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Hagiography and Early Medieval History


  • I thank Felice Lifshitz and Alison Frazier for generously sharing their thoughts on this topic. I also thank Martha Newman and the anonymous reader, who both provided extremely useful suggestions. All errors remain my own.


In the first half of the 1990s, several scholars challenged the idea of hagiography as a genre in late antiquity and the early and central Middle Ages. Focusing on pre-twelfth-century Latin narratives about saints, I briefly survey scholarship from the last two decades and consider how it has engaged with this issue. Using examples of neglected and unusual “hagiographic” texts, I explore the possibilities and limitations of alternative approaches. Hagiography is a modern construct that is often treated as a medieval reality. Not only hagiography, but the idea of genre itself, is overly restrictive for understanding the great diversity of writings about saints. Anachronistic ideas of hagiography and genre have obscured the creativity of many works and the fluidity of literary traditions. Instead of appealing to modern classifications, we need to pay attention to the full range of evidence for the multiple literary traditions that writers, readers, and scribes invoked, and for the various uses to which they put the individual works.