Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy

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Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy. By Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999. Pp. x, 205.$27-50.)

In this complex book,Ashley and Sheingorn propose a new reading of the famous eleventh-century text, the Liber miraculorum sancte Fidis, which celebrates the miracles of a female child martyr whose relics were kept in the monastery of Conques in southwestern France. Scholars have mined the Liber for details about subjects as varied as popular culture and knightly violence. Such use of the Liber tends to erase its nature as a text, treating it as a transparent window onto eleventh-century southern France. Ashley and Sheingorn instead emphasize the Liber's nature as a text, as a rhetorical construct deploying a sign system that was socially embedded and itself had historical agency. Ashley and Sheingorn are thus committed to exploring not merely the semiotics, but the "social semiotics;' of this text.

Their discussion focuses on the historically situated choices of sign systems made by the authors of the Liber The first two books of the Liber were composed between approximately 1010 and 1030 by Bernard of Angers. Bernard, a northern French cleric, was an outsider to the monastic community at Conques and southern France. Ashley and Sheingorn argue that Bernard's rhetorical strategy was to depict the community at Conques and southern French culture in general as rustic, illiterate, and Other while positioning himself as elite and highly literate. The apparently popular nature of some aspects of Sainte Foy's cult (especially her joca or jokes) were thus the rhetorical effect of Bernard's authorial strategy, not reflections of reality: Furthermore, Bernard played with the limits of hagiographic conventions-Ashley and Sheingorn argue that like the Sainte Foy he depicted, Bernard himself was a "trickster." I was not convinced of the relevance of this anthropological concept to our understanding of Bernard as author. Nonetheless, Ashley and Sheingorn do convincingly demonstrate that unlike other contemporaneous hagiographers, Bernard interrogated the ontological status of miracles and made himself almost as present in the text as the miracles themselves.

The anonymous monk or monks of Conques who between 1030 and 1050 composed Books 3 and 4 of the Liber continued Bernard's project but rebelled against certain of his strategies. …