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ACE2238 Martyrs, Miracle-workers And Mendicants: an Exploration of the Lives and Literature of Medieval Saints from Perpetua to Patrick is a Course

ACE2238 Martyrs, Miracle-workers And Mendicants: an Exploration of the Lives and Literature of Medieval Saints from Perpetua to Patrick

Ended Nov 22, 2021

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Full course description

Course Overview

The desire to commemorate in written form those who had lived or died for their faith goes back to Christ himself and the Apostles within the Christian tradition. The birth of hagiography is, however, generally dated to the earliest accounts of the martyrdom of Christians in the late 2nd century AD. These so-called passiones, which detailed the sufferings or passions of the martyrs, began with terse accounts of Roman court proceedings and executions but soon encompassed dramatic and emotionally charged works like the Passio of Perpetua and Felicity of Carthage. While passiones continued to be written throughout the late antique and medieval periods, most hagiographical texts would go on to concern those who had lived rather than died for the Christian faith, those who were believed to have led a particularly holy and exemplary life. Among the earliest of the Lives of these so-called confessor saints were those of the ascetic hermit Anthony of Egypt and the archetypal miracle-working bishop Martin of Tours, and these provided an influential template for medieval hagiographers to follow. Jonas of Bobbio’s 7th-century Life of the headstrong Irishman Columbanus of Luxeuil/Bobbio also had a profound effect on medieval hagiography and can be compared with the different versions of the Life of Francis of Assisi, another monastic pioneer and outsider who lived c. 1200.

The question of the difference between the life and the legend of a saint will be central to the course. Hagiography, of course, does not equate to biography in the modern sense, and it can often be difficult to identify the historical person behind the hagiographical trappings. Patrick serves as a good study in this regard, where the writings of the saint himself can be compared against the rich legend created by later hagiographers. Sulpicius Severus, the author of the Life of St Martin, states at the beginning of the text that he would rather be silent than tell untruths. In reality, medieval hagiography always occupied a position between history and fiction, and miracles and tropes such as visions and prophecies soon became the stock and trade of the hagiographer’s craft. Often written centuries after the death of the saint, the amount of information an author had about the saint varied greatly, and the issue of historical accuracy is tied in with the question of the aims of the author. Beyond commemorating a holy individual, hagiographical texts could, for example, serve to promote particular ecclesiastical institutions, monastic movements or secular dynasties, or to encourage pilgrimage and patronage.

For each class excerpts from the translations of one or more text will be chosen in order to introduce students to some of the most important Lives written in the late antique and medieval periods. These will be discussed with the aim of illustrating the issues surrounding the interpretation of hagiography, and students will be directed towards recent secondary literature on the individual texts and on hagiography in general. Through this course students will become familiar with one of the most important literary genres of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, one that gives unique insights into the concerns, mentalities and history of these periods.

Course Schedule

Classes will be delivered online on Mondays 7-9pm for eight weeks from 27 September to 22 November.

WEEK 1: Introduction to hagiography: discussion of the different types of hagiographical texts, the chronological development of the genre and the different research approaches to the interpretation of saints’ Lives

WEEK 2: The Early Christian martyrs: introduction to the passiones of the late antiquity. The main source-text will be the 3rd-century Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.

WEEK 3: Life of St Anthony: discussion of the earliest vitae of confessor saints with particular focus on Athanasius 4th-century Life of Anthony of Egypt

WEEK 4: Life of St Martin: introduction to the first great European vita, Sulpicius SeverusLife of St Martin, and the birth of the miracle-working saint.

WEEK 5: Life and legend of St Patrick: comparison of Patrick’s own writings (Confessio) and excerpts from the 7th-century and later hagiographical works that shaped his legend.

WEEK 6: Life of Columbanus: discussion of Jonas of Bobbio’s Life of the Irish monastic pioneer Columbanus of Luxeuil/Bobbio with reference its Merovingian context and to Irish interaction with the Continent in the medieval period.

WEEK 7: Life of St Francis: discussion of some of the hagiographical texts concerning Francis of Assisi and their depiction of mendicant life and the beginnings of the Franciscan order.

WEEK 8: Concluding class: recap of course, applying the interpretative approaches already encountered to a selection of short excerpts from different hagiographical texts.   


Course Lecturer

Diarmuid Ó Riain is a graduate of University College Cork and University College Dublin (PhD 2009) and has taught on medieval history at UCC, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Vienna. He was a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of History in Vienna between 2013 and 2019 and has held research fellowships in Erlangen, Galway and Wolfenbüttel. His research primarily concerns medieval hagiography, monastic history and manuscript transmission.

Entry Requirements

Applicants must be at least 18 years old at course commencement.


Short courses are not assessed. Students will receive a UCC Certificate of Attendance upon completion.

Closing Date for Application

Friday  17 September

Contact Details for Further Information

Regina Sexton, Phone: 021-4904700, Email: