Towards a poetics of hagiographic narration
Author: Eva von Contzen

The first book-length study of the Scottish Legendary (late 14th c.), the only extant collection of saints’ lives in the vernacular from medieval Scotland, scrutinises the dynamics of hagiographic narration, its implicit assumptions about literariness, and the functions of telling the lives of the saints. The fifty saints’ legends are remarkable for their narrative art: the enjoyment of reading the legends is heightened, while didactic and edifying content is toned down. Focusing on the role of the narrator, the depiction of the saintly characters, their interiority, as well as temporal and spatial parameters, it is demonstrated that the Scottish poet has adapted the traditional material to the needs of an audience versed in reading romance and other secular genres. The implications of the Scottish poet’s narrative strategies are analysed also with respect to the Scottishness of the legendary and its overall place in the hagiographic landscape of late medieval Britain.

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The Scottish Legendary and narrative art
Eva von Contzen

The Scottish Legendary is briefly introduced, in particular its contents, the sources the poet drew on, as well as previous critics’ treatment of the compilation. The poet’s free handling of his sources is demonstrated by two passages from the legend of Lucy. The chapter argues that it is crucial to consider saints’ lives from the perspective of their narrative structure and strategies as practices that are intimately linked with issues of translation, the vernacular, and late medieval discourses of popular, secular culture. The Scottish Legendary, it is suggested, is a prime example of transcending generic boundaries for heightening the enjoyment of the narratives.

in The Scottish Legendary
Eva von Contzen

This chapter provides an introduction to narrative theory as a formal approach to the lives of the saints in the Scottish Legendary. Narratology as a key theoretical field, its main strands as well as its chances and challenges for the analysis of medieval narrative are discussed and problematised. The formal approach is placed within more general discussions of surface vs. symptomatic reading. Both a close and a deep reading are proposed as an expedient method to scrutinise the narrative art in the compilation. The chapter is rounded off with a section on the various ‘communicative’ instances that come into play when reading and interpreting the legends of the saints.

in The Scottish Legendary
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The narrator in the Scottish Legendary
Eva von Contzen

This chapter focuses on the roles and functions of the narrator in the compilation. Drawing on previous studies on narrators in medieval literature, by Spearing and Lawson in particular, the narrator as an analytical construct is discussed in detail before its manifestations in the Scottish Legendary are scrutinised. From the very beginning, the poet-narrator fashions himself as both teacher and writer in that he guides his audience’s edification in subtle but effective ways and at the same time showcases his poetic skills, for instance in the digressions. A comparison of the Prologue with other late medieval prologues accentuates the Scottish poet’s idiosyncratic approach.

in The Scottish Legendary
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Character depiction and direct discourse
Eva von Contzen

The third chapter is devoted to the depiction of the saintly characters and the uses and functions of their direct discourse, which is a defining feature of the Scottish Legendary. The chapter consists of four case studies, each of which spotlights another aspect of how the saintly characters are construed in the compilation. In the first part, female and male martyrs’ dialogues with their pagan tormentors are scrutinised, with special emphasis on questions of gender and the violation of gender norms and ‘proper’ speech behaviour. The following three analyses – on Mary of Egypt, Theodora, and Andrew – accentuate the importance of speech in the process of becoming a saint. At the same time, the poet’s strategy of transgressing genre is underscored. Romance and fabliau patterns of narration enrich the hagiographic plots. The case studies are placed within more general discussions of how medieval hagiography conceives of ‘character’ and how one could usefully theorise their indebtedness to types.

in The Scottish Legendary
Ideology and hagiographic narration
Eva von Contzen

In this chapter, the biases and ideologies inherent in saints’ legends are revisited and approached from the angle of their narrative embedding and encoding. After a brief discussion of different approaches to ideology and perspective in narrative texts, propagandistic patterns of narration in the legends are theorised. A comparison of selected scenes with their sources shows the Scottish poet’s attempts at toning down potentially charged content as well as letting the legends speak for themselves. Miracles operate on a strategy of double foregrounding (the earthly world of pain vs. the transcendent world beyond pain), which is different from the strategy adopted in the South English Legendary. The chapter closes with an analysis of how the poet ‘authorises’ his tales by quoting authorities.

in The Scottish Legendary
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Narrating conscience and consciousness
Eva von Contzen

Another defining feature of the Scottish Legendary is the emphasis put on the depiction of consciousness and interiority. Thus this chapter considers the implications of representing characters’ interiority in the trajectory of edification, identification, and enjoyment of the narratives. A number of key scenes are discussed and interpreted in detail, such Judas’s anagnorisis in the legend of Matthias, Theodora’s sinning, and Eustace’s suffering. An effective strategy of narrating consciousness is to limit the point of view to the character in question, which can even be signposted by linguistic means, as in the cases of pronoun switches in the lives of the cross-dressing saints.

in The Scottish Legendary
Time, space, and the Scottishness of the Scottish Legendary
Eva von Contzen

This chapter concentrates on the question of how Scottish the Scottish Legendary is and links its geographical and linguistic origin with more general questions of how time and space are imagined and constructed throughout the legends. As to the latter, the chapter argues that, as is to be expected from the genre, neither time nor space plays a significant role on the level of the narratives. The two concepts are meaningful rather on a figurative level in that they point to the end of time and structure Christian life and times and invite the audience to visit shrines and pilgrimage sites. The question of the Scottishness rounds off the chapter: it is shown that the compilation lacks any overt discussion of nationalism or demonstrations of national pride and thus differs from other late fourteenth century Scottish texts. Yet, the two Scottish saints included in the legendary (Machar and Ninian) bear evidence of what may be a specifically Scottish hagiographic poetics.

in The Scottish Legendary
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A poetics of hagiographic narration
Eva von Contzen

Drawing on the previous chapters, the conclusion revisits the question of a poetics of hagiographic narration and provides an overview of the parameters that pertain to such a poetics as it emerges from the narrative practices and strategies employed in the Scottish Legendary. The poet’s strategy of ‘teaching playfully’ is outlined and discussed against the backdrop of the fruitful overlaps between hagiography and romance.

in The Scottish Legendary
The Scottish Legendary as a challenge to the ‘literary turn’ in fifteenth-century hagiography
Eva von Contzen

The late fourteenth-century Scottish Legendary narrates the stories of the saints quite differently from John Lydgate. This difference is due to a change in hagiographic narration more generally: while the Scottish compilation concentrates on developing sanctity through narrative action, Lydgate does not ‘narrate’ the holy but presents his audience with static reminders of his protagonists’ sanctity. The lives in the Scottish Legendary are ‘literary’ in their subtle employment of narrative strategies, while Lydgate’s hagiographic discourse can be said to constitute a break with the received strategies of hagiographic narration, a break that ultimately led to the death of the genre.

in Sanctity as literature in late medieval Britain