Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Nature of Hagiography

When composing the Life of a Saint, the hagiographer's purpose, the hagiographic method, is to place a very large emphasis, in its pattern of composition, on narrative rather than on historical fact. The subject's saintly life and attitude to faith and God becomes more important, and, of course, the miracles that were said to flow from his/her death and relics. The story of saints were intended for use by the Church as part of its moral teaching, as well the process for declaring a person to be a saint after their death. Historical accuracy takes second place.

Trained to read scripture, clerics were taught to interpret historical and biographical events in a religious and moralistic light. Being literate theirs was a religious interpretation of history, using the language of the church. Further the hagiographic ideal is that a saint's life should be lived in the Imitation of Christ. This is how hagiographers like to represent them. This style of the writing up of the biographies of saints has always been an important element of Christian theology. one which incorporates the primary concerns of ethics and spirituality. References to the concept of the Imitation of Christ, and the method of storytelling are found in the earliest of Christian documents, such as the Pauline Epistles. Martyrdom was the highest religious ideal of all. Christ died on the cross for the salvation of our souls. Saints who are martyrs and who died for their beliefs, and for the ideals of the Christian Church clearly meet with this criterion.

The evolution of a cult of a saint is a legitimate study for a scientific historian, its effect on a society. the question why someone became a saint. The provable and confirmable events in the life of a "political saint" like Becket are also legitimate to study, and the history which surround them. Selective recourse to hagiographies may be necessary, as the only documents necessarily available.

We are limited in the study of Becket by the fact that in his time nearly all the material assembled after his murder was done for hagiographical purposes.

Becket was the saviour of the freedom of the Church its privileges. He had died brutally in and for this cause. His story was the story of a passion and the direct reason for his promotion to sainthood. The hagiographical method of constructing the Life and Passion of  saint  was to write it up as if  it compared directly to Christ's own life and passion. Christ's story was the model for these stories.

Part of the hagiographical method of Becket's time was to relate a saint's story as a legal struggle, as a trial in life and death. The lives of Becket are oratory. His story is related rhetorically as if it were a trial by verbal battle. This was the Age of Faith. Becket has to be right if he died the death of a martyr. Becket is a knight epically and heroically defending the Church's rights and privileges. Becket is the wizard sweeping aside evildoers by means of the spell of excommunication: Becket draws the ecclesiastical sword of St. Peter on numerous occasions. Much is made of this in the hagiography. The Becket story is full of people swearing oaths to this or that. Oaths are magical. Miracles are magic and saints are magicians. Becket transformation from wordly chancellor to dedicated archbishop was magic.

During the first millennium of the Church, the cultus (the Church formally acknowledging the holiness) of a local saint was promulgated and cultivated by and under the authority of the Bishop of the diocese in which the saint had lived or worked, perhaps also acknowledging the  popular acclaim by the people of the saint concerned. Many saints, however gained devotion even outside their respective dioceses and became honoured by the universal Catholic Church, though without any formal canonization process. Beginning in the 10th and 12th centuries in order promote better standards in the declaration of saints the Popes began to exercise a more direct role in the canonization process, reviewing bishops' determinations, criticising them if their decision was too rash, and even overriding their decisions and ordering the locally canonized saints struck from the calendar. This centralizing tendency continued until Pope Alexander III issued a bull in 1170 reserving all canonizations to the Holy See as its exclusive right. Becket has to be one of the first saints declared under Pope Alexander's new rules.

The historian's purpose, however, is not to make anyone a national hero, or a saint, or to judge what or who was good or bad, nor to criticise historical holocausts, but to organise and make sense of the events that have occurred in the past. Interpretations of these and statements about lessons for the future must clearly be identified as personal opinion.


Seminar VII Hagiography -

An Ecclesiastical Epic: Garnier de Pont-Ste-Maxence's "Vie de Saint Thomas le Martyr"
Timothy Peters
Vol. 7, (1994), pp. 181-202
Published by: Peter Lang AG

John Anthony Burrow; Ian P. Wei (2000). Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages. Phyllis B. Roberts: Prophecy, Hagiography and St Thomas of Canterbury: Boydell & Brewer. pp. 67–. ISBN 978-0-85115-779-5.

Gerd Althoff; Johannes Fried; Patrick J. Geary; German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.) (2002). Medieval Concepts of the Past: Ritual, Memory, Historiography. The Variability of Rituals in the Middle Ages: Cambridge University Press. pp. 71–. ISBN 978-0-521-78066-7.

Michael Staunton (2006). Thomas Becket and His Biographers. Boydell. ISBN 978-1-84383-271-3.

Timothy Reuter (2006). Medieval Polities and Modern Mentalities. Velle sibi fieri in forma hac: Cambridge University Press. pp. 167–. ISBN 978-1-139-45954-9.

History and the Written Word in the Angevin Empire
(c. 1154–c. 1200)
William Henry Jonathan Bainton

History of the Devil's Advocate

Pope Alexander III and the Canonization of Saints
E. W. Kemp
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
Fourth Series, Vol. 27, (1945), pp. 13-28
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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