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Realism in Hagiography

When historians use hagiography as a source, interpretation frequently follows a seemingly-obvious binary of 'fact' versus 'fiction.' Is it reasonable to assume that a modern scholar can confidently categorise all evidence from such documents into either mundane facts or magical fictions? This project will explore a different paradigm for reading hagiography: its writers were always interested in communicating 'truth' to their audiences through depiction of a 'realistic', believable setting. Typically this truth was founded on factual, verifiable evidence, but where narratives depart from this the narrative still attests to a truth shared between writer and audience, not fiction. This interpretative perspective informs our understanding of the mundane and miraculous details in hagiography, for both are realistic according to the shared understanding of mediaeval writers and readers. Hence, we shall ask and investigate: Were there rules and limits for the truthfully miraculous? Is there evidence that some miracle stories were disbelieved for transgressing these unwritten codes? Can we identify changes over time and space in the types of miracles which are accepted to be true?

Douglas Whalin