Verse Saints’ Lives Written in the French of England

Translated by Delbert Russell

Publication Information

This selection from a rich and varied corpus of England’s late twelfth and thirteenth-century hagiogrpahy involves legendary figures whose lives are spectacularly full of bizarre and grotesque events.  Yet these treatments in the French of England are fundamentally serious, informed, and well-written exemplary biographies in which many concerns of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries are addressed.  The spectacular dismembering tortures suffered by St George, for instance, both follow a Trinitarian pattern and may have particular resonances for audiences necessarily concerned with bringing home the bodies of crusaders, even as the saint’s miracles present the holy man as priest-hero whose powers enact those of the Word to bless, fecundate, and guide community life and who offers himself as a sacrifice.1

That emphasis is especially interesting, coming as it does from a secular clerical author writing in the years before the fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and its assertion of renewed church control in the details of ecclesiastical organization and the lives of the faithful. The life of St Giles, a figure who like St Alexis, leaves his inheritance for a life of eremetic renewal and who ultimately becomes the abbot who hears Charlemagne’s confessor for the emperor’s secret si, speaks to the pastoral mission of the newly revived Augustinian order and its mediations between secular and religious lives. Simon of Walsingham’s early thirteenth-century life of Faith, on the other hand, asserts a different religious identity, that of monastic life as a source of devotional energy and dedicated artistry.  The (probably slightly later) life of Mary Magdalen by Guillaume le Clerc can be seen in the context of lay response to the thirteenth-century church and the increased importance of semi-religious life styles for both men and women. Along with new investment in feminized forms of devotion, it marks the insistent lay participation in the church that was one (not entirely intended) result of the Lateran Council program.