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Children as Actors and Agents for Miraculous Change in the Cantigas de Santa Maria

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 29, 2013
pp. 17-26 | 10.1353/ems.2013.0006

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Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

Through the ages, writers from across the space and time of Christendom have marveled at the inclusion of children into the family of faith. Jesus got his disciples’ attention when he took a child in his arms and said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” In his thirteenth-century collection, King Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa Maria offers his audience glimpses of child-like faith depicted in prayers of child-protagonists in the miracle songs. Children are portrayed in the Cantigas among broad strata of medieval society, as the Virgin Mary is shown to be at work in the lives of people of all kinds. I wish to focus here on two examples of child characters who speak in their own voices and who act as agents for miraculous change. Here we will examine children’s prayers and miraculous acts in Cantigas 6 and 178.

Alfonso X, king of Castile-León from 1252–1284, supervised the compilation of a collection of 427 songs in honor of his patron saint the Virgin Mary. This is a project that he began as a young man before he became king, and which likely continued even after his death. The poems are set to music and illustrated with color miniatures. Of the four extant manuscripts of the work, the Códice Rico housed in the library at the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial offers the most lavishly illustrated copy with over a hundred miniatures. In the illustrations as in the poetic text, along with portrayals and images of Alfonso X and his courtly scholars and musicians, depictions of children and their parents abound. These images provide visual evidence of the unique roles of children in the miracle accounts, as they were depicted by artists in Alfonso’s court.

The collection of miracles was very dear to him, and he arranged in his last will and testament to have the Cantigas sung publicly on Marian feasts every year. Alfonso’s Cantigas de Santa Maria establishes as a goal the forging of a relationship between the Alfonso Learned King and his patron saint. In the Cantigas, Alfonso’s focus is on the creation, preservation, and restoration of relationships among the various characters that populate the pages of the collection. Child characters in the work who serve as actors and as agents for miraculous change include portrayals of children who have attained a certain level of responsibility and independence, and who act to establish their own relationships with other characters, as well as with Jesus Christ and with the Virgin Mary; several children pray on their own behalf to elicit a miracle.

During the Middle Ages, in times of disaster or dire need, faithful people encouraged their children to offer prayers to Jesus Christ and to the Virgin Mary, with the belief that the intercessions made by children would be more likely than adult prayers to be heard and answered. Donald Weinstein and Rudolph M. Bell explain that even ordinary children possessed a unique quality of holiness: “In moments of crisis, when ordinary prayer failed and it came time to try special measures, communities organized processions of their children in the hope that their angelic innocence would move the heavenly host to pity.”

Children find their place in the Cantigas de Santa Maria and serve as a window into a sovereign’s view of thirteenth-century family living. Among the multitude of miracle recipients in Alfonso’s Cantigas, a prominent place is given to children who are conceived, born, educated, converted to the Christian faith, healed, protected from untimely death, and taken to heaven over the course of these miracles. In these brief poetic narratives, a variety of children benefit from the Virgin’s benevolence. Noble and peasant youth, rich and poor, Jewish, Muslim and Christian children act of their own accord to seek the favors of the Virgin Mary. While the majority of the miracles presented in the Cantigas are performed in response to...

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