Favorite Quotation in Ch. 2

[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.”[1]

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.

[2]

As a body of literature, these lives had a specific use in the community; during Chapter,[3] 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.”[4] 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 institution[5] that 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.”[6] 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.


[1] Michael Lapidge, “The saintly life in Anglo-Saxon England”, pp. 243-263 in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, edited by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 253.

[2] Lapidge, “The saintly life”, 253. The outline for a passio or death by martyrdom is equally stereotyped but by this point in the life of the Western Church few martyrs were being made, Boniface and other northern missionaries being exceptions.

[3] For more on the Office of Chapter see the section on the daily round in ch. 3.

[4] 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 Betram Colgrave, ed. and trans., The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968).

[5] Lapidge, “The saintly life”, 247. Lenker records lectionary entries for 155 sanctoral occasions, many of which commemorated multiple saints.

[6] Lapidge, “The saintly life”, 254.

9 Replies to “Favorite Quotation in Ch. 2”

  1. Actually the comment on ‘absurd fables’ makes me sad. These ‘fables’ can tell us a great deal about their theology. Not all of them to be sure and some hagiography is better than others, but much of it is good narrative theology. I’ll have a post on St Patrick’s day on one such bit of narrative theology.

    Do you really think the average monastery in 705-710, when the Life of Gregory was written, had 300 examples of saintly life to pick from?

  2. At this point it’s hard to say what the “average” early eighth century monastery had. In this section of the dissertation I’m talking about the Benedictine Revival period—late 10th century—and, as far as actual surviving legendaries from that period goes, Gneuss only lists four. However, we have to assume that most places did have full legendaries.

    As Gneuss also comments, many lives circulated outside of lengendaries proper so legendary-counting alone doesn’t give us a full picture.

    I think it not unlikely that an eighth century monastery would have upward of 200 saints’ lives for liturgical and other purposes, but that’s just a guess.

  3. How many are in the Old English Martyrology? If I recall that is supposed to be about 9th century Mercian. Then there is the newish down-sized version of Bede’s martyrology. I don’t recall how many the most recent editor thought were genuine to Bede.

  4. Love it!

    Of course this transportation of “signs of sanctity” between/amongst the saints occurs even in Holy Scripture itself, e.g. the transmission of Hannah’s song to Mary, and the clear parallels in Stephen’s martyrdom with Jesus’s, etc.

    I recently finished writing/compiling a 377,943 word (448 page) collection of stories/histories/etc. for all saints and holy days in our monastic calendar. One of the parameters around which I built the work was the re-introduction of “absurd” legends – as per Voreigne’s “Legenda Aurea” – (which had been purged from so many similar modern collections).

    Their value, for me, was by no means their historicity, but the fact that they represented common fare for so many Christians for so many centuries — just as the Gospels tell us more about the Early Church than they do about the biographical details of Jesus’s life.

    Really appreciated your post, Derek.

  5. Hi – Thank you for quoting me – it’s nice to see that people are still reading that chapter and finding the info in it useful.

  6. Thanks for stopping by–yes, I find it very useful indeed! Especially given how interdisciplinary Medieval Studies is, good pieces (like yours) that provide the historical and theological background, a survey of the core texts, and the main issues for engaging them are essential.

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