Cluny and the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet

Hagiography and the Problem of Islam in Medieval Europe

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Scott G. Bruce
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , December
     2015.
     176 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780801452994.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scott G. Bruce, in his Cluny and the Muslims of La Garde-Freinet: Hagiography and the Problem of Islam in Medieval Europe, offers a well-reasoned argument about the wide-ranging influence of hagiographical texts in shaping the Christian imagination with respect to Islam in the medieval period. 

In developing his argument, Bruce focuses on the kidnapping of Maiolus in 972 by a group of Muslims while walking through the Great Saint Bernard Pass on their way back from Rome. Bruce indicates that while this particular tribe of Muslims wasn’t recognized as a political group or associated with any state, their presence in the region had generally been known for some time, but it was the kidnapping of the Cluniac abbot that eventually led to their downfall. When Maiolus was kidnapped and it was discovered that he was a person of some importance, a letter was sent to the abby, asking for a ransom for Maiolus and the monks he was traveling with.  

The earliest accounts of the kidnapping are sparse on facts: Maiolus was able to free himself from the chains that his captors used simply by making the sign of the cross and, when one of the captors threatened to kill one of his brother monks, Mailous blocked the sword and was wounded—but miraculously was healed the next morning. However, as Bruce argues, there would, in time, be a huge growth in literature about Maiolus. By the year 1000, a Life of Mailous was published; he became a local saint—whose feast was celebrated on May 11th—and there was even a church built on the grounds of the monastery to honor its patron. 

As Bruce goes on to argue, by the time Peter the Venerable becomes the abbot, Mailous’s legend had grown such that “he could credibly claim that more legends were told about the virtues of his predecessor throughout all of Europe than any other saint in Christendom besides the Virgin Mary” (122). For Peter, the influence of the growing cult of Maiolus meant that his life was saturated with stories of Maiolus, some of which grew to include new details. One particular development stands out in Bruce’s argument: the addition of a story that during his kidnap, Maiolus had preached to his Muslim captors and, using reason and persuasive language, tried to convince them of the error of their faith in Islam. The author of this new tradition, a monk named Syrus, “presented a verbal exchange between Maiolus and his adversaries on matters of religious faith,” and showed Mailous pierce “the enemies of Christ with the blade of God’s word. He attempted to demonstrate with proven and most credible arguments that the one whom they worshipped as God did not have the power to free himself from punishment, let alone to help them in any way” (53).

The story of Maiolus and the developments in the hagiographical tradition Bruce presents are very rich and interesting in their own right, but it is in the service of explaining the writings and, in some sense, the mission, of Peter the Venerable that these stories really become significant. The key contribution of Bruce’s text, in my mind, is the way he ties these two strands together. First, he discusses how Peter commissioned the translation into Latin of the Toledan Collection, a group of Arabic texts including the Qur’an, and which Peter wanted someone to use as the basis of a treatise against Islam. When, after some years pass and Bernard of Clairvaux declined to write the text, Peter takes up the task on his own. But, as Bruce rather convincingly argues, Peter “was not moved to write a formal refutation until the failure of the Second Crusade unmasked the futility of armed conflict against these enemies of Christ. It was only then that he adopted a pastoral approach to the Muslims, to win with words a struggle that had been lost with arms” (129). Bruce’s contention, then, is that in the face of military failure, Peter is at some point inspired by the legend of Maiolus’s discourse with his Muslim captives. This discourse inspires Peter to write his Against the Sect of the Saracens and, moreover, to address it directly to Muslims. As Bruce shows throughout, there was a heritage of polemical writings by Christians, usually directed to Christian heretics or Jews. But the idea of appealing directly to Muslims—not through an imaginary dialogue—was absolutely unique to Peter the Venerable. Bruce builds his case on a thorough consideration of manuscript evidence and argues that most scholarly engagement with hagiographical literature focuses too narrowly on the devotional or piety of these texts and, thus, misses the possibility that the genre has inspired other types of action beyond prayer and devotion.

While I found the book to be a fascinating read, and believe Bruce’s thesis is correct with respect to the wide-ranging influence of hagiography and especially with regard to the relationship between Mailous and Peter’s Against the Sect of the Saracens, I do have some minor criticisms. Including translations of at least some of the manuscript evidence for the Maiolus stories (e.g., excerpts from Syrus’s Life of Maiolus) in the index would be helpful, as would a translation of at least some excerpts from Peter’s text. The footnotes are extensive, of course, and point readers to where they might find these manuscripts, but I think if there is a second edition to the book, adding indices which include at least portions of those texts would be extremely helpful. Another critique, perhaps better a curiosity on my part, is that I wonder why there was no mention of John of Damascus’s Font of Knowledge, specifically the portion dealing with John’s critique of Islam. Considering Bruce articulates so many times how unique Peter’s text is in that it is directed to  Muslims, it might be helpful to set up a comparison to other polemical works about Islam, even if Bruce does not use Damascus as the point of comparison. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the work, which was so crisply written and easy to read, given the density of some of the material. Highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Luke Arredondo is a doctoral candidate in Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott G. Bruce is Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of Silence and Sign Language in Medieval Monasticism: The Cluniac Tradition, c. 900–1200 and editor of Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.

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