Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Legends of the Saints

I have finally got a chance to read the classic textbook on the hagiographer's art - The Legends of the Saints - in the reissued edition of the Four Courts Press. Below is their description of this seminal work:
The Legends of the Saints
Hippolyte Delehaye; with a new introduction by Thomas O’Loughlin

Legends of the saints, facts about the saints. All too often these two are thought to be, or presented as being, the same thing. From the earliest times the stories of the saints have been a mixture of fact, pious fabrication and myth. Dr Delehaye showed how to strip off this facade with the tools of the impartial and stringently honest historian. Not that he underestimated the power and value of legend: 'There is no question of our waging war on legends. It would be a senseless thing to do ... the work of legend can be numbered amongst the great unconscious natural forces ... As such one cannot ignore it. Only do not mistake it for history.' Delehaye's work was first published in 1905, when it was acclaimed as a classic study. But besides being a true work of scholarship, it is a book full of wit and humanity and a delight to read for sheer enjoyment.

For almost a century Delehaye's Les Légendes Hagiographiques has been the standard introductory textbook for anyone doing work which used Saints' Lives. However, for more than thirty years it has been out of print. This is a reprint of the 1962 English edition, with a new introduction and bibliography of recent materials by Dr T. O'Loughlin (University of Wales, Lampeter).
In his introduction O'Loughlin isolates four points which made this book revolutionary in its day, something that now Father Delehaye's methodology has become standard we may tend to forget:
First, that hagiography constitutes a distinct literary genre with its own rules and dynamics, and that within this category of texts there were specific textual units that repeatedly appear. In short, the vita is a narrative game where certain commonplaces are to be expected and which vary only in details between one life and another....

A second notion central to The Legends is that whatever a vita tells us, it tells us more about the time of its composition - its theology, spirituality, politics - than of the time of the saint, and more about the mind of the hagiographer than of the mind of the saint. Again this seems so obvious as to be not worth stating... but at the time it was a revolutionary idea that took many years to really sink in. For example, it was not until 1962 that anyone in Ireland was prepared to apply this maxim of research to the legends of St Patrick. When it was applied it rendered a century of argument, all trying to link or unlink bits of the legends to the fifth-century Roman bishop, obsolete overnight...

A third concept Delehaye repeatedly brought before the student was to ask why and for what reason did the hagiographer take up his pen? This notion of authorial intent is central to the historian working with texts. We understand a text to the extent that we understand the questions it answers and the points its author wants to make... we should not forget that this approach is recent and these are questions that troubled few before Delahaye's time.

Lastly, Delehaye repeatedly pointed out that the legend develops through the continuity of cultus. It is the repetition of story, the celebration of liturgy, and the pattern around tombs and other shrines that leads to the development of the hagiographical myth. And this cultic recollection is one of the most powerful forces in the development of the religious world that produces vitae with all their wonders.
That is not to say, of course, that Delahaye's work does not show its own age. O'Loughlin also points out that:
the work was conceived in the age of 'historical laws'... So Delahaye unhesitatingly spoke of 'the law' that explains that change, this growth, the adoption of that myth, or this sequence of miracles... Today we have far less trust that in the humanities we can understand our subjects in this way. We may see patterns, we many see phenomena repeatedly, and experienced observers may be able to guess outcomes, or explain what has happened over time, with a moment's acquaintance; but this is not a deduction from a general law.

Another, somewhat irritating, aspect of the work, but common at the time, is the assumption of a radical divide between the the world of the 'scientific' observer and the people observed. Thus we find references to 'the popular imagination', 'the psychology of the crowd', and 'the brain of the multitude'. 'It' is the creator and bearer of superstition, false ideas and confusions; while the scholars are preserved immune from such things.
O'Loughlin finds this model an inadequate one and laments that scholars are perhaps less immune than Father Delehaye imagined.

I will close with another quote, this time from the man himself, in the preface to the third edition of his book. Delehaye recalled how one of his earliest copies was received:
One of my first copies of The Legends of the Saints had a reception I was far from expecting. The friend who had recieved the complimentary copy informed me that he would put it in his library, but that he would never read it. "What do you expect?", he said, "I love the legends of the saints, and I do not want anything to spoil my pleasure in them".
I think this perhaps illustrates the tension between reading the lives of the saints as a scholar and reading them as a believer. Yet, Delehaye was quick to reassure:
All the learned societies can join together and proclaim that St Lawrence could not have been tortured in the way that is said; but till the end of the world the gridiron will be the only recognized emblem of that famous Roman deacon.


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