Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults

Article excerpt

Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults. Edited by Jane Cartwright. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. xvi + 339 pp. £45.00 / $79.95 (cloth); £17.99/ $39.95 (paper).

Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults is a broad-ranging collection of essays inspired by a conference of the same name held at the University of Wales, Lampeter in September of 2000. One of the strengths of the collection is the breadth of its geographic representation. Four articles address various aspects of hagiography in the Welsh context (Evans, Henken, Jones and Owens, Cartwright); five focus primarily on Irish texts and contexts (Koch, O'Loughlin, Bray, Charles-Edwards, Wooding); two essays deal with saints in Brittany (Merdrignac, Constantine). Other articles focus on Scottish/Irish connections (Clancy), the cult of saints in Pictland (Dransart), and saints and material culture in Cornwall (Mattingly). The collection is rounded off with a study of a single hagiographical motif found in the lives of saints from a cross-section of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Somerset, Cornwall, and Brittany (Jankulak).

There is a correspondingly broad chronological span (from the late fourth to the early twentieth centuries), with a preponderance of the essays focusing on the medieval period. Within this rich-and sometimes distracting-breadth there are a number of broader themes: the circumstances of hagiographic production with particular reference to religio-political contexts, the relationship between saints' cults, pilgrimage, and material culture; the various sources of hagiographical traditions; and interplay between those sources.

With regard to the political context of hagiographie production, Henken traces how the Latin Life of St. David, that "ever-adapting icon of Welshness," has functioned in both the overall struggle for an independent Welsh church and in the rise of St. David s over other Welsh dioceses. Jones and Owen address hagiographical material in the poetic vernacular with particular reference to the use the Gogijnfeirdd poets made of native saints as "weapons in secular political maneuvering."

Other articles focus on the relationships between architecture, pilgrimage, cults, and material culture. Evans argues the physical layout of St. Davids may have been more influenced by topographical and architectural concerns than cultic ones. Dransart explores links between hagiography, place-names, and material culture, arguing that the presence of antiquities exercised both a generative and a legitimizing effect on Pictish hagiographic traditions. Mattingly studies the differences between elite and popular preferences with regard to saints as demonstrated by the late medieval series of stained glass windows at St. Nerot in Cornwall.

The majority of essays address the question of the sources of hagiographie traditions and interplays between those sources. Cartwright examines the Middle Welsh prose hagiography of Mary Magdalene and Martha-two "outsiders" imported from the universal saints of Christendom; she argues for a lay and familial audience for the bucheddau as opposed to a monastic one. …