- The Life and Afterlife of St. Elizabeth of Hungary: Testimony from Her Canonization Hearings
Wolf, the John Sutton Miner Professor of History at Pomona College, has provided something that students of medieval hagiography have long awaited—a good English translation, with notes, of all the testimonies from the canonization process for St. Elizabeth, carried out between 1232 and 1235. This important work is one of the earliest and most complete examples of the formal papal canonization process that took shape in the early-thirteenth century. Along with the testimonies on Elizabeth’s life by her four closest female companions, known as the Dicta, and the summary of her life by her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, the records include official depositions on 130 miracles worked through her intercession.
Wolf says that the only previous partial English translation of these testimonies was done in the 1950s by Nesta de Robeck; he missed my translation in The Greatest of These Is Love: St. Elizabeth of Hungary (New York, 2007). Although his is still not a complete edition of the process—it lacks the letters of Pope Gregory IX to the commissioners and the bull of canonization—Wolf’s is the first to contain all the miracle testimonies.
In addition to the clear and readable translation, notes, and solid bibliography, Wolf has included two essays—one on the witnesses to the saint’s virtues and one on the miracle testimonies. He draws a sharp distinction between the “life” of the saint, or the reconstruction of her personality by those who knew her, and the “afterlife,” in which the witnesses to the miracles see her as a supplier of healing cures rather than as a real person whose virtues should be imitated. [End Page 104]
Wolf indicates a range of possibilities for the way different models of sanctity might have affected the testimonies of the witnesses to Elizabeth’s life. His comments about the similarities between her social concerns and those of the Beguines are particularly good. The witnesses show her reflecting some aspects of Franciscan life, such as penitential preaching, that fall outside of the usual hagiographic conventions. He successfully brings out the way that the miracle testimonies indicate the varying degrees of sophistication in ordinary people’s understanding of the theology of saintly intercession.
However, Wolf could have dealt more with the nature of the existing text of the Dicta; some scholars believe that the work does not represent the original depositions but a Vita based on them, in which the words of the witnesses were rearranged and possibly cut. This certainly would have affected his approach to the text. He also fails to take into account the additional testimonies from the process discovered in the Anonymous Franciscan life.
Wolf also never states his criteria for determining when omission of something in the testimonies is significant. He believes people were uninterested in Elizabeth’s personality or virtues, but the questions asked by commissioners did not even broach the issue, and people might have been reticent about commenting on the personal traits of a member of the nobility before officials. One witness recounted that hearing a German song about Elizabeth’s farewell to her husband moved her while she was on her pilgrimage. How many other people heard it, were moved, and yet did not testify about it—and why?
In spite of some shortcomings, Wolf’s book is a valuable resource.