Writing about Holy People, East to West

There is a productive global turn in early medieval studies. The old concerns and many problems still remain. Still, big projects have been pushing western medievalists out of their traditional comfort zones, including Vienna’s Visions of Community, the PIMIC network, and Edinburgh’s forthcoming Classicising Learning in Medieval Imperial Systems.

It is important to be attentive to what makes some of the work involved meaningful. If you are driven simply by fashionable concerns to look global or intercultural, there may be trouble ahead. Being impressed by superficial similarities will also not get us very far. There need to be reasons for comparison, and good questions in need of answering, otherwise we quickly end up discovering that oranges are not very much like apples.

‘Saints’, in the most broadly defined way possible, have long been a useful source of comparison. One can find inspirational holy figures in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism easily. They provide some kind of hook. Sketching similarities and differences was a big industry in the 1980s, in volumes such as Kieckhefer and Bond’s 1988 collection Sainthood. But it is not just the saints that one should compare: it is the writing about holy figures.[1]

The sixth century provides interesting material here. Even the most parochial reader paying attention should quickly get drawn from the serial biography-anecdote collections of Gregory of Tours (d. 594) and Gregory the Great (d. 604) into discussions about how they compare or even relate to conversations about saints in the Eastern Roman Empire. Serial biography-anecdote collections were popular there, too, notably in Cyril of Scythopolis’s (d. 559) Lives of the Monks of Palestine and John of Ephesus’s Biographies of Eastern Saints (c. 569).

One need not stop there. In Jiaxiang, around 530, Hui Jiao compiled and edited Gāosēng Zhuàn (Biographies of Eminent Monks) to highlight different kinds of good Buddhist monastic behaviour, from scholarship to general discipline. Further south near Nanjing after 516, someone made a collection of anecdotes about exemplary nuns, Biqiuni Zhuan.

While one is not to be misled by superficial similarities, it is hard not to be. Thanks to the work of Peter Brown on ‘holy men’ as ‘exemplars’, it easy to find the preface to Biqiuni Zhuan achingly familiar: ‘These nuns…, whom I hereby offer as models, are women of excellent reputation, paragons of ardent morals, whose virtues are a stream of fragrance that flows without end’.[2] The stories that follow include many models that would not be out of place in the old Roman world: foundation stories, such as K’ang Ming-Kan, on account of whose piety the official Ho Ch’ung converted one of his private residences into Establishing Blessings Convent; or stories of young women such as T’an-Pei whose faith and dedication to Buddhist teachings led her to refuse marriage and enter a convent instead.

If such similarities of theme with Christian Latin are purely coincidental and superficial, there are still many good questions to ask. How do institutions affect biography and memory? What about family structures? Are these reflections of similarities in biographical habits or social practices? Why were so many different communities interested in serial anecdote forms rather than standalone biographies? What do the differences in Buddhist and Christian uses of motifs reveal about anything? How did the stories circulate? And, of course, the big one: what does comparison reveal that could not be achieved by studying the societies individually?

As one friend concluded at a conference recently: ‘I hate to end by saying there is more work to be done… but there is more work to be done’.

[1] Declared vested interest: I am finishing up a book on early medieval hagiography.

[2] Quotations from Lives of the Nuns: Biographies of Chinese Buddhist Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries, trans. Kathryn Ann Tsai (Honolulu, 1994).