Excessive Saints

Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies

Rachel J. D. Smith

Columbia University Press

Excessive Saints

Pub Date: December 2018

ISBN: 9780231188609

320 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $65.00£54.00

Pub Date: December 2018

ISBN: 9780231547932

320 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $64.99£54.00

Excessive Saints

Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré’s Mystical Hagiographies

Rachel J. D. Smith

Columbia University Press

For thirteenth-century preacher, exorcist, and hagiographer Thomas of Cantimpré, the Southern Low Countries were a harbinger of the New Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit, he believed, was manifesting itself in the lives of lay and religious people alike. Thomas avidly sought out these new kinds of saints, writing accounts of their lives so that these models of sanctity might astound, teach, and trouble the convictions of his day.

In Excessive Saints, Rachel J. D. Smith combines historical, literary, and theological approaches to offer a new interpretation of Thomas’s hagiographies, showing how they employ vivid narrative portrayals of typically female bodies to perform theological work in a rhetorically specific way. Written in an era of great religious experimentation, Thomas’s texts think with and through the bodies of particular figures: the narrative of the holy person’s life becomes a site of theological invention in a variety of registers, particularly the devotional, the mystical, and the dogmatic. Smith examines how these texts represent the lives and bodies of holy women to render them desirable objects of devotion for readers and how Thomas passionately narrates these lives even as he works through his uncertainties about the opportunities and dangers that these emerging forms of holiness present. Excessive Saints is the first book to consider Thomas’s narrative craft in relation to his theological projects, offering new visions for the study of theology, medieval Christianity, and medieval women’s history.
Excessive Saints is by far the best study yet written about the ceaselessly audacious holy women of the thirteenth-century Low Countries and their ceaselessly inventive interpreter, Thomas of Cantimpré. Indeed, it is one of the best studies in any field of medieval hagiography published in the last twenty-five years. Thoroughly immersed in Thomas’s writings and their mixed literary, theological, and cultural settings, Rachel J. D. Smith craftily but lovingly analyzes their urgencies, their unnerving tendency towards experimentalism, and the ways they use their saintly subjects to lay bare and in the process refresh the idea of the holy in all its weirdness. Nicholas Watson, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature, Harvard University
In this remarkable study, Smith argues that hagiographies written by a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas invented and unraveled theology, offering a semiotic theory of unrivaled complexity that directly confronted the improbable demands of faith. Gracefully written and fearlessly ambitious, Excessive Saints reveals the relevance of Judaism, gender, and devotion to a Christian theology of signification and should be read by anyone interested in the transformative power of textual relationships. Constance Furey, author of Poetic Relations: Intimacy and Faith in the English Reformation
Rachel J. D. Smith brilliantly moves between Thomas of Cantimpré's Dominican training, the bodies and behaviors of his saintly subjects, and the readers of his texts to uncover the 'imaginative theology' that Thomas expressed in his hagiographic narratives. Smith’s sophisticated analysis illuminates Thomas’s creative exploration of the limits of language, sign, and sensory apprehension for fostering religious devotion. Her book contributes to our understanding of thirteenth-century theologies that are often overshadowed by scholastic and syllogistic thought. Martha G. Newman, author of The Boundaries of Charity: Cistercian Culture and Ecclesiastical Reform, 1098-1180
The results of Smith's approach are unfailingly compelling, advancing our knowledge of what Thomas of Cantimpré was hagiographically and theologically up to in his vitae while at the same time illuminating the spiritual and intellectual world that produced him. In the process we are asked to consider the role of body and gender, of belief and unbelief, of the medieval form of criticism that travelled under the banner of the via negativa as they operate in the thirteenth century and by extension our own. Robert Sweetman, H. Evan Runner Chair in the History of Philosophy, Institute for Christian Studies
Acknowledgments
Abbreviations
Introduction. Hagiographical Theology—Making Holy Bodies from the Word
1. Thomas of Cantimpré: His Life and Literary Activity
2. “With Wondrous Horror She Fled”: Dissimilarity and Sanctity in The Life of Christina the Astonishing
3. Gendering Particularity: A Comparison of The Life of Christina the Astonishing and The Life of Abbot John of Cantimpré
4. A Question of Proof: Augustine and the Reading of Hagiography
5. Language, Literacy, and the Saintly Body
6. The Uses of Astonishment: Apophasis and the Writing of Mystical Hagiography
7. Producing the Body of God: Exemplary Teaching, Jewish Carnality and Christian Doubt in the Bonum Universale de Apibus
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Rachel J. D. Smith is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.