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Leah Sanson
Dr. Francis
Medieval Literature
December 3, 2015
Medieval Hagiography: The Life of a Saint
Medieval hagiography is most commonly known as a work of literature that tells the tale
of a saint’s life. Hagiography alone is a genre that has been throughout society for a great deal of
time but medieval hagiography is one of the most interesting sections of this broad genre due to
the momentum of Christianity at the time. Many scholars recognize that, “hagiography covers a
vast number of texts, perhaps the greater part of medieval literature … It includes narratives such
as saints’ lives, passions, miracle collections, visions, inventions…and translations” (Taylor 2).
Because of the rise of Christianity and the dominance of the Catholic Church during the Middle
Ages, hagiographies held quite a bit of importance during the medieval times. Medieval
hagiography still holds importance today due to its commentary and portrayal of societal values
during this time along with its unique literary characteristics. While it is still under debate
whether these writings can be considered credible and accurate depictions of life during the
Middle Ages, hagiography is still highly regarded among medieval genres. From manuscripts to
themes, hagiographies are abounding with historical information. One important work produced
under this genre during the Middle Ages is the Life of Christina of Markyate. And even in the
twenty-first century, this genre is still being studied and there are modern versions of
hagiography arising.
Hagiography was present from the second century A.D. and on but became most popular
in the medieval times. Many popular hagiographies arose from earlier than the Middle Ages,

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“such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s account of the martyrs of Palestine (4th century AD) and Pope
Gregory I the Great’s Dialogues, a collection of stories about Saint Benedict and other 6thcentury Latin monks” (“Hagiography”). Medieval hagiography did not differ much from
hagiographies found in different time periods, the popularity of Christianity during this time just
caused these stories to grow and become better known and credible. Medieval hagiographers
just adapted to their time period. While the genre was not as popular in the earlier centuries, it
still portrayed the same ideas and followed some of the same guidelines as medieval
hagiography. There was the same structure of life before and then life after the revelation by
God. Medieval hagiography, however, dominated the genre as a whole and most of medieval
literature.
Hagiographical texts can be broken up into three different categories. These include
“those whose cultus is legitimately established in the Church and has received the sanction of the
centuries” (Delehaye 86) meaning the Catholic Church recognizes these saints and miracles they
have performed; “real persons whose cultus has been brought about irregularly” (Delehaye 86),
who are still controversial and not technically recognized by the Catholic Church; and
“imaginary people to whom real existence has eventually been attributed” (Delehaye 87). These
texts can also be classified by the acts and miracles in which canonized the saints. These range
from documented actions to acts, which have no written basis whatsoever (Delehaye 91).
Medieval hagiographies grew and branched out from centuries before and now there are many
subgenres found under it.
Travelling throughout Europe during the Middle Ages has caused hagiography to gain a
life of its own. This genre travelled through Europe so easily because hagiographies were so
closely tied with the Catholic Church. Wherever the religion went, the stories of the saints’ lives

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followed. This allowed for the rise in popularity of hagiographies throughout Europe during the
Middle Ages. This genre of texts is seen as one of the largest genres found in the Middle Ages.
It is seen as “perhaps the greater part of medieval literature” (Taylor 2). This also caused the
genre to grow and for many different sub genres to emerge under it. Through this genre there are
more than three different subgenres. From what historians have studied, there are subgenres of
hagiography that can be broken up into stories of apostles, martyrs, confessors, and virgins (Salih
13).
Understanding the role of hagiographers is important in the understanding the whole of
medieval hagiographies in history. These authors are important to the meaning of the text
because they are those who chose what information to place in these texts and they also made
their stories personal to their own experiences. A hagiographer “adapted his material, and thus in
some measure gave it the mark of his own personality” (Delehaye 66-67). Like any work of
literature today, the author put his personal mark on the artifact. The hagiographer also has an
interesting role through the writing of literature. They take “the position of mediator, both
between the saint and the audience and between textual tradition and his own present day” (Salih
11). These authors had many sources and accounts that could form their writing but the
hagiographer was “bound to be moved by his own preferences” (Delehaye 59), this causes some
problems for those today that study hagiography because this complicates the question of
whether or not medieval hagiography can be considered historical documents. Hagiographers
were, and still are, under scrutiny but protected themselves a bit from future critics. Just like any
biographer, they “sought to disarm potential critics by identifying their sources, minimizing the
importance of miracles as against a virtuous life, and protesting their modest literary skills”
(Goodich 174). These tactics protect them as authors and makes their work more credible.

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Medieval hagiographers attempted to write their works unbiased but their feelings and opinions
arose in hagiographies, especially in the prologue of the text. This is what creates the argument
of the credibility of hagiographical texts.
Through careful analysis, historians are attempting to determine the historical value of
medieval hagiographies. Hagiographical texts are argued upon greatly because scholars have
very different opinions on if these texts should be accredited as historical documents or not.
Many scholars believe that these texts give insight to the social and economic situations of
everyday life. Many scholars “have continued to use writings about saints for exploring aspects
of the writers’ culture, politics, and ‘mental universe’” (Taylor 3). When analyzing the texts and
images embedded within these texts, historians find some useful data that can give them insight
on the different aspects of society during their time. Take Saint Cosmas and Damian for
example, both of these saints have hagiographies written about them and art created in their
likeness. This hagiography is useful because, “the various surgical instruments of Saint Cosmas
and Damian on the Sinai icons in comparison with the preserved object may give information
about the state of surgical art in Byzantine times” (Beldekos et al 2031). The same can be said
about hagiographical texts during the medieval times, especially when relating to societal issues.
Also, many scholars believe, “this literature preserves much valuable information not only about
religious beliefs and customs but also about daily life, institutions, and events in historical
periods for which other evidence is either imprecise or nonexistent” (“Hagiography”). Though
there is an abundant of information supporting this argument of hagiographies reflecting the
society in which they were written, there are also scholars who believe the opposite.
Other scholars believe that these texts should be treated like a fable, a well-written fable,
which descended from oral tradition. Scholars often see these texts as fables because of their

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cliché endings and many have some of the same story lines, essentially. Clary, a scholar that
focuses on hagiographies, states, “hagiography lacks historical accuracy and tends to ignore the
desultory parts of a subject’s character in order to preserve reputation. Thus it is untrustworthy
history writing” (241). Also, he argues, “hagiography often shapes the subject’s life to fit with
the culture and lessons that the biographer wants to portray, instead of letting the figures of
history speak for themselves” (Clary 241). This is where the hagiographer puts too much
opinion in the work itself and creates a biased view. Through these ideas, it is regarded that
these are simply fictional stories that provided nothing more than entertainment but regardless,
this can still present insight to this culture because it shows what kind of entertainment was
popular. Hagiographies were one of the foremost popular genres in the Middle Ages. Similarly,
Mayeski believes that hagiographies “are assumed to reflect only popular religiosity and…
usually dismissed as uncritical and unrelated to the actual formulation of tradition itself” (691).
While both of these arguments are well versed, it is still unclear whether or not these documents
can be representative of the society during the time in which they were written. Looking at
medieval hagiographies on a deeper level, what aspects make these documents so powerful? The
different structural elements along with rhetorical techniques make hagiographies have such a
profound impact on society and their audiences.
The structure of medieval hagiographies tends to stay consistent throughout. Starting in
the beginning of the work, it is noted that the introduction to a hagiography is quite important.
The prologue to the hagiography gives the hagiographer a chance to put his or her own values
and ideas in the work without being criticized for altering the story of the saint’s life. This allows
room for opinion without creating a biased account. The prologue of a medieval hagiography
also allows, “the author an opportunity to explain the circumstances surrounding the work’s

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composition, outline the main themes, or chapters, cite his chief sources, or state his
philosophical stance” (Goodich 168). The prologue is also a respectable space for the author to
clarify certain points and prevent confusion that may arise later on in the work. This
introductory piece also provides “a good opportunity to speculate on the educational value of
saints’ lives” (Goodich 171). In a more religious sense, the prologue fosters an environment for
the author to reflect on the Catholic Church and the definition of sainthood in the overall divine
time period of salvation (Goodich 173). For example, “The hagiographer John of Cremona
makes use of his introduction to the life of Fazzio of Cremona to discuss the differences between
those universal saints canonized by the Holy See, and local saints raised to unofficial veneration
by their followers” (Goodich 170). This section of the medieval hagiography is very important
in the analysis of the entire work because it gives insight to the author and the circumstances it
was written under but there are smaller aspects that are also regarded as important throughout the
actual body of a hagiography.
In the body of medieval hagiographies, there is similar structure found through various
texts. As Anna Taylor, a scholar on hagiographies, states, hagiographies are “derided for their
formulaic nature” (2). Medieval hagiographies are usually broken up into two parts, dealing with
the subject’s life and then their miracles but authors sometimes add a section for canonization or
after death miracles (Goodich 172). While this story line is very predictable, it makes the
hagiographies easier to teach and more easily read by lay people. Salih explains this idea further,
she states, “the main components of hagiographic narratives are the Life (vita), the Passion
(passio), and the Miracles” (13-14). These different components make hagiographies predictable
but audiences still read these stories over and over again for both entertainment and knowledge.
And although this does stand true for most, most have the same story lines of one finding a

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connection with God and their life changing, there does come some diversity within these texts.
This is mostly contributed to the fact that “individual subcategories of hagiography can cover a
wide array of works” (Taylor 2). These different subgenres, which are separated by apostles,
martyrs, virgins, and others, varied the stories a bit but they still had some of the same structure
and are all under the umbrella of the genre of medieval hagiography.
Pictorial tradition is also a reoccurring structural element that is found throughout
hagiographies. The hagiographer chooses to draw or include such a picture for the audience.
This allows the reader to become more involved within the texts and immerses them into the
specific story. This is so that the readers will have a more detailed image in their mind when
reading these texts and “whose preciseness seems to reveal an eye-witness” (Delehaye 59).
Pictures can be seen through texts like stories of Saint Cosmas and Damian where there are many
pictures and drawings of the saints and their tools. Another example is through the medieval
hagiography of the Martyrdom of St. Edmund. The illuminations for this text vary slightly
through different manuscripts but they all, “tend to focus on the motif of the passive death of the
king” (Riches 38). In one illumination found in an early twelfth-century manuscript, the
illumination creates a “parallel with the suffering Christ- a motif which regularly appears in
medieval imagery of martyred saints” (Riches 39). These illuminations help the reader visualize
the saint and make them more real and less fantastical. This use of pictures creates a strong
connection between the saints and the audience.
Medieval hagiographies contain some of the same themes and ideals throughout the text,
as one would expect. There is a common theme of lamentation, especially of women, throughout
hagiographies written in the Middle Ages. This theme that can be seen throughout many
different works is interesting because “scholars frequently point out that Christian theologians

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repeatedly denounced, and legislated against, noisy demonstrations of grief” (Bailey 537).
Audiences see lamentation in many different hagiographies but it is evidently clear in Miracula
written by Benedict of Peterborough. He describes,
A blind women at Becket’s shrine felt a great disturbance in her head, as if she
were engulfed in a raging furnace. Ripping away her veil and clawing at the
garments at her breast she fell to the floor and lay there for the space of an hour,
after which, opening her eyes and picking herself up she burst out ‘I can see’
(Bailey 529).
Although the character does not cry and wail like one would associate with lamentation, this is
characteristic of medieval lamentation because this type of lamentation includes more than just
crying out and sobbing. Medieval lamentation “included the tearing of hair, skin, and clothes; the
raising or beating of hands; and erratic running around” (Bailey 535). Lamentation in medieval
hagiography is especially interesting because of the connection that it has to gender roles
throughout this branch of literature. This reoccurring theme is most seen in women present in
hagiographies and can give the present society insight on the gender roles and importance of
women in religion in the Middle Ages.
Women, in medieval hagiography, seem to have a reoccurring specific role also. Many
feminist historians, and historians in general, today analyze hagiographies when interested in the
role of women during the Middle Ages. Historians have realized some patterns within
hagiographies when considering the roles of women. For example, “[t]erms such as ‘body’ and
‘spirit’ were deeply gendered [in hagiographies], women being aligned with the former and men
with the latter” (Bernau 105). There also has been research done to show how when women
become saints, they take on a more masculine form. This is “expressed succinctly by St. Jerome,

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who states that woman ‘who becomes more a servant of Christ than of the secular sphere…
ceases to be a woman… and is called a man,’ since he argues, ‘we all aspire to the condition of
perfect manhood” (Bernau 106). Most hagiographers were men during this time so it is
interesting to analyze their perceptions of women and roles in society during the Middle Ages.
In “Hildegard and Her Hagiographers,” Newman describes how “[v]ita is not only the first
‘autohagiography’ of the Middle Ages, but the first and only vita that lets us compare a holy
women’s self-portrait directly with the male representations of her” (Newman 16). Even when
women are canonized as saints, they cannot break from this powerful stronghold of patriarchy.
While in the lives of female saints, Christianity is shown to facilitate their change
from obedient daughters and wives to outspoken heroines of the faith, this is
understood to be justifiable within a very specific context, because their
obedience is not owed to the supreme patriarch: God the Father (Bernau 110).
Other than the few women saints portrayed in hagiographies, women were seen as lesser than
men and definitely not as rational. Women are only able to be more outspoken and have a more
prominent role in society because of the new masculine characteristics that they take on along
with the premise that they must be more outspoken to please the ultimate patriarch, God.
Relating back to the reoccurring theme of lamentation found throughout medieval hagiography,
“the hagiographer presents the women’s actions as disorderly and confused, and juxtaposes this
emotional reaction to the rational calmer responses of men” (Bailey 535). The only time that
women are empowered within this medieval society is when they are emotional. Bailey, a
historian focusing on hagiography, explains, “the body language of lamentation seems to
empower women with a certain degree of religious agency in miracle accounts and it is this
aspect of lamentation which finds its fullest expression in some mystical forms of female

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spirituality in the late Middle Ages” (Bailey 539). Women have a complicated role within
hagiography but when they are taking on a bigger role in society, they are perceived as more
masculine than the average woman.
Another reoccurring theme, other than the lamentation of women and the reoccurring
roles of women that can be seen throughout medieval hagiographies, is the expression of the
saints as a reflection of the Godhead. This is better described as the saint being a reflection of
God, an almost Christ figure. This theme of the saint as a reflection of a Godhead can be seen
most importantly in Anslem of Havelberg’s Dialogi de unitate fidei and in hagiographer Peter
Martyr’s works. Peter Martyr “notes that the saint’s holiness is a reflection of the three parts of
the holy Trinity. The power of the Father is demonstrated in Peter’s miracles, the wisdom of the
Son in his teachings, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in the gifts with which he endowed”
(Goodich 173). Also, in the illuminations found in the manuscripts of medieval hagiographies,
they are portrayed as Christ at times. The hagiographers and illuminators play into this motif by
making the saint’s troubles seem similar to Christ’s. These hagiographies, written around the
same time period, contain some of the same aspects when looking at the depiction of women and
other certain themes, such as lamentation and the portrayal of saints. Another interesting aspect
that gives more insight to the value of hagiographies is the actual texts. Manuscripts can produce
historical information about the time period as well as the story that is encased in it.
Manuscripts in Middle Ages are a key component in analyzing the entire text, and
medieval hagiographies are no exception. As Sarah Salih explains, “Medieval historians have
been considering the manuscript as a generator of meaning…rather than simply a container for
the text” (4). These texts were not just created on to regular manuscripts like one would think of
from the Middle Ages. This was not just the leather binding of a story, “[h]agiographical books

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in particular are important as physical entities because people tended to think of them as being
holy objects” (Long 49). The intricacy and design of these manuscripts suggests that these were
regarded as holy documents. Also, manuscripts can give historians a more detailed account of the
origin of the story, “a book’s construction can provide basic information about its production:
physical details such as the script, the style of miniatures and other artwork…suggest the region
(if not the exact site) of its origin and by extension, its original readership” (Long 49). And these
stories were not just found on regular manuscript materials. These texts were transcribed on
some unusual objects. For example, “a French legend of Margret was made into a birth girdle…
inscribed on a roll and designed to be wrapped over the body of a woman in labour” (Salih 10).
The manuscript also gives historians insight to the audience of the particular work, “[b]y
investigating the manuscript context, we can explore not just who read or heard the text, but
how” (Taylor 6). The size of a manuscript can say a lot about who read it. The smaller the
manuscript, the more likely that it belonged to one individual, but if the manuscript is larger, it
could have belonged to the public, that being a library, school, or church (Long 49). This leads
historians to better understand the exact audiences that were reading these hagiographies.
Hagiographies gained a mostly Christian audience. Though, because these texts were
written and presented in many different forms, they were perceived differently. For example,
“[a] patron viewing a vita in a luxury manuscript illustrated with episodes from the saint’s life
would have a very different experience from a young oblate hearing the same texted being
glossed” (Taylor 6). The manuscripts are crucial in giving insight to the audiences of
hagiographies, on not just who read it but how they read it as well. Some medieval
hagiographies “were intended for priests to use as references in sermon preparations” (Long 52)
and others “are more idiosyncratic and were meant for a specific class of lay devotional readers”

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(Long 52). So, medieval hagiographies were both read for religious and personal reasons but
priests, churchgoers, and lay people. During the Middle Ages, “More than any other kind of text,
saints and their narratives were embedded in people’s daily lives, so that books containing them
took on more functions than those containing other types of literature” (Long 52). Those reading
these texts were common middle class people in the Middle Ages. There were pictures and
elaborate descriptions for the audiences to help them imagine the true likeness of the saints. The
audiences of hagiographies today are different as well. Students, historians, religious figures,
and the general public still read and analyze hagiographical texts but read them more skeptically
because of the questionable validity of the works.
The medieval era produced various hagiographies that are still analyzed today. One
hagiographical work that is representative of the genre as a whole and is still regarded as a
hagiographical text is Life of Christina of Markyate. This is a classic hagiographical text that
follows the structure that is most commonly found in such religious works. This hagiography
shows the life of Theodora before a rare connection with God and then after, especially with her
miracles. One miracle that is described in this medieval hagiography is when she gives the
blessed water to a woman in need and she is healed (“The Life of Christina of Markyate” 49).
The Life of Christina of Markyate is an interesting hagiographical document because of its
depiction of Christina becoming a woman saint. There is the theme and the shown importance of
the quality of virginity in the women during this time. In the beginning of The Life of Christina
of Markyate, Theodora states, “I have chosen chastity and vowed to Christ that I would remain a
virgin” (18). The audience sees Theodora, now Christina, gain masculine qualities the more
religiously important she becomes. When confronting the bishop, she states proudly, “I will not
merely take the oath but I am prepared to prove it by carrying red hot irons in these my bare

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hands” (“The Life of Christina of Markyate 18-19). And later on through her life, she was
described, “more like a man than a woman, where she with her masculine qualities, might more
justifiably called him a woman” (“The Life of Christina of Markyate 46). The transition from
female qualities to male qualities shows the lower status of women during the Middle Ages, for
they could not even be held to importance in Christianity. This aspect shows less of an
empowerment of women during this time but rather it also shows the powerful reign of
patriarchy that is so commonly found in hagiographies. The audience sees patriarchy in
Christina’s worldly life with the conflict with her husband, but there is also a very strong
patriarchal situation between her and God. He controls her more than one would expect. She is
seen as “preserv[ing] herself for God” (20). This text is written in the formulaic nature that most
other hagiographies are written in. This is a very representational piece of the time period and is
still highly regarded today.
Audiences can still see hagiography created in today’s society as well. Today’s society
has taken this ancient tradition and is transforming it to be an idea that is now being adapted to
the present society. It is shown that, “Christian historians are now exploring new methods of
thinking and writing about holy people. A new academic hagiography is developing” (Kennedy
293). This new developing sub genre of hagiography is reviving the methods and ideas that were
exemplified in medieval hagiography. Scholars are constantly analyzing these religious
documents and creating their own based on their own opinions and improvements they think
necessary. It is evident that “the New Hagiography appears to have sprouted into view in 2003
with Marsden’s award winning and much discussed biography of Edwards” (Kennedy 296).
This biography of Jonathon Edwards, entitled, Jonathan Edwards: A Life depicts the
controversial life of the famous American. Through this novel, Marsden shows Jonathon

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Edwards’s trials and tribulations while fighting for his faith (Marsden). This is not technically
considered a hagiography because Jonathan Edwards was not canonized as a saint in any way.
But, this is a modern adaptation produced in the twenty-first century that is considered New
Hagiography. This strays from the original form of hagiography but this novel shows the ability
to take a concept that is centuries old and make it relevant to current society. There are other
tradition medieval hagiographies that are still being written today but nothing shows the growth
of this genre better than Jonathan Edwards: A Life. While this is just a current adaptation and
revival of this genre of literature, there are some changes being made to hagiography. The main
aspect that scholars are changing throughout this genre of text is the tone. As Kennedy explains,
this development shows a more reverent and matter-of-fact tone rather than the empathetic tone
that was present in medieval hagiographies (297). This could potentially improve the credibility
of these works because it “is usually a tone that accompanies fairness” (Kennedy 298). This tone
also works in conjunction with the strategies of the text and “encourages readers to think that the
religious masses are astute and intelligent rather than easily duped” (Kennedy 299). These
authors are attempting to include more social evidence within their texts. Many historians
believe that this could improve the overall genre and bring more credibility to this issue. This
will eliminate much of the skepticism that is currently attributed to medieval hagiography.
Hagiography is an important genre from the Middle Ages whether one historian believes
that it is valid or not. These texts exemplify many literary features that make it such an
important component of the Middle Ages because of the effect it had on its audiences. And to
some, this genre gives insight on the social workings during this period through the reoccurring
themes and comments in different hagiographical texts. Through these different texts, audiences
see reoccurring perceptions of women and lamentation. Hagiography has left its impact on

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history; we are still referring back to works today. And historians are attempting to improve this
genre to make it more credible and more widely accepted by the masses. Whatever the century,
hagiography will continue to be a staple genre in religious literature as well as one of the most
important genres of literature during the Middle Ages.

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Bernau, Anke. “Gender and Sexuality.” A Companion to Middle English Hagiography. Ed. Sarah
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