In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Biography 23.4 (2000) 758-761

[Access article in PDF]
John Kitchen. Saints' Lives and the Rhetoric of Gender: Male and Female in Merovingian Hagiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 255 pp. ISBN 0-19-511722-0, $49.95.

As he explains, John Kitchen began his research intending to write a study of Merovingian (that is, roughly, very early medieval French) female saints and authors. But after further consideration of recent scholarly literature, which argues for distinctive features of female sanctity and authorship in this age, Kitchen concluded that the "argument for distinctiveness" was based on an assumption of difference rather than its demonstration. He chose to test this scholarly consensus using a method he proudly admits is old-fashioned: a painstaking consideration of the form and content of a selection of saints' lives. His conclusion is that gender is an insufficient category for consideration of either female holy women or female writers, that recent scholars' "search for a distinctiveness that is determined purely on the basis of gender is undoubtedly a misguided approach to the study of the Merovingian Vitae" (159). Kitchen's methods and conclusions constitute a salutary reminder that source texts, especially those as idiosyncratic and perplexing as saints' biographies, must always be considered in their literary context.

Kitchen examines a coherent body of texts written at about the same time, in the years around 600 AD. These include six prose vitae by Venantius Fortunatus, and twenty short saints' lives by Gregory of Tours collected under the name Liber vitae patrum. There is one female saint in each of these sets, and the corpus is rounded out by a biography of Saint Radegund by the nun Baudonivia. Kitchen devotes special attention to authorial use of Scripture, direct and indirect borrowing from earlier saints' lives, types of sanctity, and most importantly, prefaces, which he finds essential to understanding authorial intentions. Kitchen's close readings, especially in the longer section on the biographies of male saints, are challenging, and his conclusions are important. Fortunatus's men are all born saints conforming to a model personality, and all of them engage in conflicts--with [End Page 758] lay people, ecclesiastical figures, or their own bodies. In this way, Kitchen argues, Fortunatus draws links between his subjects, all five of them worldly bishops, and previous hagiographical topoi of struggle (martyrdom, isolation, or asceticism). Thus Fortunatus's aim is to create a "syncretic sanctity" through a careful remaking of the genre of hagiography, an adaptation of old topoi into new productions that Kitchen calls "hagiographic displacement." Furthermore, these biographies, far from being aimed at an unspecified public as modern scholars often assume, were commissioned by bishops and meant for their exclusive ecclesiastical circles. In at least one case, the commissioning bishop even provided Fortunatus with a clerical aide, "a kind of hagiographic research assistant" (49), to write a biography of the patron's predecessor. So Fortunatus's hagiography had among its purposes what we'd call public relations or self-promotion. Gregory of Tours, however, wrote the Liber vitae patrum in a much different vein. These sketches are structured as both biographies and collections of miracles, each prefaced by Biblical quotations and allusions that set a theme, and showing a diversity of holy experience quite unlike the model or type developed by Venantius Fortunatus. Gregory's use of Scripture casts hagiography as a form of Biblical exegesis, and his technique links his holy subjects to the past and future, placing the saint in the progression of salvation history.

In his section on vitae of women saints, Kitchen tests the conclusions he has reached about the writing of male saints' lives on two axes: by comparing what the two male hagiographers do when it comes to female subjects, and how a female author treats a female saint discussed not long before by a male author. As regards Gregory of Tours, Kitchen finds strikingly little that makes the holy woman Monegund's portrait stand out from the nineteen treatments of male saints in the Liber vitae patrum. Kitchen concedes that Fortunatus's Radegund vita...