The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

Synopsis

A crusader, a hermit, a bishop, a plague victim, and even a repentant murderer by turns: the stories attached to Saint Gerald of Aurillac offer a strange and fragmented legacy. His two earliest biographies, written in the early tenth and early eleventh centuries, depicted the saint as a warrior who devoted his life to pious service. Soon Gerald was a venerated figure, and the monastery he founded was itself a popular pilgrimage site. Like many other cults, his faded into obscurity over time, although a small group of loyal worshippers periodically revived interest, creating sculpted or stained glass images and the alternate biographies that complicated an ever more obscure history.

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint traces the rise and fall of devotion to Gerald of Aurillac through a millennium, from his death in the tenth century to the attempt to reinvigorate his cult in the nineteenth century. Mathew Kuefler makes a strong case for the sophistication of hagiography as a literary genre that can be used to articulate religious doubts and anxieties even as it exalts the saints; and he overturns the received attribution of Gerald's detailed Vita to Odo of Cluny, identifying it instead as the work of the infamous eleventh-century forger Ademar of Chabannes. Through his careful examination, the biographies and iconographies that mark the waxing and waning of Saint Gerald's cult tell an illuminating tale not only of how saints are remembered but also of how they are forgotten.

Excerpt

High up in the French Alps, near the end of a twisting mountain road that snakes farther and farther up a steep mountainside from the village of Aurisen-Oisans, sits the medieval chapel of Saint-Giraud. No record survives of its origins: its first mention dates from 1454, when the bishop of Grenoble stopped there on his visitation through the district. It was never a parish church, and perhaps not a priory, although a sizable pile of stones next to the chapel hints that another structure, perhaps a residence, of which there is no historical recollection, once stood nearby. the chapel may be much older, since the bishop noted how deteriorated it appeared, and he ordered it restored. When I visited it in 2009 it showed only signs of decay—birds had even nested behind the altar. the chapel sits alone in its spectacular setting: abandoned, forgotten, silent (see fig. 1). No one with whom I spoke in the village could recall any event happening there, and no one knew anything about the Saint Gerald to whom the chapel was dedicated. the story of this little chapel is in many ways the story of Saint Gerald himself.

We know very little that is certain about Gerald of Aurillac. He was probably born in the middle of the ninth century and died in the early tenth. He spent most of his life in the mountainous region of Auvergne in the center of what is now France, which was then part of a larger Frankish empire. He belonged to one of the families of landowners and warriors that would become Europe’s nobility. He seems never to have married or had children, so before he died he left some or perhaps all of his wealth and lands to a monastery that he founded at the site that would become the modern city of Aurillac in the modern département of Cantal.

Within a generation of his death, Gerald was remembered as a saint. His piety and temperance in everyday life, his reputation for goodness and fairmindedness, his chastity and pacifism, all contributed to his reputation—as . . .

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