Biography 24.3 (2001) 613-616
[Access article in PDF]
The earthly lives of saints are generally considered to belong to the genre of hagiography rather than biography for several good reasons: the dies natalis, the "birthday" of the saint, is actually the day of mortal death; the saint's "life," at least in certain kinds of activity--notably, defending his own church and physical remains, defining the boundaries of ecclesiastical property, rebuking the doubters, performing miracles, and otherwise answering (or refusing to answer) prayers--continues on long after mortal death, and biographical/historical details of the mortal life are usually secondary in the narrative to the indications of sanctity that the mortal life reveals, which, saints being saints, tend to be alarmingly similar in the cases even of otherwise quite different saints. In all, the genre had long been considered too unstable a combination of folklore, deliberate and instrumental revisionism, and rigid genre to allow it more than a marginal and curious place in either biography or history.
Moreover, the sources for the lives of saints have conventionally fallen among several different epistemological stools. As E. Gordon Whatley pointed out in a recent number of this journal, for a long time positivist historians and biographers dismissed them out of hand (Bruno Krusch once called them "ecclesiastical swindling-literature"), and so did students of literature, "as tediously unworthy of serious critical study" (269). Yet in recent years, as "sacred biography," to use Thomas Heffernan's phrase, they have loomed large in scholarly interests--partly because of their appeal to certain kinds of postmodern scholarly mentalities, including gender study (Mooney), but also because they invariably deal with power, and power is always interesting, in whatever form one finds it.
The change in scholarly interest may be conveniently located in the appearance of Peter Brown's The Cult of the Saints and André Vauchez's La sainteté en occident in 1981, followed soon after by Stephen Wilson's remarkable edited collection of articles with an annotated bibliography, the extended studies by Thomas Heffernan and Thomas Head in 1988 and 1990, and [End Page 613] those of many other scholars since--particularly, for early England, the work of David Rollason. These were soon accompanied by extensive collections of saints' lives in English translation by Jo Ann McNamara, Head, Pamela Scheingorn, and William Granger Ryan. At the same time, the field had grown so vast that review articles began early and continue to appear (Fouracre 1990; Smith 1992; Geary 1996). The Hagiography Society was founded in 1990. A new journal, Hagiographica: Rivista de agiografia e biografia della Società internazionale per lo studio del medio evo latino / Journal of Hagiography and Biography of Società internazionale per lo studio del medio evo latino, was launched at Turnhout and Paris in 1994. A multivolume research reference work proposed to identify all hagiographers and their works in western Europe from the second to the sixteenth century (Philippart 1994, 1996). My own keyword search of the holdings of a very well-stocked university library found 3,939 entries under "saints," 190 under "saints AND lives," and 272 under "hagiography." Dominic Marner's very competent "Select Bibliography" in the present volume lists forty books and articles now essential reading just for Cuthbert (he omits the dissertation and article by Johnson-South, the article by Rosenthal, and the brief notice by Heffernan [140-42]). The field is busy, productive, and abundant.
Marner's volume itself is a sign of its abundance--and occasional splendor. Co-published with The British Library, it is a beautifully made and splendidly illustrated imperial octavo that reproduces the forty-four surviving miniatures (there were originally fifty-five) from British Library Yates Thompson MS 46, the late twelfth-century Durham cathedral manuscript containing among other texts Bede's prose life of the saint, as well as a further two from Bede's account of Cuthbert in his Ecclesiastical...