History and hagiography (short book plaudit)

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

Cover of Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France

A luxury that we don’t often get with the early Middle Ages is being able to contrast two opposing sources. It is kind of the key of how we try to teach students, or at least I would like it to be, but nonetheless it’s rather rare in any situation from our period to be able to clearly define two or more sides to a question and then find sources from those sides. However, sanding down my mental rust patches for the QMUL teaching led me to take a rapid run through Paul Fouracre’s and Richard Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France and somewhat to my surprise that is one of the things it can offer, in the form of two saints lives, that of Leudegar and that of Præjectus, who almost through no fault of their own wound up as leaders of opposing factions at the same royal court in 675, a court which saw the arrest and blinding of one and the murder of his chief ally, a murder for which the other was then blamed and murdered by his opponents when he got home.1 This, when sewn together by the cunning of the editors’ commentary, makes quite a good thing to learn with. I am more convinced than ever that Roger Collins might have been right when, at a legendary seminar held shortly after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, he told us all that that proved what he’d known all along, that the real money was with the Merovingians.

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

The blinding of St. Leger, Bishop of Autun, from a French Bible of c. 1200 via Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d\'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Saint Præjectus (Saint Pry) at Saint-Prix (Val-d'Oise), from Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t realised how political these saints’ lives could get. I rather like hagiography as a source but I’m too used to Celtic vitae which are most fun because of how crazy their miracles are. With the saints’ lives that Fouracre and Gerberding pick, though, the miracles are almost an afterthought; though the protagonists lead holy lives, they are known as saints mainly because of miracles after their deaths, and their ‘martyrdom’ is not so much explained by their faith but by their being obdurate in the face of entirely worldly opposition. This makes the texts less cult promotion and more efforts of community reconciliation, and they have lots of spiky bits that couldn’t yet be forgotten when they were written. The grit and argument is very well brought out by the editors and the things that they feel the sources show clearly explained. These sources also include a chunk (but not all, as I had somehow come to believe) of the Liber Historiae Francorum, one of the few narrative histories of the pre-royal Carolingians that actually predates their becoming royal, and a largish swathe of the Annales Mettenses priores for contrast, plus Lives of SS Balthild, Audoin, Aunemund, Leudegar, Præjectus, Geretrud and Foillan, all of whose stories touch at points, mostly through the court (e. g. Aunemund is supposedly killed by order of Balthild, Geretrud is daughter of Pippin II). These are largely sympathetically translated—Merovingian Latin is apparently less ornate than Carolingian stuff, which is partly shown by the later Annales included here—and only a few modern idioms jar. The single defect is that the book is plagued with typoes, almost all of which seem to be omitted letters; I don’t know if there was some botched transfer from hard to electronic copy that stripped line ends or something, but it seems to have been something like that. These do not, however, stop this being one of the most interesting and well-presented source volumes I’ve ever used and I only wish it covered more years.2

1. Full citation: Paul Fouracre & Richard A. Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1996); the Passio Leudegarii and Passio Præjecti are pp. 193-300.

2. I think my favourite source-book remains Paul Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1 (Peterborough ON 1994, repr. 2002), because of the huge range of stuff it has in it and the erudite translations, but I realise that this isn’t much use if you’re not studying the Carolingians. Well, you know, why not start?

9 responses to “History and hagiography (short book plaudit)

  1. Andmund is also the bishop that Wilfrid stayed with at Lyon, who was probably his role model. Fursey and his brothers got mixed up with the guys too.

    • Yes, one of the interesting things about the intro to the Vita Aunemundi is a very critical evaluation of Stephen’s accuracy as regards Wilfird’s Continental career, which is earlier than but doesn’t fit with the Continental sources. Fouracre and Gerberding choose to believe that Stephen is basically unreliable once he’s dealing with foreign areas that his audience don’t know much about. I have to wonder how restricted his audience’s knowledge is, but it’s certainly true that the chronology gets a lot easier under that premise.

  2. They certainly knew how to do political vengeance in the Middle Ages, didn’t they? That is quite the nasty illustration, especially since the guy with the (what is that? some kind of medieval screwdriver?) looks so pleased with himself.

    Knowing very little about early Middle Ages hagiography, I’m curious about the differences you note between these saints’ Lives and the Celtic ones. Is the reason for that mainly cultural, or is it more a reflection of the particular political milieu that these Lives were produced in/for?

    • Well, as long as you understand that I’m basically parrotting the book here, the latter. The authors argue that these are not, like a lot of hagiography, written simply to big up a cult but to put forward a generally acceptable version of what had been events that had divided their communities. So, the saint gets to be saintly: but he forgives his killers, several of whom have misgivings, the real nasty violence is blamed on dead men or outsiders, some basis for the saint’s opponents’ positions is allowed and so on. The miracles don’t matter as much as the community reconciliation. So at that rate I guess the reason is the job that the texts are being called on to do. After all, one can do a lot with hagiography: mirrors for princes, satire, preaching reform, family propaganda…

    • Oh, and I think it’s a bradawl, but there’s no specification in the text, the illustrator just picked something he could do I guess. But yes, it’s evil; anyone wants to say the early Middle Ages couldn’t do representative art, let them look at that one too long.

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