The Development of Hagiography and the Cult of the Saints
in the Later Middle Ages:
The Example of the Kingdom of France from the Capetian Accession to the
Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
In 987 Hugh
Capet was elected king, finally bringing an end to the power of the Carolingian
dynasty in the west Frankish kingdom and completing the transformation
of the Robertian clan of nobles, based in the Ile-de-France into the new
ruling Capetian dynasty. The social and political order of France was reshaped
in the following decades. During the following two centuries many ancient
monastic houses were reformed and, in the process, the cults of their traditional
patron saints were renewed. Frequently, as part of this process, the churches
which housed the relics of the saints were rebuilt. Rodulphus Glaber (+ca.1047),
describing a profusion of church building in Italy and France during the
first decade of the new millennium, commented that it was as if "the
world itself, shaking off the old, had covered itself with a shining robe
of churches." In the 1130s Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis argued that
it was necessary to rebuild his abbey's church because of crowding caused
by the throng of pilgrims who "spilt out of every door."
During this revival of the cult of saints, the concept of saintly patronage
was based on the evolving social practices of vassalage, feud, and gift
exchange. Devout Christians gained the protection and intercession of the
holy dead by bringing them gifts or providing them with services. A detailed
picture of this process can be found in the stories gathered together in
numerous miracle collections composed by monks at this time. The "family"
of a patron saint included many people: the monks or canons of the community,
the serfs who worked the lands of that community, the nobles who donated
land to the saint, the pilgrims who brought offerings or simply their prayers
to the shrine. In exchange for their services and gifts, the saint provided
his or her friends with intercession in the divine court and protection
against disease and enemies in this world. The power of the saints was
also portrayed by monastic authors as an effective deterent to the saint's
enemies. A story from the Anjou told how a son of a knight had injured
himself while riding illegally on the property of the monastery of St.
Albinus. The boy began to curse the saint and was struck dumb. His friends,
attracted by his tears, led him back to his father. On the advice of the
monks the boy came to their church where he lay prostrate in supplication
before the relics of Albinus. Eventually he rose and told how the saint
had appeared to him and loosed his tongue on the condition that he warn
others not to treat the saints irreverently.
The relationships between saint and servants were reciprocal, for the
saints became obligated to their servants as can be seen in a story told
by the monks of Conques about a man who had been punished by his master
for having attended the feast of their patron St. Faith by having his eyes
gouged out. The saint, bothered by the suffering incurred on her behalf,
appeared to the man one night and promised him a cure saying, "With
great shouts I have moved the righteousness of the divine judge to mercy
as regards the injury which has been done to you. I have exhausted God
through my incessant prayers until I could obtain this cure for your."
In times of trouble, when they thought that their patron had deserted them,
monastic communities sometimes performed a ritual humiliation of that saint's
relics, in which they were taken out of their shrine, scattered on the
floor of the church, and cursed as a means of forcing the saint to reverse
the sagging fortunes of the community.
While the relics served as a focus for the charismatic power of the
saints, the miracles were not thought to be performed not by the relics,
but by the saints themselves, or, as the hagiographers themselves insisted,
by God working through the saints. The relics themselves, of course, could
be put to good use. One group of monks dunked a casket containing relics
of their patron into a vat of wine from Sancerre and then drank its contents
in an attempt to combat an outbreak of disease. When a nobleman tried to
steal some vineyards which belonged to the monastery of Glanfeuil, its
abbot threatened the malefactor with a reliquary of the monastery's patron,
saying, "Omnipotent God through the merits of Blessed Maurus and other
saints, whose relics are venerated and perserved in this small box, will
claim punishment and vengeance from those who are scornful of his own and
their servants, and most especially he will extract it from you, who, devoted
to the evil of pillage, causes such robbery to occur." Reliquaries
were also brought forth from their shrines for other important occasions:
processions which marked a feastday, journeys made by representatives of
a monastic community in search of donations, episcopal councils held as
part of the movement known as the Peace of God, and even battles fought
to protect monastic property. The unscrupulous sometimes used falsified
relics for the sake of religious sensationalism or profit. Rodulphus Glaber
recorded how a "swinlder" sold "the bones of some anonymous
man from the lowest of places" as the relics of a martyr named Just.
The dominant hagiographic genre in France in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries was collections of posthumous miracles attributed to patrons
of monastic houses. These works were specific in their geographical scope:
they included stories from a single diocese or a single monastic house
and its priories. They intended to tell how a particular saint aided and
protected those people who came under his or her patronage. As Letaldus
of Micy (+ca.1010) wrote, "All people should learn these things, for
such miracles as were done in the days of our fathers and are still done
for us now do not happen on accout of our own merits, but through the kindness
of piety and the intervention of those fathers who are provided as intercessors
for us." These stories provide in their vivid detail a colorful picture
of the social fabric and religious practice of France during these centuries.
While eleventh-century collections contained many stories in which the
saints miraculously chastised their enemies with beatings and even death,
those of the twelfth century came to focus more on the miraculous cures
effected at the shrines.
The oldest known literary document in Old French is a brief hagiographic
poem, the Séquence de Ste. Eulalie which dates to about 880.
Significant numbers of vernacular hagiographic works, all in verse, survive
from the late tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries concerning such diverse
subjects as St. Leodegar, a seventh-century bishop of Autun, St. Brendan,
an Irish missionary, and St. Mary the Egyptian, a prostitute turned hermit.
In general these works followed the form of chansons de geste and
appear to have been performed as a sort of pious entertainment. The moralist
Thomas of Chobham specifically exempted those jongleurs who performed
works about the saints from his general condemnation of that profession.
The masterpiece among these works was La vie de St. Alexis, which
told of a wealthy young man who left his family to pursue an ascetic life,
only to return years later as an unrecognized holy begger living under
the steps of his family house. This poem, which dates in its earliest form
to about 1050, was frequently rewritten in later centuries and served as
a prefigurement of the movement of the vita apostolica.
The high middle ages witnessed the emergence of a variety of such new
spiritual movements and ideals, each of which was accompanied by the development
of new types of sanctity recorded in hagiography. The first important development
was the lives of the hermits and wandering preachers associated with the
so-called "new monasticism." Monastic reformers such as Robert
of Arbrissel (+1117) and Stephen of Muret (+1124) intended to return to
the ascetic practice of the earliest monks in the eastern deserts. Over
the previous two centuries hagiography had come to focus ever more exclusively
on the miraculous powers of the saint, but in the lives of these men hagiographers
returned to an interest in the spiritual life and ascetic exercises of
saints. The life of Stephen records how hagiography itself played a role
in this process, for the saint required that his monks dine in silence,
while one of their number read from The Lives of the Desert Fathers.
By the late twelfth century, the Cistercian order was producing its
own distinctive hagiography in France and elsewhere. These works depicted
the lives of such abbots as Bernard of Clairvaux (+1153) as spiritual ascents
to God in a manner characteristic of Cistercian psychology and spirituality.
The influence of the eremetic tradition can also be sensed here, as when
William of Saint-Thierry reminisced in his life of Bernard about a sojourn
spent with the saint, "I remained with him for a few days, and as
I looked about me I thought that I was gazing on a new heaven and a new
earth, for it seemed as though there were tracks freshly made by men of
our own day in the path that had first been trodden by our fathers the
Egyptian monks of long ago." The Cistercian monks and saints were
thus portrayed as imitators of their ancient predecessors. Cistercians
also compiled large collections of miracle stories, but these were not
associated with specific shrines, rather they were intended to convey moral
messages. The use of miracle stories-some of which were contemporary, others
taken from ancient sources-for didactic purposes in the training of monastic
novices had been pioneered at Cluny by Peter the Venerable (+1156), but
was perfected in such Cistercian collections as the Exordium Magnum
and the Dialogue on Miracles of Caesarius of Heisterbach (+ca. 1240).
In the early thirteenth century, beguinages came to offer women lives
of ascetic spirituality which were not strictly cloistered. This new movement
was particularly vibrant in the cities of the low countries. By the 1230s
James of Vitry and Thomas of Cantimpré had begun to write an influential
series of lives which celebrated a number of beguines and nuns in the region
of Liège. Their subjects included Mary of Oignies, Christina of
St. Trond, Ivetta of Huy, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières.
In championing this novel approach to the religious life, which combined
traditional asceticism with charitable works and teaching, these hagiographers
provided a model for late medieval female sanctity whose characteristics
included strenuous fasting, ecstatic visions, devotion to the eucharist,
and service to the urban poor.
The new religious movement which had perhaps the greatest impact on
western Christendom was the mendicant orders. Although they were active
in France, they did not number many saints among their members who were
associated primarily with that country. While Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura
were masters at the University of Paris, the hagiographic traditions about
them come, like the saints themselves, from Italy. As preachers, however,
the mendicants represented a vigorous attempt on the part of the ecclesiastical
hierarchy to reach the urban laity. Peachers needed collections of exemplary
stories of a sort different from that produced for monastic novices. Many
such collections were gathered for preaching purposes by Flemish and French
mendicants-such as Stephen of Bourbon, Thomas of Cantimpré, and
Vincent of Beauvais-which made use of hagiographic traditions. The most
influential hagiographic compendium in France as in the rest of western
Christendom, however, was the Golden Legend, completed by Jacapo
da Voragine, an Italian Dominican, in 1258 and available in French translation
by the end of the century.
One major factor in late medieval hagiography was the development of
papal control over the processes of canonization. This produced a new genre
of hagiographic literature, the processus canonizationis, which
was the record of the official tribunal which investigated a candidate's
holiness. A number of such investigations were conducted in France: of
Edmond Rich at Pontigny in 1244-45, of Louis IX at Saint-Denis in 1282,
of Louis of Anjou at Marseilles in 1297, of Dauphine of Puimichel at Apt
and Avignion in 1363, of Charles of Blois at Angers in 1371, of Urban V
at Avignon in 1382 and 1390, and of Peter of Luxembourg again at Avignon
in 1389-90. The frequency of such inquiries at Avignon in the late fourteenth
century can be explained by the dominant position of French clerics in
the papal court during its sojourn there. Unsuccessful processes of canonization
were undertaken for such French ecclesiasical figures as Robert of Molesme
and Stephen of Die. These new procedures also encouraged the composition
of more traditional lives, such as that written by William of Saint-Pathus
about Louis IX, in order to provide evidence of the sanctity of their subjects.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries hagiography composed
in French was also taking interesting new directions. Large numbers of
verse lives of saints were composed in this period, some twenty-six of
them about female subjects such as Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of
Alexandria. In general these poets followed the style of contemporary romances,
but they also self-consciously attempted to produce a morally uplifting
rival to such secular works. The author of a Vie de Ste. Barbe claimed,
"I want to tell a new kind of story, / Never heard before. / Know
that it does not concern Ogier, / Nor Roland, nor Olivier, / But a most
holy maiden / Who was very courteous and beautiful." Nor were verse
lives of the saints the only hagiography available in French. Collections
of miracles performed by the Virgin Mary, the most famous by Gautier de
Coucy, began to appear in the late twelfth century. The earliest works
of French prose hagiography were composed only a couple of decades later.
While some were renderings of vernacular verse works, many were translations
of Latin texts such as the Golden Legend or the Lives of the
Desert Fathers. Collections of such texts called légendiers
played a role in the religious instruction of the laity. While most
works of vernacular hagiography had their ultimate roots in Latin sources,
there were a few original hagiographic works composed in French, notably
Joinville's highly personal and moving life of Louis IX and Rutebeuf's
poem about Elizabeth of Hungary (+1231). Hagiographic influence can also
be detected in works of other genres, such as the Queste del Saint Graal.
Relics came to be displayed more prominently in the churches of the
later middle ages than they had been in earlier periods. New fragments
of saintly bodies were eagerly sought and placed in ornate reliquaries.
Many relics were brought back to France as spoils both from Jerusalem during
the course of the crusades and from Constantinople after the sack of 1204.
In 1248 that vigorous crusader Louis IX had Sainte Chapelle dedicated as
a form of relic treasury: the building even imitated a reliquary in its
very shape. Traditional shrines of local importance were to some degree
replaced in the later middle ages by shrines of international significance,
such as that of Saint James in Compostela, those of the martyrs in Rome,
that of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and, most importantly, the holy places
around Jerusalem. No shrine of comparable importance was located in France,
although the abbey of Saint-Michel did attract long-distance pilgrimage.
French pilgrims flocked to distant lands in search of the miracles and
intercession many had once found closer at hand.
This period also witnessed a steady growth in the importance of shrines
dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to Christ himself. Both figures had been
of great devotional importance throughout the history of Christianity,
but from the twelfth century the faithful came to approach them more directly.
Because of the doctrines of the Assumption and the Ascension, corporal
relics of the usual sort were lacking. The cathedral of Chartres claimed
to possess the Virgin's tunic which made it one of the earliest and most
prominent Marian sanctuaries in France. More common were statues of the
Virgin which acquired miraculous reputations. One of the earliest was fashioned
from gold in Clermont at the end of the tenth century. By the end of the
next century others could be found at Coutances, Bayeaux, and elsewhere.
Still later Marian statues came to be painted black: the first mention
of the black Virgin of Rocamadour was in 1235, while Louis IX brought a
similar statue from Palestine to Le Puy in 1254. Since devotion to the
relics of Christ centered on bits of the savior's body discarded before
his death and resurrection, it took on a sometimes bizarre quality. The
monks of Saint-Medard displayed one of the savior's milkteeth, while the
abbeys of Charroux and Coulombs both claimed to possess his foreskin. The
eucharist, which was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ,
came to be treated like a relic in many forms of devotion.
Over the course of the fifteenth century the composition of Latin hagiography
declined precipitously in France, as did the official recognition by the
papacy of the kingdom's inhabitants as saints. This was in part due to
the position of France in ecclesiastical politics during the Great Schism
and its aftermath. There were some exceptions to the general lack of new
French saints: the Dominican reformer Vincent Ferrer (+1419) was canonized
in 1455; while the papacy never pursued the canonization of Jeanne-Marie
de Mailly (+1414), she became the focus of a local cult in the Touraine;
perhaps the most famous French saint of the period, Jeanne d'Arc (+1431),
was not officially canonized until the twentieth century.
Vernacular hagiography, on the other hand, flourished. Many early printed
French books contained lives of the saints and were produced for a thriving
market in devotional works intended for the laity. In the early sixteenth
century a manual of religious practice specifically directed to a female
audience reminded its readers, "Our Lord said that the Kingdom of
the Heavens is taken by force and, since you do not require ease of your
wicked body, you should put before your eyes the example of the blessed
saints who have reached heaven and who have acted for the love of our Lord
. . . Read their stories and consider the constancy of the male and female
saints." The Reformation brought with it a radical reaction against
the cult of saints which caused Calvinists to spurn such traditional hagiography.
The Wars of Religion, however, spawned the composition of collective biographies
of both Huguenot and Catholic "martyrs" which owed much to the
The Reformation brought with it a radical reaction against such practices.
Reform theologians and preachers in particular rejected the idea of saintly
intercession, which was thought in Lutheran terminology to constitute a
reliance on works rather than on faith. John Calvin composed a systematic
critique of the cult of relics in the vernacular (Traité des
reliques, 1547), in which he rejected the veneration of relics on theological
grounds and delighted in such absurdities as the multiple heads of John
the Baptist enshrined in various churches throughout Europe. Theological
opposition often turned to violent iconoclasm on the part of Huguenots
during the Wars of Religion. Relic collections were destroyed and the statues
of the saints in many French churches still bear the scars of attack. The
Council of Trent took many steps to reorganize the practice of the cult
of saints and the means by which saints were canonized within early modern
Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in the entries which
I wrote on "Hagiography" and "Saints, cult of" in William
Kibler and Grover Zinn (eds.), Medieval France: An Encyclopedia (New
York: Garland, 1995), pp. 433-7 and 851-5. I would prefer that any published
citation of or reference to this essay should be made to the printed version.
- Bynum, Caroline.Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance
of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, 1987.
- Cazelles, Brigitte. The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic
Romances of the Thirteenth Century. Philadelphia, 1991.
- Dalarun, Jacques.L'impossible sainteté: La vie retrouvée
de Robert d'Arbrissel (v.1045-1116) fondateur de Fontevraud. Paris,
- Farmer, Sharon. Communities of Saint Martin: Legend and Ritual in
Medieval Tours. Ithaca, NY, 1991.
- Folz, Robert. Les saints rois du moyen âge en occident.
- Geary, Patrick. Furta Sacra. Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle
Ages. Princeton, 1978; second edition 1990.
- Head, Thomas. Hagiography and the Cult of Saints. The Diocese of
Orléans, 800-1200. Cambridge, 1990.
- Johnson, Phyllis and Brigitte Cazelles. Le vain siècle Guerpir:
A Literary Approach to Sainthood Through Old French Hagiography of the
Twelfth Century. Chapel Hill, NC, 1979.
- Kemp, Eric. Canonization and Authority in the Western Church.
- Lifshitz, Felice. The Norman Conquest of Pious Neustria: Historiographic
Discourse and Saintly Relics, 684-1090. Studies and Texts, 122. Toronto:
Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1995.
- Poulin, Joseph-Claude. L'ideal de sainteté dans l'Aquitaine
carolingienne d'après les sources hagiographiques (750-950).
Quebec City, 1975.
- Roisin, Simone. L'hagiographie cistercienne dans le diocèse
de Liège au XIIIe siècle. Louvain, 1947.
- Schmitt, Jean-Claude. The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children
Since the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, 1983.
- Sigal, Pierre-André. L'homme et le miracle dans la France
médiévale (XIe-XIIe siècle). Paris, 1985.
- Vauchez, André. La sainteté en occident aux derniers
siècles du moyen âge d'après les procès de canonisation
et les documents hagiographiques. Rome, 1981. English translatioin
as Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Trans. Jean Birrell. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997.