Reading Saints’ Lives and Striving to Live as Saints
This study demonstrates the essential connection between literature and history by examining the way selected saints’ lives were read and rewritten in Latin and Old French from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Building on the concept of the horizon of expectations developed by Hans Robert Jauss, it argues against both the model of literature as a series of timeless classics whose meaning is apparent to the intelligent reader of any age and the tendency to reduce literature to the more or less successful imitation of historical realities. Not only does the interpretation of a saint’s life change over time as the text is read in different religious and cultural contexts, but the narrative is in turn capable of influencing the way its readers understand themselves and the world in which they live. By comparing different versions of each saint’s life, I am able to isolate variations in form, tone, characterization, and action, and relate them to the experiences of specific historical figures whose lives illustrate the important religious and cultural issues of their time. In order to do this, I examine three saints’ lives in light of the sometimes troubled relationship between the clerical order of the church and the laity. Two Latin and two Old French versions of the Life of Saint Alexis are read along with the life of Christina of Markyate, an English woman who fled from her husband to become a recluse. Alexis’s and Christina’s refusal of marriage illustrates the tension between the monastic model of fleeing from the world to save one’s self and the pastoral ideal of working for the salvation of others. I compare the figure of the mother in two very similar Old French versions of the Life of Pope Saint Gregory, a story of incest, penance, and redemption, to Ermengarde of Anjou, a countess who could never commit herself to life in a convent. Like Ermengarde and countless other lay men and women, Gregory’s mother faces the question of whether she can live a sufficiently holy life as a lay person or needs to enter a convent to expiate her sins. Finally, I read Latin and Old French verse and prose versions of the Life of Saint Mary the Egyptian in light of the similar yet opposing experiences of Valdes of Lyon and Francis of Assisi in relation to the question of heresy and orthodoxy. My understanding of the medieval religious historical context, particularly the history of the laity in the Church, builds on the foundational work of Raoul Manselli, Etienne Delaruelle, and André Vauchez, as well as more recent work by Michel Grandjean, who compares the different visions of the laity held by Peter Damien, Anselm of Canterbury, and Yves of Chartres. My dissertation shows that the different versions of saints’ lives not only reflect the evolution of attitudes about human relationships, salvation, and orthodoxy that characterize the time and place in which they were written, but also question the practices of later readers and offer solutions to new problems in new contexts. As my study demonstrates, ideals like the monastic identification of holiness with asceticism shape the way people understand and direct their lives, and the source for these ideals can often be found in literary texts like saints’ lives. These texts do not communicate these ideals transparently. The juxtapositions, tensions, and conflicts they depict can lead the reader to come to a more nuanced understanding or even a total reconsideration of his or her beliefs. The study of rewriting and medieval saints’ lives can help us better understand this interplay between narrative, ideal, and lived experience.