Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Medieval Saints' Lives: Spiritual Renewal and Old French Literature

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Medieval Saints' Lives: Spiritual Renewal and Old French Literature

Article excerpt

Duncan Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives: Spiritual Renewal and Old French Literature, The Edward C. Armstrong Monographs on Medieval Literature 8 (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1995). 289 pp. ISBN9170589-9. $2495

The book's aim is to provide a generic study of hagiography as literature, combining a series of analyses of different types of hagiographic text (passions of martyrs, lives of the Desert Fathers, the biographical tradition in the Middle Ages, `hagiographical romance') with a diachronic survey within each section. The author soon identifies, and has to grapple with, the major problem of hagiographical research in the Bollandist tradition: when dealing with a religion that inserts essentially timeless myth into a specific historical frame, the urge of the `scientific theologian' is to discount the 'fabulous' and seek the truthful kernel of the story. Thus Duncan Robertson joins early critics of the St George legend in decrying the incredibility of the events narrated. His tendency there, as when later dealing with the Vie de Saint Alexis, is to decry the popular: he refers to what he sees as an obsession with the saint's bed as `maudlin folkart'. This, like his insistence that the exaggerated tortures of some martyrs amount to 'entertainment', is to miss the point of vernacular hagiography by taking the doubly superior view of the twentieth-century academic with preformed notions of decorum and realism. This makes it all the more ironic that Robertson accepts without blenching the judgement that the description of Polycarp's death is literary only in as far as it is a vivid rendering of things seen. He appears unaware that, far from describing an event, the martyrdom presents a series of symbols of salvation. …

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