- The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe by Laura Ackerman Smoller
The Dominican preacher Vincent Ferrer was an ardent critic of the Great Schism who nonetheless remained close to the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, until nearly all others had abandoned him. A confidant of the count-kings of the Crown of Aragon, he (after Martin I died without an heir) helped shape the Compromise of Caspe that moved Catalonia into the Castilian orbit. Born in 1350, he died in 1419 in Vannes, where he was preaching at the invitation of the duke of Brittany. [End Page 819]
In old age his fiery preaching and apocalyptic message attracted crowds of self-mutilating followers and caused riots that led to forced conversions and deaths. Despite all of this, Laura Ackerman Smoller turns our basic assumption of Ferrer’s profound importance on its head; perhaps his lasting influence is due not to his own achievements but to the powerful persons who promoted his saintliness to advance their own agendas.
This book is not a biography but rather an assessment of the uses of recollection. Much of the book treats the politics and processes that led to Ferrer’s canonization in 1455, concentrating foremost on the canonization inquest at Vannes. The single “cult” of the book’s subtitle should be read in the plural, since it is one of Smoller’s central assertions—one for which she presents ample evidence—that there were a number of ways to read Ferrer’s sanctity after his death as well as various ways of promoting and acting upon the many readings.
Smoller argues that Ferrer’s cause succeeded because powerful persons who had the money and political capacity to pursue their agendas saw that Ferrer’s canonization would serve them well. The canonization in 1450 of the Franciscan Bernardino of Siena lit a fire under the Dominicans that moved them to make claims for a new saint of their own; once they put their institutional muscle behind it, the canonization process moved along quickly. The dukes of Brittany similarly attached themselves to Ferrer in competition against French kings who quite usefully rode the coattails of St. Louis. The papacy and the Catalan count-kings had their own reasons for advancing Ferrer’s sainthood and their own stories to tell about why his saintliness mattered. Even ordinary people found ways of benefiting from the canonization fervor. Given the complexity of voices and interests, it seems no surprise to find evidence of “whitewashing” of Ferrer’s record, of leading witnesses along a preapproved script, and of a vita written to redress and obscure.
The ample nuance and complexity here may leave some readers feeling that the book is disjointed or that they have occasionally lost the main line of argument. Others might want more or less substance in this or that citation or wish that some really good material was not relegated to sparse notes, as for example, in the story of the man who lost his intestines after murmuring against Ferrer. Smoller brings odd humor to her work when she describes the cooking of the chopped-up baby as Valencian paella and when she implies that Ferrer, after death, found several occasions to tell his supporters that he would do them some good once they succeeded in having him canonized. Quibbles and curiosities aside, the author has done well to let facts, legends, and evidentiary threads open one onto another into nets of questions and resources for future Ferrer studies. There is much to learn from this exemplary study of Ferrer’s afterlife. [End Page 820]