The Dynamics of Apocryphal Traditions in Medieval Religious Culture

Project duration: 1 January 2008 – 1 January 2013
Funding: NWO-VIDI-project

project leader: Dr H.G.E. (Els) Rose

Commemoration of the past is a central notion to medieval society. In the medieval period, the ritual commemoration of the ‘very special dead’, the saints, functioned in particular as a constructive instrument to build a religious community and to form or reform its identity. The commemoration of biblical saints (mainly the apostles) in the medieval period is central to the project, and more particularly the question how non-biblical (extra-canonical, or apocryphal) narrative traditions constituted main elements in this commemoration, in textual as well as pictorial contexts.

The relation between Christian traditions in and outside the canon is easily depicted as one of absolute opposition. There is the canon, containing authoritative truths, and there are the apocrypha, to which, because of their extra-canonical status, no authority is attributed. In reality, the gulf between canon and apocrypha is much less impassable, as particularly the commemoration of the apostles in medieval manuscripts demonstrates.

The diverse functions of extra-canonical traditions and their assessment in the Middle Ages will be examined. A collection of early medieval Latin rewritings of the apocryphal Acts of the apostles, indicated as Virtutes apostolorum but previously known as the so-called ‘Collection of Pseudo-Abdias’, serves as point of departure. Its use in the ritual and devotional practice of diverse religious communities, its transmission through manuscripts and its reception in pictorial art (stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals) are the main directions of research. Moreover, the language of the collection will be studied in order to come as close as possible to the cultural and religious environment where these apocryphal Acts of the apostles were composed, collected and used.

The results of the project will comprise the first critical edition of the Virtutes apostolorum, to be published in Corpus Christianorum series Apocryphorum, supervised by the Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocryphe chrétienne AELAC. Another monograph will present the commemoration of the apostles and their Acts in stained glass windows during the thirteenth century, while a dissertation will present the findings in the field of language and text transmission.

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