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The study of medieval women has blossomed in the past forty years. Scholars of
this once ignored aspect of medieval history have opened new avenues of research, which
have allowed the once silent women of the past to come alive. One of the most important
and abundant type of sources that recent historians have utilized greatly is that of
hagiography. Hagiography, or the study of the saints and their cults, was, since the age of
the positivists in the nineteenth century, deemed an invalid source for the study of history
because of its problematic tales of miracles, and other non-objective and unscientific
aspects. It was left at the periphery of historical study, and even regarded as pure fiction,
rather than an important primary source. “Medieval biographical writing, especially that
devoted to the saints, has long been the butt of the positivist school, which invariably
used language redolent of incense and the chiaroscuro of flickering candles to describe it.
‘Hagiography,’ used as an adjective by these writers, became an epithet for the
unreliable.” 1 However, with the advent of the 1960’s and the Feminist Movement, which
spurred the study of women’s history by historians such as Jo Ann McNamara and Jane
Tibbetts Schulenburg, hagiography began to reemerge as a valid historical source,
producing ever more well-illustrated images of medieval women, their lives, and the
society in which they interacted. 2 To historians of medieval women’s history,
hagiography represents a category of primary sources that survive which deal with
Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1988), 55.
Mary-Ann Stouck, ed., Medieval Saints: A Reader (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press,
1999), xvi.
women as protagonists, rather than most other medieval sources, those that even mention
women, which relegate them to the role of the weak vessel, easily tempted by evil, and
the temptress of good and pious men. It is then evident that hagiography is an essential
source to any study of exemplary women of the Middle Ages, and to better understand it
as a source, one must first understand the purpose behind hagiography and the agendas of
medieval hagiographers, its importance in the medieval world as a historical source, its
acceptance as a source by historians over time, and its pros and cons as a primary
document for historians today.
The departure the use of hagiography as a valid source for historical study
emerged in the late eighteenth-century, with the advent of empirical biography. Before
this time, “…such narratives [saints’ Lives] were thought to be biographical studies since
they were records purporting to describe the historical lives of individuals…Such an
empirical, although it gave us much of value, misunderstood and misrepresented the idea
of history which sacred biography claimed for itself.”3 The widespread dismissal of
saints’ Lives as true biographies was a child of the age of positivism, which already
disputed the value of biography itself. Due to this conflict, the move toward empirical
biography was a movement to legitimize biography within the realm of modern historical
study. “Biography is a genre exquisitely sensitive to the demands of verisimilitude, since
the biographer’s aim is to render, as ably as he or she can, the record pf an individual life.
And it is because of this aim, to present that life in all its facets, that biography is, at one
level, historical writing.”4 Hagiography departed from this definition of biography
because it has little or no documentation to prove that the “legends” of the saints were
Heffernan, 39.
Heffernan, 43.
true, while also having the troublesome problem of differing versions of the same saints’
Life and versions that were written about sainted people of the distant past. Therefore, a
saints’ Life, traditionally considered an early form of biography, was dismissed by this
new and more scientific form of history based on provable facts. This position was first
asserted by Gibbon5, and with the further onset of historicism and ideals of historical
objectivity, brought on with Van Ranke and the positivists, hagiography was cast out of
mainstream historical study. Jacques Berlioz, in his article, “Exempla: A Discussion and
a Case Study, I. Exempla as a Source for the History of Women,” explains that saints’
Lives, a form of exempla, 6 were “long considered to be of secondary importance among
our extant sources…Literary specialists read and used the tales but accorded them only
grudging toleration because of their clumsy and unpolished form. That they were
referred to in the nineteenth century as anecdotes, historiettes (short tales), or contes
moraus (moral tales) gives an indication of their peripheral status as guides to medieval
society.”7 This mentality continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the
twentieth, while all along judging these medieval primary documents out of the context in
which they were written and without consideration for their original purpose, something
of which the proponents of historicism, who were known to advocate the importance of
staying with in historical context, were ignorant and blind.
Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794, was an English historian of the Enlightenment. He was a vocal critic of
hagiography and the form of history that was recorded by medieval writers, considering their work to be
unscientific and simply the stuff of myth. He is most famous for his work, The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire, in which he studies Rome from 2 A.D. to the late Middle Ages (1453).
In his work, Berlioz defines exempla and exemplum. “In the Middle Ages the term exemplum had a
variety of related meanings. The most common usage—directly in keeping with the models of antiquity—
was ‘an example to follow’ or ‘a model for behavior or for virtue.’…the exemplum is a presentation of
factual material or an edifying saying from the past, now cited by a character worthy of faith…Such an
exemplum is meant to persuade…” (Berlioz, 38)
Jacques Berlioz, “Exempla: A Discussion and a Case Study, I. Exempla as a Source for the History of
Women,” in Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History, ed. Joel T. Rosenthal (Athens,
Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1990), 37.
This dismissal of hagiography was irresponsible on the part of positivist historians
in the very least. Hagiography and the medieval concept of history were very different
from that of Van Ranke and the positivists. Life in early medieval Europe revolved
around the Church, which dictated societal norms, laws, and culture; therefore, it is
evident to the medieval historian that writers of the Middle Ages would be influenced by
and held to the standards of the Church. Furthermore, a great majority of the “historians”
and writers of the time were in fact monks and other religious. It was the inherent
purpose of hagiography to illuminate the life of a saint by recording their virtues and
sanctity. Medieval history, of which hagiography was a central component, revolved
around the understanding of God, in other words, metahistory, because of this mentality
“the function of hagiography is not merely—perhaps even not primarily—to tell
historically accurate things about particular historical figures but to move hearts to
God.”8 The saint embodied both the human and the divine in the eyes of medieval
society; their life histories were important to foster as role models for the laity, and their
Lives were at the heart of medieval Christian history. As St. Bede9 stated, “if history
relates to good things of good men, the attentive reader is excited to imitate that which is
good [ad imitandum bonum]; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless
the religious and pious hearer or reader [religiosus ac pius auditor sive lector], shunning
that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform these things
[ipse solertius ad exsequenda ea] which he knows to be good and worthy of God.”10
Evelyn Birge Vitz, “From the Oral to the Written in Medieval and Renaissance Saints’ Lives,” in Images
of Sainthood in Medieval Europe, eds. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Timea Szell (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1991), 113.
Saint Bede, 673-735, wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Historia Ecclesiastica.
This work examines what history was to medieval writers, such as hagiographers.
Bede, The Venerable, Saint, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, eds. Bertram Colgrave and
R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 2.
Because the purpose of the narrative of a saints’ Life was to inspire others religiously, the
hagiographer thus combines both the historical and the metahistorical.11 Therefore, there
is still a form of history embedded in hagiography, it just needs to be understood and
carefully utilized by historians, something that is ever-increasingly occurring today. For
Bede and other writers of his time, “The practice of historical writing is not undetached
reporting…Objectivity in narrative played no more than a minor role in both medieval
history and biography, if indeed the concept was understood at all…it is important to
point out that both history and biography were understood to be narrative genres—
designed, as Bede tells us, ad imitandum bonum. That is, these narrative records were
designed to inform and provoke approved behavior avowedly mimetic reminiscences of
the life of Christ.”12 It is this nature of hagiography that the positivists took exception to,
asserting that the hagiographers were merely liars making up miracles and history as they
went; however, in the context of the medieval author and audience, the instance of
miracles was something widely accepted as truth, and that the divine played a real and
palpable part in worldly affairs. In this sense, hagiographers did not take excess license
in their recording of history as they understood it.
From the vast importance bestowed upon hagiography from the Middle Ages
through to the Enlightenment and later the advent of the positivist school of thought in
the early nineteenth century which dismissed it almost entirely to the sidelines of the
historical record, hagiography then began to reemerge as a historical source in the early
twentieth century with Hippolyte Delehaye’s The Legends of the Saints.13 This was the
Heffernan, 38.
Heffernan, 28-30.
Delehaye first published his Les Legendes Hagiographiques in 1905, which was then republished the
fourth time in 1955, after which it was translated in the edition cited here in footnote fifteen.
first modern study on hagiography itself as a subject, and while Delehaye moved the
study of hagiography forward, he remained tied to the nineteenth century ideals of Van
Ranke, deeming hagiography less-than-credible due to its lack of honesty to the “true”
past. 14 Passages such as the one following further express his positivist leanings. “The
important thing to be emphasized at the outset is the distinction between hagiography and
history. The work of the hagiographer may be historical, but it is not necessarily so.”15
However, it is from this starting point that hagiography has evolved into a valued
historical source for medieval historians writing in the latter half of the twentieth century.
This resurgence owes its occurrence, in great part, to the Feminist Movement in the
1960s and 1970s; for with this new interest in studying and revealing the history of
women, came the need for medieval documents which dealt with women, of which there
is no better written primary source than that of the saints’ Life because a good number of
them deal with women as protagonists, holding some measure of power, and they are at
the center of their own histories, rather than on the periphery. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg
was a pioneer of the use of hagiography in medieval women’s history, and in her book,
Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100, she explains that,
“Over the past twenty-five years there has occurred a great resurgence of interest in
hagiography or the study of sainthood and the cult of saints. Especially during the 1980s
and early 1990s, there has been a veritable explosion of scholarly works on medieval
saints. Similarly, during this same period, there has been a burgeoning of impressive
Heffernan, 57.
Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints, trans. Donald Attwater (New York: Fordham University
Press, 1962), 3-4.
research on women in medieval society and the Church.”16 She owes the success and
popularity of her work and that of other women’s medievalists to the additional recent
abundance to translations of vitae. The value of hagiography for medieval historians like
Schulenburg lies in the fact that the vitae portrayed the ideals for medieval men and
women, thus illuminating cultural and societal views on women, the accomplishments of
notable women, and the dictates and feelings of the Church. Furthermore, recent
historians have revealed that there is historical accuracy embedded in the vitae, and that
many hagiographers were indeed knowledgeable and even acquainted with their subjects,
not as far removed as earlier historians had thought. However, she does warn that
“despite their incredible wealth as a historical source, the vitae must be used with caution.
Scholars should not attempt to claim for the lives of saints a greater degree of historical
accuracy than they warrant. As a source, they provide indirect rather than direct evidence:
therefore approximate rather than absolute conclusions should be drawn from the
data…scholars should study, when possible, a series of lives for the same saint.”17
Nevertheless, Schulenburg and other prolific medieval historians utilize hagiography a
great deal, such as Thomas Head, Jo Ann McNamara, Andre Vauchez, and Susanne
Wemple, to name a few.
In a modern study on hagiography as a source for history, Thomas J. Heffernan,
in his book, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages, seems
to reevaluate it to the extent that Delehaye did in 1905. It is this work, quite valuable and
cited various times above, published in 1988, that explains the use and importance of
Jane Tibbetts-Schulenburg, Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100 (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 13.
Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg, “Saints’ Lives as a Source for the History of Women, 500-1100,” in
Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History, ed. Joel T. Rosenthal (Athens, Georgia: University
of Georgia Press, 1990), 306.
hagiography as a valid historical source for the study of medieval Europe. He bases his
assertion of its value upon its longevity throughout history, the vast numbers of vitae that
survive, and the richness of information present in them. “If we are interested in learning
about the mentality of the Middle Ages, we can study no better text than the saint’s life,
for it quintessentially illustrates what Braudel has termed the longue duree. Of any
medieval genre it has the longest continuous history, beginning with St. Luke’s rendering
of St. Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts and having no de facto end…”18 Mary-Ann Stouck,
editor of Medieval Saints: A Reader, concurs with this position, holding that
“hagiography was the most widely-used and long-lived genre of Late Antiquity and the
Middle Ages, and students setting out to understand the major figures, the concerns, and
the sensibilities of these periods need to be knowledgeable about it. While historians in
the past have often been so suspicious of the genre that they decided largely to ignore it,
many are now discovering the contributions that a careful reading of hagiography and
materials surrounding the cult of the saints can make to the field. There is no better
introduction to the Christian civilization of early Europe than through the lives of its most
famous men and women.”19 It is therefore, essential in a study of queens as holy mothers
in tenth and eleventh century Europe, that vitae provide a primary document basis to
analyze notable women, who were queens, mothers, and saints, in the attempt to locate
ties between their sanctity and the ideal of Mary, Queen of Heaven.
Heffernan, 17-18.
Stouck, xvii.