When Eddius Stephanus, an Anglo-Saxon priest, sat down to write The Life of Bishop Wilfrid in the early decades of the eighth century, he mused, "This very task of preserving the blessed memory of Bishop Wilfrid is of great gain and value to myself. Indeed it is in itself a ready path to virtue to know what [Wilfrid] was." His goal was not merely to generate an historical record of Wilfrid's actions, but to strengthen his own faith and the faith of others.

Those spiritual and pedagogic concerns lie at the heart of the genre, or more properly genres, of "hagiography"—literally, "writings about saints." Thus a work of hagiography tells us at least as much about the author and his audience as it does about the saint who is its subject. Though often unreliable as factual history, hagiography nonetheless provides some of the most valuable records for understanding pre-modern Christianity.

Go and do likewise

Hagiography encompasses many types of literature, including Lives of saints, collections of miracle stories, accounts of the discovery or movement of relics, bulls of canonization, investigations into the life of a candidate for canonization, liturgical books, sermons, and visions.

Saints were quite literally holy men and women, and venerating them lay at the core of medieval Christianity. Saints demonstrated their holiness through their actions—the willingness to accept martyrdom, the rigors of extreme asceticism, the wise exercise of episcopal office, or the heroic defense of virginity.

With God's assistance, saints could draw on their holiness to perform miraculous actions, such as curing the sick, defeating their enemies without the use of force, and exorcising demons.

Those miraculous powers were not extinguished by death, ...

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