Biography 25.2 (2002) 379-382
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The last two decades have witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of studies in hagiography. The saints and their legends are enjoying what can almost be called a renaissance. Saints' lives are in vogue among scholars in the way Arthurian literature was in the seventies and eighties. Female saints in particular have been much studied, no doubt as a result of the reenvisioning of women's history in the late 1970s and 1980s. While at first, in the 1970s, the misogynous motifs of saints' lives and Christian discourse in general were main topics of interest among feminist historians and theologians, later, in the 1980s, the recovery of the "hidden history" of early Christian women's authority, independence, and mobility became the focus, and with it a more critically heterogenous approach to the legends. The more recent works on the women of early and medieval Christianity, those of the 1990s, have been influenced by post-structuralist interpretations of cultural and social construction of gender and the body, and seek to examine gender models, gendered voices, and gender categories. A few works published within the last decade stand out as particularly novel in their contributions to hagiographical research, and offer especially well-conceived methodologies: Caroline Walker Bynum's Fragmentation and Redemption (Zone Books, 1992), Lynda L. Coon's Sacred Fictions (U of Pennsylvania P, 1997), Catherine M. Mooney's Gendered Voices (U of Pennsylvania P, 1999), and Gail Ashton's The Generation of Identity in Late Medieval Hagiography (Routledge, 2000). To this list of exceptionally fine works, Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy by Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn, [End Page 379] who in 1990 co-edited Interpreting Cultural Symbols, an interesting collection of essays on Saint Anne in late medieval society, can now be added.
The hagiographic text analyzed in Writing Faith is the Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis, a compilation of miracles attributed to the intervention of Saint Faith (or Sainte Foy, as Ashley and Sheingorn prefer to call her), a third- or fourth-century virgin who received the crown of martyrdom at Agen in Gaul. The compilation was begun early in the eleventh century by the scholar Bernard of Angers, and continued by anonymous monastic authors in the course of that century. Ashley and Sheingorn's methodological premise, formulated by Felice Lifshitz in The Norman Conquest of Pious Neustria (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1995), is that "'narratives describing the activities of saints. . . are fully historiographical, and that the activities of producing historical narrative, on the one hand, and of instituting and elaborating saints' cults on the other, are generated by one and the same impulse, an impulse which is fundamentally political'" (ix). "For us," Ashley and Sheingorn claim, "every version of a hagiographic text is a rhetorical construction that serves historical purposes" (ix). In their view,
All authors of hagiographic texts "write faith" in the sense that they construct and reconstruct saints' lives and miracles for believers, but post-medieval scholars of hagiography also participate in writing faith as they interpret texts and write their histories. Thus, the medieval authors of the Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis wrote faith . . . as they created their portraits of Sainte Foy out of materials available in their cultural milieux and in response to specific, often local, needs and agendas. Since every rewriting was a historical event, keyed to the needs of a particular audience, no redaction was more authentic than another. (1)
Sheingorn and Ashley use the term "social semiotics" to characterize the project, and label their analysis of the Liber miraculorum as post-disciplinary. The latter term they define as follows: "we draw our analytic methods from a number of individual disciplines, including anthropology, history, literary theory, philology, rhetoric, religious studies, and feminist and gender studies" (2). The argument for this approach is that "[o]nly by escaping...