Flesh Made Word: Saints' Stories and the Western Imagination.
Aviad Kleinberg's Flesh Made Word examines the work of hagiography in Christian culture from the time of St. Perpetua in the second century to the composition and reception of the Golden Legend at the end of the thirteenth century. His central thesis is that although hagiography was ostensibly created to further the political and doctrinal goals of the Catholic Church, ecclesiastical elites were unable to control the content and reception of saints' lives sufficiently to entirely serve the church's needs. As a result, hagiography became a site of alternative Christian theologies, a space for ambiguity and multiplicity of belief.
To provide evidence for his thesis, Kleinberg examines several saints' lives in detail while spending intervening chapters analyzing changes in the genre of hagiography. For instance, Athanasius' Life of St. Antony is described as a textbook of asceticism written in the form of a biography. The liminal role of early ascetics, existing both inside and beyond society and between spiritual and secular worlds, is discussed, as is the growing institutionalization of the practice. Next, Kleinberg emphasizes the change that occurred in the use of saints' lives, from the early Middle Ages, when hagiographic texts were written and kept in monasteries and had little impact on the practices and beliefs of laypeople who venerated saints, to the high Middle Ages, when saints' lives became popular first as tools for preaching and then as texts used for personal devotion. Using the examples of the vitae of St. Francis of Assisi and Fra Ginepro, Kleinberg demonstrates both how hagiographical texts reiterated official doctrine, as in Bonaventura's Legenda maior, and how they presented radical challenges to that doctrine, as in the remembrances of Francis's life found in the Legend of the Three Companions. Kleinberg suggests that it is precisely because Francis's official life, authored by Bonaventura in 1263, demonstrated that the saint's way of living could be imitated (unlike Ginepro's too-radical humility), that the earlier lives, demonstrating affective piety and spontaneity, presented "a radical, dangerous power" (p. 238). Kleinberg's final example is Jacobus de Voragine's immensely popular Golden Legend. While most modern commentators on this text suggest that the saints' lives abbreviated in it are repetitive and stereotypical, Kleinberg instead suggests that the saints in the Golden Legend are, in fact, profoundly problematic, often acting in ways that challenge normative patterns of behaviour and belief in the high and late Middle Ages.
Kleinberg's Flesh Made Word includes some important observations and caveats, not the least of which is a reminder that the Golden Legend is not just a collection of "extremely powerful 'cliches'" (p. 242). In spite of this, however, the book suffers in its lack of historiographical context for its discussion of hagiography in different eras. At times, this results in claims that lack nuance. For example, in his discussion of early Christian asceticism, Kleinberg argues that early Christian ascetics in Egypt and Syria "scandalously destroyed the social order" (p. 98). While this might be true for the ascetic individuals themselves, Peter Brown's work suggests that ascetic athletes of God who hovered at the margins of society played an important role in maintaining that society, an argument with which Kleinberg does not engage. Indeed, Brown's seminal article "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Later Antiquity" (Journal of Roman Studies 61, 1971) is mentioned nowhere in Kleinberg's chapters on asceticism. Similarly in his conclusion, Kleinberg argues that Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend was developed with little thought to the theological implications of the lives included in it. While it may be true, as Kleinberg says, that "the intellectual abilities of Jacobus de Voragine hardly measured up to those of Saint Thomas Aquinas or Henry of Ghent," scholars such as Sherry Reames and Alain Boureau have argued that Jacobus was well aware of the political and theological concerns of the church and structured his text accordingly (p. 287). These are but two of several of Kleinberg's arguments that would have benefited from greater historiographical contextualization.
In spite of some need for greater scholarly complexity in his study, Kleinberg's thesis is intriguing and bears further exploration. As Carlo Ginzberg's Menocchio demonstrated, there can be a great difference between the content of a text, the author's intent in writing the work, and its reception by various individuals. The multiplicity of meaning that likely arose when a hagiographical text was read for personal devotion or within a textual community unmediated by representatives of officialdom, in this case the medieval church hierarchy, no doubt did create a space for the development of different, sometimes heretical beliefs. However, to prove this thesis more effectively, it is necessary to examine the tension between those theological lessons that members of the church wished various hagiographical texts to impart and the doctrinal lessons that lay individuals actually perceived. An in-depth exploration of the extent to which hagiographic materials were read individually by laypeople rather than by those affiliated with the Catholic Church in the early, central, and late Middle Ages would also strengthen his argument. As a result, Kleinberg's Flesh Made Word is but an initial foray into the much-needed study of hagiography as a site of contestation between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
St. Francis Xavier University