Seminar Ten

Models for living? An anchoritic reformed prostitute and preacher, several martyrs, a sacred theft and a virtual pilgrimage

The corpus of Anglo-Norman saints’ lives is large and rich, extending from the Voyage of St Brendan of c. 1106 and the earliest text of the Vie de St Alexis (in the beautiful psalter most probably made (1124-1139[?]) for Christina of Markyate ( to the early fourteenth-century female legendary by Nicholas Bozon (for a full list see Ruth J. Dean,Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts ANTS OPS 1999: Hagiography, nos. 504-586).

Like romance, saints’ lives form a huge, capacious and highly varied genre, reaching out into their audiences’ lives in many ways and often engaging intensely with the formation of those audiences, their communities and cultural memories.  Saints’ lives both exemplify and transcend (or ‘queer’) heteronormative sex and gender systems, embrace many different types of biography, offer models at once exemplary and exceptional for conduct and socio-cultural formation, seek to create political communities and to write history, and they provide intense devotional passions, enactments of doctrine and ritual, and highly theatrical spectacles.  Other types of narrative participate in and around them: vision, inventio (finding saints’ relics), translatio (in the sense of translating a saint’s relics from one place to another, with its associated genre of furtum sacrum, sacred theft), miracles, charters and other monastic documents, sermons and preaching, and debate. They are one of the most widespread and enduring of all narrative forms.

We look at three typically varied examples of the genre from the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries: The Life of St George by Simund de Freine, The Life of St Faith by Simon of Walsingham, The Life of Mary Magdalen by Guillaume le Clerc.


The three lives for the seminar have been circulated in photocopy (please note that this is a draft volume Professor Delbert Russell is completing for the FRETS series and from which he has very kindly lent us his work: as it is still in draft and yet to be completed by the Life of St Gilles by Guillaume de Berneville, it should not be quoted from in publications without prior clearance with him or with JWB).


  1.  Primary Reading.  Whether or not you are familiar with hagiography as a genre, an excellent way to approach saints’ lives is to compare several saints’ lives for such questions as the type of saint, the treatment, selection and deployment of narrative motifs etc.  This gives an immediate sense of how this apparently highly stylised genre can accommodate a huge variety of narrative options and themes.   All should therefore carefully read, note and tabulate the basic narrative morphology of all three lives, and note comparisons and contrasts.
  2.  Secondary Reading.  It’s essential to do the preparatory work on the primary texts.  Especially if you’ve not previously studied hagiography,  it would be a good idea to have a look at Sarah Salih, A Companion to Middle English Hagiography (Woodbridge, 2006) on RES (although concerned with insular English rather than French texts, it has a very useful concise introduction), and at Pamela Sheingorn and Kathleen Ashley’s Writing Faith: Text, Sign and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy (2002) provides in its introduction an excellent overview of schoalrship and  thought about saints’ lives: on RES.


1. Compare the narrative framing, articulation and selection of motif in the represented saints’ torture in Simon of Walsingham’s Life of St Faith and Simund de Freine’s Life of St George for what they suggest of the preoccupations of each text.

2. Is Guillaume le clerc’s Life of Mary Magdalene more striking as repression or licensing of women’s public speech and action?


Campbell, Emma, Medieval Saints’ Lives: The Gift, Kinship and Community in Old French Hagiography (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2008). (includes Anglo-Norman and continental lives, including St Faith).  On RES.

Campbell, Emma, and Robert Mills, eds, Troubled Vision: Gender, Sight and Sexuality in Medieval Text and Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004). On RES.

Gaunt, Simon, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge, 1995).

Geary, Patrick, Furta sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (1984, rev ed 1991): one of the most illuminating hagiographical studies for helping one understand the different cultural assumptions underpinning these narratives. Online at Walsh as electronic resource.

Mills, Robert, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture(Reaktion Books, 2006): electronic book on-line at Walsh.

Otter, Monika, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth Century Historical Writing(University of North Carolina Press: 1996 and repr).  Hagiography is a modern category: it was not separated from or opposed to historiography in the Middle Ages, and this brilliant and beautifully written book is extremely illuminating about hagiographic inventiones.

Riches, Samantha, and Sarah Salih, Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe (London: Routledge, 2002).

Robertson, Duncan, Old French Saints’ Lives (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1995) (includes Simund de Freine’s St George).

Note that Professor Russell provides extensive and helpful lists of further reading in his FRETS draft volume.