- The Laughter of the Saints: Parodies of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain
In the twenty-second book of The City of God, Saint Augustine dedicates a section to the eternal happiness of the saints. He speculates that they keep an [End Page 584] “intellectual remembrance” of past ills and sins while being protected from them in “sensible experience.” The view of the physical expression of happiness is shattered in many hagiographic narratives and its variations in medieval literary tradition where figures cloaked in sanctity are represented and reinvented through the expression of a risus paschalis, which, as Mikhail Bakhtin explains in his text Rabelais and His World, operates in the form of a licensed yet apparently transgressive laughter. There is a marked difference between expressions of happiness and laughter, and the saint is not a literary or religious figure traditionally associated with laughter.
However, Ryan D. Giles in his book The Laughter of the Saints productively traces the ways in which the medieval and early modern secular literature of Iberia reappropriates the figures of saints through the strategy of comical inversions. Throughout the five chapters that comprise this book, the author interprets the manifestation of this strategy as a tradition that ranges from Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora and other hagiographic works to Don Quixote. Along the way, the book makes productive stops to read passages and fundamental aspects from El libro de buen amor, El Lazarillo de Tormes, Carajicomedia, La Celestina, La lozana andaluza, and Guzmán de Alfarache.
According to the text, in the tradition of the comic inversion of the saints, they are not the ones who do the laughing; rather, they are transformed into ambiguous sources of laughter. The comic inversion of the saints and their narratives produces an ambiguous attitude toward the sacred, thus rendering the clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the profane flexible and porous. In order to approach the humorous reinterpretation of the saints, Giles turns his attention to the notion of the antisaint: a term “first used by modern scholars in the context of legends featuring a double who falsely mimics a bona fide holy man or woman, in keeping with the contrast between the divine miracles of St Peter and the demonic magic of Simon Magus, or the Antichrist’s apocalyptic impersonation of Christ” (13). Giles reformulates this definition of the antisaint by using it to designate the “festive overlapping of the saint with his antitype that brings together images of piety and impiety, virtue and vice” (13). This redefinition of the antisaint seems to conform to Bakhtin’s notions and identification of strategies that belong to his notion of the “carnivalesque.”
Interestingly, though, Giles distances his reading of comical inversion in hagiography from the tradition of Bakhtin’s carnival. He chooses not to fully explore Bakhtin’s “medievalisms” because he feels the concept is misleading and because the qualification of the “official” and the “popular” is conflictive and contradictory according to some scholars (5–6). In contrast to his opinions, other scholars might read Bakhtin’s views on the relationship between the official and the popular as less constrained by tension and disagreement; perhaps they might even be interpreted [End Page 585] as impossible to separate, as Bakhtin’s interpretation of the image of Janus suggests.
At the same time, Giles revisits Julio Caro Baroja’s folkloric study El carnaval, which serves as an interesting source of folkloric and ethnographic information on the forms of carnival in Spain. Giles’s attention to Caro Baroja’s text points to an interesting route of reflection that invites a comparative reading with Bakhtin’s work as both scholars attempt to decipher the system ruling the notions and practices of carnival in different ways. Throughout the text, the celebration of carnival as a sometimes church-sponsored celebration, and its particular manifestations in Spain, provide information and guide the interpretation of some of the strategies of the comical inversion of the saints.
The progression of chapters...