Rewriting Holiness

Reconfiguring Vitae, Re-signifying Cults

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Madeleine Gray
Kings College London Medieval Studies
  • Suffolk, UK: 
    Boydell & Brewer
    , June
     338 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Virtually all religious traditions revere holy individuals who live, or have lived, among them. Catholic saints, Hindu and Sikh gurus, indigenous shamans, Sufi masters, and Buddhist bodhisattvas exude charisma, virtue, and spiritual insight. Despite these individuals’ apparent exemplarity, social and political structures determine their representation and veneration. Rewriting Holiness: Reconfiguring Vitae, Re-Signifying Cults, a collection of thirteen essays edited by Madeleine Gray, probes these processes further. Expanding previous studies of hagiography, sanctity, and cultic worship by medievalists and cultural historians, Rewriting Holiness demonstrates how the very constructs that enable saints and their cults are themselves subject to reconstitution and recalibration.

As Gray’s introduction explains, hagiology comprises a well-traveled, yet still elusive, avenue of scholastic inquiry. While a wide variety of scholars (including theologians, marxists, social historians, and feminists) have shaped and refined our understanding of saints, the sources themselves remain problematic. Teeming with supernatural phenomena that may counteract traditional historiography, vitae (saints’ lives) often befuddle scholars. Rather than parsing fact from fiction, or searching for the “chimerical Ur-text,” Gray and her co-contributors abandon discourses of authenticity (19). Instead, Rewriting Holiness relishes in impurities and admixtures. Together, these scholars highlight the hybridity that infiltrates sanctity. The book’s principal theme of crossing takes the forms of traversing religious traditions, power relations, cultures, nationalities, and genders. According to Gray, “this is new hagiography, on the medieval model, so that the saints as examples, helpers, and intercessors can serve the needs of a new community,” (19). 

The volume’s first section, “Rewriting Monasticism,” explores the shifting afterlives of hagiography. Svitlana Kobets examines sacred folly through the vita of Serapion (d.c. 211). While his hagiographer Palladiusmay not have inscribed sacred folly onto Serapion’s persona, Kobets argues that text nevertheless forges a prototype for the fool of Christ—a highly regarded figure in medieval Russia. Kobets concludes that “Palladius can deservedly claim recognition as the forerunner of the urban holy fool’s hagiography” (46). John Black’s research emphasizes the dynamic flexibility of cults in medieval England, revealing how criteria for sanctity changed over time. Kate Helsen and the late Andrew Hughes call attention to music and liturgy. Their meticulous analysis of musical notation and prosody demonstrates how devotion to saints shifted, and introduces new questions pertaining to why such shifts occurred. 

The “Re-gendering” section shows how different political regimes, cultural contexts, and authorial biases recalibrate the rapport between sanctity and gender. Gray’s essay focuses on St. Winefride, one of the few female Welsh saints. Gray compares different vitae of Winefride—some indicate her Celtic affinities, others foreground her quasi-sacramental roles, and still others re-situate her within orthodox, institutional Christianity. Karen Casebier addresses a different form of crossing, that is, holy transvestism. Casebier explores sacred crossdressing in two 13th-century French texts: a vitaand a fabliau (a moralizing and often satirical tale). This comparative study sheds light on the complexities of female sanctity and the tensions between clerical and familial auctoritas.

“Translating Cultural & Religious Identities” constitutes the third group of essays, which underscores the shape-shifting capacity of saints in specific colonial, clerical, and interfaith contexts. Diane Auslander reinterprets medieval colonialism by comparing medieval Irish, British, and Anglo-Norman accounts of St. Darerca. Challenging traditional conceptions of British-Irish relations, Auslander showcases “examples of mutual cooperation and respect” that colored inter-cultural encounters (133). Anne Scuchman examines Umiliana de’ Cerchi (d. 1246). Although she never took formal vows or entered a religious house, Umiliana’s Franciscan hagiographer stressed her remarkable piety, charity, and visions. Her 17th-century descendants commissioned new vitae to support her beatification. As Schuchman posits, “the Cerchi family found a way to redefine themselves … going beyond veneration of saints to a more ancient type of worship of ancestors” (172). Reorienting holiness within South Asia, Jayita Sinha explores bi-cultural sanctity through the mystic poet Kabir (d.c. 1518). Although Kabir repudiated hypocritical Hindus and Muslims alike, he accumulated disciples from both faiths who claim him as their own. Sinha thereby indicates how paradigmatic holy people may emerge from conflict, ownership, and exclusion. Adam Coward unveils the fluidity between saints and non-saints in his essay about the Reverend Edmond Jones (d. 1793). Although a Calvinist, Jones remained invested in superstition and fairyland, yet his very insight into the supernatural rendered him worthy of veneration. 

The final section, “Appropriating Political & National Identities,” intertwines saints’ legacies with political ideologies. Slavia Barlieva examines the nationalization of two Byzantine saints, Cyril and Methodosius. According to Barlieva, their medieval Bulgarian identity evokes an anti-Byzantine/pro-Slavic sentiment. Analogously, Gray draws connections between St. Armel (Welsh, d.c. 1570) and the authorization of the Tudors. James Hegarty studies the socio-political construction of individual sanctity among early modern Sikh gurus. His tour de force analysis of narrative, rhetorical, literary, and exegetical strategies illuminates how hagiography “[mediates] between ideology, theology, and the exigencies of everyday life” (279). The final essay by Samantha Riches traces the diverse political agendas that St. George seemingly supported: medieval chivalry, the Crusades, the Tudor dynasty, World War I propaganda, and modern English patriotism. George thus exemplifies the sheer malleability and trans-historicity of a single holy man.

In sum, Rewriting Holiness offers fascinating insights into the formations and reformations of sanctity. With rigorous research, deft arguments, and sophisticated hermeneutics, these scholars reveal how well devised these hagiographical “fictions” actually are. The volume contains illustrations and nuanced commentary on them. (Admittedly, however, most images are printed in a resolution too low to discern iconographic details). With the book’s wide-ranging geographical and historical scope, it should appeal to Western medievalists and early modernists, as well as Byzantinists, Slavic studies scholars, and South Asian studies scholars (including specialists of Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam). The contents are erudite, yet accessible enough for pedagogical purposes. 

One question that emerged during my reading—and perhaps one that is beyond the aim of Rewriting Holiness—concerns the unwavering fixation on the construct of sanctity. My concern lies not within constructivism per se, but rather the possibility of over-exhausting this very modality of inquiry. In other words, perhaps subsequent hagiological scholarship may derive inspiration from recent theorizations of enchantment, experience, and phenomenal effects of the sacred. Performance studies scholar Joseph Roach (It, University of Michigan Press, 2007) and phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion (In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, Fordham University Press, 2004) come to mind. Nevertheless, this is merely a suggestion, not a critique. Gray and her fellow scholars have put forth compelling and engaging evidence that demands readers rethink the interrelations between past and present, self and society, ordinary and extraordinary.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Dickason is Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Santa Clara University, and in fall 2018 will begin a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 
July 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Madeleine Gray is professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of South Wales.


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