Researching Saints: English Department Chair Receives NEH Grant

National Endowment for the Humanities New Grant Recipients photo collageDr. Virginia Blanton, professor and chair of the UMKC Department of English Language and Literatures, recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is the only 2018 recipient in the state of Missouri.

“I have a big job ahead,” said Blanton, who joined the UMKC faculty in 2002. Her awarded project is a book-length study on the lives of saints in medieval England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

The NEH announced $18.6 million in grants for 199 humanities projects. Grant awards support research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.

Blanton was awarded a $6,000 Summer Stipend. The funding rate for this particular grant was eight percent of the 789 applications received.

English Professor Dr. Virginia Blanton poses for a studio portraitTell us about your research.

This funding supports the research and writing of a new book project, titled “Shaping Monastic Devotional Culture in Late Medieval England.” I am very excited to be working on it because it will be the first sustained investigation of a neglected collection of 156 Latin saints’ lives, some of which constitute the only historical evidence of religious women during the Christian conversion of England.

One such woman is Juthwara, who lived in the sixth century and was noted for her hospitality to pilgrims. While there is some minor evidence of veneration of her alongside another saint, there is no record of her life except for the version in this collection, which was produced about 1340.

What this tells us is that her story was important enough to be included when a monk named John of Tynemouth traveled throughout England collecting the lives. His intention was to provide a resource that would showcase local saints as a counterpoint to the “Legenda Aurea” or “Golden Legend,” which features saints of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.

His project then was to highlight the accomplishments of the most important figures involved in the development of the medieval church in the British Isles. In effect, he made the narratives of these luminaries available for monastic reading.

This is exciting for us as it not only tells us something about the religious practices of medieval Christians and a desire to remember their past, but it also provides documentation of people who would otherwise have been lost to the historical record.

What makes research on saints important?

A saint’s life is a genre called sacred biography. In Europe, such hagiographical accounts were intended to provide models of exemplary Christian behavior that could be emulated.

When I began my career, I made an intentional decision to focus on the lives of the saints because scholars have found that for the early medieval period (600-1100) where so few historical documents survive, saints’ lives are one of the main ways that we can learn about daily life, social interaction, political events and most especially about the lives of women, which were not recorded so frequently in other kinds of documents.

In addition, miracle stories that the saints’ perform often tell about people who are not elite, wealthy or important socially. Studying saints’ lives has meant that I could focus on people from different social classes, even as I could examine the ways in which women were active contributors to the early church, as well as writers and readers of these lives.

For me, then, the study of John’s book, which documents medieval women, is a means of recuperating the history of the early English church and of the women who supported it. One example of this is when Margaret Holland, Duchess of Clarence, paid a scribe to reproduce a copy of John’s collection about 1415. It is a beautiful book, with gorgeous illustrations, which she presented to Syon Abbey.

Tell us about your research methodology.

John’s collection of saints’ lives is preserved in two hand-written volumes which total 689 pages or leaves as they are called. It is housed at the British Library in London, and no digital copy is available.

So I will be traveling there to examine the two books in minute detail. My work is complicated by the fact that the two manuscripts were damaged in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. Some leaves were reduced to fragments; others were burned along the edges.

This damage necessitates hands-on study with magnifiers and special lighting tools, including ultraviolet light. This is a slow process as one can only use UV light for short periods of time to protect both the book and the researcher. Given the manuscript’s size and scope, I will be spending some long hours reading John’s collection.


This story was first published on April 18, 2018, on UMKC Today.