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The Miracle of the Slave

Researchers chart thousands of miracle stories recorded about saints of the British Isles

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A conference which took place in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge saw the launch of a project to categorise and chart the thousands of miracle stories recorded about saints of the British Isles between 500 and 1300.  The meeting, Mapping the Miraculous: Hagiographical Motifs and the Medieval World, had been organised by three graduate students at Cambridge – Robert Gallagher, Julianne Pigott and Sarah Waidler – in collaboration with a colleague from St Andrews, Jennifer Key.

Hagiographers, tasked with writing the biographies of the holy men and women who converted pagan populations or headed Christian communities, relied on the wondrous and weird to establish the bona fides of the saints who populated the religious landscape of early England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “The layered stories of saints’ acts served multiple purposes in medieval communities, from regulating orthodox religious behaviour to explaining the otherwise unexplainable in the natural world,” said Pigott.

The Martyrdom of St. Denis

Image: Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat - The Martyrdom of St. Denis.  According to the legend, the prefect, Sissinius, condemned Saint Denis.  After Denis' head was chopped off at Montmartre, Denis bent down, picked up his head, carried it two miles, to where he wanted to be buried and then fell down dead.

Political expediency was another aspect of saintliness: a timely miracle could save a dynasty. When his local king feared that he would die before producing a male heir, Saint Abban is depicted as coming to his rescue. Abban took the king’s new born daughter in his hands “and prayed to God that the king might have an heir; and the girl he immersed in the font he took out as a boy, and laid it in the king’s bosom. ’Here is thy son,’ he said. And the king was exceedingly glad”.

Pigott explained: “It isn’t difficult to imagine how a narrative such as this might have served the needs of both ruler and ruled. Potentially, it reassured contemporary audiences that, by divine intervention, the proper order of succession would be followed, and life would continue as normal. Though, to the modern reader it’s certainly more complicated.”

The conference was the first step in a project to categorise and chart the thousands of miracle stories recorded about saints of the British Isles between 500 and 1300.  The organisers hope that this collaborative tool will help students and established scholars plot the parallels and divergences between textual accounts of wonder-working across linguistic and geographic boundaries.

Their ultimate intention is to develop an online database – called Mapping Miracles – that will allow scholars to see how miracles recorded in texts that were often composed centuries and hundreds of miles apart, share commonalities and differences. While recently, the current Pope made saints of two former popes, the medieval path to sainthood was a much more democratic affair. Authors created, copied and amended miracle accounts to support the case of their chosen holy-man, often to accord with local knowledge and customs.

Gallagher said: “When we began work on this project each of us was struck by the differences in the miracle accounts we had each previously considered to be universal. We all have specialisms in a certain range of vernacular and Latin texts, but when we began this collaborative research, we realised that the assumptions we held as a result of our own work, may not hold true for texts produced in other regions.”

As a digital database, Mapping Miracles will offer significant advantages over more conventional efforts at creating indices of literary motifs, as the proposed online format will facilitate complex cross referencing, creating a richer and more nuanced picture of the material, while also allowing scholars from around the world to contribute to the process. “The transformation of a baby, from girl to boy, attributed to Saint Abban is just one example of how the database might be used to categorise a miracle in several ways,” said Pigott. “It’s interesting on a number of levels: the sacramental setting of baptism, the mutability of gender, and the provision of service to a king and his political needs.”

Tintoretto - The Miracle of St. Augustine

Tintoretto - The Miracle of St. Augustine.  The painting shows St Augustine, in his bishop's robes, appearing to 40 pilgrims bound for Rome, some crippled and some blind, and pointing the way to his own tomb in Pavia with the promise of a cure.

Waidler said: “Miracles were a strong feature of the extensive bodies of Latin and vernacular literatures produced in these islands throughout the medieval period. Reading these texts today we are offered a window on the medieval mind, helping us to understand how people might have thought about not just the divine, but their own lives and personal concerns. The landscape itself, with its place names, is a record of how deeply the lives of the saints are scored into our culture.

Miracles are told and retold in the texts that survive in medieval and early modern manuscripts we find littered across European libraries. Gallagher noted: “Part of the fascination of miracles lies in the repetitive nature of narratives that have endured for so long – rather as pop music, much of it is very simplistic in form and content, yet it’s popular for exactly that familiarity.”

Pigott added: “Notional familiarity may be consciously constructed, and we can’t just read repetition as failure to innovate. Medieval authors took the universal and particularised and localised it. I would argue they often turned stereotypes into oicotypes – to borrow a term from folkloric studies. For example, they took Biblical miracles and made them more relevant to local concerns, so the Irish saint conveniently changes water into beer, rather than wine. A miracle tale will resonate more with the reader if they can recognise their own cultural values at play.”

Source: University of Cambridge. “And the girl he immersed in the font he took out as a boy

Featured image: ‘The Miracle of the Slave’ (1548) by the Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Tintoretto. It portrays an episode of the life of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice, taken from Jacopo da Varazze's Golden Legend. The scene shows the saint intervening to make invulnerable a slave about to be martyred for his veneration of another saint's relics.

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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