By Paul Fouracre
Past and Present, Vol. 127:1 (1990)
Introduction: In a recent survey aimed at providing a usefully selective bibliography of works on saints and cults, Stephen Wilson listed over 1,300 titles, a total which is but a fraction of the full output on the subject. Hagiography has attracted so much attention because it is the most common form of medieval writing, and for the early Middle Ages it is sometimes the only form of writing to have survived in any quantity. It is also attractive because the interpretation of texts remains ever open, in parallax to our own changing views of medieval belief and thought. In relation to the early medieval saints’ lives which will be discussed here, there is a wide range of interpretation which is characterized by two contrasting approaches, each aimed at understanding different aspects of the context in which the works were produced. First, there is a traditional historical approach which aims to reduce the texts to a residue of usable historical data. Secondly, by applying the techniques of literary criticism to each text as a whole, one can hope to penetrate the thought world of which it was an expression. I shall briefly outline some of the issues raised by these different approaches in order to introduce the discussion of three Merovingian texts. The discussion is intended to show how the historical reality underlying the works may be revealed, and I shall conclude by commenting on that reality. As a preliminary, however, the subject of Merovingian history requires some introduction.