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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 319-325
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Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. Edited by Thomas Head. (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 2000. Pp. xlix, 834. $105.00.)
Part of the wide-spread attempt to separate the present of the Church from its past following on Vatican Council II was deprecation of the cult of the saints. There must be some irony in the fact that at the moment when Roman Catholic children were less and less informed of the lives of the saints, the study of hagiography became increasingly popular in academic venues. My own state university has a course, taught by a colleague, in "Medieval Saints and Holy People in Western Europe," for which the book under review is, except for its price (but with this rich feast of a book, one might need no others, and in any case there is a paperback version at a third the cost), ideally suited.
In this massive volume thirty-two well-chosen scholars present thirty-six hagiographical texts or groups of texts from the fourth through fifteenth centuries. With few exceptions, the translations are either of texts which have never been translated into English, or of texts of which translations are no longer easily available. This leaves some holes in the anthology: St. Martin of Tours' influence is clear in the selections included, but we are not given his life. The anthology is meant to be supplemented by such materials. Beginning with Head's useful introduction, the book charts the development of hagiography and gives a guide to English translations of its primary sources, including whatis available on the internet. Head's "Guide to Further Reading" attends to foreign-language scholarship, as in limited fashion do some of the authors.
Each of the thirty-six chapters has three parts, viz., an introduction, a guide to sources and further reading, and an annotated translation of either a single text or a group of thematically related texts. Perhaps the most important thing to be said about David Brakke's opening translation of Athanasius' Life of St. Antony [End Page 319] is that it is the first to be done in English from G. J. M. Bartelink's 1994 edition. Brakke gives us a very clear-eyed view of Athanasius, whom Brakke among other things calls a liar. The Life's descriptions of Antony's interaction with animals may now be read in the light of Jacques Voisenet's wonderful Bêtes et Hommes dans le Monde Médiéval. Le Bestiaire des Clercs du Ve au XIIe siècle, Preface by J. Le Goff (Turnhout, 2000). Philippe Buc's chapter on Victricius of Rouen's In Praise of the Saints is an excellent introduction to the theology of relics. In chapter three Claudia Rapp gives us a purported Greek bishop's life from Egypt, Mark the Deacon's Life of St. Porphyry of Gaza. If we cannot be sure that there ever was a Porphyry, the situation is quite different with the subjects of E. Gordon Whatley's "Constantine the Great, the Empress Helena, and the Relics of the Holy Cross," a selection of documents which includes a tenth-century Spanish Legendary account of the discovery of the True Cross.
The fifth chapter, by Dorothy Africa, passes to an eighth-century Irish abbess, Samthann, through whose life we view new forms of monasticism developed in Ireland. This life is striking both for its dramatic imagination and its psychological astuteness. Africa gives a nice introduction to Irish saints' lives, with their similar patterning to epic and romance heroes and their use of the motifs of popular tales, and makes useful comment on the differences in the Lives between men's and women's religious experience. In dialogue with the findings of Julia Smith, Africa notes that the Life of Samthann has the unisexual view of sanctity typical of sixth-century lives, rather than the sharply differentiated view of female sanctity typical of late-ninth-century Carolingian lives.
Chapter six, by Ian Wood, drops back a century to...