Ciceronian rhetoric and the art of medieval French hagiography

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 Ciceronian rhetoric and the art of medieval French hagiography

By Kathryn Hill McKinley

PhD Dissertation, University of Maryland, 2007

Abstract: In the lives of the saints, it is clear that medieval hagiography reflects the statement, “Antiquity has a twofold life in the Middle Ages: reception and transformation.” The vernacular poems of the virgin martyrs (Clemence of Barking’s The Life of St. Catherine and the anonymous lives of St. Agnes and St. Barbara) as well as the prose biographies of the Beguines (Jacques de Vitry’s The Life of Marie d’Oignies and Philippine de Porcellet’s The Life of Saint Douceline) are testaments to this process as they reveal medieval perspectives on such topics as pagan learning and religion. Hagiography from the 12th to the 14th centuries presents a privileged view of a society defining itself against the past.

Medieval hagiography is a product of writers trained in or somehow familiar with the treatises of the Ciceronian rhetorical tradition that were the standard textbooks of the time. Although often dismissed for their similarities, these works should be carefully considered by students of French literature given their precise following of precepts that govern their structure and content. Simply put, rhetoric once represented the whole of literary criticism, and one cannot read these texts without an appreciation for this fact. A rhetorical analysis of these texts highlights their literary value and illustrates their role in the history of ideas.

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Sharan Newman