Wednesday, 18 November 2020

History Book Review: The Book of Sainte Foy Translated by Pamela Sheingorn

This is a translation of the various works associated with Sainte Foy (Sancta Fidis/Saint Faith) written in the 11th & 12th centuries for the Monastery of St Foy at Conques, in the Rouergue region of Southern France. These consist of the Passion of St Foy, four books of miracles performed by St Foy plus some miracles that appear in singular manuscripts but not in others, the Translation of Sainte Foy (ie, the movement of her body/bones from Agen where she was martyred to Conques), and the Song of Sainte Foy (translated by Robert L. A. Clark).

The introduction, while short, gives a historical overview of the foundation of Conques and why they needed a saint’s body as well as the politics and social conditions during which these works were written. It helps the reader put the stories into the proper context. Especially important here is the distinction that early Christian theologians made “…between the veneration that the saints deserved as channels through which God’s grace could flow to humankind and the adoration reserved for God alone…” (p. 3). Without understanding that miracles were believed to be performed by God’s power through the saints, the miracles performed by St Foy look like idol worship, similar to what the Roman pagans practiced.

The translations are all in clear, readable English. There are profuse notes regarding translation and content that are worth referring to often. The stories are varied and quite entertaining. The author of the first two books of stories is an erudite cleric who occasionally devolves into diatribes about how people should have more belief in the stories he’s telling.

While some of the miracles seem to have physical explanations (the translator points some of these out) others do not, and must be taken on faith (pun intended). So much of religion is based on believing without proof, and books like these must have given comfort to those with disabilities and illnesses that they too were deserving of a cure.

The book uses a lot more classical (ie pagan) allusions than I expected. After reading this I read Writing Faith by Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn, which goes into great detail what we can discern about the authorship and writings of the miracle stories. They point out that classical allusions were a way of proving one’s erudition. They also point out that the stories follow many tropes and cannot therefore be taken at face value as being informative of life at the time.

It’s an interesting work.

No comments: