The Making and Unmaking of a Saint

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint traces the rise and fall of devotion to Gerald of Aurillac through a millennium, from his death in the tenth century to the attempt to reinvigorate his cult in the nineteenth century.

The Making and Unmaking of a Saint
Hagiography and Memory in the Cult of Gerald of Aurillac

Mathew Kuefler

2013 | 320 pages | Cloth $79.95
Religion | History
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Table of Contents

Note on Names
Maps 1 and 2

Introduction: Hagiography, Memory, History
Chapter 1. Prolegomenon on the Dating and Authorship of the Writings about Gerald of Aurillac
Chapter 2. The First Saint Gerald
Chapter 3. The Second Saint Gerald
Chapter 4. Saint Gerald and the Swell of History
Chapter 5. Saint Gerald and the Ebb of History
Chapter 6. The Modern Cult of Saint Gerald
Conclusion: Memory, Sanctity, Violence

Appendix 1: Translation of the Vita sancti Geraldi brevior
Appendix 2: The Manuscripts of the Vita Geraldi

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Hagiography, Memory, History

High up in the French Alps, near the end of a twisting mountain road that snakes farther and farther up a steep mountainside from the village of Auris-en-Oisans, sits the medieval chapel of Saint-Giraud. No record survives of its origins: its first mention dates from 1454, when the bishop of Grenoble stopped there on his visitation through the district. It was never a parish church, and perhaps not a priory, although a sizable pile of stones next to the chapel hints that another structure, perhaps a residence, of which there is no historical recollection, once stood nearby. The chapel may be much older, since the bishop noted how deteriorated it appeared, and he ordered it restored. When I visited it in 2009 it showed only signs of decay—birds had even nested behind the altar. The chapel sits alone in its spectacular setting: abandoned, forgotten, silent (see fig. 1). No one with whom I spoke in the village could recall any event happening there, and no one knew anything about the Saint Gerald to whom the chapel was dedicated. The story of this little chapel is in many ways the story of Saint Gerald himself.

We know very little that is certain about Gerald of Aurillac. He was probably born in the middle of the ninth century and died in the early tenth. He spent most of his life in the mountainous region of Auvergne in the center of what is now France, which was then part of a larger Frankish empire. He belonged to one of the families of landowners and warriors that would become Europe's nobility. He seems never to have married or had children, so before he died he left some or perhaps all of his wealth and lands to a monastery that he founded at the site that would become the modern city of Aurillac in the modern département of Cantal.

Within a generation of his death, Gerald was remembered as a saint. His piety and temperance in everyday life, his reputation for goodness and fair-mindedness, his chastity and pacifism, all contributed to his reputation—as did the reports of miracles he performed both during his lifetime and after his death. Within a century of his death the monastery he had founded and dedicated to Saint Peter and perhaps also to Saint Clement bore his name instead, as did a few dozen churches elsewhere, some in substantial towns like Limoges and Toulouse, others as far afield as Catalonia and Galicia. Without a formal process of canonization for saints yet in place, Gerald's saintly memory was crafted, disseminated, and preserved especially through the biographies, sermons, and prayers written about him—hagiographical writings that were carried across the south of France and as far as Paris and Normandy, Venice and Lombardy.

Gerald's status as a lay saint was highly unusual. His was an age in which Christian sanctity was mostly equated with the life of the cloister or cathedral. It must have been difficult to imagine a lay male saint at a time when the basic features of manhood—eager participation in sex and violence—contravened Christian ideals so sharply. The result was a certain "anxiety" in relating Gerald's sanctity, as Stuart Airlie puts it. Perhaps that anxiety took shape in the mind of the hagiographer, attempting to reconcile the values of the court to those of the cloister and offering a new model of lay holiness, as Barbara Rosenwein would have it. Or perhaps it derived from Gerald himself, as Janet Nelson suggests, unable to come to terms with the requirements of a secular masculinity but unwilling to abandon his worldly life fully.

In the end, it may have been that equivocation that "undid" Gerald's saintly memory. Other saints rose to prominence in the last centuries of the Middle Ages and beyond who exhibited a more inspiring or advantageous saintliness. The declining fortunes of the monastery of Aurillac also lost for Gerald the principal guardians of his memory. So forgotten was he in many of the places he had once been revered that new legends were crafted about him, tales at times vastly different from his original story. In the late nineteenth century, even as some revived Gerald's memory, his cult acquired new features in keeping with idealized recollections of the medieval past. That is the trajectory of this book.

In contrast to Gerald's obscurity among modern Catholic believers, the saint of Aurillac has attracted considerable scholarly attention, in part simply because there are only a handful of figures from the central Middle Ages for whom as rich a hagiographical tradition survives. The longer version of the Vita Geraldi (known to scholars as the Vita prolixior) has long been held to be the original version authored by Odo of Cluny in about 930; it has received the lion's share of academic interest. Recent scholarship has added a sermon for Gerald's feast day to the authentic writings of Odo. Relatively neglected is the briefer version of the vita (known as the Vita brevior), dismissed by most as uninteresting, overly condensed, and composed by some unknown and easily ignored forger in the late tenth century. Recently, additional miracle stories have been brought to light, composed no earlier than 972, and assigned to a second forger. Regrettably, these assumptions about dating and authorship are wrong, and I begin by correcting these errors, arguing that the briefer version of the Vita Geraldi belongs to Odo of Cluny, while the longer version, as well as the sermon and additional miracle stories, came from the hand of the infamous forger Ademar of Chabannes sometime in the 1020s.

Apart from these medieval texts, there is little else that survives from which to reconstruct the historical memory of Gerald of Aurillac. The monastic library at Aurillac that would have contained the best and most detailed records was sacked twice, at the hands of Aurillac's townspeople in 1233 and again by Protestant Huguenots in 1567. Further losses happened during the French Revolution. Only a handful of manuscripts survive from the medieval library. Others survive elsewhere, especially at archives near the former priories that once belonged to the monastery of Aurillac, but there, too, little remains. The later chapters in this book, then, represent something of the challenge of reconstructing historical memory without much in the way of historical documentation—and a bit on the methods by which it might still be done.

The complicated meanings attached to Gerald's sanctity are the heart of this book. Gerald's position between court and cloister placed him in the vanguard of a new broadening of saintly ideals for men: he was, insofar as we can tell, the first to be venerated as a saint for having lived a good life without having become a bishop or theologian, a monk or hermit, and his biographers both medieval and modern have pointed out this distinction. There were other noble lay male saints who lived before Gerald and who were revered for their holiness, it is true, but the writings about these men mostly date from much later centuries, and many of them were also remembered as martyrs, so they serve to confirm rather than to challenge Gerald's precocity. Nonetheless, the tensions within Gerald's model of sanctity are patent enough. On the one hand, one might see in Gerald the quintessence of the ethical code that all men of his era were exhorted to follow: to be both good Christians and good citizens. On the other hand, Gerald's embrace of an ascetic lifestyle, his avoidance of sex, and reluctance to engage in battle were things that Carolingian piety would never have presumed. Both of these assessments may be fair. Perhaps like all saints, Gerald was at once a model for others and inimitable.

The two sides of Gerald's sanctity, his adoption of a monastic life while remaining outside the cloister and his renunciation of violence even while leading armies, served specific and important—if different, and historically contingent—needs for his hagiographers. Nonetheless, the placement of such equivocation within the legend of Gerald may have contributed to his undoing as a saint in the centuries after his death. After all, if a life lived in this world can be holy, why sacrifice oneself to an ascetic life? And if some forms of violence may be permissible to a good Christian, what others might also be? Gerald gave no easy answers to these questions. It is worth noting that the reshapings of Gerald's legend in modern times often functioned as correctives to this ambiguity, redirecting Gerald's memory into less uncertain channels.

This book is also, then, about the legacy that Gerald's medieval hagiographers left behind. Before popes took control of the canonization process in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, hagiography provided a principal occasion for the commemoration of saints. Yet despite the subject's importance, it is not entirely clear how these writings should be read. Scholars once saw in legends about the saints the projection of a past society's heroic ideals. Many are now increasingly reluctant to assume that saints' lives provide an unobstructed glimpse into any past society. The elusiveness and even outright unreliability of medieval hagiography have been brought home in a singular manner in the career of Ademar of Chabannes, who plays a central role in this book. Ademar forged a set of documents that described the life of a saint who never lived with a status that he never held and a history of devotion to him that never happened, and did it so successfully that only in the twentieth century was the deception uncovered.

In this book I offer my own readings of hagiography and religious art as well as new ways of thinking about the central role that individuals have played in the production of saints. I attempt, in particular, to restore to medieval hagiographers their proper role in the crafting of the historical memory of saints. Jay Rubenstein laments the stereotype that medieval writers lacked "textual sophistication." Instead, he encourages us to conjecture how even in the Middle Ages the truism that "all biography to some extent is autobiography" still applies: "The narrative of a person's life grows out of beliefs of how a life ought to be lived, and a person's beliefs about how a life ought to be lived inevitably relate to that person's own life."

Sadly, Rubenstein dismisses medieval hagiography from this consideration. According to him, hagiographers were too restricted in their ability to present a "sense of a 'self'" and their writings are formulaic and uninteresting. Rubenstein might be forgiven for such an opinion, given his work on Guibert of Nogent, one of the most colorful and least conventional of medieval authors, but others have shared it. Paul Fouracre and Richard Gerberding, for example, conclude that medieval hagiography tended "to draw upon a common stock of conventions and to borrow wholesale from other texts, especially the Bible," to such an extent that its "language . . . does not reveal any layer of social reality different from that formally expressed," indeed, so much so "that it is almost impossible to find within it any sub-text of opposition or dissent." Even while they admit to considerable variety and even originality in hagiographical texts, they assert that the conventions of the genre could not really be abandoned, since they were integral to the author's purpose in making the individual recognizable as a saint. For this reason, the truly unique elements had to be manipulated into standard shapes.

Oddly, this dismissal seems to be a step back from the position that Fouracre had taken only a few years earlier when he admitted that there were conventions to hagiography, but argued that medieval hagiographers were also constrained from rote formulaicism by the living memories of the saint or a popular tradition, however dubiously founded. He also noted that, since authors were free to choose some models over others, even "the manner in which each work drew upon the range of available conventions may in itself be revealing." Indeed, he concluded that "the old was used to give legitimacy to the new," so the very conventions of hagiography might help to disguise what was most problematic within the life of the saint.

Hagiography can indeed bear the weight of modern critical scrutiny, as I hope to show through the example of Saint Gerald. But it cannot be done by imputing to hagiographers an unvarying piety that effaces them as writers. Rather, we must see them as bringing to their writings the richness of their interior lives. My book thus seeks to answer Walter Pohl's call for postmodern readings of medieval manuscripts. Rather than pit the different textual traditions about Gerald against each other, trying to explain away variant readings, I wish to exploit, even relish the differences between them, a science that Pohl calls "textual archeology." Through this, I hope to reveal the hagiographer behind the hagiography, and to challenge especially the notion that medieval hagiographers wrote only with the most transparently pious of intentions.

I have been particularly inspired by the work of Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn on the cult of Sainte Foy of Conques. They call their study of medieval hagiography a "social semiotics" since they seek to understand each layer of Sainte Foy's legend through the texts about her, even when the authors of these texts were little known, or anonymous, and the historical contexts in which they were created and recreated are not well understood. Amy Remensnyder, too, has written about Sainte Foy in ways equally important to me, especially for her demonstration, through religious articles preserved at Conques, that material objects might both safeguard pious memories and rechannel those memories in substantially new directions.

Especially in the last chapter I make use of visual images of Saint Gerald: they have become an important modern means of remembering him. I speculate about the messages that these images may have carried to viewers, given what we know of the era in which they were crafted and displayed and what we can conjecture about those who revered these images. Yet the ambiguity of any visual symbol is perhaps especially pronounced in religious art, which is intended first and foremost to facilitate transcendence through devotion beyond the specifics of the visual. We can learn something of the intertextuality behind hagiographical art. Accordingly, I have felt free to speculate about this religious imagery as communicating a shared awareness and articulating a group identity.

Writings and rewritings about saints, however plentiful or imaginative, embellished or censored, sophisticated or sensationalized, could not guarantee the preservation of social memory, and many are the saints whose memory was lost in the Middle Ages or beyond and who returned to "bones and ashes." The first abbess of the medieval monastery of Gandersheim in Saxony, for example, a woman named Hathumoda who lived about the same time as Gerald, was quickly forgotten and her cult neglected despite the vita written about her. A number of recent studies have mapped out the recollections of a medieval saint's life through time, watching the ebb and flow of shifting social ideals and historical circumstances, although most have confined themselves to the evolution of a saint only to the end of the Middle Ages. Tracing the evolution of Saint Gerald's cult through a thousand years of history provides a much broader scope within which to view such changes. Insofar as I know, such efforts have really only been attempted for the greatest of the Christian saints. Still, "like all living organisms," Moshe Sluhovsky writes in his study of Saint Geneviève of Paris, "saints and their cults are born, live, succeed or fail, and—more often than not—die." He characterizes Geneviève as "a success story" because she "remained relevant" to many even as she was "made and remade by them"; Gerald was not.

How Gerald suffered his fate, falling into obscurity and near nothingness, is in some ways a fundamental question of this book. How is a saint forgotten? Or, more precisely, how could the memory of a holy man like Gerald, buttressed with the official and tangible sanction of biographies and believers, statues and shrines, cease to be known, his stories cease to be told, and his monuments cease to be visited? The study of historical memory is much in vogue among scholars, but we are still struggling with how to analyze the loss of memory. Because we deal with so distant a past, medievalists are perhaps better acquainted than most with the ways in which memories are composed, recomposed, and sometimes left to decompose across time. Still, new events are always cemented into place by fixing them within familiar patterns, and old traditions are bent and reshaped by new social realities.

Lawrence Kritzman suggests that the study of the past, in revealing a world that no longer exists, whether real or imagined, through a glance that is either nostalgic or condescending, helps to reinforce our sense of being modern and our essential difference from what has come before us. The study of Saint Gerald has accomplished that much for me, I readily admit, but it has also provided me with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how much we are like the inhabitants of the past as well as how much we are no longer like them, perhaps more than we would often care to admit. I hope that in what follows I might provide my readers with the same unsettling experience.