- Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England
It is necessary to note at the outset that Rachel Koopmans uses ‘miracle collections’ to mean both groups of posthumous miracles included in vitae and separate booklets of miraculae. She also uses ‘miracle collections’, [End Page 224] ‘vitae’, and ‘hagiography’ as interchangeable terms, which can be misleading and confusing.
Koopmans discerns two phases in the development of a ‘craze’ for miracle collecting in England. The first of these (1080–1140) was part of ‘a pan-European movement’ to commit orally transmitted stories to writing. As ‘new thinking about the written record’ spread, English monks began to think the miracles of saints needed to be written. In the second phase (1140–1200) miracle collections were longer, less rhetorically elaborate, more inclined to include miracles reported by the laity, and consequently more concerned with the stories’ veracity.
‘The creation of miracle collections [i.e., vitae] is usually thought to have been driven by the local pressures of cults and the immediate political needs of monastic communities’ (p. 2). Koopmans’s argument in effect aims to deprive high medieval English vitae of their contemporary sociopolitical significance. Miracle collecting in her view was a literary phenomenon. ‘The collections of this period [1080–1140] should be read within the context of the growing concern for preserving oral information in general and a fad for miracle collecting in particular’ (p. 6). Her emphasis on ‘new thinking about the written record’ as a motivating force, however, does not mean that she regards written texts as having influenced the formation and development of cults, or as giving them authority. In her view, oral narratives were what made and maintained cults. As part of a literary phenomenon, it seems, miracle collectors merely exerted literary influence on one another: ‘We must be careful not to read the miracles frozen in textual collections as having had more impact than they actually had’ (p. 5).
Koopmans’s chapter on the miracle collection in Lantfred’s vita of Swithin (970s) accordingly dismisses studies which read his work in the context of Bishop Athelwold’s monastic reform, on the grounds that Lantfred’s preface does not explicitly mention Athelwold’s reform. Lantfred does explicitly state that he is writing at the request of the Winchester monks, but Koopmans dismisses this too, on the grounds that it must have been Lantfred who wanted Swithin’s miracles recorded, because Anglo-Saxon monks did not share his interest in recording miracles. ‘It had been over 150 years since an Anglo-Saxon monk had produced a miracle collection’ (p. 58), and ‘it would be a full century before another writer – a foreigner, again – would think it important to preserve miracle stories of English saints in texts’ (p. 59).
It is difficult to take issue with this without knowing how Koopmans defines a miracle collection. A number of vitae written in England survive from the period 800–1080 (substantially more than Koopmans indicates). The inclusion of posthumous miracles is a standard feature of these, although [End Page 225] the number varies. In addition, a significant amount of hagiography composed in England during this period has been lost. Koopmans mentions two pre-conquest collections of miracles known to us only through a later recension, but states: ‘neither of these … appears to have been very substantial’ (p. 47). How many posthumous miracles make a collection? What, short of Lantfred’s thirty-four chapters or a separate booklet of miraculae, constitutes ‘a significant interest’ in miracle collecting?
These questions recur in the chapter on Goscelin (1080s), whose interest in posthumous miracles, numerically speaking, seems no greater than many of his predecessors. This, coupled with Lantfred’s undoubtedly significant interest already in the 970s, which Koopmans attributes to his familiarity with the ‘distinguished tradition of miracle collecting’ at Fleury and other continental centres, casts doubt on her claim that a new attitude to the recording of miracles...