[A]n anonymous monk of Whitby wished to honor with a vita the pope responsible for the conversion of the English; knowing little about Gregory the Great or miracles associated with him, however, he must ask his readers’ indulgence if he simply praises the saint extravagantly, randomly assembling passages from Scripture, references to Gregory’s writings, and some absurd fables.
From Rachel S. Anderson, “Saint’s Legends,” pp. 87-105 in A History of Old English Literature, edited by R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain (Maldon, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 90. The particular life mentioned is found in Bertram Colgrave, ed. and trans., The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968).
I’m revising chapter 2 and ran across thislast night. It always makes me laugh…
Update: I started to answer Michelle’s question but decided that the lazy man’s way is just to cut-n-paste—so here’s the section apparently complete with footnotes:
In addition to Scripture, monasticism was nurtured and spread through the developing art form of Christian hagiography. Athanasius’ life of St Antony had an incalculable effect on the growth of monasticism. In the West, four other lives quickly grounded both the shape of monasticism and the conventions of the hagiographical genre; Jerome’s lives of Malchus, Hilaron, and Paul of Thebes, and—especially central to the growth of Gaulish monasticism—Sulpicius Severus’s life of St Martin. Lives of saints became an enormously popular form of literature. Lapidge reports that “C. W. Jones once estimated that some 600 [saint’s lives] survive from the period before 900.”
These lives fulfill two important functions in the monastic milieu. First, they present examples of virtue and saintliness for imitation. Second, they continually remind their readers and hearers of the end result of such imitation—they record the miracles performed by God through the saint before and after death. Through their power of efficacious intercession on behalf of the living the glorified saints extend divine power into the world of the living, participating in and advancing the eschatological consummation in a manner different but not ultimately dissimilar from Cassian’s vision of Christ made complete in his Body.
Some modern readers seeking historical data or the flavor of local medieval life from saint’s lives are often disappointed to find generic and stereotyped topoi repeated throughout the genre, imparting little data for historical use. In order to accomplish the mimetic and theological functions, the genre followed certain prescribed conventions, conventions that seem strange to us now. The tradition provides a basic template:
the saint is born of noble stock; his birth is accompanied by miraculous portents; as a youth he excels at learning and reveals that he is destined for saintly activity; he turns from secular to holy life (often forsaking his family) and so proceeds through the various ecclesiastical grades; he reveals his sanctity while still on earth by performing various miracles; eventually he sees his death approaching and, after instructing his disciples or followers, dies calmly; after his death many miracles occur at his tomb. Of course, any number of variants is possible within these basic frameworks; but the framework itself is invariable.
As a body of literature, these lives had a specific use in the community; during Chapter, the head of the community would read from the life of the saint on the day of his or her veneration that the monastics might meditate upon the virtues of the saint throughout the day. During the Night Office, the life—or a different version thereof—would be read as one the main reading for one of the Nocturns. Thus, the presence of a life for any given saint remembered in the community’s liturgical kalendar was not optional—these were ecclesially necessary documents. As a result, the framework could be utilized even for saints about whom the hagiographer had only the most scant information: “[A]n anonymous monk of Whitby wished to honor with a vita the pope responsible for the conversion of the English; knowing little about Gregory the Great or miracles associated with him, however, he must ask his readers’ indulgence if he simply praises the saint extravagantly, randomly assembling passages from Scripture, references to Gregory’s writings, and some absurd fables.” Thus, working from the basic framework and resorting to a handful of stock topoi a saint’s life could be easily assembled for any one of the some 300 post-biblical saints venerated in an average Anglo-Saxon institutionthat would satisfy the liturgical and mimetic requirements of the genre while frustrating historians of a later age.
The mention of Scripture in the above life of Gregory the Great is significant. The construction of sanctity was an important function of these works and that construction had to conform to expectations: “It was the overall intention of any hagiographer to demonstrate that his saintly subject belonged indisputably to the universal community of saints, . . . It is not so much a matter of plagiarism as of ensuring that the local saint is seen clearly to possess the attributes of, and to belong undoubtedly to, the universal community of saints.” The virtues, trials, and especially miracles are very often drawn directly from Scripture. Not only does this create a continuity of sanctity, but it also reinforces that the Christian life in general and the monastic life in particular was understood as an ever-increasing growth into enacting the Scriptures—not only enacting its commandments and precepts, but even receiving the same graces that biblical personages enjoyed. The citation and appropriation of Scripture in hagiography melded imitation of the saints with imitation of the Scriptures, all of it ultimately pointing to the imitation of Christ who is the source and pattern of both the saints and the Scriptures.