"Hagiography and the Study of Popular Culture"


by Judd H. Burton

If we broadly define “popular culture” as the “culture of the majority of people,” then one source that is helpful in its study is that of the hagiography (saints' lives).  Although, the process of gleaning may prove problematic at times, the historian may still derive from hagiographies valuable information about medieval popular culture in general.  Since the hagiographers wrote vitae for purposes other than conveying culture, circumstances often force the historian to don the mantel of anthropologist, and treat hagiographies like difficult informants.

            One of the best lessons about medieval popular culture (encountered in this class) in hagiography is that of Goderic.  The Life of St. Goderic by Reginald of Durham depicts the vocation of an English merchant.  The emergence of the merchant class during the Middle Ages is a crucial part of social evolution in Western society.  The life provides us a glimpse at the skills that someone in that social class needed, such as networking and sailing.  Reginald repeatedly emphasizes the sailing and navigation skills of Goderic.  So Reginald renders an ethnographic vignette of merchant life in the thirteenth century with his work on Goderic.[1]

            The Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius may supply clues about the oral culture of the Late Antique Eastern Christian Mediterranean.  Anthony is famous for his continual battle with demons in his homeland of Egypt.  The wastes and deserts of Egypt are most often the locations of these fierce struggles.  In an effort to draw closer to God and farther from the devil, Anthony escapes to the tombs, which we may presume are the tombs of ancient Egyptians.[2]  Anthony no doubt sees the anthropomorphic totems of ancient Egypt and interprets them as demons.  Anthony, in such an assessment, is simply an example of the larger Christian community at the time.  For the gods of the conquered are often the devils of the conquerors.  This ideology melds nicely with the biblical tradition of the wilderness as an abode for demons (Is. 13:21).  Furthermore, this notion is under-girded by the devil’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11).  Certainly, there is an elemental fear of the desert among the people of early Christendom shaped by scriptural references to such places as haunts for demons, which The Life of St. Anthony illustrates.

            In general hagiographies are evidence in and of themselves of popular culture.  They comprise a body of knowledge disseminated amongst audiences.  This spreading is pertinent to medieval popular culture in that many people hear about saints’ lives in sermons.  The pews, then, in effect, are a popular venue for the homiletic transmission of hagiographies.

            Likewise, the cult shrine is evidence of popular culture.  In the aforementioned The Life of Saint Goderic, Reginald makes mention of shrines that Goderic visits, such as St. Andrew’s in Scotland, Rome, and of course, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.[3]  Shrines exist because of the reputation of saints, and that notoriety is due in part to hagiography.  The information regarding saints filters down to a reading public and then to the masses via sermons and other recounting.  Hence, the cult shrine, a very visible part of popular culture, is an outgrowth of hagiographical influences.

            Sexuality is a perennial feature of human culture, and to a degree, one may acquire a sense of medieval sexuality from a reading of hagiographies.  Historian Alexander Kazhdan, in his worthwhile article “Byzantine Hagiography and Sex in the Fifth to the Twelfth Centuries,” examines the issue of sexuality and hagiography in the Byzantine east.  The hagiographical message itself is that the flesh is impure and its equally impure desires must be suppressed and the sex drive, at the very least, diminished (preferably eliminated).  In the context of sanctity virginity is a sacred marriage, with Christ being the groom and the chaste woman the bride.[4]  Society and the church tolerated sexual intercourse within the bonds of marriage.  Adultery and fornication, conversely, were actions of scorn, and one may read in the Life of Anthony the Younger that such things did occur in Byzantine society, and were part of popular culture.[5] 

            St. Francis of Assisi indirectly gives commentary on the popular culture of his day in writing The Canticle of Brother Sun.  While not a life or passion, The Canticle of Brother Sun is hagiographical, and is useful in determining elements of medieval Italian culture.  Francis’ phrasing in the work suggests that society still utilized classical if not magical terminology when referring to the elements.  In this selection “Brother Sun” is the traditional male, and “Sister Moon” is the female, almost hearkening to the Dianic symblogy of the moon.  Francis even refers to “Mother Earth,” a classical allusion to Gaia.[6]  The wording may simply be poetic license, but Francis’ readers and his audience would be familiar with the allusions given society’s tolerance of such things as astrology and folk magic.

            Hagiographies also provide a closer look into the world of the infirmed and how they conceptualize the causes of their diseases.  Furthermore, they also suggest that persons are willing to pursue many avenues of healing even if they are outside the bounds of period medicine.  In The Deeds of Aunemund the author relates to us the healings and exorcisms that take place at the grave of St. Aunemund.[7]  The account is typical of such occurrences at saints’ shrines and graves during the medieval period, and implies that people tended to ascribe to their ailments a spiritual cause, most often a demon.  These healings illustrate the belief in demonic causes for disease.

            The above analyses exemplify the fact that historians and other scholars can indeed study popular culture using hagiographical sources.  Hagiographies themselves rarely display popular culture in an explicit manner, but there are nonetheless elements of popular culture within them.  Not only can historians utilize hagiographical materials in this manner, but they should.  Hagiographical documents are valuable sources for learning about medieval culture, no matter how much or how little cultural data they contain.

[1]  Reginald of Durham, “Life of St. Goderic,” in Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, ed. by C.G. Coulton (Cambridge:  Cambridge University, 1918):  415-20.

[2]  Athanasius, The Life of Saint Anthony, in Medieval Sourcebook:  8.

[3]  Reginald, “Life of St. Goderic,” 415-20.

[4]  Alexander Kazhdan, “Byzantine Hagiography and Sex in the Fifth to Twelfth Centuries,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1990):  131-32.

[5]  Ibid., 135.

[6]  Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of Brother Sun, in Late Medieval Mystics (ed. Ray C. Petry) 14 (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1952):  124-25.

[7]  Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding (ed.), Late Merovingian France:  History and Hagiography, 640-720 (Manchester:  Manchester University, 1996): 189-92.

copyright Burton Beyond, 2005-2020