Friday 25 March 2016

Jocelin and his Vita Patricii: 'undervalued for far too long'

We conclude the octave of posts in honour of the feast of Saint Patrick with a final tribute to Jocelin of Furness and his Life of Patrick by one of the current generation of scholars who are reassessing the author and his work. I was only recently able to find an affordable copy of Helen Birkett's study of Jocelin and his Vitae and am finding it a fascinating read. In the extracts below, Birkett lays out her conclusions, first on the Life of Patrick and then more generally. Her initial thoughts reminded me that one of the basic rules of the modern approach to hagiography laid down by Pére Delehaye is 'that whatever a vita tells us, it tells us more about the time of its composition - its theology, spirituality, politics - than of the time of the saint, and more about the mind of the hagiographer than of the mind of the saint':
The Vita Patricii was not commissioned to document the life of a fifth-century missionary but to record the legend of a twelfth-century saint. It offered a carefully crafted version of Patrick as a figure who was recognizable in both word and deed but also as one who was clothed in contemporary fashions and values and .... whose face was turned firmly towards a twelfth century present... 
...The Vitae can now be recognised for the complex, carefully constructed and communicative texts that they are. Jocelin too, must be reconsidered. As an author whose movements and patronage have been shown to straddle various geo-political, ecclesiastical and cultural boundaries, he emerges from this study as a potentially significant figure for our understanding of wider British history during this period, a time which saw the increasing permeability of these borders. This is not to make an extravagant claim about Jocelin's importance but merely to bring greater attention to the work of a writer who has been undervalued for far too long.

Helen Birkett, The Saints' Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics ( York Medieval Press, 2010), 51-2, 285.

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