History, Historiography and Re-writing the Past

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This chapter has two distinct but related aims: to explore some of the ways in which Middle English hagiography can be employed as a source by historians, and also to demonstrate that hagiography itself functioned as a form of historiography in late medieval England. For some time now, historians have been well aware of the value of saints’ cults as a tool to further our understanding of medieval society and its inhabitants. The materials of saints’ cults and the dynamics of rituals associated with them can illuminate many characteristics of the settings in which they operated; not just religious and devotional matters but also aspects of political power, socio-cultural ideologies, personal prestige and communal identity, to give only a few examples. The work of Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell has been particularly influential in this respect, with their exploration of the ways in which ‘the pursuit as well as the perception of holiness mirrored social values and concerns’ in this period. However, it is notable that, despite this, historians of later medieval England rarely make use of Middle English hagiography as a source for their investigations. It has largely been left to literary scholars to demonstrate the ways in which these texts can be examined not only for what they tell us about a particular genre, but for the information which they contain about attitudes, ideals and practices as well. For example, Gail McMurray Gibson has explored the ways in which the Middle English accounts of a particular saint’s life, in this case St Anne’s, could be appropriated to serve a variety of purposes and agendas, and the collection in which her essay appears suggests that the responses of devotees to these narratives may not have been those expected or intended by their authors. Similarly Karen A. Winstead’s study of Middle English virgin martyr legends investigates ‘the cultural work they performed’, focusing in particular on variations and developments in the representation of saints such as Katherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch, in order to uncover the extent to which these were informed by gender ideologies and therefore sought to respond to the changing status of women in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Companion to Middle English Hagiography
EditorsSarah Salih
PublisherBoydell and Brewer Ltd
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781782045465 , 9781782045458
ISBN (Print)9781843842460, 1843840723
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2006

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