On the nature of late medieval Christianity

Good evening. For my next blog post I would like to briefly articulate some of my thoughts regarding a book that I recently finished reading. That book is, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700 by Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell. This is a large-scale study of the phenomenon of sainthood, published originally in 1982. The authors’ aim was to break away from the traditional tendency to study individual saintly vitae. Rather, their wish was to study broad patterns, both to do with the relationship between saint and society, hence their title, but also about perceptions of sanctity more generally. They chose as their sample 864 Latin Christian vitae from the years 1000-1700.

The first section of the book deals with saints whose call to holiness began at each respective stage of life, beginning with childhood and ending with adulthood. What is discovered first, is that children who showed an interest in saintly living often could not entertain their wishes without significant input from their immediate family. This could appear at one extreme, as violent conflict between parent(s) and child; or, at the other, as full acceptance and even active cooperation with the child’s spiritual goals. Weinstein and Bell note that the input of family on a child’s decision to become holy, as it appears in the vitae, is strongest in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, precisely the time when a new urban-based economy created many new opportunities for secular work for the children of the towns. This increase in opportunities meant that parents could now envision a secular career for their children that was both profitable and appropriate to the dignity of the family name. This partly explains the conflict that erupted between Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and his father Pietro, who as a good, wealthy cloth merchant father, could not stand to see his own son adopt the attire of a poor beggar. Indeed, Francis’ voluntary poverty was a travesty that transgressed both Pietro’s plans for his son’s future in the family business, as well as the perceived honor of the family itself. Weinstein and Bell conclude their chapter on childhood by arguing that the affective, close-knit family existed long before the date it is generally held to have emerged in the eighteenth-century. Contrary to the scholarly consensus, Weinstein and Bell see the concept of childhood as already existing in the late Middle Ages, and their proof is in the increased emphasis on family dynamics in the hagiography between 1200 and 1500. To them, this is an indicator that parents genuinely cared about and played an active role in the upbringing of their children; the conflict that sometimes broke out between child saint and parents would not have occurred otherwise.

This first section to the book draws detailed attention to the quest for holiness that child, adolescent, and adult saints experienced. In doing so, Weinstein and Bell stress what, for them, is one aspect of a “dualism”, that characterized piety in medieval Christendom. The lives of saints are a reminder of the “individual responsibility” aspect of Christian religion, one pole of this dualism. What do they mean by “individual responsibility”? Before the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) and Francis of Assisi, Christian piety tended to be vicarious. Spiritual merit was seldom sought after by the vast majority of the population. Ordinary people, entrapped in the sin of sexuality, were simply too sinful for the undertaking. On the other hand, there were monks and nuns, who had explicitly devoted their lives to virginity and divine worship. These people, whose perpetual virginity, made possible by a God who had granted them this power, were in a position to acquire the necessary spiritual graces on behalf of an entire community. Priests too, were employed in the pursuit – their daily saying of mass acting as a necessary act of propitiation against a vengeful God. Thus, a community relied upon its priests, monks, and nuns, to avert natural disasters and to assure good crop. But saints also accumulated spiritual graces by reason of their holy lifestyle. Hence, they too healed people from illnesses and protected against misfortune, both during their lifetime and after, through their relics.

 In this religious environment, there is little to no room for the direct participation of ordinary people in spiritual life. In fact, there is essentially no awareness of the idea of individual conscience and personal relationship to the divine. Rather, Christians of the earlier Middle Ages looked to their spiritual superiors for the material prosperity and good health that it was believed God would bestow under the right circumstances. In short, this was a Christianity that was at its heart utilitarian and passive. Religion was simply a means of accessing supernatural help in a world that was all too cruel to the ordinary peasant, rendering them helpless in the face of life’s many adversities. The spiritual merit of monks, nuns, priests, and saints, could then serve to force positive supernatural change, change that otherwise seemed impossible.

But if one examines the lives of the saints themselves, it becomes immediately apparent that there is much more at stake here. This takes us to what Weinstein and Bell have identified as the parallel, although not independent, current of “individual responsibility” piety, which contrasts that of vicarious spirituality. Individual responsibility piety refers to a Christianity that affirms the possibility of earning one’s salvation through one’s own efforts. In this view, there is less emphasis on acquiring spiritual merit through the holy actions of others. Rather, God has made it possible for each and every person to do this for themselves, without the need for an intermediary. Thus, beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there arose in Europe an immense movement of lay religiosity that involved ordinary people in a life of spiritual living as never before. Indeed, itinerant preachers, Waldensians, Franciscans, confraternities, and beguinages, all began to recruit to their ranks ordinary people of all backgrounds, including women. People were now increasingly attracted to the vita apostolica (living in the manner of the apostles) and the imitation of Christ as a means of drawing near to the divine. In addition, ordinary people now chose to adopt a life of prayer and penitence while still living fully “in the world” as a married, working person. Another way of ascending further up the ladder of salvation was to bestow liturgical goods on needy churches, and indeed, rich lay people began to do this in droves beginning in the thirteenth century, as this act was believed to acquire spiritual merit for the individual on a scale equal to that which he or she was generous. To sum up, this was a piety that was increasingly active, rather than passive. Christians now had direct control, and thus responsibility, over the state of their souls, and here the goal was, generally, to enter into mystical union with Christ by imitating him, through a combination of renunciation and service. This spiritual climate is a far cry from the vicarious, utilitarian piety that dominated the earlier Middle Ages. But as Weinstein and Bell point out, and this is perhaps the most important point, it would be a mistake to view vicarious, utilitarian piety as somehow separate from the piety of individual responsibility. On the contrary, their very coexistence was what constituted Christian culture in the late Middle Ages.

It was brazen paradox. Saints, by the example of their life, call us to imitation of Christ through renunciation of the world. Yet, by nature of the cults themselves, saints simultaneously drag us back down to earth, promising material well-being and good fortune in an all-too cruel world. This is what is curious about late medieval Christianity. Indeed, Weinstein and Bell go so far as to argue that this paradox is what spurred Luther’s Reformation, which was an explicit condemnation of everything that vicarious, utilitarian piety stood for. Whatever the case, the authors make it clear that more research must be done on a local level in order to further glimpse the complexities of this dynamic. In addition, I know that Caroline Walker Bynum addresses a similar question in her recent book, Christian Materiality, which I will be writing a blog post about at a later date.

Until then, I am left to ponder the connections between my own thesis and the issues raised by Weinstein and Bell’s book. On a cursory level, this book will be important for me going forward as a reference work. It is full of tables and statistics, specifically relating to the 864 saints of their sample and various aspects of their life. This information will allow me to glimpse broad trends in the history of sanctity, that will then allow me to consider the case of Abruzzo as it pertains to the rest of Europe. This work is also useful to me because it condenses much of the history of late medieval sanctity into broad themes. Specifically, I am quite excited about Weinstein and Bell’s five-fold criteria for the perception of sainthood (namely: supernatural grace, asceticism, good works, worldly power, and evangelical activity), because I can apply it to Abruzzo and ask the question of which of these qualities were most important to people in this region in identifying saints and why.

Lastly, I would like to further explore the question of the relationship between vicarious, utilitarian piety and that of individual responsibility. I do believe it is related to the question of Christian materiality that Caroline Bynum has wrote her book on, and I agree with all three scholars that there must be some connection with the Reformation. My plan is to explore this question as it played out in Abruzzo in this time period. Doing so will bring further clarity to the nature of Christianity in the centuries before the Protestant Reformation, and thus help us further understand the nature of what changed in the sixteenth century and why.


Weinstein, Donald and Rudolph M. Bell. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

“How I am God and Man!”

Good day. I feel it’s time for another blog post, especially because I just, as of a few minutes ago, finished reading a book that really inspired me, and would like to share. That book is Caroline Walker Bynum’s 1987 Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. This is a book that I had encountered a number of times throughout my undergrad career, mainly during the research stage of essay-writing in medieval history courses. It had always intrigued me. However, it is a book that I had only ever read selectively from. Now that I am home from my Italy research trip and back into the full swing of trying to get through my secondary source reading list, I finally had the opportunity to sit down and read Bynum’s book in its entirety – giving it the attention it deserves. I was not disappointed.

To begin, this is a book that, on a basic level, is about the centrality of food in female piety during the late Middle Ages (roughly 1200-1500). It begins with a quick explanation of historical context, namely, some of women’s opportunities for spiritual living in the time period in question. In the early Middle Ages, Bynum explains, women mainly found a spiritual vocation in the life of a nun. The necessary vows would need to be taken, and the women (who, at this time, were almost exclusively of aristocratic provenance) would then adopt a life of prayer, fasting, and penance in a convent. By the late Middle Ages, the opportunities for women, as well as the types of women that could lead a spiritual life, began to increase. Indeed, this was a time that, parallel to the eleventh- and twelfth-century urban revival and subsequent rise of Europe’s merchant class, the opportunities for “lay spirituality” began to increase. Thanks in part to a newly-dignified theological formulation of marriage and sex, ordinary people, including lower-class women, could now enjoy a relative spiritual dignity (albeit still viewed as inferior) that was denied to them in earlier centuries. Now women of all socioeconomic levels could lead a holy life, if they so pleased. Many women (and as Bynum points out, this number could rise as high as 15% of the total adult female population in a city) now chose to take up a holy life “in the world” as either a beguine (in the north of Europe) or a tertiary (in the south). The life of a beguine or tertiary differed from that of a nun because women were allowed to remain living in their homes with their families. They also did not take any monastic vows. They were, however, set apart from their neighbors by a life devoted to frequent prayer, manual labour, and charitable work. The new popularity of the beguine or tertiary lifestyle can be, according to Bynum, explained in part by the movement of itinerant preaching that characterized Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. At this time, people like Arnold of Brescia (d. 1155) and Henry of Lausanne (d. 1148) travelled from town to town, preaching a life of penitence and apostolic poverty that inspired many men and women to live a holy life.

But the new religious enthusiasm of women in the late Middle Ages was not always accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities. Some women were drawn to what was then considered “heresy”, either in the form of the dualist Cathar religion, anti-sacerdotal reforming groups like the Waldensians, or as aberrant mystics. Women whose response to the call for penitence and apostolic poverty led them to one of these lifestyles were very much in danger of harassment from the Inquisition, if not arrest, and in rare cases, execution. Yet the line between “heresy” and “orthodoxy” was not always so clear. Bynum reminds us that the writings of women deemed heretical and orthodox respectively, sometimes appear to a modern reader identical, and could indeed be interpreted, even by medieval people themselves, in both ways.

In fact, this similarity in the writings of both heretics and orthodox women is representative of what Bynum argues was a sort of pan-female late medieval spirituality. Her book’s argument is that, despite apparent regional and socioeconomic differences, the women of the late Middle Ages adhered to a common spiritual culture – one in which food was central. She is able to make her case quite convincingly with a number of examples taken from both hagiography and the writings of female mystics themselves. Food was important to holy women in many ways. First, food was important insofar as it was renounced. Fasting was hugely popular among holy women in the late Middle Ages. It could mean simply abstaining from all foods except bread, water, and a few vegetables, or it could mean denying all food and drink save for the eucharist. Indeed, women like Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) often reported being physically unable to swallow and digest any food except for the consecrated host. Eucharistic devotion is the second way that food was central to women’s piety. It was women, not men, whose devotions to the literal body and blood of Christ, transubstantiated in the communion wafer and chalice wine at the moment of consecration, were the most important to their spiritual life. It was a woman, Julianna of Cornillon (d. 1258), that pushed for the introduction of the feast of Corpus Christi; women, who wrote most exuberantly of the body of Christ tasting like meat or sweet honey as it entered their mouth, bringing them into mystical union with the Crucified Christ, who is truly God-man. Women spoke lovingly of their eating, digesting, and thus assimilating with Christ. For, to eat, in the spirituality of the late Middle Ages, meant much more than metaphor, it meant to literally become that which was eaten. Thus, women, in their (sometimes daily) taking of the eucharist truly became more and more like Christ, indeed they could accomplish imitatio Christi, the imitation, or more accurately, true becoming of Christ, a hallmark of late medieval devotion. These women ate, and thus became, Christ to such an extent that they even began to show signs of his own bleeding wounds in stigmata. So food was renounced, but it was also used as a means of becoming God.

But food was more. It was also service, it was fertility itself. For, just as food needs to be broken and spilled forth in order to be digested and to sustain life, so did women’s bodies by their very suffering, feed others as well as bring them to salvation. In fact, as much as women denied themselves food, as much as stories circulated of their bodies ceasing to excrete, sweat, or give off dandruff, the more women produced divine food, often in the form of mysterious bodily fluids, that healed people of their illnesses. They also gave the food they refused to eat to the poor, turning their abstinence into service. Moreover, women’s breast milk too, was seen in countless visions as spiritually nourishing, and was indeed (due partly to the natural philosophy at the time that held breast milk to be a product of blood) associated with Christ’s nourishing blood. But it is also abundantly clear from the writings of these women that it was believed that their becoming of Christ was in fact saving souls from the torments of purgatory. Like Christ, these women offered their suffering in service of the salvation of the world. They became the God-man themselves, in all his suffering, and thus fertility. Late medieval women used food as their means to fulfilling the two greatest impulses of late medieval spirituality: renunciation and service.

This leads me to one of Bynum’s most fascinating and important arguments. Traditionally, the self-inflicted suffering of late medieval piety was viewed by historians as essentially dualistic. It was believed that medieval people punished their bodies because they drew a sharp distinction between flesh, which was inherently evil, and spirit, which was divine. Not the case, says Bynum. In fact, Europeans from the years 1200-1500, viewed human flesh in the most positive terms in all of Christian history. Rather than deny the flesh, medieval people, and women in particular, sought to probe all of the flesh’s possibilities, divinely transfiguring it, yet in such a way that glorified its very fleshliness as the key to salvation. For, as Bynum says, late medieval people saw the Incarnation as the Gospel’s central fact. Humankind is saved precisely because God became human. Because he took on human suffering. Such an emphasis on Christ’s humanity could hardly be reconciled with notions of flesh as evil. On the contrary, flesh was to be affirmed and exulted as an access point to the divine.

But why, according to Bynum, does devotion to Christ’s humanity (and thus, body, which is food) concern, for the most part, women in the late Middle Ages? Why not equally men? In this time period, she explains, the flesh of Christ was held to be synonymous with “woman”. After all, Christ had no earthly father, meaning that his flesh must have come exclusively from Mary, his mother. Indeed, there was a conceptual dichotomy between matter and spirit that mirrored that of woman and man, respectively. Woman was held to correspond to everything to do with flesh, with irrationality. Man was connected with spirit and reason. To be sure, it was not uncommon for male spiritual writers at this time to assert an inherent moral weakness (especially pertaining to sexuality) on the part of women simply due to this apparent “heightened fleshliness”. And as Bynum reminds us, it is true that many holy women, for example Catherine of Siena, of this time period reflect a similar belief, in what can be seen as internalized misogyny. The only difference however, is that women were much more likely to embrace the reality of their particular fleshliness. In fact, as stated above, Christ’s flesh itself was woman’s flesh. Women then, in a stunning reversal of the implications of dualist misogyny, are seen as especially fortunate to reflect the saving humanity of Christ himself. Thus, we get stories of spiritual men at this time who refer to themselves as females, and who describe their spiritual progression as a climb towards increasing femininity. Bonaventure, for example, referred to Francis of Assisi as a woman. Moreover, priests sometimes saw themselves as pregnant women, because like the pregnant Mary who had brought about the Incarnation, God became flesh in the eucharist at the priest’s command. In order to become Christ, men had to enter into ever-deeper fleshliness, and since fleshliness was by definition feminine, this required a symbolic reversal of gender. And the theme of reversal, more generally, lay at the heart of men’s piety in the late Middle Ages (think of Francis of Assisi, stripping naked in the piazza of Assisi in that dramatic display of total renunciation of wealth and status). This comes as no surprise, Bynum argues: “Such reversal seemed necessary in a religion at whose heart lay contradiction and Incarnation: God-become-man.” (284).

Yet women had no such need of the symbol of reversal, or inversion. Instead, they drew upon their ordinary female experiences in describing their spiritual journeys. Thus, for Catherine of Siena, all women were children, drinking the milk of suffering “from the breast of Christ’s humanity,” becoming one with that same mother (the human Christ), whose feeding was suffering, suffering that saved the world (292). Women’s lives, through the experiences of suffering and feeding (through lactation and as primary household cook), recapitulated the basic truth of Christianity, that Christ saved humanity by becoming one with it, by becoming one with the suffering of the flesh, in order to feed and sustain fallen mankind with his saving blood-milk.

All together, I think Bynum’s book is a beautifully evocative and instructive piece of historical scholarship. She reminds us of the complexities that lay behind something as simple as food to the medieval mind. In a world in which suffering and starvation were common, there is something very eerily sad about the tendency to associate suffering with regeneration. But at the same time, as Bynum’s epilogue suggests, perhaps medieval people were on to something in the sense that they affirmed and exulted that which weighed the most heavily on their lives, that which was out of their control.

As someone working on the history of late medieval religion myself, Bynum’s work reorients my thinking in a couple ways. First, it causes me to take seriously differences between male and female piety that I would not have necessarily otherwise. But it also begs the question of how, given all of what Bynum has described about the complexities of medieval food symbols and its associated theology, does this relate to the cult of saints in this same time period? I think the two topics are connected in a significant way. Indeed, Bynum herself reminds us that the cult of saints is really the first and most influential development in Christian theology and practice to advocate the idea of the possibility of divine matter, in clear contrast to ideas of dualism. After all, the saints’ bodies themselves were from a very early date (as early as the third century) held to be made of divine stuff, and this belief by no means slowed down into the late Middle Ages and early modern period.

One thing that I am left wondering, however, is the role of the debate, or tension, if you will, between ideas of interiority and exteriority in Christian belief and practice. This is one thing that I believe Bynum does not do enough time exploring. For, surely the kind of matter-affirming Christianity that became popular in the late Middle Ages was by no means universally-accepted; Bynum herself mentions, if only briefly, the increasing push for moderation in fasting and a reorientation toward “spiritual” fasting. Yet she does not elaborate on this very much. This is a question, I believe, that will be important for me to answer going forward in my research, and I think a revisit to Bynum’s work Christian Materiality will help me here.

But, all in all, Bynum’s book Holy Feast and Holy Fast is an important re-interpretation of the asceticism of the late Middle Ages that I do not think can be ignored. Her emphasis on the complexities of food and body symbols remind us of the need to be open to heterogeneity in our analyses. That said, I do believe that much of what Bynum describes needs to be investigated on a more local level (as well as within a shorter chronology) in order to fully fish out what may be even further complexity in her model. The importance of outlier cases is something that is overlooked in her work.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Italy Research Trip, Pt. 1

Hello everyone. I thought now would be the right time to pen my next blog post, considering I am two weeks in to my research trip in Italy. I arrived in Sulmona, Italy, on the 27th of May, where I am renting an apartment for a little while, before setting off for Pescara for another week. Sulmona is a small city in the middle of the Peligna Valley in the densely mountainous, but sparsely populated, region of Abruzzo. Abruzzo is an obvious choice for the purposes of my thesis, because it exemplifies the phrase “off the beaten path.” Although the region was not entirely cut off from outside influences (the road to Bari and the Holy Land overlapped with Abruzzo’s easternmost border on the Adriatic coast), this highly, indeed most mountainous region in Italy outside of the Alps, remained in many ways relatively “untouched” throughout time. There is still, for instance, strong devotion to S. Domenico of Sora (d. 1031), whose cult features clear links with pre-Roman telluric cults, particularly that of the goddess Angitia, strongly associated by the central Italic tribes with snakes. Thus, every first of May the town of Cocullo, located less than twenty kilometres to the west of Sulmona, celebrates the feast of S. Domenico, in which a statue of the saint is ceremoniously paraded around town to the delight of the faithful; with one difference: Domenico’s statue is completely covered in live snakes during the event, which slither continuously around the statue’s head and upper torso, contributing further to the heightened hypnotic atmosphere of the feast.

The region of Abruzzo then, was certainly what I had most in mind when coming up with the topic for my thesis. Upon arrival in Sulmona, I admittedly got off to a slow start. This was my first time ever seriously entering an archive for research, and it was quite daunting. I began at the Archivio di Stato dell’Aquila (Sezione di Sulmona), where some kind archivists found for me a whole bunch of pertinent secondary source material, which I ended up simply snapping photos of for later use. I did not get to consult any medieval primary sources at the Archivio di Stato, simply because they didn’t have any – a sad realization that I was very quickly made aware of. That said, I was able to access a published version of the (extant) entirety of Sulmona’s municipal statutes in the sixteenth century, which are now all photographed and ready for my consultation. A cursory glance reveals a lot to be said about food and drink legislation (this is Italy, after all), and very little to do with religion. Nonetheless, I look forward to going through these in detail and hopefully finding something relating to a saint’s cult, say for example, legislation regarding the lighting of candles at shrines.

In terms of secondary sources, the archivists provided me with quite a few works on S. Peter of Morrone (d. 1296), the hermit saint turned pope, turned prisoner, whose reputation as the last pope to resign until Benedict XVI has overshadowed the saint’s popularity as a worker of miracles in the Peligna Valley. Peter of Morrone, the archivists explained, is the logical point of departure for an inquiry such as mine. The extant documentation surrounding not only his life, but his post-mortem cult, is one of the richest for the later medieval period in Abruzzo. There exists, in particular, a process of canonization from the year 1306, still preserved in Sulmona’s Archivio Capitolare della Cattedrale di S. Panfilo. Unlike most saints, Peter of Morrone was one of only hundreds in the Middle Ages to be the subject of official investigation aimed at declaring or not declaring, the sanctity of an individual on behalf of the Church of Rome. In order to arrive at a conclusion, local people needed to be interviewed, and it is this process that fills the majority of the pages of the document. “What kinds of miracles has Peter worked in your life?” The people of the Peligna Valley answered and their responses (albeit mediated through the clerical scribes) were recorded.

1306 canonization process of Peter of Morrone (d. 1296).

If you look closely, you can see the name of a witness on the left page, where the next entry begins (a certain Jacobus de Pacentro). Pacentro is a small village in the mountains near Sulmona, where roughly six hundred years after the creation of this document, three of my own grandparents would be born and raised in the early twentieth century.

 I look forward to going through this document in detail at a later time. It will shed valuable light on aspects of the Abruzzese “culture of sanctity”, by highlighting the ways that both clerics (through the questions asked) and lay people (through the answers provided) understood and experienced the cult of saints. It will also be an indicator of the extent to which Peter’s cult made its way into the towns and villages of the Peligna area, as each witness is named and their place of origin noted by the scribe. Perhaps here there is even the possibility to do some mapping. More on that in future.

I have also, thus far, had the opportunity to see some beautiful works of medieval art. This first group comes from the Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra, which I visited one day when the diocesan archives were closed.

A fourteenth-century statue of S. Catherine of Alexandria (d. according to legend, early fourth century) from Pescocostanzo, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century statue of S. Blaise (d. 316) from Campo di Giove, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century Madonna and Child from Campo di Giove, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century Crucifix from Sulmona, Abruzzo.
1501 depiction of SS. John the Evangelist, Paul, Peter, and John the Baptist from Scanno, Abruzzo.

The one thing that stood out to me here regards the look of the works themselves. In particular, while observing the statue of S. Blaise and the Crucifix, I was struck by something curious. If you are standing in front of one of these two art pieces and you begin to lose focus, suddenly you may find yourself abruptly brought back to attention because you “glimpsed” the statues in slight movement. I noticed this a few times, at first unexpectedly, and then after while purposely testing it out. I believe it has to do with the fact that these statues are built in a way that suggests movement and thus, to the unsuspecting spectator, can give the illusion of real movement, if only for less than a second. In the case of the Crucifix, Christ’s eyes are left slightly open, giving the impression that they are in fact in the process of closing. The mouth too, is open, prompting us to imagine the sounds that would have come out of Christ’s mouth in his final moments. Thus, the fifteenth-century Crucifix “shows” Christ’s death as it actually happened. Indeed, Christ on the cross is neither alive nor dead, but permanently cast in a state of liminality, between life and death. It is not far-fetched, I believe, to suggest that this dynamic no doubt may have led medieval people to “see” the statue in motion, to see the death taking place, especially during a time of heightened religious fervour or spiritual ecstasy, perhaps the kind of Margery Kempe (d. after 1438). In addition, S. Blaise’s statue, which, like the Crucifix, is fifteenth-century, also clearly gives the impression of movement with the saint’s outstretched arms. This realization made me immediately think about Caroline Walker Bynum’s book Christian Materiality (2011), which discusses transformation miracles in the later Middle Ages, one of which was the ability of artwork to “come alive”. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if Bynum could have drawn more attention to the art works themselves and their inherent ability (or not) to give the illusion of movement. This is certainly what I have noticed in the two fifteenth-century works of art just mentioned, and it is something that could be paired with Bynum’s thorough attention to late medieval notions of matter and transformation.

Digital Tool-Assisted Hermeneutics: “Voyant Tools” and Medieval Hagiography

Salvete omnes! I am sorry that this blog is taking quite a while to get going. I am in the process of finishing up my course work for the term, and look forward to begin posting regularly once that is taken care of. I do, however, have a blog post to share today. This is a brief paper that I wrote for my class at Brock University with Dr. Michael Driedger, “Visualizing Historical Research.” It provides a quick look at some of the issues involved with using digital tool-assisted hermeneutical methods such as the online program “Voyant Tools” with medieval hagiographical texts. I hope, by the end, you will have at least a rudimentary sense of some of the areas of discussion we must turn to in the future as it relates to this topic. Here it is:

Hagiography, or saintly literature, is a literary genre perhaps most associated with the Middle Ages.[1] This is not wholly unwarranted. In the Latin west, for instance, the cult of saints was central to Christian piety from the patristic period until the Protestant Reformation.[2] Saints performed a number of roles in society; they functioned as powerful heavenly advocates, healers, social mediators, sources of cohesion, as well as symbols of political and religious identity.[3] One aspect of these cults is their associated hagiographic literature, which includes Latin and, increasingly from the twelfth century, vernacular Lives, or vitae. These works of sacred biography were products of their specific politico-cultural milieu; they served to consolidate as well as “tame” a cult, attempting to ground it in a clerically-defined religious discourse.[4] These texts, which for the Middle Ages are extant in the thousands, thus offer much to the historian interested in medieval notions of sanctity as well as issues of identity and everyday life. They are a window onto medieval mentalities.

The texts themselves have been the subject of serious scholarship since the seventeenth century with the Bollandists, whose Acta Sanctorum, published in 68 folio volumes between 1643 and 1794,is notable as an enormous collection of critical hagiography. Despite this long history, the study of hagiography has largely been neglected relative to other medieval literary genres due to confessional concerns, as well as, according to Manfred Gorlach, a preference among scholars for “high” literature.[5] Nonetheless, there have been some important contributions to the study of medieval saintly literature. Historian Andre Vauchez, for instance, has attempted to piece-together medieval mentalities in his 1981 book, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Vauchez focuses primarily on the processes of canonization that were produced as official inquests into a saint’s life and cult between 1185 and 1421. He consciously does not center his study on saintly vitae. The vitae, he believes, due to their exclusively clerical provenance, are not ideal as indicators of popular mentalities. The processes of canonization, like inquisition records, immortalize the words of ordinary lay people. They are important as they reveal “what individuals who belonged to very diverse social and cultural milieux thought about a person they had known or heard talked about and what idea they had formed of Christian perfection.”[6] Vauchez considers a large group of these texts in order to produce conclusions – over seventy-one. He notes a fundamental difference between what he calls “mentality” and “mental structure.” Mentality, remained common to all, and was slow to change. Here, Vauchez points to the signs of sanctity, such as corporeal incorruptibility, that remained relatively constant throughout time.[7] Mental structure, by contrast, was changed and shaped by cultural trends. This explains the differences in interpretation of the signs of sanctity between the masses and the clerical authors of these texts.[8]

A more recent study is Eleni Tounta’s article, “Saints, rulers and communities in Southern Italy: the Vitae of the Italo-Greek saints (tenth to eleventh centuries) and their audiences” (2015) in the Journal of Medieval History. Tounta deals explicitly with saintly vitae. She conducts a close reading of these texts in order to gleam information about the relations between political authorities and local communities in medieval southern Italy. Her methodology is dependent on ideas of the interactions between text and community, as articulated by Julia M. H. Smith.[9] One of her conclusions, for instance, is that these vitae functioned to mediate between the Byzantine authorities and local communities.[10] Her work approaches the topic of hagiography with an eye to functionalist explanations for the cult of saints.[11]

This paper will draw from both Vauchez and Tounta. It will demonstrate both the possibilities and limitations of digital tool-assisted hermeneutics, as it pertains to medieval hagiographical texts. I would like to borrow from Vauchez’s commitment to mentality, although I am of the opinion that saintly vitae can and do indicate much more than exclusively clerical attitudes. This is where Tounta’s methodology will be useful. These texts were not produced in isolation. They were, in many cases, dependent on pre-existing oral traditions of lay provenance.[12] Thus, this paper will serve as a commentary on the capabilities of digital tool-assisted hermeneutics to contribute to a scholarly conversation about mentality as it appears in medieval saintly vitae. I will focus specifically on the web-based program Voyant Tools, a digital humanities project launched in 2003 that allows users to interpret a text or group of texts in a number of ways, as seen below. Here, my thinking has taken as its starting point Geoffrey Rockwell and Stefan Sinclair’s work Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities (2016). In fact, my interest in mentality has its counterpart in Rockwell and Sinclair’s discussion of “conceptual system” as expressed through words, an idea that has itself been borrowed from Roberto Busa (1980).[13] As the authors rightly point out, we must turn to an writer’s “verbal system” in order to understand, in a philologically-sensitive manner, his or her value system. The work of Rockwell and Sinclair also raises questions about the use of digital tools in hermeneutics and our conception of what constitutes a “text,” a discussion that as will be seen, holds a special importance for the medieval period. Lastly, I have chosen only the original Latin texts as part of my investigation, in the interests of remaining as true to the original as possible, but also in the hopes that I will be able to comment something on the relative strengths and weaknesses of working with Latin texts in general in Voyant Tools. Making no claims to be exhaustive, I hope that this investigation will raise some points for future discussion surrounding the use of digital tools in medieval studies and the humanities more broadly.

I began my inquiry simply by pasting a hyperlink into Voyant Tools of Fordham University’s “Internet Medieval Sourcebook” Latin vita of St Nicholas of Bari (d. 342), as it appears in Jacobus da Varagine’s (d. 1298) famous Legenda aurea. I decided to limit my experiments with Voyant Tools to the Legenda’s vitae, in order to help focus issues of authorship. After adjusting the tool to remove the pre-programmed Latin “stopwords,” “common” words like res (thing) and its corresponding declensional variants, I ended up with the following “cirrus” representation of the most frequent terms in the text, as seen in Figure 1:

Figure 1

Before proceeding, I would like to comment on the “stopwords” function of Voyant. Enabling this feature is not a necessary step in the analytical process. In fact, the decision to block all of the “common” words of any language, as they appear pre-programmed into Voyant, must first cause students to pause and consider what is being done. It is, at least on the surface, unclear who has decided which words should appear on the list of stopwords. There is, likewise, no immediate justification provided for the words chosen. The obvious concern here is that the tool may hide certain “common” words that are in fact analytically useful. The word res, for example, has a diverse set of possible “meanings” in addition to “thing,” like, “business,” “affair,” and “matter.”[14] The word is thus not necessarily always useful to block. But students must also be wary of the ideological choice that is inevitably made when words are ranked according to their perceived “value.” Users must interrogate the list of stopwords. Why are these specific words being blocked? What assumptions are being made? To what end? Perhaps it is safer to begin one’s analysis without any stopwords at all and to compare how the addition of the stopwords alters Voyant’s results. The “stopwords” function can be particularly problematic with a language like Latin, which is highly-inflected, and whose lexicon (like any language, to be sure) varies greatly depending on the historico-cultural context. A word and its corresponding “meaning” that appears in a Ciceronian text may have a very different connotation, for instance, a millennium and a half later in a saintly vita produced by an English monk. For the student interested in quickly placing a text into Voyant and immediately interpreting the results, the considerations outlined above are not necessarily a priority, however unduly. If the student has the time, he or she may be able to negotiate these issues by manually making their own list of stopwords.

The first thing that I noted about Voyant’s output for the vita of St Nicholas is that the word dei is used the most. One interesting aspect of the use of Latin (and other highly-declined languages) texts in Voyant is that it is possible to learn information about a word’s textual context simply by looking at the declension of the word in the “cirrus” view. This can provide clues, or indeed direct indicators, of the words that surround the word in question in the text, as well as the word’s grammatical role in a sentence. No referral to the “contexts” function in Voyant is necessarily needed. In this case, dei is the genitive form of deus (god), so its meaning is extremely likely to be “of god.” The fact that this term appears the most throughout the text (a total of thirteen times) is apparently initially unhelpful. This is a limitation of Voyant. The tool cannot substitute for close reading, although it can quickly pinpoint the desired sections of a text so that close reading may be conducted. In this case, a glance at each instance of the term in the actual text, as shown through Voyant’s “concordance” function, reveals that the term is mainly used as “servant” or “man” of god, and refers directly to St Nicholas himself. It is not surprising that a term used to refer to the vita’s “protagonist” should appear so many times in the text. There is, nonetheless, something of use here for our purposes. The precise title that is designated to a saint can reveal information about mentality. Here, one must tread carefully. Medieval hagiography is a literary genre whose language and form have taken their cues, to a significant degree, from formulaic literary topoi. The use of a typical designator such as, “servant of god,” is thus perhaps best viewed as simply just that. The interesting question is if and when there are divergences from the norm. Are certain saints referred to in unique terms? What does this reveal about the text, its author, and respective audience? Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine using Voyant the different ways that a saint is referred to in a text. The tool’s interpretive capabilities are far too general for such specificity.

I would also like to draw attention to the word iudaeus (Jew) in the vita of St Nicholas, which is the second most used term in the text, appearing nine times. What is a Jewish person doing in a text about a Christian saint? A look at Voyant’s “reader” function shows that the term is used exclusively toward the end of the narrative. Here, there is an anecdote about a fraudulent Jewish moneylender, who suffers an accident while traveling and becomes baptized as a Christian after receiving a miracle from St Nicholas. Varagine’s point is clear enough: “Sicque et latrones ad viam redeunt rectitudinis, et Iudaeus fidem amplectitur salvatoris,” (Thus even thieves return to the path of virtue and a Jew embraced the faith of salvation). The importance of this story to the overall narrative is perhaps not perceived in close reading. It is only with Voyant that we are reminded of the preponderance of the term iudaeus in the story, an indicator of its importance in the text. What can this tell us about mentality? St Nicholas is alleged to have lived in the fourth century. Is the story about the Jew contemporary to him or merely a product of the thirteenth century? Regardless of its actual provenance, its importance in Varagine’s narrative reflects the anti-Jewish fervour that was present in Europe at this time, which dated to the First Crusade (1095-99). Voyant’s “cirrus” view is a quick way of perceiving this preoccupation as it existed, whether consciously or not, in the author’s mind at the time of writing. This can be stated, I believe, as a general rule: the words and themes that appear the most in a text clearly preoccupied the author the most, and thus offer a window onto his or her mental world. In the case of hagiography, as stated above, one must nonetheless be wary of the use of literary topoi, which may indicate, more than one’s own mentality, efforts to evoke the mentality of Christians in the distant past. One last note here. The term iudaeus, as it appears in the “cirrus” view as the second most used term, is in its nominative form. A look at the text itself reveals, unsurprisingly, that the term is indeed also used in its other declensional forms, although these are not, for obvious reasons, factored in to the total frequency of the term iudaeus. This is another limitation of using Voyant with Latin texts. The true frequency, and thus importance, of a term in a text may be underrepresented in the tool’s “cirrus” view. This can only be remedied by manually searching, using Voyant’s “terms” list, for all instances of words beginning with iuda-. It is one extra step, although one that has the potential to significantly alter the tool’s results, especially if a certain term is used a number of times in multiple of its declensional variants.

Perhaps it is wiser to take a large group of texts from a single author and place these into Voyant. This will provide a more complete picture of the author’s mentality. I have done this for Varagine, inputting into the tool 23 vitae from his work, the “cirrus” results of which appear below in Figure 2. I have removed the pre-programmed Latin stopwords Once again, dei appears the most times, and a look at the concordance confirms that this is indeed, mostly “servant” of god or other related terms. The other thing of interest is the preponderance of the term corpus (body). It appears a total of 43 times throughout these 23 vitae. As stated above, we must however account for all the word’s declensional variants. A quick search for corp- produces 72 hits. In this case, Voyant’s inability to deal with a highly-declined language like Latin, has produced a quite substantial skew in the results. It turns out the word “body” is used much more in the texts than is initially apparent. Surely we can learn something here about the centrality of the body to medieval spirituality. Indeed, just as the world was saved through a body, that of Christ, so was the body heavy with diverse spiritual associations.[15] It is unsurprising then for the body to figure so prominently in these saintly texts. Without Voyant, this information would not so quickly and clearly be brought to the surface. That said, it would now require close reading to understand how the body functions in each vita, and this is perhaps, a more interesting question.

Figure 2

I would like now to turn to some more of the limitations in using Voyant Tools on medieval hagiographical texts. First, as Rockwell and Sinclair rightly point out, using Voyant on a text or group of texts runs the risk of divorcing these texts from their original author.[16] This, of course, depends on one’s willingness to accept, contrary to postmodern thought, that reaching through to the “author” is indeed an attainable and worthy endeavour. If we are going to assume this, then this form of text analysis produces some problems to that end. Students must be constantly wary of “finding” patterns within and between texts that do not necessarily correspond to the author’s intentions. It is not enough, for example, simply to conclude that the preponderance of the term corpus in Varagine’s vitae points to the centrality of the body to his spirituality. This claim must be qualified, using evidence external to the tool. It would be crucial, for instance, to consider Varagine’s education and career. Being a member and teacher of the Dominican order, the archbishop of Genoa was no doubt quite familiar with the doctrines and schools of thought current to his order in the thirteenth century. It is important to constantly keep such things in mind, rather than allow Voyant to “do the work for us.” This is also where we must remember Julia M. H. Smith’s emphasis on the interactions between author and audience. For whom was Varagine compiling his Legenda aurea? To what end? These are the types of questions that must accompany any use of hagiography with Voyant Tools.

Lastly, there is an issue inherent in digital text-analysis that must be addressed. To be frank, it is as Rockwell and Sinclair have put it, the fact that “computers see a text not as a book with binding, pages, ink marks, and coffee stains, but as a sequence of characters. The electronic text is a formalization of an idea about what the text is.”[17] In other words, Voyant reads and interprets what Voyant reads and interprets, nothing more. Things like marginalia can be neglected depending on the version of transcription. There is also (to my current knowledge) no way of digitally analyzing the parts of a literary work that are not explicitly textual. Indeed, Voyant suffers from an acute “logocentrism.” This is particularly problematic in the case of medieval hagiography. I am thinking here of Cynthia Hahn’s 2010 article in the journal Numen, “What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?” Hahn is able to demonstrate for medieval reliquaries that, rather than serve to simply honour the saint whose corporeal remains are contained within, these artistic creations play an active role in “constructing the saint and his or her spiritual meaning for (and by) the viewer.”[18] If we apply this same concept to medieval hagiography, then suddenly the beautifully-decorated initials, as well as the, at times, countless illustrations that populate the margins of the text itself, become an important component in our understanding of the work as a whole. These are all things that Voyant cannot help with. Sure, the word “body” may appear countless times throughout the pages of the Legenda aurea. But how does the “body” figure in the parts of the document that are non-textual? Illustrations and visual aesthetics must not be forgotten amidst the countless hours one could spend playing around with Voyant and its attention to word patterns within and between texts.

It is also wise to keep orality constantly in the back of one’s mind when dealing with medieval hagiography. It was often the case that these texts were read out loud, especially on a saint’s feast day. In a predominantly illiterate society, this is in fact the medium through which a work like the Legenda aurea would be experienced in a majority of cases. Future work with Voyant and medieval hagiography must take this into account. A text becomes something very different when it is brought to life before an audience, such that patterns picked up through Voyant may be imperceptible to those listening.

In conclusion, Voyant Tools offers some opportunities to analyze mentality as it appears in medieval Latin hagiography. It is possible to glimpse recurring themes and thus to infer from them a correlation of some sort, whether positive or negative, with mentality. This is, however, not even half the battle. Scholars must account for the idiosyncrasies of the Latin language that sometimes significantly alter Voyant’s results. We must also be sure to include in our discussions reference to the author’s background, as well as the non-textual elements of the work. These considerations will help to ensure we are not getting lost in this new world of digital tool-assisted hermeneutics. Our medieval friends were, after all, writing well over five hundred years prior to the advent of the digital humanities.

[1] Felice Lifshitz has forcefully argued against the conception of “hagiography” as a separate literary genre. The term and its associated theoretical baggage are, indeed, merely modern positivist constructions, that mask the role of saintly literature as veritable medieval histories; Felice Lifshitz, “Beyond Positivism and Genre: “Hagiographical” Texts as Historical Narrative,” Viator 25 (1994): 95-114.

[2] For the centrality of the cult of saints to medieval Christian piety, see Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[3] For the diverse social functions of the cult of saints, see Simon Ditchfield, “Thinking with Saints: Sanctity and Society in the Early Modern World,” Critical Inquiry 35.3 (2009): 552-584.

[4] For the complex interactions between sacred biographical texts and their audiences, see Julia M. H. Smith, “Oral and Written: Saints, Miracles, and Relics in Brittany, c. 850-1250,” Speculum 65.2 (1990): 309-343.

[5] Manfred Gorlach, “Middle English legends, 1220-1530” in Guy Philippart, ed. Hagiographie. Histoire internationale de la litterature hagiographique (Turnhout: Prephols, 1994), 432.

[6] Andre Vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3-4.

[7] Ibid., 535.

[8] Ibid., 536.

[9] See above, note 4.

[10] Eleni Tounta, “Saints, rulers and communities in Southern Italy: the Vitae of the Italo-Greek saints (tenth to eleventh centuries) and their audiences,” Journal of Medieval History 42.4 (2015): 435-37.

[11] Perhaps one of the most famous expressions of this school of thought is Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” The Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80-101.

[12] Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 26.

[13] Geoffrey Rockwell and Stefan Sinclair, Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities (MIT Press, 2016), 152.

[14] The University of British Columbia online Latin Dictionary, http://sunsite.ubc.ca/LatinDictionary/HyperText/latin-dict-full.html

[15] For the concept of Christian “materiality” see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian materiality: an essay on religion in later medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2011).

[16] Rockwell and Sinclair, 20.

[17] Ibid., 156.

[18] Cynthia Hahn, “What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?” Numen 57 (2010): 311.


Thank-you for visiting my blog. My name is Lucas Coia and I am a Master of Arts candidate in the History department at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada, working under the supervision of Dr. Colin Rose. The plan is to complete my thesis by the summer of 2020.

This is a blog dedicated to my MA thesis project, “Off the Beaten Path.” It will track its development, as well as provide updates on my own progression through the grad school experience. I want to provide a series of snapshots of my work as it takes shape, and in doing so, hope to consolidate and ultimately make meaning of, for myself and for you, a number of intellectual threads as they enter my thinking. I hope it will be interesting and meaningful to read for all people, as well those in academia.

Throughout my post-secondary education, I have been working in a conscious effort at weaving together a sophisticated, intellectually rigorous worldview. I believe that aspects of critical theory are enormously valuable. It is necessary, for instance, not only to question our cultural preconceptions, but also to ask ourselves how we can apply the fruits of this discourse to make a positive impact on our environment and the life that inhabits it, all while striving for empathy. What may seem like something so simple can alter entire cultural realities for the better. What, after all, is more liberating than the freedom to cross at will the culturally-determined mental threshold that stifles our natural propensity for curious self-betterment? The way to do this in an effective and sensitive manner is, admittedly, one of my foremost concerns. It is certainly not simple, and I hope that this blog will aid me, as well as you, in grappling with this issue. It is, after all, an endeavour worth labouring for. It would be quite a waste indeed, to exercise the kind of mental energy that these kind of debates demand, only to let the words, thoughts, and ideas produced carelessly drift away to oblivion, a place where they are of no more use than an obscure medieval manuscript, tucked away in a dank church basement, waiting in vain for an historian to find it.

The purpose of “Off the Beaten Path” then, is two-fold. It is, first and foremost, a project that is interested in the Christianity of the Middle Ages. It is aimed at exploring the cult of saints in one particular time and place, namely, rural southern Italy between approximately, 1200-1500. At the same time, I am also striving to make sense of the nature of culture, quite generally. Where is it that culture comes from? What are the real world implications of the answer to this question? I hope to be in a position to answer, however provisionally, these questions by the summer of 2020. I also hope that, by thinking about this project in broader terms, I will make this blog relevant and interesting to an audience of non-scholars, as well as fellow historians.

In the meantime, thank-you for reading my first blog post. I hope you will return and follow me on my journey “off the beaten path”, as I delve into the fascinating world of medieval religion. I will soon write a post that outlines my project in more detail.

P.S. Thank-you to my fellow M.A. candidate at Brock, Jessica Linzel, for inspiring me to start a blog of my own. I would highly recommend to check out her fascinating MA project entitled, Mapping Early Niagara, an examination of the economic development of the Niagara region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her blog can be found at: https://jessicalinzel.com