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Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages

Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages

Dominic Alexander
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 210
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  • Book Info
    Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages
    Book Description:

    The saint and animal story in medieval saints' ‘Lives’ has a long tradition - explored in detail here. The volume ranges from the very beginning of the genre in the Late Antique east, through the early medieval western European adaptations, including in Ireland, to the twelfth century, to its conclusion with a new assessment of Saint Francis' dealings with animals. The author argues that stories of saints and animals drew from a variety of sources, including scripture and classical literature, and also elements of folklore; they had clear spiritual meanings, which were adapted to the development of the Church, and its relationship to the people in the medieval West. Almost as soon as the genre became standardised, its appearance in saints' ‘Lives’ begin to show new influences rising from the fund of popular folklore. The relationship between Church and rural folklore is also explored, both through unusual examples of the genre of saint and animal story, and through a case study of twelfth-century miracle cults from the north of England. The study finishes with Saint Francis, where the social relations underpinning the tradition of the genre are shifting towards a new culture at the root of our own.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-672-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 1-19)

    In 1097, Saint Anselm, then archbishop of Canterbury, upon leaving the court after a serious dispute with King William Rufus, saved a hare that was being hunted by the boys and dogs of his household. The hare ‘fled between the feet of the horse on which Anselm sat’, according to Eadmer, the archbishop’s biographer. Eadmer goes on to describe how the saint ensured that the hare was safe, and then burst into tears as some of his men laughed at the plight of the animal, with the dogs still sniffing about, trying to get at the hare.¹ If taken as...

  2. (pp. 20-37)

    The Egyptian Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries were much afflicted by the devil and his illusions, which frequently involved animals. Thus ‘all the creatures of the desert’ gathered threateningly around Saint Anthony’s hermitage in the inner mountain. However, Anthony told them he would let them devour him, if they were there by God’s will, but if they had been gathered by the devil, then they must flee, and so they did.¹ Another time, Anthony was able to cross the Nile safely despite the presence of many crocodiles.² Whenever Saint Pachomius needed to cross a river, crocodiles ‘would carry...

  3. (pp. 38-56)

    The Egyptian monks and hermits of the fourth and fifth centuries are commonly known as the ‘desert fathers’, a misleading phrase in a modern context, since ‘desert’ connoted ‘uninhabited’ from early on, and the monks of Egypt were frequently able to practise very fruitful agriculture in their ‘deserts’.¹ In the West the ‘desert’ meant the wilderness, which produced its own difficulties for the development of agriculture in comparison to the Nile valley. Nonetheless, the fruitfulness of the uncultivated wilderness became established as a theme early on in the West. In the sixth century, Gregory of Tours described the ‘recluse’ Marianus...

  4. (pp. 57-84)

    The western Christian tradition has come under criticism in recent times for having been interested in nature only as a foil to theology, an approach which has been thought to allow the growth of a destructive anti-environmental culture. Our present troubles are, in this argument, at least partly the result of a theology which regarded the natural world as fallen, and essentially separate from a transcendent God. Irish, or ‘Celtic’, culture has often been held to be the exception, and learning from it could restore something lost to western culture. Something in the spirituality of Ireland or its Celtic culture...

  5. (pp. 85-112)

    Outside Irish hagiography, the resurrection of animals is a marginal type of miracle, yet it does appear in a distinctive form in the vitae of six western saints, all of which are relatively minor works of hagiography. At first sight, the six miracles follow an almost identical narrative. The story typically begins with the news that geese are devastating the fields belonging to the saint. The saint then orders a servant of some description to drive the geese into an enclosure. This being done, the servant decides to take one of the geese for supper. On the following day the...

  6. (pp. 113-131)

    The goose resurrection miracles are an example of the absorption of an aspect of peasant culture into elite hagiography, not through a superstitious lapse on the part of hagiographers, but through the social relations in which ecclesiastical institutions were embedded. If that process happened in the case of the goose stories, then it might be expected to have occurred in other cases as well. The difficulty in assessing many miracle stories, particularly from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, lies in the large numbers of literary sources already in existence, while the same stories would have been circulating independently in popular...

  7. (pp. 132-151)

    In the encounters between saints and animals, the place of their meeting and the saint’s miracle was very frequently the wilderness hermitage, and particularly in the ‘hermit and hunter’ stories it may be suspected that the place itself became identified with the miraculous. Indeed, in the Dialogues, Gregory the Great raises the issue of the posthumous miraculous powers of the saints, having his pupil ask why saints ‘perform greater miracles in those places where they are not actually buried’.¹ The problem arose in a story of a mad woman who had stumbled unknowingly into the deserted cave of Subiaco where...

  8. (pp. 152-168)

    The cult of Saint Cuthbert on Farne is an illustration of the social context from which miracle stories could spring. Neither the sailors’ miracles nor the healing miracles of Farne were in any way unusual within their genre of miracle, yet they can best be seen as the product of lay belief and practice on the island, in interaction with the hermits, the custodians of the cult of the island. The hermits cannot be seen simply as representatives of the monastic and literary milieu: Bartholomew was at least as much a representative of ‘rustic’ concerns and beliefs to the visiting...

  9. (pp. 169-180)

    It would be possible to classify all the stories of the animal and saint tradition into two emotionally laden categories: those demonstrating power over nature, and those exemplifying empathy with animals. Clearly, this is a very crude dichotomy, but it is a style of thinking into which it is all to easy to slip when discussing this material. The traditional model of literate hagiography could combine the two poles in the Edenic model. The saint’s rise to grace allows him, usually, to exercise power over nature, and as a consequence to reveal affective relationships within the hierarchy of man over...