 274 pp., 1 b&w, 6 colour pl. Hb £55.00.

The ideological complexities of Old French saints' lives are perceptively analysed in this concentrated and scholarly study, which contributes significantly not only to hagiological research but also to cultural anthropology and current theories of gender, identity, and literary reception. From a huge corpus still emerging from long neglect by literary academia Emma Campbell selects thirty-seven thematically representative texts, all bar the earlier Vie de saint Alexis written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, largely by Anglo-Norman authors. She convincingly argues that the hagiographic theme of the remissive gift — whether through saintly self-dedication, renunciation, reclusion, almsgiving, or martyrdom — implies acknowledgement of God's primordial sovereignty and the notion that human ownership of divine gifts received on loan is fundamentally impossible. Materialism, she observes, is here presented as incompatible with these tenets and denotes either the paganism responsible for the heightened sacrifice of agonizing martyrdom, or a redeemable Christian lapse as demonstrated by Julien l'Hospitalier, who expiates acquisitiveness and parricide by recognizing God's prior claim to his wife. While God-fearing married couples may vow chastity, saints of either sex acquire spiritual status when, following Matthew 10. 34-37, they transcend worldly values and shun family, social integration, patrimony, or material security in favour of kinship with God and celestial inheritance. Virginity, however, particularly accentuates female saints' public assertions of God's prior ownership of the self and body, as when nuns sometimes take name-changing vows as brides of Christ. Indeed, Campbell provocatively contends, the orthodox metaphor of spiritual marriage and nuptial virginity opens the saint's relationship to God to possible queer interpretation since virginity potentially challenges heterosexual hegemony, especially when accompanied by transgender role-playing. Divergence from mainstream social values is again often represented by saints' involuntary incest, which Campbell sees as mirroring the celestial reconfiguration of kinship and desire whereby relationships are transformed, multiplied, and legitimized, echoing the Marian-Christian paradigm. Clemence of Barking and others suggest that a spiritual world where queer or unwittingly incestuous desires are rehabilitated is inclusive. The authors' promotion of wider kinship and Christian fellowship both in heaven and on earth leads Campbell to deduce, persuasively, that these hagiographies contributed to forming and consolidating Christian communities and confirming their group [End Page 475] identity in a way that still speaks to today's more secular world. Their epilogues confirm this interpretation through interpellative calls to prayer and, implicitly, to self-contemplation. The texts thus communicate the shared experience of layered communities (sacrificial, fraternal, interpretative, and mimetic) to a postmodern readership with its queer take on medieval sexuality and values. Developing her conceptualization of community formation, Campbell concludes her study by examining the intertextual and intratextual hermeneutic processes involved in reading two vernacular hagiographic manuscript collections (London, British Library, MS Additional 70513 and, less celebrated, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Canonici Miscellaneous 74). Despite its occasional minor blemish — for example, inconsistent pagination settings in the Introduction and oddly incorrect page references to Campbell's own article in French Studies (57 (2003), 447-62) — and silence on the earliest vernacular celebrations of saints, this riveting and wideranging study is most welcome.

Peter V. Davies
University of Glasgow


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pp. 475-476
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