Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England

Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England

Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England

Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England

Synopsis

While the late Anglo-Saxons rarely recorded saints' posthumous miracles, a shift occurred as monastic writers of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries started to preserve hundreds of the stories they had heard of healings, acts of vengeance, resurrections, recoveries, and other miraculous deeds effected by their local saints. Indeed, Rachel Koopmans contends, the miracle collection quickly became a defining genre of high medieval English monastic culture.

Koopmans surveys more than seventy-five collections and offers a new model for understanding how miracle stories were generated, circulated, and replicated. She argues that orally exchanged narratives carried far more propagandistic power than those preserved in manuscripts; stresses the literary and memorial roles of miracle collecting; and traces changes in form and content as the focus of the collectors shifted from the stories told by religious colleagues to those told by lay visitors to their churches.

Wonderful to Relate highlights the importance of the two massive collections written by Benedict of Peterborough and William of Canterbury in the wake of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. Koopmans provides the first in-depth examination of the creation and influence of the Becket compilations, often deemed the greatest of all medieval miracle collections. In a final section, she ponders the decline of miracle collecting in the thirteenth century, which occurred with the advent of formalized canonization procedures and theological means of engaging with the miraculous.

Excerpt

Whenever I read a medieval miracle collection, I am reminded of the appeal of looking at a collection of butterflies. Both kinds of collections are hard to resist, no matter how much one might disapprove, in theory, of killing butterflies, or of reveling in stories of miracles. The colors of the insects can be so startling, and their shapes so arresting, that it is easy to feel captured and chloroformed yourself, mesmerized by the variety of the display. There is a pleasure too in contemplating the ordering of the specimens: the straight rows, the squared and spread wings, the labels pasted under each one. The stories in medieval miracle collections line up like this as well. Caught in the nets of writers, spaced out and ordered, the stories neatly march along in chapter after chapter, some of them presenting such unexpected contours and coloring that you can feel your eyes widening in surprise.

The zeal of the writers who made such collections seems as wondrous today as the stories of miracles. Collections of saints’ miracles fill the volumes of our editions of medieval sources in the same way butterfly collections of the early Victorian era clog the storerooms of our natural history museums. A few collections were highly formalized, the same stories reappearing in different guises again and again, but most collections of miracles contain no such plagiarism. Their narratives, often collected by a single enthusiastic writer, were derived not from other texts but from the swarm of stories in current oral circulation. Conversation about miracles sent writers to their desks when little else seemed worthy of written record. Some medieval collectors amassed hundreds of stories, creating textual giants that dwarfed even the longest of saints’ lives.

R. W. Southern considered the “writing of marvels,” especially the English creation of the first versions of the “Miracles of the Virgin,” to be one of the most significant achievements of the twelfth-century renaissance in England. Other historians have noted in passing that twelfth-century writers in England and elsewhere made many miracle collections, but the extent of . . .

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