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New Book by Villanova Professor Sheds Fresh Light on Work of Medieval Chronicler of Lives of 13th-Century "Holy Women”

New book by Rachel J.D. Smith, PhD, associate professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Sheds Fresh Light on Work of Medieval Chronicler of Lives of 13th-Century "Holy Women”

VILLANOVA, Pa. – They were brilliant, audacious and holy—and he made it his mission to bring them vividly to life. Eight centuries ago, a Roman Catholic medieval writer, preacher and theologian wrote important hagiographies on lay and religious women in the Low Countries. In Excessive Saints: Gender, Narrative, and Theological Invention in Thomas of Cantimpré (Columbia University Press, 2018), Rachel J.D. Smith, PhD, associate professor, Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, combines historical, literary and theological approaches to offer a new interpretation of Thomas’ works.   

Thomas wrote about women like Marie of Oignies, one of the first Beguines, and the courageous and aptly-named Christina the Astonishing. In an era of great religious experimentation, he actively sought out new kinds of holiness, writing accounts of their lives in order to craft models of sanctity that might astound, teach and trouble the convictions of his day.

In her book, Dr. Smith examines how Thomas' texts represent the lives and bodies of holy women to render them desirable objects of devotion for readers and how Thomas passionately narrates these lives even as he works through his uncertainties about the opportunities and dangers that these emerging forms of holiness present. Excessive Saints is the first book to consider Thomas’s narrative craft in relation to his theological projects, offering new visions for the study of theology, medieval Christianity and medieval women’s history. 

“[Excessive Saints] is one of the best studies in any field of medieval hagiography published in the last 25 years,” noted reviewer Nicholas Watson, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Professor of English Literature, Harvard University. "Thoroughly immersed in Thomas’ writings and their mixed literary, theological, and cultural settings, Rachel J. D. Smith craftily but lovingly analyzes their urgencies, their unnerving tendency towards experimentalism, and the ways they use their saintly subjects to lay bare and in the process refresh the idea of the holy in all its weirdness.”

Dr. Smith specializes in the study of western medieval Christianity with a focus on monasticism, mysticism, hagiography and theologies of sanctity. Her work explores the relationship between literary art and theological discourse, theory and practice, as well as questions of gender and representation in medieval texts. She received her PhD from Harvard University.