“Musterai i mun livre”: Monastery History and Practices of Seeing in Matthew Paris’s Vie de seint Auban—by Elizabeth Light

Matthew Paris’s Vie de seint Auban, contained in Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 177, shows his attempts to visualize and thereby secure a history for his monastery that would be simultaneously authoritative, sanctified, and memorable to his readers.[1] Paris accomplishes this spectacular combination of effects by appealing to sensual optics and visual elements that are present both in the manuscript’s illustrations, and the textual narrative itself. With Paris as both author and illustrator of the manuscript, we can safely assume a concerted intentionality and design behind the work.[2] His design included a direct effort to produce interplays of meaning between text and context, writing and image.[3] Even deferring the question of intention, though, Paris’s lush illustrations and the cohesiveness of the object’s design would surely have awakened his readers’ visual senses. Drawing together manuscript illustrations and devotional contexts, including hagiographical narrative and monastery history, this paper suggests that the Vie de seint Auban allows for this remarkable imbrication of visual and historiographic elements. I posit that the repetitions, reflections, and refractions of image and perspective throughout the manuscript creatively reimagine the history of the St. Albans monastery in its Anglo-Norman cultural context.

The abbey began its intensive revitalization project for Alban’s cult in the later twelfth century, resulting in William of St. Albans’s prose Passio sancti Albani and Ralph of Dunstable’s Life in Latin verse, on which Paris based his Vie.[4] The scant documentation of the abbey’s history before the Conquest, the rivalry between St. Albans and the abbey of Ely about seventy miles to the north, and the evolving exigencies and circumstances of the time all point to the need for St. Albans to authenticate and maintain the cult of its namesake.[5] Ely’s rival claim to the relics could have secured them the reputation as a cult center, with all the cultural and economic benefits of a pilgrimage site, so it was more important than ever for St. Albans to maintain their status as sole holders of the relics; the martyr was said to appear to believers after his bones were officially translated there in 1129. After becoming the abbey historian in 1236, Matthew Paris had a clear purpose in imaginatively translating William’s and Ralph’s accounts of Alban’s life and Passion: he was trying to support and secure a history for his monastery that connected it to a pre-Conquest past, which would verify beyond doubt its claim as cult center for the saint. Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne emphasize both the political necessity and collective creativity behind the crafting of institutional identity around a single martyr, noting that, after the mid-twelfth century, “the saint was promoted as the first martyr with increasing intensity in wall-paintings, new shrine ornaments, sculptures, metal, woodwork, pilgrim badges, liturgy, and narrative.”[6] Forged charters attesting to the saint’s rightful interment, impressive new shrines, and new documentation of saintly visitation were all methods for revitalizing a saint’s cult. The Anglo-Norman present, then, depended largely on the cooperative inventions of monks, abbots, and artists to authenticate their holding of the martyr’s relics based on a pre-Conquest establishment. This work would secure the abbey a political and economic place in the local community and larger tradition of pilgrimage sites.

Paris works toward his goal of authenticating St. Albans as the proper – and historic – home of the martyr by creating a masterful interplay of visuality and hagiography within the Vie. By examining the connection of visuality to historiography, we can better understand Paris’s method as well as his relationship to his community. As Suzanne Lewis writes, Paris’s innovative engagements with visuality “inject new freshness and vigor into the writing of history,” and it is through this visuality that Paris provides an account of his abbey’s history that protects its parochial independence and establishes it as the center for Alban’s cult.[7] He presents St. Albans as a monastery that not only has a right to its land and relics, but as a place that is deeply linked to the practices of seeing correctly.

Textual Layout and Illustration
The manuscript’s layout attests what Cynthia Hahn has called its “almost cinematic” narrative effect.[8] The illustrated pages contain their miniatures (54 in total) usually at the top, framed neatly, with the occasional foot protruding out from or word protruding into the space of the frame. Above the frame is the titulus, an Anglo-Norman rhymed couplet that serves as a sort of caption or summary for the image. In addition to the Anglo-Norman titulus, there is also usually a couplet in Latin at the bottom of the page that describes the picture’s action (see Figure 1, where both titulus and Latin couplet are marked).[9] A few illustrations are extratextual and do not appear in the written narrative; as I explain below, these illustrations challenge simplistic notions of text-image collaboration and complicate our understanding of Paris’s ambitions for the Vie.

Produced in double columns that march gracefully around each illustration, the written text awakens the visual sense, emphasizing at every turn the importance of sight and visual experience. Through narrative descriptions of spectacular conversion and violence, mirrored events, parallels between sight and holy knowledge, and accounts of spying and eyewitnesses, visuality takes center stage in this work. Furthermore, textual references to sight interact with Paris’s illustrations and the material visuality of the manuscript’s layout to create a product that employs the reader’s sense of sight on both physical and intellectual levels in order to revitalize St. Albans as a legitimate home for the cult. Medieval sight was itself linked to legitimacy – for example, many medieval histories and hagiographies use eyewitness testimonials to self-authenticate – and it could even lead to divine understanding, in the sense that vision relies on the individual’s ability to correctly use (as opposed to lasciviously enjoy) the world’s images as pathways to higher insight.[10] Therefore, vision could lead to both historical authenticity and spiritual knowledge. Paris takes full advantage of these associations, but as we shall see, the Vie treats this knowledge as difficult and complexly obtained, even through the seeming directness of sight. More often than not, sight in the Vie is refracted, intimate or secret, capitulated through mirror-effects and distortion. Through these techniques, Paris reveals the challenging process by which visual impression becomes the monastery’s historical past.

The Cross of St. Alban: Cult Artifact, Visual Motif
The Vie begins with a fragment that describes a cross belonging to Amphibalus, an itinerant Christian missionary who arrives in the Roman city of Verulamium, now St. Albans. The cross is unadorned, except for a wooden figure of Christ stretched out upon it, in accordance with descriptions in the Gospels: Christ is “hanged and nailed according to the law for disloyal [traitors]” (penduz e cloufichez a loi de desloial), and “down one of his sides streamed blood from his heart” (avau l’un des costez raa li sancs cural).[11] The cross reappears at important points throughout the narrative, so it is worth spending a moment exploring its significance to Paris and to the project he undertakes in revitalizing Alban’s cult at his monastery. Paris elsewhere sketches the same cross in the margins of his Gesta abbatorum, so its image was evidently on his mind.[12]

The cross’s ability to represent the history of the St. Albans monastery as a physical object and visual symbol has been noted by various scholars, although my argument focuses on the ways the manuscript is constructed around not just this sign, but several others involving visual experience and effect. The cross is only one of many visual devices, including reflection, refraction, gazing, and the rhetoric of seeing within the textual narrative, all of which exhibit the visual grammar of Paris’s work and highlight the particular craft of constructing an institutional past around a single personality. Florence McCulloch writes that the cross’s visual prevalence throughout the illustrations tells us that Paris “wishes to make sure that the viewer does not lose sight of this essential relic,” as its visibility is a response to the manuscript’s multiple important showings, including the invention of Alban’s tomb in 1257 and the visit of Henry III to St. Albans later that year.[13] However, Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle describes a Coptic cross that St. Albans acquired under abbot William of Trumpington before Paris’s writing of the Vie, even going so far as to argue for its centrality in inspiring Paris to write the Vie initially.[14] Cynthia Hahn confirms Kjølbye-Biddle’s reading by identifying the cross illustrated in fol. 31r as Paris’s own representation of the abbey’s newest acquisition.[15] In analyzing the cross’s visual representation throughout Paris’s illustrations, McCulloch suggests that Paris may have originally prepared the manuscript to be shown to Henry III, who visited the monastery in 1257. This suggests that Paris uses his drawings and their rubrics as “propaganda” for the monastery’s rightful ownership of Alban’s relics.[16]

By writing a “real-life” artifact into his story, Paris creates a tangible link between the abbey’s Roman past and its Anglo-Norman present.[17] He describes the cross before it actually appears in the story, thus deferring the act of viewing to a future encounter that will result in conversion – a conversion, moreover, that is highly marked by spectacle and various visual encounters.[18] Hahn writes that “the means and manner of perception of this cross becomes the frame and point of departure of the visual narrative” in the Vie.[19] But when it does appear in illustrations, the cross does not feature Christ’s “hanged and nailed” body, but rather is portrayed as a Coptic or ferula-style cross. From the highly physical, particularized appearance of the cross at the beginning of our version of the Vie, and its reappearance throughout the manuscript in varying visual interpretations, Paris highlights both the importance of St. Albans’s Roman history (the plain cross with Christ’s carved figure) and its more recent acquisition of a different-looking cross (the ringed cross pictured in the illustrations). I would like to suggest that the perception of this cross is only the beginning of the manuscript’s attention to visuality, and that indeed this object-symbol is presented at the start of the narrative (with illustrative references throughout) in order to frame the narrative around a strong imaginative focal point. While the designation of illustration as visual propaganda is a useful frame for his project of authentication, the politics of looking also present new challenges for Paris, especially in the way spectacle and intimacy are linked in instances of secret looking and conversion. The visual narrative shall continue through demonstrations of looking and gazing, attention to the politics and meanings of sight, and rhetorical effects such as repetition, refraction, and repetition that happen through illustration and visual language in the narrative. Visual description, visual appearance, and the history of the abbey converge even in this first fragment of the manuscript, demonstrating the way that Paris draws his readers’ focus from the past to his present by using interplays of reading, seeing, and imagination.

The Vie’s narrative is more or less consistent with the earlier versions of St. Alban’s story produced by William of St. Albans and Ralph of Dunstable. The wandering priest Amphibalus arrives in Verulamium, where Alban, a pagan patrician, provides him with lodging. Amphibalus teaches Alban about Christianity and successfully converts him, but a Saracen spies on them as they pray before the cross, and reports them to the authorities. Alban effects Amphibalus’s escape by switching his nobleman’s clothes for the preacher’s pilgrim cloak, but the villagers find Alban and imprison and torture him. The villagers are punished with a terrible drought and a dangerous river-crossing that results in many deaths. Undeterred, they martyr Alban by tying his hair to a branch and beheading him; when he cuts off Alban’s head, the executioner’s eyes fall out. This spectacle causes multiple conversions, and many of the converted are also subsequently martyred. Amphibalus returns to the city and is himself executed by disembowelment, and the still-unconverted pagans become crippled in further punishment for their deeds. At the end of the narrative, a converted Saracen narrator introduces himself, explains that witnessing these events caused him to convert to Christianity; he vows to spread the story of St. Alban and Amphibalus far and wide as he proceeds on a penitential pilgrimage.

The rest of this paper will explore the connections between history and practices of seeing through a close reading of Paris’s manuscript text and illustrations, first turning to the intense gazes and glances between characters in the narrative. These gazes are theologically dangerous because of their potential for theological misstep and sinful looking, yet I posit that Alban and Amphibalus’s acts of looking are presented as spiritually worthy. I then develop further the theological background of vision, emphasizing both the dangerous aspects of sight as well as the linkages between sight and knowledge. These tensions, I argue, are essential to Paris’s narrative effect throughout the Vie. In the next section I explain the ways that reflection, refraction, and repetition elaborate these tensions and draw them powerfully into dialogue with the abbey’s claim to Alban’s relics. The final section focuses on the ways that Paris constructs the Vie around fraught acts of conversion, translation, and transmission, which are linked to practices of seeing in this authenticating document of monastery history.

The Secret Holy Gaze: Alban and Amphibalus Look at Each Other
When Amphibalus arrives in Verulamium and seeks shelter with Alban, Paris is careful to note Alban’s noble Roman ancestry (Romein original).[20] When he discovers Amphibalus’s intent to spread Christian doctrine, he expresses his desire to learn more about Christianity, being “marvelously moved” (mervelles meuz) by Amphibalus’s preaching. They retire to a “remote building where no one could see them, from neighbors to soldiers, not heard nor seen” (une maison foreine, k’i[l] n’i soient veu / De veisins u serganz, oi ne aperceu).[21] Wogan-Browne and Fenster note that the spot’s secrecy and seclusion is Paris’s own invention: in William of St. Albans’s Passio, for example, they do not secure a hidden meeting place until after Alban’s conversion.[22] Their need for secrecy here begins a preoccupation with seclusion and spying that Paris carries through the rest of the Vie: the words veu and aperceu repeat in end-rhyme to give the couplet a similar meaning, the desire not to be seen.

But despite their desire for secrecy, Amphibalus and Alban’s private meeting in a remote location is exactly what the first illustration depicts (Figure 2). The viewer experiences a voyeuristic satisfaction at being able to see what even the neighbors and guards cannot. Teacher and pupil are seated side-by-side: Amphibalus barefoot in a brown cloak upon a squared and simple stool, Alban on a cushion, wrapped in finer clothes. They reach towards one another: Amphibalus in a gesture of explication or suggestion, Alban with his hand outstretched in protest. While their postures are nearly identical, their clothes and gestures differentiate them, as well as the darker and plainer coloration on Amphibalus’s side. The figures are separated by a pillar that creates two distinct frames in the illustration, which are in turn set off with a three-tiered arch on either side. Thus, although the men’s two figures are paralleled, they are also elaborately framed and differentiated.

The reader of this manuscript image is forced to confront the desire to witness this secret meeting between the noble Roman and the wandering preacher. We look at them, and see that their eyes are locked, despite the frame and pillar that seems to separate their gaze – the intensity and interpersonal connection of their philosophical debate is governed by this penetrating look. Alban will eventually leave himself open to conversion (though he initially disagrees with Amphibalus on the possibility of the Trinity and the Incarnation).[23] This first encounter, simultaneously filled with intimacy and stateliness, is rich in visual effect: the frames-within-frames, detail, and differentiation Paris uses certainly evoke his rich artistry and innovative methods in layout and compilation.[24] They further emphasize the layering of the gaze – the reader’s gaze upon the page, and the various kinds of gazes between characters – that the author-illustrator will develop throughout the Vie.

The Dangers of Looking
The intensity of Amphibalus and Alban’s gaze would have carried significant epistemological and theological implications for medieval readers. While Isidore writes that “vision is quicker and more vigorous than the other senses” (visus dictus, quod vivacior sit ceteris sensibus ac praestantior sive velocior), being closer to the brain and thus more effective in discerning experience, there also existed a strong degree of skepticism and threat to the sense of sight: its ability to deceive, to debase, to distract from contemplation and good things, was ready in the minds of religious writers. [25]

The difficult relationship of sight to knowledge found its roots in early church doctrine and theology. Augustine writes in his Confessions that his futile and prideful curiosity (curiositas) about the world derives from the senses, especially the eyes, and distracts him from love and contemplation of God. This happens because “although the function of sight belongs primarily to the eyes, we apply it to the other organs of sense as well, by analogy, when they are used to discover any item of knowledge” (quia videndi officium, in quo primatum oculi tenent, etiam ceteri sensus sibi de similitudine usurpant, cum aliquid cognitionis explorant).[26] Sight, then, becomes a synecdoche for all sensual perception. The pursuit of worldly knowledge does not result directly in curiositas, but if entertained and continued it leads to pride, sloth, and original sin. As pleasurable and pervasive as sight may be, it is also the origin of sinful curiositas – indeed, it is exactly because of the worldly delight derived from sight that the eyes cannot be fully trusted.

In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux continued Augustine’s association of curiositas with eyesight and vision, primarily in his treatise on humility, The Degrees of Humility and Pride (De gradibus humilitatis et superbiae). He writes that “the first step of pride is curiosity. You can recognize it by these indications. You see a monk of whom you had thought well up to now. Wherever he stands, walks, sits, his eyes begin to wander.”[27] For Bernard, his monastic audience, and subsequent theologians, the loaded category of curiositas begins with the wandering eye, ascending precipitously to affect the mind and soul. The secret acts of gazing and looking in the Vie de seint Auban confront these theological dangers, but they are also in tension with acts of holy looking, knowledge through sight, and perfection of the senses that were achievable in the same theological traditions.

Perfect Looking: Holy Knowledge through Sight
These diagnoses of looking as dangerous, as leading to sin, excess, and distraction from the holy good, are based largely on the extramission theory of sight, which connects inward states to outward objects seen by the eye. According to this theory, the seeing eye emits a ray of visible light that encounters and gives shape to an object in the world. The form of the object, illuminated and brought into the field of vision by the eye’s emission, then returns to the eye and is perceived and understood. Thus, sight comes from within a person and carries all the qualities of their body and soul. This theory, commonly accepted in the medieval west since Augustine, was revitalized in the thirteenth century by theorists like Roger Bacon, who likens the perception of light to the reception of grace.[28] Thus, while theology often pointed to sinful possibilities for sight, medieval optics is characterized by a search to perfect the inward self through sight.

The potential for sight to provide access to the divine depends on a perfection of mind reached through contemplation. Despite his mistrust of worldly sight in the Confessions, Augustine revisits theories of vision in The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De genesi ad litteratum), which denotes three levels of sight: the corporeal sight that he so mistrusts, that is, what is seen by the eyes of the body; spiritual sight, which includes dream-vision and imagination; and intellectual sight, which exists only in the highest levels of the mind and is of a different category of visuality than the first two, which rely on worldly images for their sustenance.[29] Since intellectual vision relies on contemplation, it can lead to higher insights and indeed holds the potential for divine understanding, but this potential depends on the individual’s ability to use the world’s paltry images as pathways to grace. Medieval writing relies heavily on eyewitness accounts to obtain access to authority; visual effect is thus a strong verifier of both spiritual truth and historical accuracy.[30]

In this framework, sight risks being categorized as sinful or overly curious, but if properly directed and articulated, it is not necessarily so. Indeed, many acts of looking in Paris’s Vie seem to balance these aspects of visual experience carefully and complexly. I suggest that Paris was engaging deeply with different ways of looking – from secret peeping to human encounter to holy gaze, and everything in between – and the Vie is his document, drawn and ornamented and laid out, of the complex manners of seeing and being seen in thirteenth-century St. Albans. But these acts of looking also implicate the past and present of the monastery itself – its claim to Alban’s relics, the legitimacy of its foundations, and its evolution into a cult center. All depend on the ability of Paris’s manuscript to guide his readers visually through that history, and show to their eyes the righteous sights and visions of the abbey’s illustrious founders.

Visual Reflection, Refraction, Repetition in the Vie
After their secret debate, Alban brings Amphibalus back to his home to spend the night. Paris writes that Alban falls asleep while Amphibalus stays up to pray before the cross (see above); while sleeping, Alban has a dream that Paris describes using the vocabulary of vision and sight. As Alban drifts off, God decides to “reveal his secrets to him and through a vision soften his heart” (Ki li doinne sun segrei demustrer / E par avisiun lui esmoillir le quoer).[31] God provides him a complete narrative of the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, including “everything a Christian believes is secret” (quancke a crestien croire est mester).[32] Paris’s poetic wordplay in lines 210-211 – mester, a mystery or secret, to mustré, to show or reveal – indicates his interest throughout this passage in states of secret, hidden vision and open, clear display (sanz ren celer).[33] The importance of dream-visions as a source of knowledge is well-documented,[34] but important here is the language of concealment and openness that is re-emphasized by Paris’s accompanying illustration (Figure 3).

In the image, Alban lies supine in bed, holding the covers up around his body; above him, there is a wavy line that demarcates everyday reality from the imaginative reality of dreams. As in fol. 29v (Figure 1), this image is split up into series of frames that provide important information about vision, its limits, and its possibilities: as before, the characters’ line of sight is able to penetrate through the painted barrier, which should prevent clear vision into the next frame – but instead, God ensures the clarity and completeness of the dream for Alban, who is then able to retell it clearly (apertement) to his mentor.[35] Indeed, the image itself seems to be a synecdochal representation for Alban’s telling of the dream to Amphibalus, positioning the reader alongside him as receptor to Alban’s story. Alban’s conversion, then, depends on his ability to recount faithfully the experience of the dream, to bring its imagery and impact into worldly language, to make visible and known its invisible and secret meanings. Paris likewise takes up the historian’s responsibility of painting the past using strokes and objects recognizable to his readers. Their acknowledgement of Alban’s sanctity in connection to his namesake abbey relies on Paris’s visual effectiveness in illustrating the dream, as well as his ability to enliven the old story and refocus it to involve his own place and period.[36]

This refocusing is continued in the next illustration (Figure 4), which is Paris’s own invention and includes the earliest illustrated appearance of Amphibalus’s cross. The image depicts Alban peering through a window at Amphibalus, who kneels before the cross. It is unclear whether this scene is meant to happen in the middle of the night – after Alban’s dream, but during Amphibalus’s nightly vigil – or in the morning, just before the two convene.[37] Cynthia Hahn notes that this scene does not appear in the written narrative: although Paris writes that Alban witnesses the prayers of Amphibalus, he does not disclose that the witness was in secret, nor does he mention a surreptitious peeping through any window.[38] Rather, his introduction of this scene of private devotion and voyeuristic gazing “focuses and directs the gaze of the viewer,” whose curiosity is piqued by the intimacy of looking through the window.[39] We join him in gazing at the cross, which (along with the window) occupies the center space of the image. As a witness to private Christian devotion, and subsequently a motivation for conversion, this act of surreptitious spying is suggested to be virtuous, not underhanded – but it is also highly ambivalent, because the clandestine act arouses curiositas, that dangerously sinful state that originates in inquisitive looking. The fact that the scene is only represented visually—not described in the textual narrative—highlights the possible threats of this gaze, but also emphasizes the fact that Alban’s vision is inaccessible through textual description. As a private devotional activity by a future saint – indeed, the moment of the saint’s conversion – this scene carries an important weight. St. Alban’s saintly, righteous (i.e. theologically correct) looking requires no textual elaboration, and by returning his gaze the manuscript’s audience may contemplate the power of gazing itself, as opposed to language or textual description to communicate a spiritual encounter.

Alban reaches his decision to convert through the visuality of his religious experience. The divine has reached him through various levels of looking, both imaginatively and carnally (in a dream and through a hidden window). His conversion is followed, duly, by his baptism, and continued education from Amphibalus, whom he enlists as his beu maistre. However, to avoid persecution their meetings must continue in secret, and once again Paris highlights this necessity through the language of obscurity and concealment: they hold their “secret and hidden councils” again in the “secluded house” they had visited before, into the “nightfall” (segreiz e cunseilz celez; maison sutive; anoitez).[40] Again, private, enclosed devotion is invaded by spies and onlookers: a Saracen comes to peer through their window and observes their secret conversations and rituals (Figure 5). The Saracen is a distorted mirror-image of Alban in fol. 31r: both framed by an archway, the two figures face opposite directions (as in a mirror), and lean in to peer through the windows at precisely the same angle. While Alban stands firmly on one foot with his right toe protruding slightly out of the frame, the Saracen’s feet are off-kilter, akimbo against the floor’s neat line, giving the impression of instability and treachery. While the similarity of the two figures is striking, the Saracen’s imbalance suggests a fun-house mirror or distortion of Alban’s well-intentioned spying on the previous folio. There are right and wrong ways to spy on people as they pray.

Paris employs this method of narrative mirroring throughout the Vie, constructing an elaborate system of parallel events that reappear, slightly varied, shortly after their first appearances. Paris puts in place the distorted mirror-image of the spying saint and the spying Saracen to emphasize proper and improper looking: he who seeks to worship through imitation versus he who seeks to betray through accusation. Medieval writers closely monitored their senses, especially sight, so as to avoid these treacheries; Michael Camille discusses the power of these visual encounters and the effects of images on the viewer, suggesting that certain medieval models of sight emphasize the mirror-effect that Paris is using here: the power of images themselves, rather than the dangers of vision, implied a remarkable mutuality to the objectifying gaze.[41] After the Saracen reveals Amphibalus and Alban’s hiding-place to the authorities, the two effect Amphibalus’s escape by switching clothes; this event enacts a reversal of their appearances and a moment of identification and intimacy that recalls the remarkable painting on fol. 29v. In that image, as here, the markedly different appearances and juxtaposed seating of Amphibalus and Alban do not prevent them from sustaining direct and immediate eye contact. Their regarding gaze parallels the earlier moment of close comparison between the two men.[42]

Despite his disguise, the pagan authorities find Alban before long and imprison him, placing him in a cell where he is hungry and uncomfortable. “He did not drink any of the fine wines lying in his cellar, in rich vessels by a cup-bearer; he did not have any delicious food to eat. A dark prison he had instead of a hall and an upstairs room … He was hungry and thirsty and cold” (Ne beit mais des bons vins gisantz en sur celer / De riche vaissele a servant butuiller; / N’a mais deliciuses viands a manger. / Prisun ad obscure pur sale e pur soler … Feim ad e sei e freit).[43] Paris contrasts Alban’s present state with his former happiness, emphasizing his hunger and thirst in the bare cell. Throughout the Vie, Alban’s physical suffering is distinguished as a marker for holiness, as is typical of saints’ lives. But more novel for Paris, Alban’s punishment is mirrored a few hundred lines later, when the crowd that has come to watch his Passion suffer from extreme thirst themselves due to the extreme drought they are experiencing as punishment from the divine.[44] However, once again the mirroring of Alban with his pagan adversaries points out crucial distinctions between them: while Alban “did not cease to pray to God,” the thirsty crowd “cried out and lamented in anger.”[45] Throughout the Vie, the pagans are continually defined by their clamor and noise, including animalistic noise; the ability to suffer in silence and carry on rational discourse is reserved for the suffering Christians. These episodes of thirst are again mirrored in the accompanying illustration (Figure 6), which depicts Alban’s resigned imprisonment and the pagans’ frantic thirst side-by-side, as juxtaposed visual elements that emphasize the righteousness of the saintly namesake of Paris’s abbey.

Alban once again distinguishes his holiness when God hears his prayer for the people’s deliverance and fissures the barren hillside to reveal a bubbling stream. The stream, moreover, has its own mirror-image: earlier in the narrative the “great press of people” (la presse ert grant du pueple) who cross the bridge fall into the raging water, with many drowning, but Alban’s prayers turn the river, “deep and rapid with a noisy current” (parfunde e raedde a flot briant), into a calm and shallow stream.[46] These double streams reveal in parallel incidents the pagans’ folly and Alban’s sanctity, even while he lives. Paris achieves this rhetorical contrast by repeating images and motifs as mirrored encounters throughout the narrative: for example, the thirsting bodies of Alban and the pagans, and the waters over which the saint sustains control through prayer. A saint so finely behaved under torment, and with such powerful ability to intercede, is a valuable patron and significant figure for the abbey taking his name.

Just as the spectacle of Christ’s Passion and Amphibalus’s cross inspire Alban’s conversion through visual means, the graphic details and gory illustrations of his death combine to elicit feelings of awe and visual wonder for the reader. The unbelievers threaten the very means by which Alban was converted – they plan to cut out his eyes, the organs with which he first views the cross, spies Amphibalus’s prayer, and knows his dream-vision to be true.[47] Paris again utilizes his technique of mirroring Alban’s torture against the pains of his enemies when the executioner’s eyes fall out immediately after beheading his victim. Alban himself is martyred hideously and tied to a tree by his hair; the executioner’s blade-strike “made his head fly bleeding from his shoulders,” which Paris depicts in the facing painting (Figure 7).[48]

The spectacle of torture here, the abundant crimson blood vibrant on the page, the emphasis on sight as a means to truth, the graphic blinding of the Saracen, and the titulus which reads, “For the Saracen, night begins: For Alban, brightness without end,” all point to the visual impact Alban’s martyrdom is designed to create for its viewer.[49] The illustration also depicts the cross being “stained” with the red of Alban’s blood, a visual reminder of the saint’s suffering.[50] The cross which first he gazed upon now becomes a holy relic that is taken up by his followers. Once again, the cross is depicted as a Coptic cross, based on the cross that arrived at St. Albans shortly before Paris’s writing; here in the Vie it is marked with the indelible blood of the martyr, and passes into the abbey’s reality through the recognition of its viewers.

“I’ll display my book written on vellum”: A Manuscript of Monastic Historiophoty
The events described and depicted in the Vie become present and relevant through visual recognition and imagination, making the work a historiophoty as much as it is a hagiography and historiography. Coined by Hayden White in 1988, the term historiophoty refers to a visual portrayal of past events, the “representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse.”[51] Its anachronistic application to the Vie here signals Paris’s emphasis on ways of seeing, the value placed on pictorial as well as verbal communication as a means of representing the past. This emphasis on visual history additionally gains credence because the events are verified through the eyewitness testimony of an invented narrator – a Saracen who “of this history saw the beginning and ending” (de ceste estoire vi le cumençail e fin).[52] He states confidently, “I have written this story on parchment like I saw it. Yet there will come a day, indeed I say it and predict it too, that this history will be translated into French and Latin” (La geste ai, cum la vi, escrit en parchemin. Uncore vendra le jur, ben le di e devin, La estoire ert translatee en franceis e latin).[53] The Saracen narrator then tells how witnessing the events of the story inspired him to convert to Christianity, and as he concludes the narrative he promises to go on pilgrimage to Rome to spread the news of Alban’s holiness. His prediction that his narrative will be translated of course comes true – Paris himself is the future ‘translator’ of the story into French. By situating the Vie in this forward-looking long-ago, Paris retroactively constructs a history of legitimacy for its narrative through the invention of an eyewitness testimony.

The Saracen emphasizes one last time the visual impact of Alban’s bloody martyrdom and the book it will produce: “For the sake of Alban, who first colored [the island] with his red blood and who was beheaded for God with a steel sword, I’ll display [reveal, make visibly known] my book written on vellum” (Pur Auban ki l’ad teinte premers de sanc rosin, / Ki pur Deu decolé fu du brand acerin, / Musterai i mun livre escrit en veeslin).[54] The emphasis on color and display here suggests Paris’s intentions for the manuscript: its striking visuality and sensuality serves to memorialize Alban and connect the history of the British island to the martyrdom of the saint, embedding his localized hagiography into the history of the kingdom. Furthermore, the narrator’s double mention of parchment and vellum (ll. 1821, 1840) foreshadows the multimedia nature of the Dublin manuscript: illustrations on vellum pasted into a parchment manuscript. The converted Saracen narrator also serves as a mirror for Paris himself as creator, just as the earlier episodes and illustrations set up mirror-effects and distortions between Alban and the Saracens who spy, suffer, and see like (and yet unlike) him.

These striking visual reminders of the abbey’s past would be nothing, though, without a narrative linking the past to the present. Paris accomplishes this by continuing his illustrations even after the Vie concludes – he paints in succeeding rubrics the founding and chartering of the St. Albans abbey by Offa. Thomas O’Donnell records the way this organization broadens the hagiographical narrative to include a history of its institutionalization, gathering together the past and present by means of physical objects – relics and documents – that create a horizontally-organized narration of events within Paris’s sumptuous manuscript illustrations.[55] In these subsequent illustrations Offa acts on instruction from a dream-vision of his own and discovers Alban’s relics, builds the monastery, translates and elevates the relics there, and presents the foundation charter, witnessed by the entire community.[56] Witnessing these events through the interplay of text and image legitimizes Offa’s foundation of the monastery in the minds of the St. Albans monks, their patrons, and the neighboring community, as well as affirming the sanctity of Alban’s relics up to the present. In these post-narrative pictorial accounts, vision becomes the chief provider of knowledge for the monastery’s foundation.[57] Paris does not need to narrate these events poetically as he did the Vie, since their authority lies chiefly in visual recognition by their audiences, the monks and sympathetic nobles among whom the manuscript circulated.[58] Instead, Paris interweaves the images of St. Albans’s founding with hymns, liturgical lessons, and the charters themselves. His penchant for collecting evidence is most apparent here: the way he combines eyewitness account with documentation, the history of objects, and writs of authenticity culminates in his use of image and visual drama.[59] These strategies heighten the persuasiveness of St. Albans’s claim to the saint’s relics, and they emphasize its centrality in the landscape of English devotion in the twelfth century.

While visual effect is able to register changes over various incarnations of the monastery’s story, it also creates a timeline that is verifiably present both in the eyes of the viewer and on the page itself. Through directly addressing his audience’s sense of sight, Paris makes the act of looking into a pathway to historical validation. As my readings of Wogan-Browne and Fenster, Michael Camille, and Cynthia Hahn have shown, the fact that Paris’s historiography is often visual is well-established; this essay has developed the ways in which Paris’s inventive historiophoty contends with the imaginative, dramatic, and sometimes tense relationship between visual culture and monastic identity. Alban’s story, embedded in the interweavings of historical and hagiographical context, is experienced through the eyes and through visual imagination – as with the relic-shaped cross, itself an echo of a real-life and recognizable object, the history of the monastery is bound up with the gaze and the desire to gaze. As a historiophoty, the Vie works towards a revitalization of St. Albans through the vitality of its visual technologies: the mirrors, spying eyes, and holy gazes portrayed throughout the work. This mirror-hall of visions, glances, and images comes together in the final product: the book “displayed … on vellum” in the island where Alban, himself made martyr-painter with the spilling of his blood, “first colored with red blood” (musterai … en veeslin; teinte premers de sanc rosin) the island of Britain.[60]

Figure 1. TCD MS 177, fol. 34v. This and all images throughout are reproduced from Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., The Life of St. Alban, FRETS (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2010).

Figure 2. TCD MS 177, fol. 29v.

Figure 3. TCD MS 177, fol. 30v.

Figure 4. TCD MS 177, fol. 31r.

Figure 5. TCD MS 177, fol. 32r.

Figure 6. TCD MS 177, fol. 35v.

Figure 7. TCD MS 177, fol. 38r.

Elizabeth Light, Fordham University

Elizabeth Light is a PhD student at Fordham University specializing in late medieval devotional literature. Elizabeth’s research interests include hagiography, mysticism, gender and embodiment, and theories of community.


[1] I would like to thank Thomas O’Donnell for his generous and helpful feedback on this paper, including access to his unpublished dissertation. Throughout, I use the edition by A.R. Harden, La Vie de seint Auban, ANTS 19 (Oxford: ANTS, 1968). All translations are my own unless otherwise noted, and excepting the titulus captions, which are translated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Thelma Fenster in their edition, The Life of Saint Alban by Matthew Paris, with The Passion of St. Alban by William of St. Albans, trans. Thomas O’Donnell and Margaret Lamont, and Studies of the Manuscript by Christopher Baswell, FRETS 2 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2010).

[2] The debate on Paris’s attribution to both the text and illustrations has been settled. See Richard Vaughan, Matthew Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp. 168-76.

[3] Cynthia Hahn has carved an important scholarly space for studies of narrative and visuality in saints’ lives, culminating in her study Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001). See also Emma Campbell and Robert Mills, eds., Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Image (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Important studies of visuality in medieval culture include Michael Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Jeffrey M. Hamburger, “The Visionary and the Visual in Late Medieval Monastic Devotions,” Viator 20 (1989): 161-82; Suzanne Lewis, “Vision and Revision: On Seeing and ‘Not Seeing’ God in the Dublin Apocalypse,” Word and Image 10.3 (1994): 289-311; and Dallas G. Denery, Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World: Optics, Theology, and Religious Life (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[4] Wogan-Browne and Fenster, Introduction, The Life of Saint Alban, p. 6.

[5] Wogan-Browne and Fenster, Introduction, pp. 11-12.

[6] Wogan-Browne and Fenster, Introduction, pp. 12-14, esp. n. 31.

[7] Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the ‘Chronica majora’ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 14. Lewis also writes that Paris revises predecessor Roger Wendover’s “stern moral tone” for history-writing, and instead develops a more “lurid picture” of the history of mankind in his Chronica majora, one that reveals the “folly and crime” alongside moral exemplum and signals to the faithful (12). She argues that Paris takes on an antipapist perspective: “Going back to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, parochial bias inevitably became involved in setting down a record” (12). Paris’s account is a protection of the abbey’s independence in the face of growing pressure and interference from both the church and the crown.

[8] Cynthia Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart, p. 285.

[9] However, as O’Donnell notes, the organization of the manuscript relies somewhat on the unity and order provided by the illustrations. While the Vie’s illustrations generally correspond with the narrated events, O’Donnell points out that the illustrations occurring after the Vie do not always match up with the page’s narration; instead, they create a unifying narrative of their own, telling the story of the foundation of the St. Albans shrine. The pictures, then, enact their own narrative momentum and hagiographical witness to the monastery’s history. See Thomas O’Donnell, “Monastic Literary Culture and Communities in England, 1066-1250” (University of California, Los Angeles: Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2009).

[10] On the authority associated with vision, as well as the ways in which correct seeing could lead to spiritual insight, see Barbara Newman, “What Did It Mean to Say ‘I Saw’?: The Clash Between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture,” Speculum 80, no. 1 (2005): 1-43, where she reviews the contexts for medieval visions as spiritual authority, and the ways that sight was associated with the inward experience of God. See also Beth Williamson, “Sensory Experience in Medieval Devotion: Sound and Vision, Invisibility and Silence,” Speculum 88, no. 1 (2013): 1-43, and David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), especially Introduction and Part I.

[11] Harden, ed., ll. 6-7. In Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 177 fol.29r.

[12] Hahn, “Visio Dei,” p. 191, n. 9.

[13] Florence McCulloch, “Saints Alban and Amphibalus in the Works of Matthew Paris: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 177,” Speculum 56.4 (1981): 761-785, esp. pp. 782-5.

[14] Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle, “The Alban Cross,” in Alban and St. Albans: Roman and Medieval Art, Architecture, and Archaeology, ed. Martin Henig and Philip Lindley (British Archaeological Association, 2001), pp. 85-110.

[15] Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart, p. 291.

[16] McCulloch, “Saints Alban and Amphibalus,” p. 771.

[17] O’Donnell argues that Paris writes his institutional monastic history to legitimize Offa’s foundation of St. Albans and his invention of the body around a history of physical objects. See O’Donnell, “Monastic Literary Culture and Communities,” pp. 211-13.

[18] Cynthia Hahn notes that the power of this cross to convert on sight was by no means a boilerplate trope: rather, part of Paris’s innovation lies in his revision of earlier medieval ideas about seeing connected to the cross. Rather than the earlier notions (based on Gregory the Great) of momentary access to a distant divine, achieved through the “glance,” Hahn argues that Paris’s Vie relies on the prolonged gaze, the sustained experience of looking at an object. See Hahn, “Visio Dei: Changes in Medieval Visuality,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw, ed. Robert S. Nelson (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), pp. 169-196.

[19] Hahn, “Visio Dei,” p. 191, n. 9.

[20] Harden, ed., ll. 23.

[21] Harden, ed., ll. 75-6.

[22] Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., 109, n. 14.

[23] Harden, ed., ll. 77-95, 191-6.

[24] For more on Paris’s visual style and innovations, see Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris, and Cynthia Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart, esp. p. 286.

[25] Priscilla Throop, trans., Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (Charlotte, VT: MedievalMS, 2005), XI.1.14. See also Christopher Michael Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 147.

[26] R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans., Saint Augustine: Confessions (New York: Penguin, 1961), X.35, at 241-2.

[27] G.R. Evans, trans., Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1987), p. X.28, at 123.

[28] David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 89-90.

[29] See J.H. Taylor, trans., St. Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Ancient Christian Writers, pp. 41-42 (New York: Newman Press, 1981), Vol 2, XII.

[30] See Andrew M Beresford and Lesley K Twomey, “Visions of Hagiography: From the Gaze to Spiritual Vision in Medieval Lives of Saints,” 103-132, in La Corónica: A Journal Of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, And Cultures 1 (2013), pp. 104, 108-9.

[31] Harden, ed., ll. 204-5, italics mine.

[32] Harden, ed., l. 210.

[33] Harden, ed., l. 211.

[34] See especially Hahn, “Visio Dei,” and Stephen F. Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[35] Harden, ed., l. 214. The picture’s caption also states that Alban’s “body sleeps, but his soul keeps watch, so that he sees the great marvel in heaven” (see Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., 71, n. iii). This calls to mind Augustine’s three-tiered understanding of vision and the relationship between the spiritual and intellectual fields of vision; while dreams are made up of images, their potential for divine insight is always present. See Taylor, trans., Literal Meaning, XII.21.44.

[36] The importance of his illustrations to the artist seems self-evident but is underscored by the fact that, while most of Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 177 is written on relatively plain parchment, many of its illustrations were painted on much more expensive vellum and pasted in. This indication of value and specialness to the illustrations supports the idea that visual effect was generated to work out Paris’s other goals for the work as a whole. See Lewis, Art of Matthew Paris, p. 21.

[37] The right-hand titulus reads, “Here Alban sees through the window what Amphibalus is doing. [Alban] wants to show him in good faith all the mystery of his dream” (Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., 71, n. iv). This could suggest the scene occurs in the morning. But the left-hand titulus reads, “On his knees, Amphibalus honors the cross, and he sighs and weeps: neither forgetting, nor dozing, nor sleeping keeps him from performing his customary devotions” (Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., 71, n. v), which seems to suggest, instead, that the scene happens at night, when Amphibalus abstains from sleep to pray. Therefore, the chronology of the illustrations is unclear; this interpretive ambiguity adds richness to the narrative.

[38] The fact that we can see, but not read about, this encounter speaks to Paris’s continual engagement with the visual sense. We are drawn into the act of looking in imitation of Alban’s eager lean towards the window. See also Hahn, “Visio Dei,” p. 176, and idem, Portrayed on the Heart, pp. 289-91.

[39] Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart, p. 290.

[40] The full sentence reads: D’une maison sutive, u il sunt ja entrez, / Unt fait lur escole, pur les grantz fertez / Des Sarracins feluns dunt il sunt guetez. / Iluec unt lur segreiz e cunseilz celez / Des relevees, e quant fu anoitez (Harden, ed., ll. 392-6).

[41] See Michael Camille, “Before the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw, ed. Robert Nelson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 207.

[42] More can and should be said about the exchange of clothes between Alban and Amphibalus, and disguise in hagiography in general. While there are many resources on cross-dressing by female saints (for example Jeanne d’Arc, St. Eugenia and St. Euphrosynie), little has been said about disguises in general in medieval hagiography, as scholarship on disguise tends to focus on comic or romance literature but not on saints’ lives. The switching of appearances – and thereby of identities – between Alban and Amphibalus might be especially fruitful in a queer/homosocial reading of hagiography, or an analysis of the master/pupil relationship in conversion narratives. However, such a study is beyond the scope of this paper.

[43] Harden, ed., ll. 676-83.

[44] Harden, ed., ll. 851-67.

[45] Harden, ed., ll. 673, 865.

[46] Harden, ed., ll. 760, 790.

[47] “Let his eyes be gouged out and his sight taken away: that will show and signify that his eye and his heart are both blind.” Harden, ed., ll. 726-36.

[48] Fenster and Wogan-Browne, trans., 84.

[49] Wogan-Browne and Fenster, trans., 84, n. xviii. For more on the spectacle of violence in the Vie, see Nicola Masciandaro, “Non potest hoc corpus decollari: Beheading and the Impossible,” in Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in the Medieval and Early Modern Imagination, ed. Larissa Tracy and Jeff Massey (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 15-38, at 35; Estella Antoaneta Ciobanu, The Spectacle of the Body in Late Medieval England (Iasi: Lumen, 2012), esp. Chapter 3; Mark D. Meyerson, Daniel Thiery, and Oren Falk, eds., A Great Effusion of Blood?: Interpreting Medieval Violence (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 2015); Emma Campbell, “Sacrificial Spectacle and Interpassive Vision in the Anglo-Norman Life of St. Faith,” in Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality and Sight in Medieval Text and Image (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 97-116, and Allie Terry-Fritsch and Erin Felicia Labbie, Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Farnham, Surrey, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012).

[50] Harden, ed., l. 1186.

[501] Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” in The American Historical Review 93.5 (1988): 1193-1199, p. 1193.

[52] Harden, ed., l. 1812.

[53] Harden, ed., ll. 1813, 1821-23.

[54] Harden, ed., ll. 1838-40.

[55] O’Donnell, “Monastic Literary Culture and Communities,” p. 215.

[56] McCulloch writes that Paris uses these drawings to “enhance the deeds of the king to whom legend … attributed the founding of the abbey” (“Saints Alban and Amphibalus,” p. 771).

[57] Although Hahn notes, however, that Paris also invokes other senses, namely hearing and smell, in the Vie to “strengthen his persuasive effects.” Note that the far-right observer in fol. 59r gestures towards his nose and proclaims, “redolet” (it smells”), while another monk raises his eyes to heaven and sings “te deum laudamus.” Hahn argues that the smelling monk is commenting on the sweet scent exuded by the relics, not the stench of rotting corpse. See Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart, pp. 310-12.

[58] O’Donnell argues that part of the work done by the Vie de seint Auban is to expand the St. Albans community “to include lay aristrocrats sympathetic to monastic culture” (“Monastic Literary Culture and Communities,” p. 211).

[59] Paris’s tendency to hoard charters, letters, and written records together is well-documented; for example, his Liber addimentorum combines all these forms of documentation and more in order to write a “plain and full account” for posterity. See Lewis, Art of Matthew Paris, pp.. 9, 45.

[60] Harden, ed., ll. 1838-40.