Medieval Rock Stars (Once They’re Dead Anyway)

09 May

Hagiography’s one of those fun aspects of medieval history. I’ve sort of been in the middle of doing some reading on it, which made the arrival of Speculum in Friday’s mail very convenient. Samantha Kahn Herrick has an essay on Fronto of Périgueux that’s very interesting.

Those of you with some expertise may want to skip to the second section of this while I provide a little background for those newer to the study of dead holy people. 1

A very prevalent aspect of the middle ages were various cults. One of those has commonly been grouped into the “cult of the saints.” Basically, veneration of or devotion to saints (and sometimes of people who weren’t saints but were perceived as holy). This overall term isn’t quite as neat as it appears at first glance. An individual saint frequently had his or her own cult, but the characteristics of these cults had enough in common with one another, in most cases, to use this label.

In very brief form – this is a complex topic and there’s no way to give even a decent summary in a blog post – individuals perceived to be particularly holy were considered to have additional powers – quite frequently these powers didn’t become evident until after their death. These powers included, above all, the ability to perform miracles, however they were also believed to serve as an intercessor to Christ. They earned these powers through their extreme holiness, which was demonstrated in the way they lived their lives.

To me saints were the medieval equivalent of rock stars. They had a significant impact on contemporary culture and the importance of a saint had a lot to do with the prestige of a local church or monastery. Folks flocked to their shrines/churches, particularly on feast days, slept near or over their graves, tried to grab a little dirt from their grave sites (or just rub their clothes in it), etc. And of course there’s the whole relic thing.

Hagiography has two meanings. It’s overarching meaning is anything to do with the study of these holy people (I’m going to substitute “saints” for “holy people” from now on – they weren’t all saints but the vast majority were). However a meaning within that – and the more common usage – refers to the corpus of biographical works related to the saints. And a very large portion of hagiographical works were the lives of the saints, or vita (pl. vitae).

What gets fun about this is that there are literary norms or topoi associated with vitae. These norms evolved from a late Roman form known as a panegyric. A panegyric was frequently composed by a philosopher in honor of a leading Roman statesman. Norms appropriate to and accepted in these included an exaggeration of the good qualities of the individual and a minimization of the poor – however a panegyric did need to generally refer to real events (or events that at least the philosopher could convince people were real) as these were given while the subject was alive, and often before people, such as Roman Senators, who could catch a complete lie, but would accept embellishment. Think, for the United States, of a nominating speech given at a major party convention for a Presidential candidate. We all know (I think) that there’s some stretching of the truth going on and some ignoring of weaknesses, but we accept that as part of politics.

Hagiography takes this one step further. First, most vita were composed following the subject’s death, quite often decades or even centuries after. Second, as a reflection of the subject’s level of holiness, some outright invention seems to be accepted. Hagiography does not seem to be written to strictly tell what the subject actually did but rather what the subject would have done had he or she been faced with this theoretical situation. It’s a demonstration of holiness, not a biography. Panegyric isn’t the only major influence on vitae. Martyrology – the accounts of the martyrs – is a direct precursor. However it appears to me that the structure of vitae evolved from panegyric, while the concept evolved from martyrology, once martyrs weren’t very common any longer. 2

I’ve gotten in discussions with people about this – folks who want to denounce vitae as nothing but a pack of lies. My response has always been not to look at them like this – these are professions of holiness. From the perspective of hagiography, whether the subject actually fought with Satan or demons is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether he or she would have fought with Satan or demons, had the opportunity presented itself. I wish I’d saved an exchange I had with someone over this a few years ago but it went something like this:

Him: “That’s ridiculous. I might as well say that my father walked on the Moon.”

Me: “Not based on hagiographical norms. By those norms, if Moon walking was a sign of holiness, and your father was possessed of exceptional holiness, then an account of Moon-walking, in a context where Moon-walking might have been an expected activity, is perfectly right and appropriate.”

A typical vita might be expected to contain the following elements:

  • Ordinary person lives ordinary life
  • Ordinary person undergoes a conversion experience – maybe he or she was a Christian before but didn’t live a very Christian life or maybe he or she was a pagan
  • Ordinary person decides to live his/her life according to Christ – he/she embraces an ascetic life, often by giving away all of his/her worldly goods, often including convincing relatives to join a monastery or convent
  • Quite frequently the ordinary person then removes him/herself from the world and goes off to live in a cave or, in some exceptional circumstances, living on top of a column (a stylite). At the very least, this person often enters a monastic order
  • Ordinary person demonstrates his/her mastery over the devil and/or demons. Sometimes this takes the form of a personal struggle, other times by curing those afflicted by them
  • Ordinary person begins to perform miracles, often without intending or even wanting to
  • Ordinary person dies and his/her burial site, site where he/she once lived and relics become the site of miracles
Obviously there’s a lot of variability in the specifics within these elements and at times one or two are completely absent. For example, nobody would claim that Augustine of Hippo completely removed himself from the world and Edward the Confessor was King until his death. Some saints evidently were models of sanctity from the moment they emerged from the womb. These were fairly typical, repeated patterns though. If you read several vitae, don’t be surprised to see some phrases and even events repeated almost verbatim.

This concludes this extremely elemental lesson. There are several introductory works on hagiography if you’re interested in learning more. I’d recommend Mary-Ann Stouck, ed., Medieval Saints: A Reader (Broadview Press, 1999) as a starter. This book includes numerous vitae, as well as essays on various aspects of the veneration of the saints. I’m just starting Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995) by Noble & Head, eds. Based on the back cover, this looks like it’s also designed for beginners. There’s also a Penguin edition, Early Christian Lives (Penguin Group, 1998) by Carolinne White, ed. & trans. which would likely be the least expensive. If you become interested in this, there are several other collections of vitae available for reasonable prices.

Or you can look online – The Medieval Sourcebook has a collection of Saints’ Lives available. My two personal favorites are Athanasius’ Life of Antony and Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin of Tours but there’s a wide selection, and some can give a fair amount of information, not just to contemporary attitudes about things, but what actually happened.


Herrick’s essay, “Studying Apostolic Hagiography: The Case of Fronto of Périgueux, Disciple of Christ” addressed an aspect of hagiography I am relatively unfamiliar with – that of apostolic hagiography. Herrick explains this, “Detailed studies have shed light on only four of the more than eighteen known aposolic dossiers, while the phenomenon as a whole has received only occasional, if often insightful, overviews.” (p 236) And of those examinations she cites, only three are in English (though I can battle my way through French and Spanish I tend not to except in special cases) and none in a work with a title I’d ordinarily look at purchasing.

Herrick’s ultimate thesis with this essay is that she does not believe that Church rivalries inspired the growth of apostolic legends. She proceeds to use the three Fronto vitae and how they evolved to demonstrate this.

In the earliest, (BHL 3181t) Fronto is responsible for miracles in the Egyptian desert and in recognition of this Peter the apostle sends him into Gaul (Fronto’s place of birth, the Périgord) on a mission that “echoes the task assigned by Christ to the seventy-two disciples” described in The Gospel of Luke. (pp 241-242)

The second vita (BHL 3182d) differs in some respects to the first, including tightening Fronto’s relationship with Peter but the overall story is similar. It’s with the third vita (several versions, BHL 3183-87) where we get the big change. Here Fronto becomes one of Christ’s seventy-two disciples – a much more authoritative apostolic role, having interacted with and been charged with his duty by Christ himself – and is a much more aggressive evangelist.

From a chronological perspective, Herrick accepts Maurice Coens’ dating of the first vita as being composed by the 9th century. She provides a detailed analysis of the other two and settles on probable composition dates of; the later 10th century for the second and; after 1031, possibly as late as the third quarter of the 11th century, for the third. An analysis of the writings of Ademar of Chabannes features prominently in this.

The essay then moves into a discussion of the significance of Fronto in the context of local history and politics. Things were tough for Périgueux in the later 10th century. Along with most of the rest of Acquitaine, it was subject to violence, warfare, and even clerics being captured and held hostage by secular powers. The construction and improvements of Fronto’s basilica in the late 10th through 11th century evidently strained the resources of Périgueux however this paid off in the long run as “Signs of wealth appear already in the early 12th century.” (p 258)

At the same time as their wealth increased, so did the influence of Périgueux. By the 12th century bishops were able to go toe-to-toe in power struggles with the local counts. They were able to take on roles in defending the city that would usually have been reserved for secular authorities. (p 262) The combination of increased wealth based on donations and visits by pilgrims seems to have really turned things around. The enhanced spiritual authority also had the effect of improving stability in the region. If the elevation of Fronto’s stature can be credited with this – and it seems to at least have had some impact – then the revisions evident in the third vita were very worthwhile.

Related to her thesis, Herrick believes there is sufficient evidence of the bishops of Périgueux cooperating with other churches and bishops to conclude that church rivalries were not the likely cause of the growth of the legend of Fronto. Ultimately she believes that,

“The support that Fronto’s apostolic cult lent his heirs’ authority may hold the key to their interest in him in crucial decades around the millennium. Although he would bring them fame, fortune, and influence in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries, the generations of bishops who gave Fronto’s cult its initial impulsion needed perhaps still more the boost it gave to their spiritual authority. The decades that, according to the Fragmentum and to Ademar, witnessed the first major promotion of Fronto’s cult, the last quarter of the tenth century, were far from peaceful. In this context, the bishops needed to assert their authority to enforce order.” (p 260)

I enjoyed this article and Herrick provides a great deal of information – most of it new to me. I do think she demonstrates that in this case church rivalries were not the only cause of the growth of the Fronto legend, however I’m less confident in accepting that it wasn’t a cause – even a significant one. Her own prominent use of Ademar’s promotion of Martial as an apostolic saint in opposition to Fronto implies a conflict with – or at least a competition between – Limoges and Périgueux. In any case, I appreciate her detailed examination of the Fronto vitae and how she believes it developed and was utilized in the context of 10th-12th century Acquitaine. She has followed her own advice in providing, “. . . a more nuanced and detailed exploration of the workings of apostolic legends . . . one that allows for rivalry and seeks to explain it but that also looks beyond it to other possible dynamics.” (p 237)

1 One of these days I’ll figure out who I’m writing this blog for (other than myself) and quit doing these beginner/more advanced comboposts – or maybe it makes sense to simultaneously make 2 posts? I’m not vain enough to think my fascinating prose is so entrancing that folks want me to throw 3,000 words up on a regular basis. Any experienced blogger who would like to pass along some tips, have at it.

2 A good book discussing the evolution of hagiography is Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity by Hägg and Rousseau, eds. University of California Press (2000)

Sources mentioned:

Hägg, Tomas and Rousseau, Philip, eds., (2000) Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity (Berkely and Los Angeles). ISBN: 978-0520223882.

Herrick, Samantha Kahn, (2010). “Studying Apostolic Hagiography: The Case of Fronto of Périgueux, Disciple of Christ”, Speculum 85, 235-270.

Noble, Thomas F. X. and Head, Thomas, eds., (1995) Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (University Park, PA USA). ISBN: 978-0271013459.

Stouck, Mary-Ann, ed., (1999). Medieval Saints: A Reader (Peterborough, Ontario Canada). ISBN: 978-1551111018.

White, Carolinne, ed. & trans., (1998). Early Christian Lives (New York). ISBN: 978-0140435269.


Posted by on May 9, 2010 in Hagiography


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12 responses to “Medieval Rock Stars (Once They’re Dead Anyway)

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Well, I think it's a good write-up, though I think one could vary the standard template for hagiography a bit; miraculous vision by mother of child's future holiness, and so on. I don't know how common the conversus type is.As to umlauts and so on, there are standard HTML codes for this which are worth learning. The syntax is fairly easy: ampersand plus letter desired plus symbol abbreviation, so ä would get you your a-diaresis and é would get you your e-acute. Here's a list.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    May 10, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks very much for the comment. I'm influenced by the earlier vitae myself so I may be a bit corrupted. Later ones seem to bring more variety into things.When I re-read this post I thought it ended up being pretty unremarkable – particularly my Herrick summary. I don't think it shows any real perceptiveness on my part – I suppose since I'm not familiar with apostolic hagiography that's to be expected.Thanks for the link – very much. I'll be editing that immediately.I'll see you in Kalamazoo – I think. I have your session highlighted, as long as I get all my books picked up by then.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 11, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Hurrah, an audience of at least one! I shall have to get up after all. I think I'm looking forward to Geoff's and Warren's papers rather more but I'll give what I have my best shot.

  4. Medieval History Geek

    May 11, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Just don't be insulted if I'm wearing my somewhat scruffy "driving clothes." I believe in travel comfort. Don't worry – not too much comfort.I almost put together a reply to the latest post on your blog but it would have been pretty complex and I doubt either of us has time for that for the next few days.Have a safe trip. Hope that volcano doesn't give you any grief.


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