A proof of my review of Kuefler, Mathew, The Making and Unmaking of a Saint: Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

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I thought I would share the proof of my review of Matt Kuefler’s new book that has been published in Parergon 31 2 (2014): 187-189.

In his new monograph, 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 more substantive. While focusing on one of the few laymen to become a saint in the Middle Ages, the study takes on a variety of issues regarding, not only the value of hagiographies as historical sources, but also the importance of understanding what has ‘been lost’. As Kuefler reminds his reader, ‘What has been forgotten in history is often as meaningful as what has been remembered’ (p, 117).

The book opens by taking on the entrenched scholarly view that sees Gerald’s original vita as the work of one author, the second abbot of the monastery of Cluny, Odo (878-942). Kuefler’s closer inspection of the evidence exposes this attribution as ‘a house of cards (p. 14)’. Instead, Kuefler suggests that Odo composed the much less detailed account known as the Vita brevior, while the main body of the life, the Vita prolixior, Kuefler attributes to the known forger of saints’ lives, Adamar (c. 989-1034).

Why, might the non-specialist ask, does one need to know the exact authorship? Because, as Kuefler explains in chapters 2 and 3, modern historians have mined Gerald’s life for information about Odo and ninth-and early tenth-century Southern France during a time when the Carolingians were losing their grip on power. If, as Kuefler claims, Adamar reworked Odo’s original vita sometime in the 1020s, then the majority of Gerald’s biography reflects the viewpoints of a man writing a century later than previously assumed.

This later dating, however, does not undermine these texts’ value as historical sources. Kuefler proposes that the vita, and in particular Ademar’s focus on violence, provides insights into the early eleventh-century struggle among ‘local landowners and warlords’, men who were increasingly competing ‘with each other for greater wealth and status’ and also the ways that the primary victims of this violence—the churchmen and the peasants—dealt with this disorder. Kuefler believes 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.

In chapter 3, Kuefler discusses the difficulties Adamar faced in presenting a layman as a saint. This section shows that saints’ lives were far more than just banal accounts of well-trodden hagiographical traits, but individually crafted characterisations exposing the unique values of the individual authors, and the historical context of when they were composed.

The second half of the study offers Kuefler’s diachronic investigation of Gerald’s legacy from the eleventh century to the present. Kuefler explains how and why certain saints like Saint Martin of Tours gained notoriety and eternal vibrancy, while others like Gerald gradually fell into oblivion. The notion that saints’ lives were and are fluid and living objects represents a crucial concept in these final chapters. Kuefler makes the sensible point that each generation represented the saint largely to fit their own needs and beliefs. Therefore, nineteenth-century literary and visual depictions of Gerald tell one more about that era than the actual saint and/ or his characterisation from the earliest depictions. While the changing values and requirements of the local communities surrounding Gerald’s homelands help to explain the survival of an obscure saint like Gerald, they also provide an explanation for this saint’s gradual fall into obscurity until only a fragment of the saint found in the original vita remains.

Though this book may take some patience for the non-specialist to digest, Kuefler has successfully taken on Walter Pohl’s challenge, found in the Introduction, for post-modernist scholars to apply their methodology to a wide-range of medieval texts. Kuefler has lived up to his own ambition ‘to reveal the hagiographer behind the hagiography’ (p. 6).Regardless of whether or not one accepts Kuefler’s alternative view on the authorship of the Vita Geraldi, the study’s in-depth and careful analysis of these little known texts is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand this saint and his world.

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