Sunday, August 16, 2015

Elspeth Whitney: “Making & Unmaking of a Saint”

Elspeth Whitney

Book Review

Mathew Kuefler, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 320 pp., 34 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 9780812245523

1> Saints’ lives have become increasingly valued over the past several decades not just as historical sources but also as literary texts in their own right. Mathew Kuefler’s erudite and elegantly written study reflects the new recognition of how saints’ lives often transcend the genre of “hagiography.” Kuefler deftly traces the creation and varying fortunes of St. Gerald of Aurillac across a millennium using three quite different approaches: a painstaking, textual analysis of the early medieval vita to determine authorship and date (Chapter one); a “textual archaeology” of those same texts designed to elicit the personal and sometimes contradictory meaning(s) for their authors and their times (Chapters two and three); and a more straight-forward description of the textual and visual representations of Gerald, often reflecting contemporary concerns, produced from the eleventh century onwards (Chapters four through six). Also included is a useful translation of the Vita sancti Geraldi brevior. Running throughout the book is the theme of St. Gerald as an emblem of sanctified violence, a concept that would have a long and disastrous history.

2> We know very little about Gerald the person, a nobleman who, having founded a monastery on the site that later became the town of Aurillac in southern France, died in the early tenth century and, within a generation, became the first layman to be venerated as a saint. Gerald the Saint, however, became a rich, complex and often contradictory figure celebrated into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and surviving, if in diminished and more generic form, into the twentieth.

3> Kuefler begins his study with a meticulous and important exercise in textual scholarship in which he persuasively argues that our major hagiographical sources for Gerald have heretofore been mistakenly dated and attributed. Since the nineteenth century, the scholarly consensus has been that the more detailed life of Gerald, the Vita prolixior, was written by Odo of Cluny around 930, and a second, shorter life (the Vita brevior) was composed somewhat later by an unknown monk. Using meticulous textual analysis and placing both texts in their local context, Kuefler makes a convincing case that the Vita prolixior was instead most likely forged under Odo’s name by Ademar of Chabannes, a monk at the monastery of Limoges, probably in the 1020s and almost a full century after the Vita brevior, authentically written by Odo. Ademar, according to Kuefler, is also the most likely author of the Miracula addita, a series of additional miracle stories associated with Gerald. Still later but prior to the early twelfth century, the two vita were conflated, still under Odo’s name.

4> Establishing Ademar’s authorship of the Vita prolixior allows not only for a deeper understanding of Ademar and his milieu but enables Kuefler to make a more developed case for his excavation of the meanings of Gerald’s sanctity to his hagiographers. Gerald, as a lay warrior, was an unlikely saint. In Kuefler’s view, his representation as a pious nobleman who fought only defensively, resisted sex and was motivated by love of the poor, yet never became a monk, reflected a degree of worry, ambivalence and self-examination on the part of both Odo and Ademar that reveals much about the competing roles of warrior and cloistered monk in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Teasing out the subtle differences between Odo and Ademar’s texts also allows Kuefler to make thoughtful and well-grounded (if ultimately not provable) suggestions about the inner lives of the two hagiographers.

5> Odo, second abbot of Cluny, had apparently come to Aurillac in order to reform it along Cluniac lines. Kuefler suggests that Odo found it useful to make its founder into a saint, not only as inspiration for its monks, but to provide a model of pious male lay Christian behavior that contrasted with the rapaciousness of the local magnates; most pointedly, Odo describes Gerald as never having wounded anyone in battle or been wounded himself and as making his soldiers fight “with their spears turned around” (51). More speculatively, Kuefler argues that Odo to some degree projected his own emotions surrounding his personal renunciation of the noble life onto Gerald: “Odo’s presentation of Gerald provided him with an opportunity to imagine, even momentarily, what he had not become himself: a just layman, remaining in the world, acting piously and nobly in the life into which he had been born” (60).

6> Like Odo, Gerald’s second biographer Ademar became personally implicated in his representation of the saint. But whereas Odo had expressed reservations about whether Gerald was indeed a saint, Ademar promoted Gerald’s cult aggressively, inventing a saintly death for him and adding numerous details, as well as a series of impressive posthumous miracles, to his legend. Much of this added material, in Kuefler’s view, reflected Ademar’s sensitivity to the problem of violence committed by local lords against the peasantry and churchmen and an underlying hostility to the military culture of the nobility. As portrayed by Ademar, Gerald, for example, continued to order judicial mutilations and death sentences even as he refused to be present during their execution and used military tactics so ineffectual and “ridiculous” that his men were victorious only because of divine intervention. Ademar’s attempt to remake Gerald into a more realized and less violent model for lay Christian masculinity, therefore resulted in a saint who was “a bundle of contradictions” (99), unable to fully extricate himself from a culture of violence and reflecting Ademar’s personal struggle with the values of his own time. Finally, Kuefler suggests (unfortunately, not until the Conclusion) that Odo and Ademar’s ultimate “acquiescence to the possibility of a Christian violence” (190) made Gerald one of the earliest precedents for the merging of warfare and sanctity and a handy excuse for the sanctified violence of the First Crusade.

7> Subsequent chapters trace the rise and fall of devotion to St. Gerald through the present. The medieval evidence is fragmentary but Kuefler makes the case for a continued cult in France that spread into Catalonia through the thirteenth century, only to dissipate in the fourteenth. An attempt to revitalize the cult in the seventeenth century was signaled by two new biographies of Gerald, as well as the appearance of printed versions of the Latin vita and new visual representations, occasionally showing Gerald holding a sword or the church he had founded. Interrupted by the French Revolution, the cult resurfaced in the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, Gerald’s image was utilized in the service of contemporary concerns, whether to romanticize France’s military past or more generally to reflect a nostalgia for the Middle Ages, dissolving finally into a “hodgepodge” of generic attributes borrowed from other saints. Today, Kuefler sadly reports, Saint Gerald is “virtually unknown.”

8> The Making and Unmaking of a Saint is an important book for the study of the early Middle Ages and (at least in the first three chapters) a tour de force of meticulous and sensitive textual analysis. In particular, it provides a new window on the interpenetration of noble and monastic culture in southern France in the tenth and eleventh centuries and suggests fruitful connections between the monastic movement, the religious critique of violence and, ultimately, the Church’s accommodation to, or even exploitation of, a violent culture. Although it has less to say about the early modern period, it will be welcomed by specialists in the history and culture of the early Middle Ages, as well as scholars more generally interested in hagiography as a literary and historical genre.

Elspeth Whitney is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She publishes in the areas of medieval sexuality and medieval technology. She is currently working on a project on gender, the complexions and sexual types in the Middle Ages.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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