- The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac by Mathew Kuefler
This ambitious study dramatically revises the development of an especially important and well-known saint’s legend while probing intriguing questions that bear on medieval saints generally. Mathew Kuefler traces the fate of Gerald of Aurillac’s sanctity from the tenth century to the modern era in order to explain how this saint’s image was shaped and reshaped over time, how devotion to him ebbed and flowed, and what this fluid history may reveal about the cult of saints.
Kuefler begins by arguing that Gerald’s two vitae, the Vita brevior and the Vita prolixior, have been erroneously dated and misattributed. The predominant view holds that Odo of Cluny wrote the Vita prolixior c. 930 and that soon thereafter an anonymous monk of Aurillac abbreviated it to create the “uninteresting” shorter version (p. 9). By contrast, Kuefler argues that Odo wrote the Vita brevior, which was then vastly expanded by none other than Ademar of Chabannes in the 1020s, whom Kuefler likewise identifies as the author of several other texts celebrating Gerald. To support this argument, Kuefler marshals a wealth of detailed evidence from the texts themselves and from well beyond. He makes a very impressive case even if, as he acknowledges, some readers may remain skeptical (p. 34). Even those who hesitate to accept the attribution will likely find Kuefler’s prosecution of the question a model of lucid and thorough argumentation.
Kuefler then analyzes each vita’s portrait of Gerald. As one might expect, he explores how these monastic writers made the case for a saint who was not merely a layman, but one tangled up with wealth, power, and—most problematic—violence. [End Page 610] More unexpectedly, Kuefler does this in part by reading each vita as reflecting its author’s own life, in the most intimate sense: not merely his earthly ties and concerns but also his possible “regrets” about having renounced the world (pp. 60–61) or doubts that his personal “sacrifice … was truly worthwhile” (p. 82). Much of this discussion necessarily takes place in the subjunctive (“How could [Odo] not have paused to reflect on what his own life might have been?” [pp. 60–61]). Here, too, skeptical readers may want further evidence. Yet Kuefler’s challenge to historians to rethink how we read hagiographical texts, which, after all, were the work of specific (if mostly unknown) individuals, is certainly apt.
The last three chapters trace the cult’s rise, fall, and transformation over some ten centuries. In particular, Kuefler seeks to identify factors that help to keep a saint’s memory vibrant and, conversely, those that lead to his or her being forgotten or “unmade.” As he proceeds through this vast sweep of time, Kuefler shifts from the highly specific (the fate of Gerald’s abbey in Aurillac and its dependencies) to the very broad (the rise of heretics and mendicants, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the French Revolution and its aftermath). The illuminating conclusion is that it takes quite a lot to make a saint stick: not just a good vita and abundant miracles but also assets such as a flourishing institution dedicated to his or her memory, or (better yet) a network of such institutions; a geographical situation favoring pilgrimage; alignment with spiritual fashion; peace and prosperity. The complex set of circumstances needed to keep any cult afloat leads Kuefler to suggest that “saints have life cycles,” and most do not survive the onslaught of history (p. 148).
This stimulating book will be of great interest to all who work on saints and hagiography. Kuefler challenges historians to grapple with important questions about Gerald of Aurillac, his promoters, and saints’ cults in general—shown here to be complex and fragile constructions.