The Lives of the Saints have been an underutilized, even underappreciated, source of information about the medieval monastic world. This may be because their narratives “can bear as many interpretations as a tale by Chaucer,” writes Barbara Newman in the Preface (xiv). Scholars, however, are beginning to come around to the value of hagiography and will find this collection of Lives worthy of study.
Ida, Arnulf, and Abundus lived in the thirteenth century Low Countries (modern Belgium, roughly), each demonstrating a different form of the religious fervor of the High Middle Ages. Ida’s Eucharistic raptures, Arnulf’s extreme asceticism, and Abundus’ liturgical and Marian devotions are not the usual fare of hagiography, which tends to follow a formulaic pattern of miracle stories demonstrating God’s power through the saint. These Lives contain their share of miracles, but always to cure the deeper spiritual sufferings of others. Ida earns the moniker “compassionate” because of her ministrations to the spiritually wayward. Cawley explains that, in Ida’s stories, “we meet temptations, scruples, moral disgrace and prolonged purgation, loneliness and disappointment, but no medical pains or economic setbacks” (11). Arnulf’s obsession with extreme forms of bodily mortification, described in Book One seems to qualify him to work the miracles later recounted in Book Two of his Life. And, in an unfinished Life, Abundus uses the power of prayer to save the spiritually weak from their temptations.
As with any hagiography, though, one must be careful in reading these texts as homage to the spiritual zeal of particular individuals. In her Preface, Barbara Newman notes that the idea of “spirituality” as a set of beliefs and practices that define one’s relationship to God is a modern notion and would not have meant anything to the faithful of the Middle Ages. They did not distinguish among Cistercian, Benedictine, or Franciscan spiritualities, as we do today. Instead, hagiographers used their subjects to demonstrate the ideal virtues for any life and the special nature of a religious vocation. “Thus, Ida of Nevilles represents what Goswin and his public would have considered the archetype of a holy nun, Arnulf a holy lay brother, and Abundus a holy monk in the way those vocations were understood at Villers and surrounding communities” (xxxvii).
One of the reasons for the tepid reception of hagiography as a scholarly source is its “fictional” quality. Historians often reject it because few stories here are verifiable. Nevertheless, the Lives of the Saints allow us to glimpse the historical era and learn something about the nature of medieval monasticism. For example, the story of Arnulf’s burial reveals some of the rituals of monastery life:
Cawley includes a 25-page introduction to these Lives with just enough historical, literary, and geographical background to help the reader place these texts in their cultural settings. His subsequent translations are meticulously researched and well documented for those who wish to dig deeper into this literary form. With Barbara Newman’s excellent preface (which I would readily use to introduce undergraduate students to the genre), the reader can see the limits and possibilities of hagiography as a research tool. Interestingly, this volume is part of the Brepols Medieval Women Series, though it includes only one female saint. As Newman notes, women’s Lives are written by men “and cannot be fruitfully studied apart from men’s Lives. We learn at least as much about the devout women of the southern Low Countries from the richly textured Lives of Arnulf and Abundus as we do from Ida’s” (xiv). Cawley’s careful work makes available another set of Saint’s Lives which illuminate several more corners of medieval religious and cultural history.