Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England

Cynthia Turner Camp, Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing (cover)

Late medieval thinkers and writers weren't interested in their island's Anglo-Saxon past; it would be up to early modern antiquarians and reformation polemicists to "rediscover" pre-Conquest history. Or so the received narrative tells us. Turning to visual art, royal ceremony, and monastic tradition, however, we can see a widespread fascination in late fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth-century England with English religious history before the Norman Conquest. Every sector of society might try to root its institutional history in, and thereby shape its contemporary identity through, the perceived spiritual and political perfections of Anglo-Saxon England.

My monograph, Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives as History Writing in Late Medieval England, argues for the centrality of narratives of Anglo-Saxon saints in the late medieval rethinking of a shared English religious history. Offering the first extended study of the poetic hagiography of English saints, Saints' Lives focuses on monastic writers like John Lydgate, Osbern Bokenham, Henry Bradshaw, and the anonymous composer of the Wiltshire St. Edith of Wilton to reconsider the role that saints’ lives, relics, and iconography played in the late medieval imagining of English religious history.

Central to this project is the question of ways, not only ends, of imagining the distant past. That is, Saints' Lives is as concerned with different narrative and non-narrative modes of commemorating pre-Conquest England as it is with the reinvention of the Anglo-Saxon past. I pay particular attention to these texts' formal poetics, the structure of manuscripts, the interplay of text and image, and the intersection of writing and corporality. Approaching these texts via both narrativist historiography and the stasis of image and relic, Holy Histories theorizes the ways diachronic and acronic depictions of time establish distinct transtemporal relations between the late medieval present and the distant past. By paying particular attention to the genre’s distinctive features, Saints' Lives demonstrates how hagiography is able to forge connections unavailable to other historical genres or within other media, making saints the ideal conduits through which the past’s glories can made available to the present.