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René Aigrain, L’hagiographie: Ses sources—Ses methodes—Son histoire.  With a bibliography by Robert Godding.  Subsidia hagiographica, 80.  Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 2000.  Pp. viii, 539.  Hardback.  Euros 45. 

Note: this review was published in Speculum.


This volume is an exact (down to a reproduction of the original title page) reprinting of Aigrain’s work, originally published by the Parisian house of Bloud and Gay in 1953.  The reprint is complemented by a brief introduction and an extensive bibliography of works published since that date, which have been compiled by Robert Godding with the assistance of other members of the Société des Bollandistes.  The indices have been updated to include the added bibliography.  The Bollandists are, of course, the society of Jesuits who have been engaged in hagiographic scholarship, and more specifically on the systematic publication of the Acta Sanctorum, for almost four centuries.  Their decision to republish this work in the series Subsidia Hagiographica is a significant and deserved one. 


Canon Aigrain was a generalist in the history of Christianity, whose extensive list of publications included works on a wide range of subjects including epigraphy, patristics, church music, and the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures.  They were works of synthesis, undertaken by a polymath of considerable erudition who taught at the Catholic university in Angers from 1923 to 1943.  He began L’hagiographie as follows: “Hagiography (‘a¢gios, gra¢jein) is, according to the etymology of the word, the scientific study of saints, of their history, and of their cult, that is, a branch, defined by its subject matter, of historical studies.”  Note that he used the word “hagiography” to refer not to a body of sources—a somewhat sloppy usage of the word adopted by a number of recent scholars, including myself—but to a discipline of historical study.  With these words, and a dedication of the volume to Baoudoin de Gaiffier and the other members of the Société des Bollandistes, Aigrain placed himself squarely in the tradition of Bollandist scholarship.  In the almost four hundred pages which followed, he in essence offered an elegantly concise summary of the Bollandist project, of a sort which no individual Bollandist ever attempted.  It is divided, as the subtitle suggests, into three parts of unequal length.  The first and longest section is a survey of the varied types of sources for hagiographic study, such as calendars, martyrologies, lives, collections of miracle stories, and accounts of relic translations.  The second is a rigorous consideration of the methodology by which hagiography ought to proceed.  Aigrain’s positivist emphasis on “scientific” historical method has a dated ring to twenty-first century ears, yet it is an extremely useful distillation of decades, indeed centuries, of scholarly debate over the utility of literary works which concern sanctity and the miraculous.  The final section provides a history of hagiographic scholarship down to the twentieth century, seeing its origins in the collections of saints’ lives made by writers, such as Jerome and James of Voragine, in late antiquity and the middle ages.  Although this work is almost fifty years old, it has never—as Robert Godding correctly points out in his introduction—been superceded.  Certainly other introductions have been published, but all are more limited in scope than Aigrain’s, such as the relevant volumes of the Typologie des sources du moyen âge (fascicles 24-26, 33, 38, and 40).  There are, to be sure, certain serious limitations to this book.  Most importantly, the questions of social context and gender, which have formed some of the most important hagiographic scholarship of the past three decades, are completely absent.  Also, Aigrain paid relatively little attention to pre-modern writings in the vernacular languages.  Nonetheless his book remains essential reading for the serious student as the best synthesis of traditional, and particularly Bollandist, hagiographic scholarship.  By republishing it, the Bollandists have not only made it usefully available, but have given it a kind of imprimatur.


The new part of the volume is the bibliography of almost one hundred pages, surveying the scholarship of the decades since the publication of Aigrain’s work.  It is an extremely useful research tool, which by itself would justify the purchase of the volume for many scholars.  Among many gems it contains an extensive list of collective volumes, such as conference proceedings, and a bibliography of scholarship about the individual members of the Société des Bollandistes.  It is organized along the lines of Aigrain’s chapters, and, despite Godding’s modest disclaimer, is remarkably comprehensive within those boundaries (although somewhat less so in Anglophone than in French, Italian, and German scholarship).  It thus inherently, and also quite unfortunately, bears the same limitations, noted above, as the original.  Those limitations may be summarized by the fact that the names of Peter Brown and Caroline Bynum are absent. 


Thomas Head

Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York

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