Back to homepage

Jérémy Winandy

Dissertation Project: The Development and Spread of Heroism and Holiness Concepts in West Francia on the Basis of Hagiographic Texts from the 10th and 11th Centuries

When contemplating medieval saints the study can not center on the historical person of the saint as previous research has mostly done. On the contrary, the legend, which is communicated through the hagiographic and historiographical texts, must be the focus of the study so that the project can proceed from the heroization of the venerated person. Heroization is defined as the poetological techniques and strategies of the narrative, visual and performative attribution of heroic qualities (s. Antrag p. 28: “poetologischen Techniken und Strategien der narrativen, visuellen und performativen Zuschreibung von heroischen Qualitäten”). Thereby, all figures that have been venerated within a society become the focus of the study. Ultimately, this project is about the formation of the model of the Christian saint which decisively influenced the model of the hero for Christianity. A later hero within the Christian realm must always define himself in relation (hence primarily as successor or in contrast) to the Christian saint.

A fundamental assumption is that religion always represents an extremely important social element. With any and all cult practices it is therefore a matter of rites based on collective concepts that communities need for maintaining their group’s shared consciousness. Therefore it is not the function of religion, according to Durkheim, to encourage thinking but rather doing. (cf. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Carol Cosman. Ed. Mark S. Cladis. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 2008.). Therefore, when studying saints the focus must primarily be on the social function of the one venerated for the venerating community.

It is indisputable that the function of the saint was of great importance in the Early and High Middle Ages. This is imposingly documented by the expanse of written hagiographic material which represents a significant portion of the extant sources from the time period under study. It does not diminish their relevance that a large part of these hagiographic sources are rewritten from older vitae. These very re-writings, also known as réécriture, have been the focus of research for roughly 20 years. Ultimately, it is less about studying the saint as a person than studying the formation of the legend within the context of the saint’s veneration. The Project A3 proceeds analogously from the legend and not from the ‘historical’ saint. For only in this way can mythical saints be explained that historically and according to our knowledge never existed. Instead, it is assumed that believers foster an emotional relationship with the venerated saint and he thereby means something to them. This is why aspects of the miracles, relics and legends are decisive in the preservation of the saint and not his biography. With Frantisek Graus one can therefore say that no living saint, i.e. one who has lived, has been venerated, rather only the saint from the legend, i.e. as the legend presents him (cf. František Graus, Volk, Herrscher und Heiliger im Reich der Merowinger. Studien zur Hagiographie der Merowingerzeit, Prague 1965). This also explains why the image of one and the same saint in the course of centuries could change drastically. Such was necessary for the preservation of the saint in order to adapt him to the needs of the time and continue to keep him interesting.

The goal of the project is to pursue the development and spread of heroism and holiness concepts in West Francia on the basis of vitae from the 10th and 11th centuries. As examples the writings of Sigebert of Gembloux, the vita of Gerald of Aurillac as well as the vita of Robert the Pious will be more closely examined and compared with other contemporary biographies.