That pain, unique in its destructive force, defeats language, severs social connection, and empties interiority of the capacity for exteriorization or signification has become a commonplace of critical thought since the publication of Elaine Scarry’s seminal study, The Body in Pain. Destroying voice, pain nullifies the very possibility of self-projection. Pain isolates, shrinking the scope of human connection down to the precinct of the body.1 Despite these effects, pain is deeply intricated in our social being and is rich in meaning. The diseased, disabled, or pained body is the target of cultural [End Page 173] projections of horror, anxiety, and hatred.2 At the same time, that very body communicates religious devotion, political resistance, and alternative modes of being-in-the-world. For all its power to impede language and impose silence, pain speaks volumes as a bearer of cultural meanings and as an oracle that discloses hidden content bearing on desire, discipline, sanctity and sin.3
Readers of medieval hagiographies have long been sensitive to the semantic value of the tormented bodies of saints. Cultural and spiritual anxieties as well as avowed truths find expression in the lived experience and in literary representations of exceptional and exceptionally pained bodies. While the physicality of Berceo’s saints receives ample poetic elaboration and critical parsing, the less exalted bodies that populate his hagiographies receive correspondingly less critical attention, and are overlooked as mere props of the saints’ thaumaturgic performances. Crucial aspects of Berceo’s pointed use of the bodily figures and physical suffering that encompass both saints and sinners have therefore passed unnoticed.4
The aims of this article are threefold. The first is to examine the cultural and rhetorical contexts that inform Berceo’s construction of the central figure of hagiographic vitae, the body of the saint. While representations of saints’ embodiments in Berceo follow conventional hagiographic practice, [End Page 174] wherein the body is a vehicle for the expression of spiritual and theological truth, convention does not exhaust the poet’s uses of corporeality. His poems establish the saint’s body as a paradigm for mapping not only spiritual, but also geographical and social territories that define corporate identities. In representing the saint’s body as a metonym of local constituencies, this article will demonstrate, Berceo exposes and resolves the injuries that plague those entities.
The second goal of this article is to trace Berceo’s broadening of focus beyond the glorious corpses and corporealities at the center of the saints’ lives. Every saint’s story includes, indeed requires, an assembly of broken folk that linger at the periphery of that map, threatening the boundaries that the stainless body of the saint limns. Berceo’s narratives are crowded with the ailing and unhallowed whose only recognized value has been, as in the Latin hagiographies, to provide a platform for the miraculous displays of the protagonist.
Synthesizing the first two, the third aim of this essay is to establish the way in which the interplay of Berceo’s diverse representations of embodiment, as venerable example, as instructive spectacle, and as compassionately or impatiently suffering companion, deploys both convention and innovation to enact the diminishment and the reconstitution of both individual and collective bodies. Berceo’s arrangements of the somatic formulae of hagiography sketch a particular relation of the devout subject to body, community, and God, as well as possible modes of redemptive union both within and beyond the vernacular world that the poet evokes.
Mary Douglas shows that the human body provides a ready figure for any bounded system, particularly one vulnerable at the margins. Pollution, dirt, and related taboos express and symbolically resolve the myriad disorders that threaten the structure the body represents. Bodily difference imperils individuals, but also the larger systems that are modeled upon the body’s integrity, and so, contests the very principle of order that imbues chaotic experience with cohesion and intelligibility. The deformation of the human body forces the recognition of a deformity within the cosmos to which that [End Page 175] body corresponds.
Berceo’s imagined Spain was just such a vulnerable structure, a...