Hagiography, or the lives of saints, was a popular literary genre in the Anglo Saxon and mediaeval periods. The life of a saint might be written to educate readers about the facts of his or her life, to present an example of spirituality for people to follow, or to promote the cult of a particular saint to encourage visitors to his or her shrine.
Saints’ lives were normally written in Latin, and only later translated into English. This is an English translation of the life of St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), who is believed to have studied at Oxford:
‘Such was his love of learning that he cared little or nothing for food or raiment. For, as he was wont to relate, he and two companions who lodged in the same chamber had only their tunics, and one gown between them, and each of them had a miserable pallet. When one, therefore, went out with the gown to hear a lecture,, the others sat in their room, and so they went forth alternately. Bread and a little wine and pottage sufficed for their food. Their poverty never allowed them to eat meat or fish except on a Sunday or some solemn holy day, or else in the presence of companions or friends. Yet he has often told me how he never afterwards, in all his days, led such a pleasant and enjoyable life.’
Take out the first sentence and this could be a description of student life at any time. ‘Such was his love of learning…’ suggests to the reader that there was something exceptional about this particular student, that the poverty of this stage of his life foreshadows his later saintliness.
Newspaper articles use words and phrases in a similar way to set up expectations in the reader about the person they are reading about. We are told that someone is ‘unemployed’ or ‘public school educated’, regardless of whether this information is actually relevant to the story.
Queen Elizabeth I, who knew a thing or two about spin, took the technique one step further, setting up expectations:
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman -
Then taking her audience by surprise:
But I have the heart and stomach of a king.
Novelists can use similar techniques to set up, and then confound, readers’ expectations.