One meets very few vital people in their lives. Mathew Kuefler was one of those individuals for me. In many ways we are dissimilar: e.g. Matt has an attention for detail and is a stickler for proper grammar. Matt was the most important mentor in making me a proper historian. Indeed, he took the time that I needed to hone all my skills, frequently with tough love and his green pen…red in his mind was too alarming. What follows is my review of his new book. I know from personal experience the long years of preparation and travel that went into his second major scholarly project. It is nice to say that the wait was worth it.
In his new book, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac, Mathew Kuefler describes the rise and fall of a Medieval Saint. What on the surface may seem to be an exploration of a rather insignificant saint is something much more substantive. While focusing on one of the few laymen to become a saint in the Middle Ages, Kuefler, in fact, takes on a variety of issues regarding, not only the value of hagiography as historical sources, but the worth of understanding what has “been lost”. Kuefler writes ( 117), “What has been forgotten in history is often as meaningful as what has been remembered.” In doing so Kuefler successfully takes on Walter Pohl’s challenge for post-modernist scholars to apply their methodology to a wide-range of medieval texts. Indeed, I believe that Kuefler has lived up to his own expectations (6) “to reveal the hagiographer behind the hagiography.”
Kuefler’s monograph may be divided in two parts: In the first two chapters that are aimed primarily at the scholarly reader, K takes on the deeply entrenched scholarly view that the original account on Gerald was the work of one scholar, the second abbot of the monastery of Cluny Odo (878-942). Building on his recent articles, K successfully takes apart this attribution as “a house of cards (14).” He suggests that Odo was the author of the much less detailed account known as the Vita brevior, whilst he attributes the main body of the life, the Vita prolixior, to the known forger of saints’ lives, Adamar, suggesting he reworked Odo’s original sometime in the 1020s.
“Why”, might the non-specialist ask, “is knowing the exact authorship important?” Because, as Kuefler explains so thoroughly in chapters 2 and 3, medieval historians have mined Gerald’s life for information on Odo and ninth and early-tenth century Southern France— a time when the Carolingians were losing their grip on power. If K’s claims are true then, Gerald’s life reflects the viewpoints of a man writing a century later than previously assumed. Indeed Kuefler suggests that the vita, and in particular Odo’s focus on violence can provide the scholar with insights on the early eleventh century struggle amongst “local landowners and warlords” who were competing increasingly “with each other for greater wealth and status”. So too can we gain increased awareness in the ways that the primary victims of this violence—the churchmen and the peasants—dealt with this disorder. In particular, Kuefler suggests that some of the impetus behind the Pax Dei (Peace of God movement) that blossomed in this era can be detected in Ademar’s “remaking of Gerald’s life.
“Whatever the complex motivations for these assemblies, devotion to the saints formed a chief ingredient in the mix: peasants and monks asked for the protection of God and the saints, and noblemen willing to agree to the principles of the Peace of God swore oaths on the relics of saints brought to the meetings to lend gravity and divine favour to their decrees.
In the second part of chapter 3, K discusses the difficulties Adamar faced in presenting a layman as a saint. He takes the reader through a step-by-step analysis on the “values” behind the depictions. K does a laudatory job of showing that saints’ lives were far more than banal rundowns of well-trodden traits, but individualist accounts that upon closer reflection reflect the values of the individual author and the era in which they lived. Indeed, K discusses adroitly both the dangers and profits of mining hagiography for historical nuggets.
Regardless of whether or not one accepts K’s view on the authorship of the early biography, his in-depth and careful analysis of these little known texts on Gerald will reverberate within the field.
The second half of the study, beginning with chapter 4, offers K’s original and in-depth analysis on Gerald’s legacy from the eleventh century to modern times. This section may be read as a separate study, and may be enjoyed by the non-specialist, perhaps not so concerned with the specifics of authorship.
In these final chapters, Kuefler uncovers and discusses how and why certain saints like Saint Martin of Tours gained notoriety and “eternal” vibrancy, whilst others like Gerald gradually fell into oblivion. If one had to describe this section of the work with one word, “metamorphosis” would be apt. Indeed, the most important idea found in these final chapters is the notion that saints’ lives were and are fluid and living objects. Each generation saw the saint largely how they wanted to. Thus, nineteenth, depictions of saints like Gerald, tell one much more about that century than the actual saint. While these contemporary needs help to explain the survival of an obscure saint like Gerald, they also explain this saint’s gradual fall into obscurity, until only a fragment of the original Gerald exists.
Though this study may take some patience for the non-specialist to digest, Kuefler can only be applauded for a methodology and work that uncovers both the pitfalls and rewards that awaits the scholar and non-scholar hoping to mine these lives for traces of historical memory both remembered and forgotten.