Monday, March 11, 2013


Peter Turner, Truthfulness, Realism, Historicity: A Study in Late Antique Spiritual Literature. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. x, 218. ISBN 9780754669548. $124.95.

Reviewed by Rafal Toczko, Nicolaus Copernicus University (

Version at BMCR home site

The author sets the agenda for his book in fairly ambitious terms, as he ventures to provide "a work of synthesis" (22), or, more explicitly, "a solution to certain specific problems in the religious history of late antiquity, a new explanatory tool more generally applicable within that field and even, potentially, a theory about religious life and experience extendable to other historical contexts" (18-19). Yet this book was also written as a polemical essay against the historical method, presented here as the common practice of dissecting every late antique text into two levels: one of literal or factual content and the other of spiritual or intellectual content (3). In Turner's view this method has its roots in the linguistic turn, is widespread and in many (not all) cases rather inadequate. What is specifically stigmatized is the tendency to view these two aspects of texts as oppositional (10). Yet Turner does not want to reject them dogmatically but to reveal their deficiencies for the sake of changing the way we read texts (19). Thus, one's opinion on this book depends on the assessment of the validity of such a view. In short, is Turner's enemy a real one or just rhetorical?

The "Introduction: Boethius in Exile" is rigorous in composition. Turner begins by explaining his use of the term "spiritual literature" and his selection of various exemplary hagiographical and autobiographical works, both Christian and pagan, written between the third and sixth centuries. This is followed by definitions of truthfulness, realism and historicity. Even though they are presented very briefly, they are extensive nevertheless.

This book is divided into two parts, each subdivided into two chapters. The first part covers hagiography, the other autobiographies and autobiographical passages in other literary genres. Chapter one, "Hagiography – A Truth-telling Genre?", deals with the notions of truthfulness and realism. The point of departure is an analysis of hagiographers' insistence on truthfulness and the reservations they made concerning their stylistic deficiencies (25-34). Here and there one can find claims that are highly controversial and not supported by sufficient argumentation, like the one on p. 30 about hagiographers placing themselves in the "tradition of truth telling" rather than in the tradition of a literary genre. What is missing here is the appreciation of the classical rhetorical background of the analyzed aspects. 1

This chapter, however, deserves praise for emphasizing a largely overlooked fact that the worldview of the saints, their hagiographers, and their readers was radically transcendental. It means that people in late antiquity searched for spiritual truths and expected them to be revealed on the factual level. The word 'reality' denoted in the first place the realm of the spiritual, the essences, the divine hiding behind the surface of what we call 'reality'. Although the precise external outlook of the events was subordinated to the inner essence, it was crucial to present it truthfully. People were sensitive to the literal exactly because it pointed at the spiritual (34-44). Although that sounds accurate, it might be argued that Turner to some extent exaggerates the influence of Plato's metaphysics on late antique hagiographers. The next pages (44-55) present examples of how the hagiographers moved between the spiritually significant and factually credible. The analysis involves the appearance and the travels of the saints.

Here, Turner analyses a few miracles that do not challenge natural laws, like the one in which the allegorical words of Pachomius about five hidden figs are literally and accidentally true for one monk who stole exactly five figs. Such miracles cause spontaneous wonderment but do not stand in opposition to the literal facts and do not break their continuity (55-61). The chapter moves on to discuss the problem of the identity of the holy man, i.e. the signs of his sanctity that enabled his hagiographer to present him as such (62-69).

The second chapter, "From hagiography to charisma," argues ingeniously for the possibility that the holy men were active in the process of becoming the subjects of hagiographies. For instance, the Life of Severinus of Noricum, like any other Vita, presents the doings of a saint as echoing some biblical events. Turner claims that these comparisons may have been suggested by the saint himself (83). This thesis is crucial for understanding of the remainder of the book. Turner proposes to view the question of historicity of spiritual literature as dependent on the answer to a more basic question: "how hagiographical were the lives/lifestyles of holy men and the process by which they became known?" (79). This concept is based on the premise that since the requirements for and examples of sanctity were widely known, the sanctity might have been a result of the saint's self-construction and not necessarily of the efforts of the hagiographer. This thesis, exemplified ingeniously by the analysis of Life of Honoratus and In Praise of the Desert (90-102) is bold and fresh, but vulnerable to criticism (and Turner is aware of it): If there is only a single source at disposal, how can we distinguish between the actual and fictional? Turner insists that the hagiographical extended well beyond the text into real life, but he also admits that the life of a holy man was already a narrative of a sort. Thus the hagiographical was already social, but sanctity was already textual. I agree, but what is still problematic is the proportion between the two in a given text.

At the beginning of Chapter 3, "In Search of the First Person", Turner admits that he uses the term "autobiography" "to denote any first-person writing" (111). The chapter proceeds to prove that the idea of using the same methods to read hagiographical texts and autobiographies is justified and productive (111-121). Many common features of both are traced in the following, the most important being the focus on the spiritual and the distance between the text and the life. The remainder of this chapter (122-145) performs the task of interpreting a few stories from Augustine's Confessions from the methodological perspective established in Part 1. It enables Turner to present some new insights and to ask some new provocative questions, such as why Augustine did not look over the wall in the garden scene (144).2

In Chapter 4, "A Late Antique Spiritual Lifestyle?", three figures dominate the discourse: Augustine, this time from the dialogues of Cassiciacum (147-163), Gregory of Nazianzus, and the emperor Julian (163-177). The cases of Egeria and Libanius receive very brief treatment (178-180). Beginning with the latter two, Turner frankly admits the problems that they pose for his thesis: their autobiographies are very far from being spiritual literature at all. That is, Egeria is fervently interested in the factual topography of the Holy Land and Libanius is mostly presenting his own achievements and personal views. The discussion of the Cassiciacum dialogues aims to prove that one should treat them as historically true. The reason for this is that because the interlocutors were aware of being 'recorded' (the presence of notarius!), their "activity itself bore the heavy imprint of textual influences and expectations" (152). His interpretation of autobiographical texts by Julian and Gregory is excellent in highlighting their hagiographical aspects, especially in the tendency to mingle self-idealization and humility. This dialectic of spiritual literature is very neatly summed-up in the conclusion, "Sanctity between Belief and Self-Doubt" (181-187).

This book has many admirable features. First, its comparative attitude is truly praiseworthy. This is discernible in the way Turner composed the whole work, dedicating the first part to spiritual biography and the second to spiritual autobiography both Christian and pagan. But this comparative sensitivity is also present on the level of more detailed analyses. To give just one example, Turner notes that both Augustine and the emperor Julian mentioned the presence of a wall in the pivotal moments of their lives and examines its symbolic significance. What is more, the book is composed in a very clear manner: every now and then the reader is told what has already been said and where the discourse is heading. The talent for short polemics and the subtle remarks proving Turner's erudition are also noteworthy.

Turner's work is truly thought provoking. It's been a long time since I read a scholarly text so scattered with question marks. And these do not appear without reason: most of these questions the scholars tend to ask only silently, while they sit alone translating a hagiographical text or interpreting it for a conference paper, teaching etc. Thus, especially if we believe in hermeneutical philosophy, this work is praiseworthy.

This book is more philosophical than historical in the sense that its pars destruens poses many thought- provoking questions and problems, but the methods and outcomes of the positive part are debatable. There are a few particularly tough problems that it omits. To mention only a couple of these, in a brief discussion of the Vita Germani, there is no mention of the often debated historicity of the missions to Britain. It would be interesting to know how we are to read it in the light of the new approach presented by Turner. The author chose to discuss mostly those hagiographical works that were written by the immediate followers of the saint. Although such a choice is understandable, it does not fit very well with the author's claim to present a synthesis of spiritual literature And in the discussion of the truthfulness of late antique autobiographies, it would be worthwhile to include the case of Hieronymus Ciceronianus.

Let me close with a reference to the beginning of the review. I believe that Turner chose the addressees of his polemic quite accurately. I believe that Turner's achievement is a genuine one in that he makes his readers aware of the problems of interpreting late antique literature in a brief and well composed study.


1.   P. Nehring, Die Topik von Exordium und narratio in den frühen lateinischen Heiligenviten, Eos LXXXV (1998), pp. 51–79 proves that Quintilianus is very much present in early hagiographies, contrary to what is said on pp. 38-39.
2.   However, when he argues for the historicity of the garden episode in Confessions we are very close to petitio principii. Turner already reads this event as historical and talks about the factual level only when he discusses the narrative. This is highly controversial. For instance the question, why Augustine did not bother to check the identity of the child is possible only when we believe that Augustine is telling the truth when he mentions a child singing tolle lege.

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