“How is your book… your novel going?” Angus inquired politely as he sipped at his coffee. “The one about the Scottish saints?” Antonia sighed. “Not very well, I’m afraid. My saints, I regret to say, are misbehaving”. Love over Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith
And indeed, for Antonia, they are. They get grumpy and might not even really like each other. Saints are, after all, people, and not always particularly pure. They also have to live in the same societies as everyone else, full of petty jealousies, alcohol, greed, and people with bad ideas. Or, Antonia fears, maybe she is projecting her ideas on them.
I wrote Early Medieval Hagiography with these issues firmly in mind. Saints, or at least writings about them, have long been seen as both reflections of the societies that produced them and efforts to shape those societies. Hagiographies can supply wonderful, rich data for studying the early Middle Ages, from Ireland to Byzantium and sometimes beyond. But they can also present minefields for those dealing with them, both because they were not written to tell us about the past in a straightforward manner, and because of the baggage of how we have tried to study them outselves.
Initially, I was approached by Arc Humanities Press (an imprint of Amsterdam University Press) to write an introduction to these saintly biographies that was, apart from being introductory, provocative, different, and grounded in enough hard research to say things to a hardcore audience. And preferably with a global angle. In short: it was going to be a challenge. We needed a twenty-first century guide to the subject that captured the field and at least attempted to tilt it to an awkward angle. It also needed to bring scholarship on different regions – actually, in the end, stretching geographically from Ireland to Japan – into sight to help future comparative studies.
My plan was simple: I wanted to write a study that took the reader through the process of writing about saints, from their creation to our efforts to use saints’ Lives. It needed to start with people reading old saints’ Lives, hearing oral legends, remembering and misremembering things, and then trying to make their friends look like saints. There was no process of canonisation in the early Middle Ages, no rules about ‘how to make a saint’. Of course, some saints, like the Englishman St Boniface of Mainz (d. 754), looked like a saint in life because he had read all about them. His enemies were capable of doing so too, which was inconvenient for him and his followers, but which was good (for me) for showing how people negotiate status when there aren’t really any rules to follow. It also allowed plenty of scope for unusual saints: married-with-children saints, bishop-murdering saints, holy fools hanging out with prostitutes, saints who had performed no miracles whatsoever but who were a bit angsty. Every time one subverts our modern expectations about what a saint should look like, we should be jolted to consider what that says about shifting social norms, then and now.
Once somebody had written an account of their favoured saint, what they did with it was important. Hagiography did not just exist as stories: they were parts of books, of libraries, of sermons and debates, with real institutional contexts and with people engaging with them. Turning to the early manuscript evidence as I did, you can see people attempting to recontextualise saints by juxtaposing the new and the old, women and men, martyrs and confessors – all to give them new meaning. People composed calendars and martyrologies as guidebooks that linked into liturgical cycles (or often, more likely, just to help to decide what stories to read out at dinner time for entertainment). Order controls meaning.
Having built up a sense of how people wrote hagiographies, and then one of how people used them, the third angle was no less important: how do we use them? The modern classic on the subject, Hippolyte Delehaye’s Les légendes hagiographiques (1905), came directly out of efforts to remove dubious saints by applying rigorous source criticism (much of which boils down to entirely reasonable variations on ‘don’t trust anything too much without good reason’). The development of hagiography studies in the century that followed, unsurprisingly, very much mirrored historiographical trends more generally. Ideas from philology, gender studies, anthropology, postmodernism and comparative religious studies came into play, combined, and fell out of fashion again, leaving a varied toolkit for future analysis. But always, it seems, scholars sought ways to get lost pasts to speak to present concerns, however objective and neutral they claimed to be. There is a long history of being polemical about who is right and who is wrong about how, at the end of the day, historians ought to read hagiographies. What we need to do is to be methodologically promiscuous and find questions – not answers! – from different fields. In particular, we need to get away from the surprisingly dogged insistence that we don’t need to think about method or theory if we ‘read with care’.
The final part of Early Medieval Hagiography seeks to apply lessons from the other themes of the book, and to reassess what difference studying hagiographies has made to early medieval studies. Here, I turned to the big issues: How ‘dark’ was the Middle Ages? How important were ethnic and religious identities? Did people really not have any sense of the world beyond the horizon? And, of course, for every example that confirms our worst prejudices about the period, there is at least one saint whose story has unsettled them. In fact, more often than not, hagiography forces us to see the early Middle Ages as a much more complex time than even many working on them like to admit, and forces us to see more of society in action than just a few rich white men at the top. The challenge the book ends with, then, is how we can take these kinds of observations to build new histories that are both methodologically rigorous and which speak to our needs.
Antonia could rest easy: we have been projecting our concerns onto saints for two millennia and we are not going to stop now.
Early Medieval Hagiography is available to order now.