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Narrative, Audience and the Negotiation of Community in Twelfth-Century English Miracle Collections

  • Simon Yarrow (a1)

The institutional emphasis on distinctions between the elite and the ordinary faithful is a feature of a number of religions. Such distinctions permit rich and diverse forms of exchange across the lines they demarcate, not simply reducible to economic models of explanation, but subject to symbolic and cultural negotiation. These exchanges fostered social ideals, implicit understandings and modes of behaviour that helped to make hierarchy in complex societies appear cohesive, normative and consensual. But a danger exists in confusing the normative value of these exchanges as represented in writing with the material and ideological effects towards which they worked. In the absence of popular religious thoughts and feelings, which Christopher Brooke rightly reminds us ‘have left little memorial for posterity’, we are left with the discursive claims made in historical sources on behalf of elite and popular distinctions. My aim in this paper is to explore the implications of this for the study of the cult of the saints in twelfth-century England. I will argue that in such interpretive conditions, any discussion of these matters in terms of elite and popular religion risks losing sight of the discursive function of these texts and of the wider understandings and negotiations that lie behind them.

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1 I would like to thank Bob Moore, Elaine Fulton, Dmitri Van Den Bersselaar, Bob Sack and Kate Cooper for reading and suggesting improvements to this article. Its remaining errors are all my own.

2 Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962–1154 (London, 1964, 2nd edn, 1987), 422.

3 Brown, Peter, The Cult of the Saints. Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, IL, 1981), 17.

4 Ibid., 15.

5 Ibid., 21–2.

6 An important collection of articles assessing Brown’s contribution is Howard-Johnston, James and Hayward, Paul Antony, eds, The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1999). For the proceedings of another retrospective conference on the work of Peter Brown held in the USA, see Elm, S., ‘Introduction’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.3 (1998), 34351 and the other articles in that issue.

7 Rousseau, Philip, ‘Ascetics as Mediators and as Teachers’, in Howard-Johnston, and Hayward, , eds, Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 45.

8 Ibid., 140–2. An example of Brown’s refinements of his early ideas in response to these reassessments is ‘Enjoying the Saints in the Late Antiquity’, Early Medieval Europe 9.1 (2000), 1–24.

9 My perspective here is something akin to that argued for by Geary, Patrick, at ‘the threefold intersection of genre, total textual production and historical circumstance’, in ‘Saints, Scholars and Society: the Elusive Goal’, in idem, Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1994), 929, 23.

10 Leyser, Conrad, Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great (Oxford, 2000), 8.

11 A seemingly strong possibility in the sensibilities of men like John Cassian and the ‘Lérinian school’ of asceticism: see ibid., 33–8.

12 Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo. A Biography (London, 1967), 418.

13 In Homiliae in Evangelia, 1.4. 2–3, PL 76, 1090, cited by McCready, W., Signs of Sanctity: Miracles in the Thought of Gregory the Great (Toronto, 1989), 35, n. 13.

14 See Cooper, Kate, ‘Ventriloquism and the Miraculous: Conversion, Preaching, and the Martyr Exemplum in Late Antiquity’, in Cooper, Kate and Gregory, Jeremy, eds, Signs, Wonders, Miracles: Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church, SCH 41 (Woodbridge, 2005), 2245 . I want to thank the author for letting me see her article on this subject in advance of its publication.

15 McCready, Signs of Sanctity, 61–4.

16 Ibid., 57.

17 For Bede’s understanding of miracles as serving didactic needs, see Colgrave, B., ‘Bede’s Miracles Stories’, in Thompson, A. H., ed., Bede, his Life, Times and Writings (Oxford, 1935), 21029 , and Ward, Benedicta, ‘Miracles and History: Bede’s Miracles Stories’, in Bonner, G., ed., Famuli Christi (London, 1976), 7092.

18 Hayward, P., ‘The Miracula inventionis beate Mylburge virginis Attributed to “the Lord Ato, Cardinal Bishop of Ostia”’, EHR 114 (1999), 54373 , for a young antiquarian of Much Wenlock, whose discovery of the relics of St Milburga won the approval of the newly arrived Cluniac monks.

19 Prior Philip of St Frideswide’s, The Miracles of St Frideswide, ed. J. Van Hacke et al. (Brussels, 1853), ActaSS, October viii, cols 568–89, at 576.

20 Phrases frequently employed include deplorans, invocans, deprecans, maxima cum devotione pernoctans, in oratione cum maxima devotione et fidei constantia persisterei.

21 Miracles of St Frideswide, 578.

22 Leclercq, J., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, trans. Misrahi, C. (Fordham, NY, 1961), 63.

23 Goscelin of Saint Bertin, The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely, ed. and trans. R. C. Love (Oxford, 2004), 121.

24 Ibid., 111.

25 Ibid., 113–15.

26 Libellus de Vita et Miracula S. Godrici, Heremitae, de Finchale, ed. J. Stevenson, Surtees Society 20 (London, 1847), 426.

27 For a stimulating discussion of the power of such binaries when ascribed to the ritual of the eucharist, see Rubin, Miri, Corpus Christi: the Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1991), 111.

28 Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002), 189.

29 Ibid., 191.

30 Ibid., 187.

31 The Miracles of St Frideswide, 571 and 579.

32 Arcoid, Miracula Sancti Erkenwaldi, in Whatley, E. G., The Saint of London: the Life and Miracles of St Erkenwald (Binhampton, NY, 1989), 135.

33 Susan Reynolds’s comment that ‘The mentality of the sources and the degree to which it was shared by the whole of society also need more critical consideration’, in ‘Social Mentalities and the Case for Medieval Scepticism’, TRHS, ser. 6, 1 (1991), 21–41, at 29, and the article in full seems to me the rare case of a historian challenging scholarly assumptions about popular religious credulity.

34 Of course ethnography is now generally understood to be more artful than previously thought, see Clifford, James, ‘On Ethnographic Allegory’, in idem and Marcus, George E., eds, Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (London, 1986), 98121.

35 Gilsenan, M., Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Middle East (London, 1982, repr. 2000), 75.

36 The Hagiography of the Female Saints of Ely, 99. The comment echoes Gregory the Great’s appeal to the combined audience of clerics and laity intended for his Dialogues, see above n. 16.

37 One of the miracles of St Godric refers to an illness ‘quod infirmitatis “Kinkehost” vocant Angli’, see Libellus de Vita et Miracula S. Godrici, 373.

38 For a discussion of the relationship of gender and testimony in miracle narratives see Van Houts, E. M. C., ‘Orality in Norman Hagiography of the 11th and 12th Centuries: the Value of Female Testimonies’, in eadem, History and Family in England and the Continent, 1000–1200 (Aldershot, 1999), XV, 113 , and Quirk, K., ‘Men, Women and Miracles in Normandy, 1050–1150’, in Van Houts, Elisabeth, ed., Medieval Memories, Men, Women and the Past, 700–1300 (London, 2001), 5371.

39 And see The Miracles of St Frideswide, 574, for Emmelina of Edington, whose suicide bid and subsequent loss of mind were thwarted by the joint intervention of the Virgin Mary and the region’s own virgin saint, Frideswide. Emmelina remained with the community of canons at Oxford as a serving woman. She retold her story, among other visitors, to the bishop of Norwich. Marcus Bull has commented on the role of these people as ‘something qualitatively distinct – a source for a miracle story’, in The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour (Woodbridge, 1999), 35.

40 Geoffrey of burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002), 203–5.

41 Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, ed. Robertson, R. C. and Sheppard, C. R., 7 vols (London, 187585), 2: ch. 41, 2968 . See Symeon of Durham, Capitula de miraculis et translationibus S. Cuthberti, in Symeonis monachi opera omnia, ed. T. Arnold, 2 vols (London, 1879–85), 2:343, for the record of another miracle retold at court.

42 I aim to explore this more fully in a future article.

43 Kemp, R., ‘The Miracles of the Hand of St James’, Berkshire Archaeological Journal 65 (1970), 119 , at 10. For the similar story of Emmelina, that more smoothly fits the narrative template, see above n. 38.

44 See Reynolds, Susan, ‘Social Mentalities’, 2930 , for her discussion of these scoffers as valuable evidence of scepticism.

45 Whatley, The Saint of London, 113.

46 Other narratives in this collection hint at a background level of apathy for the cult among a section of the London people; for example, see ibid., 133–5.

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Studies in Church History
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