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"Saints' Lives Written in the French of England"









 


Selected Verse Saints' Lives Written in the French of England


 
 


Translated by Delbert Russell

This selection involves legendary saints 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.  It has been argued, for instance, that the life of St George presents 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. Simon of Walsingham's early thirteenth-century life of Faith 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. 

In Nicolas Bozon's legendary, which includes the earliest extant vernacular life of St Elizabeth of Hungary extant from medieval England, these trends are further amplified. Hostess and hospital worker saints join virgin martyrs in a broadening exemplary range, inflected towards the relationships with lay households of importance to mendicant Franciscans.

a. Simund de Freine, The Life of St. George

Composed by a canon of Hereford in the late twelfth century, this life of George has no dragon but many spectacular torture scenes, and a strong interest in distinguishing the powers of Christian saints from those of fertility gods and idols.  The life needs translation into modern English for its role in the development of the cult of the British patron saint to be better understood and also as a fine early life of considerable fascination in its own right. (855 heptasyllabic couplets).

 

b. Simon of Walsingham, The Life of St. Faith

This legendary child martyr of the Aveyron early had a cult in England, focussed around northern East Anglia, where elegant thirteenth-century wall paintings of the saint survive and where the extant manuscript of Faith's French life was read aloud in aristocratic monasteries.  Faith has a double career: as a young girl she is tortured on a grid-iron by the pagan persecutor Decius; in her continuing eternal life as a heavenly virgin martyr patroness she is the object of one of the most celebrated stories of sacred theft in the Middle Ages.  The monastery of Conques infiltrated one of their number into the rival house of Agen, initial site of Faith's cult.  When this monkish mole had worked his way up to being in charge of the sacristy, he ran away with Faith's golden and bejeweled reliquary statue.  Vigorously interpreted at Conques as the will of the saint, this translation of the cult flourished, and the formidable reliquary can be seen at Conques today. 

 

Thanks to several recent books on St Faith, her relics, her impressive shrine and her miracles, she has become a very well known saint, but her English cult is little attended to, largely because of the absence of a full translation of the thirteenth-century life by Walsingham.  His life itself is a kind of verbal reliquary, its surface ornamented with lexical play in homage to the saint's powers.  Brief extracts from this life were translated by Brigitte Cazelles in The Lady as Saint (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), but a complete translation and introduction remain to be done. (1242 octosyllabic and heptasyllabic couplets).

 

c. Guillaume le Clerc, The Life of St. Mary Magdalene

Composed in the early thirteenth century in England, this life of the Magdalen is one of the earliest to associate the saint not with reformed prostitutes but with the life cycle and interests of chaste matrons.  As well as setting up her own household in a disused pagan temple near Marseilles following her arrival with her brother Lazarus and sister Martha from the Holy Land, the saint gives fertility and child care to noble families and becomes the protectress of noblewomen.  She also undertakes a form of spirituality greatly favoured by upperclass thirteenth-century women in England, anchoritic reclusion.  For all its interest this French life is little known and has no published modern translation (the Latin text of Jacobus de Voragine is available in a 1993 translation of the Legenda Aurea, but of course with no sense of the specific insular contexts for the legend's development and dissemination). (356 octosyllabic couplets).

 

d. The Life of St. Giles by Guillaume de Berneville
As a nobleman become hermit and abbot, Giles is a resonant figure. Guillaumes Life stages an initial drama not unlike that of the well known life of St Alexis: the conflict between church and secular nobility over ownership of the cultural and biological capital of desirable young people.As Delbert Russell shows, Guillaumes beautifully versified and lexically sumptuous account develops this conflict in order to articulate the tensions between a clerical contemplative life versus a life of active pastoral care for laypeople, especially as embodied in the new and, in twelfth-century England, very successful order of the Augustinians. Exceptionally, the life of St Giles has been given substantial attention in modern continental French scholarship, thanks to the work of Françoise Laurent, who early identified its superb quality. But it remains relatively unknown in scholarship on medieval England, in spite of its relations with English-language literature, on the one hand (there is a precedent late Old English life of Giles and an Ælfric manuscript containing quotations from Guillaumes life in its margins), and its early use of the figure of Charlemagne in England on the other.
 


 

1 Duncan Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives: Spiritual Renewal and Old French Literature (Lexington,Ky: French Forum, 1995),  p. 43.

 
     

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