Seminar CLXXXI: things missing from the Miracles of Saint Faith

Somehow my seminar report backlog is still in May 2013, which was clearly a very busy month, but this was the last thing in it, 29th May when Dr Faye Taylor came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to give a paper entitled “Miracles and Mutation in Southern France”. This was part of a larger project in which she was evaluating what hagiography can tell us about the social changes enveloped in the interminable debate over the supposed feudal transformation, and here she focused on one of the two pieces of it that have been made most crucial to it, and one beloved of this blog, the Miracles of Saint Faith.1

The reliquary of Sainte-Foi de Conques

The lady herself, in her somewhat incongruous housing at Sainte-Foi de Conques.

To remind you of the nature of this text, it is a four-part collection of miracles performed by Saint Faith, or Sainte Foy, a child martyr under Diocletian who in the ninth century was stolen from her first burial place and set up at the abbey of Conques, where she seems to have liked it and caused a great many miracles while the abbey grew slowly and steadily due to her and its position on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The first two books were written by a northerner, a Chartres-trained clergyman called Bernard of Angers, whose changing reaction to the saint’s cult from shock at the idolatry of the reliquary statue and the processions it got taken on slowly becomes convinced and somewhat blinkered devotion to the cult, so that he wound up collecting its miracles and then updating them. The third and fourth books are however later additions done in-house by anonymous authors, and are worth considering separately. Bernard’s work was very good, though; as I have observed here before, it’s very hard to read the stories he gathered and not get a clear sense of the saint as a sort of gleeful magpie child with powerful friends in Heaven, and I’m not going to attempt to rationalise her out of my prose in what follows.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon A70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For Dr Taylor, however, the best way to see Saint Faith in these stories was as a saint becoming a lord. Apparently Conques shed its vicecomital abbots in the late tenth-century; this now confuses me looking back at my notes, because I have it down that these abbots were of the vicecomital family of Conflent, which is to say that we’re talking the kindred of Bishops Guisad II and Sal·la of Urgell and of the vicar Sal·la of Bages, all figures well-known on this blog, but I knew nothing of this and even now can’t find any other note of it.2 So I think I must have misunderstood. In any case, without their lay lords’ protection the monks at Conques seem to have relied on their saint, putting her reliquary up behind the altar and before long getting a bright young man from Chartres in to write up how dangerous she was to cross.3 46% of the miracles involve people of the knightly or castellan classes, who were presumably the intended audience for these cautionary tales (and Faith’s miracles are apparently unusually often punitive, 176 punishments in 155 stories!), and a lot of them are located in the Rouergue, at least early on; in the later books the focus shifts, Book III especially liking Clermont and the Auvergne whence came the then-Abbot Odolric, which is suggestive. Faith defended her patrimony, therefore, she had fideles who helped from whom she expected devotion and service, and she went visiting; she was carried in procession in the reliquary to her various properties, apparently before this was usual. She was not necessarily a figure of peace, however, and neither were her monks: Pierre Bonnassie saw in the Miracles a landscape of castellan violence but Conques itself was retaining mercenary soldiers and some of its monks bore arms! It’s hard not to see the abbey as as much of a participant as any of the people the miracles are directed against in the general fragmentation of peace and defence that makes up a lot of the so-called Transformation.4

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

If it’s possible to do a post about Conques without picturing its fantastic Romanesque tympanum, I don’t want to know. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon a70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the violence and the castellans and the shift to, er, alternative norms of conflict resolution, there are some things in the stories that one would not expect and some things that one would missing, or so Dr Taylor argued.5 In some of these cases I agree with her, but in others my sketchy acquaintance with the text leaves me not quite comfortable with her argument. Certainly, I agree and had not previously noticed that the language of feudalism, beyond fidelis, is basically absent here: the lordships we see are not ‘banal’, don’t have judicial power and so on; they are based on little but lineage, wealth and warfare, at least as we see them active. Neither have we any trace of ‘bad customs’, feudal dues and so on; in this respect everything is as it was although, according to Dr Taylor, missing the big lords who had once held it together. I thought that this might be fair for Conques itself, which does seem somewhat to sit in a bbubble in these texts, but though they might be locally forgotten they don’t seem to have been gone: at the occasional councils we see in the Miracles there are still dukes, counts and so forth, and they knew who Faith was.6 That was indeed more or less the point of including such stories, I think Dr Taylor and I would agree, but as with the Peace of God, another supposedly missing element, that they only come up in such contexts is hardly proof of their absence. It is surprising, however, how little such supposedly big movements in society seem to have affected Saint Faith and her followers, I do agree there.

Manuscript portrait of Pope Gregory VII receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove

A man who knew about reform, Pope Gregory VII, apparently borrowing the Advice Dove beloved of his predecessor Gregory I. Does anyone know what manuscript this image is from? It’s floating around the web without attribution. At least it means I haven’t used exactly the same images as I did in the last Saint-Foi post…

The biggest of these missing elements, however, was reform, and here it’s too intensely subjective to be able to call. I think that the various places I’ve been in hearing people argue about the Church reform of the tenth and eleventh centuries have convinced me that although Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III knew and could say what they meant to be done in the name of Church reform, and we might also be able to say this in England thanks again to a few figureheads with a clear agenda, on the ground and especially early on it was a lot less clear what reform should mean.7 A new freedom from lay lordship, as at Conques, might indeed have been part of it in most places; views on Church wealth, clerical marriage and even payment for office however took a lot longer to be widely shared and we can easily find tenth- and eleventh-century churchmen doing reform-like things on some of these scores while completely ignoring other parts of the later agenda. (Bishops Sal·la of Urgell and Miró Bonfill of Girona would be classic cases indeed, and the latter especially: he went to Rome and was charged by the pope with the task of reforming the Catalan Church, apparently without reference to the fact that Miró himself was also Count of Besalú!8) Dr Taylor put some work into arguing that once it had shed its lords (whom I wish I could find) Conques was as unbothered by reform as it was from these other currents of the age, on which it bobbed without being moved. Me, I have to wonder whether the monks would have agreed…


1. Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897); Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994).

2. On that family see Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here.

3. Cf. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Thomas Head and Sharon Farmer, “Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge 1991), pp. 764-796, DOI:10.2307/2864632. On the text see Kathleen Ashley & Pamela Sheingorn, Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy (Chicago 1999).

4. Pierre Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148; Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42. I don’t myself remember references to such monastic soldiery in the text but I don’t have any trouble believing that there are some.

5. Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II”, ibid. no. 152 (1996), pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution': comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; idem, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48.

6. Liber Miraculorum Sanctae Fidis I.28.

7. For example see John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).

8. A paper on each of these guys lurks among my conference trash, and writing this up makes me think suddenly that perhaps they are in fact the same paper. For now, please forgive me if I don’t give a reference here: I just have too many! Miró’s trip to Rome is documented in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Antoni Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Empúries, Besalú i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 469, however.

One response to “Seminar CLXXXI: things missing from the Miracles of Saint Faith

  1. This argument for St. Foy as lord protecting her people strikes me as very similar to St. Cuthbert and his land-protecting power evident in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto. This notion also seems to answer the question in your previous post, how to protect yourself from feudal violence: get a saint.

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