Conference in Paris on Hagiography and Cult, 25-26 September

On 25 and 26 September, the Cult of Saints project held a joint conference in Paris with the Centre d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance (Collège de France), which kindly, and most efficiently, hosted the event.  The organisers were Vincent Déroche of the Collège, and Robert Wiśniewski and Bryan Ward-Perkins of Cult of Saints.  The theme of the conference was ‘Culte des saints et littérature hagiographique: accords et désaccords / The cult of saints and hagiographical writings: agreements and disagreements’, with the aim of exploring the connections, and lack of connections, between cult in practice and hagiography in all its manifestations: Martyrdoms and Lives of saints; collections of posthumous miracle stories.

The first session of the conference was focused on broad issues.  Bryan Ward-Perkins outlined the overall aims of the Cult of Saints project and some of the ways that we hope to explore the intersection of hagiography and cult on the ground, while Bernard Flusin explored the connection between the so-called ‘epic’ Martyrdoms and cult practice (particularly as expressed in martyrs’ final prayers), and Arietta Papaconstantinou compared practice, as described in the Coptic Life of Viktor Stratelites and in a series of legal documents recording the donation of children to the monastery of St Phoibammon.  In the second session, the conference switched to some of the more extreme accretions of apocryphal material, looking at the rich accumulation of stories that developed around Joseph of Arimathea (in a paper by Anne-Catherine Baudoin) and around Stephen the first martyr (by Damien Labadie).  The third session was dedicated to collections of miracles, with Phil Booth examining the evidence for different collections developing around the same saints, sometimes with very varied agendas, and Ildikó Csepregi arguing for the central role of place in the development of the practice of incubation.

There followed a session on contested, or doubtful saints, with Nikolos Aleksidze showing how Armenians and Georgians, after the split between their churches, struggled to assert rival claims to the founder saints of Caucasian Christianity, and Vincent Déroche examining that curious branch of sanctity, the saloi or holy fools – saints who attracted little cult and who were described in hagiography more for moralising than cultic reasons.   The fifth, and penultimate, session was dedicated to the Lives and Martyrdoms of saints.  Pascal Boulhol introduced and examined the exceptionally rich hagiography of Nicomedia (which has produced a dossier of some thirty martyrdom accounts); Michael Williams explored the complex interplay between ‘reality’ and literary creation in Paulinus of Nola’s enhancement of the cult of Felix; and Robert Wiśniewski discussed the great popularity in the Latin west, but lack of subsequent cult, of the Lives of eastern monks, men who were admired and honoured, but not initially venerated.  In the final session, two eastern texts were examined from a literary angle, exploring the connections between ancient novelistic conventions and early hagiography: Koen De Temmerman unpicked the complex narratological structure of two accounts of Sinai monk-martyrs, and Flavia Ruani explored a Syriac story where an apparently incidental character attracted cult into the late 19th century, while the real ‘hero’ was quietly forgotten.  The two latter scholars work in Gent on another ERC project, Novel Saints – Ancient Novelistic Heroism in the Hagiography of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

All in all, it was universally agreed that we had a highly successful conference, with wide-ranging and high-quality papers, closely focused on the central theme, which will make for a strong and useful published volume.  From the perspective of Cult of Saints this was certainly an important meeting, reminding us of the many and complex ways that cult practice and hagiography can interlink.