Some Comments and Paper Hints on the Saint’s Life

        Because the medieval "saint’s life" or "legend" is an extremely popular genre, its influence spread to many other types of narrative, including the short story and novel.  At the peak of their popularity, they also attracted the attention of writers who have entered the canon of "literary artists."  Chaucer wrote two (the Prioress’s tale, though technically a sub-form called a "Miracle of the Virgin," and the Second Nun’s tale of St. Cecilia).  This guaranteed the genre would not be forgotten even long after its peak as a popular genre.  We also have are more traditional one in the Pearl-Poet’s work (St. Erkenwald). When analyzing a work of this genre, it is important to remember that they are extremely formulaic if they are to be identifiable as saints' legends.  The basics of the typical plot are quite reliable, though structural variants are common, as well:

1) The saint is, from birth, famously virtuous.

2) The saint’s devotion is tested by hardships like disease or poverty, or it attracts the attention of an evil "tester" (demon, judge, emperor, etc.) or some puzzle from pagan times.

3) The saint endures miraculously, and if the hardship arises from a heathen persona, the saint and the tester debate or otherwise verbally contest the Faith and the tester loses the debate.  Where is no heathen tester, the saint may solve the puzzle where secular authorities failed or bring about a miraculous solution to a social problem.

4) In martyred saints' lives, the saint’s body undergoes torture, with the willing and happy assent of the saint, who recognizes it is the path to Heaven through frustration of the tester and demonstration of divine power.  In lives of saints who are not martyred by human enemies, the saint often suffers patiently when afflicted by horrible pains inflicted by disease or hunger, etc.

5) In martyred saints' lives, the torture is attended by some supernatural sign that its ends have not been met, or the puzzle’s solution yields a supernatural outcome, and Heaven triumphs.  In lives of saints who are not martyred by human enemies, their holiness is demonstrated by supernatural effects that they have on those near them, or who pray to, think of, or hear about them.

        What is this narrative intended to demonstrate? We all know saints are supposed to be "holy," but based on these events, what does holiness entail in medieval Western Europe?

        Notice that the saint’s life genre incorporates familiar subgenres like the debate or dialogue, the biography, and the dramatic comedy (i.e., Heaven’s triumph outweighs the pains of earthly life and cosmic order is restored). To what degree might secular aesthetics affect how this kind of tale is put together?

        The sacred genre might also have some secular "daughters" in later narratives about very good mortals whose lives end unhappily and who are presented as inspirations to their readers.  Chaucer's Custance ("Man of Law's Tale") and protagonist of the Middle English Breton lai, "Emar," are Medieval examples of profoundly good characters who withstand extraordinary and undeserved hardships, but they do not suffer death and their narrators do not claim sainthood for them.  Marie's "Laustic" makes a martyr of a nightingale--the bird even is placed in a reliquary where it is worshiped.  Marie's "Eliduc" develops a kind of saint's legend of "courtly-love-as-religion," concluding with a husband, his mistress, and his wife, all betaking themselves to monasteries and nunneries after acts of amazing self-sacrifice for each other.  Margery Kempe may well have created her Book at her confessor's request to support a campaign for her canonization.  

        Consider how this genre's formulaic plot elements and characterization might have influenced the secular drama, the novel, and the secular biography. Speaking of the middle one, can one imagine a "sacred novel," and if so, what would its generic characteristics be? Can you think of any examples?  Examples of modern "secular saints" which you might be familiar with are the protagonist of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688), Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello, Edna Pontellier in Chopin's "The Awakening," and Henry James' Isabel Archer (Portrait of a Lady) and Daisy Miller.