The Body Embattled: Hagiographic Carnality and the Uses of Injury in Gonzalo de Berceo
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 Christian system threatened on multiple fronts. Throughout the first half of the thirteenth century the Albigensian Crusade sought to eradicate Cathar heresy just to the north of the Kingdom of Aragon; ongoing warfare to retake lands under Muslim control troubled the south. The “Espanna” figured in vernacular texts was an unstable body whose borders were both elastic and porous, attributes that enabled the military and political expansion of the Christian north but also permitted the ingress of menacing elements. Berceo’s monastery, San Millán de la Cogolla, sat within established Christian territory but also dangerously close to the religious heterodoxy still active north of the Pyrenees.5 The southerly push of Christian armies extended the zone of religious orthodoxy, but continually brought unruly elements into the territorial body of newly Christian regions.6 The continuity of peaceable urban life, commerce, and industry, moreover, relied upon the Jewish and Muslim residents who remained in recaptured and re-Christianized towns.7 [End Page 176]
Their social and economic authority was augmented by their status as servi camerae regis (serfs of the royal chamber), a designation that placed persons beyond feudal or municipal control and under the direct protection of the monarch, outside of quotidian urban culture and yet, to an insider’s perspective, markedly advantaged. Northeastern Spain was both pressed at its edges and shaken from within by religious, political, and ethnic disruption.
This vulnerability of Christendom’s boundaries informs Berceo’s narratives of the lives and miracles of local saints. The Vida de San Millán de la Cogolla famously dedicates nearly a quarter of its verses to the narration of the saint’s miraculous participation in a battle against the army of Abd-ur-rahmann III and Iberian Christianity’s ongoing debt to his monastery. Entering the field with his celestial companion Santiago to support the outnumbered and demoralized armies of Fernán González and King Ramiro, San Millán’s ghostly presence reinvigorates the flagging will of the Christian troops, confuses and disorients the Moorish army, and miraculously turns their own arrows against them (437–45).
In the opening verses of Domingo’s Vida, it is the saint’s own person that constitutes a crucial frontier.8 The poem’s first mention of its subject identifies him as a multivalent border figure. The saint’s body draws a boundary that is secure as well as porous, geographical and military as well as spiritual. The permeability and polysemy of the boundary that Domingo’s body establishes is rhetorically enacted in the poetic line, which is left open to alternative readings. Either the saint might stand as the salvific border figure, or his monastic house might, or alternatively, the two –saint and eponymous monastery– might be conflated into one:9 [End Page 177]
Quiero que lo sepades luego de la primera, cúya es la istoria, metervos en carrera: es de sancto Domingo toda bien verdadera, el que dicen de Silos que salva la frontera.(3)10
The first documented use of a derivative of the Latin frontera to designate a border, specifically to demarcate separate religious polities, occurs in twelfth-century Spain. Moreover, the notion of the frontier as a linear boundary was invented in thirteenth-century Spain. The usage was then exported to describe similar European phenomena (Berend, xii; Pick, 25). The poem’s introduction of its subject thus occasions Berceo’s first use of a charged neologism in a highly privileged and pivotal context.
The use of frontera throughout the poem conflates and underscores the delineation of Christian territory, Christian polity, and Christian practice. Summarizing his catalogue of Domingo’s peerless exercise of his office as a priest, the narrator reiterates the metaphor of the frontier:
De quanto nos decimos él mucho mejor era, por tal era tenido en toda la ribera; bien sabié al dïablo tenerli la frontera, que no lo engannasse por ninguna manera.(48)
While this evocation of the boundary appears unequivocal, the image is, in fact, no less vexed here than in its prior occurrence. This restatement of frontera is complicated at the outset by a context defined by the failure of limits. In this passage, the failing boundaries evoked are themselves poetic, as Domingo’s narrator draws attention to the uncontainability of the saint’s excellence within the borders of his own inadequate report. The figure of the frontera, introduced to exemplify the saint’s piety, subsequently insinuates religious, military, and cultural entanglements into the poem’s ostensible plain-speaking. Dutton suggests that the concept expressed in the line draws [End Page 178] on the Islamic concept of jihad.11 Berceo’s usage thus appropriates an image of Holy War that conflates geographic and religious boundaries and invests the saint with the same strategic value as a territorial and spiritual outpost.
These knotty renderings of the saint’s body as a border inform the final iteration of the metaphor as well. At the close of the narrative, veneration of the deceased saint again underscores his status as a boundary. Here, the narrator proclaims the saint’s ongoing action as a fortification of the borders that circumscribe Christian life and territory:
rendién al buen conféssor gracias a grant pressura, teniése la frontera toda por más segura.(730cd)
A similar intersection of saintly corporeality and Christian geography governs Berceo’s transformation of the episode narrating the translation of the martyrs Vincent, Sabina, and Cristeta. The abbot García of San Pedro de Arlanza, impelled by a dream, unites with King Fernando I to transport the relics of the three martyrs from Ávila to his monastery, where the remains might lie in “tumbas de mayor onestad” (263d). Accompanying the relics, a company led by Santo Domingo and comprising religious, nobles, and commoners sing hymns and praises and marvel at the miraculous healings that occur along the way. Turning toward their homes after the saints have been laid in appropriately honorable tombs:
Abbades e obispos e calonges reglares levaron end reliquias todos a sus logares, mas el abbad de Silos e sus familiares sólo no las osaron tanner de los polgares.(276)
Reproached by the monks of Silos upon his empty-handed return, Domingo pacifies his convent with a prophecy of relics delivered by God’s own hand. Domingo fails to comprehend the prediction, which bespeaks his own death and the transformation of his corpse into a trove of relics that will be the [End Page 179] envy of the realm:
Si vos a Dios leales quisiéredes seer e los sus mandamientos quisiéredes tener, El vos dará reliquias que veredes plazer, yo sé que non podredes en esto fallecer.
Si non nos lo tolleren nuestros graves peccados, cuerpo sancto avredes que seredes pagados; seredes de reliquias ricos e abondados, de algunos vecinos seredes embidiados.(282–83)
Following Grimaldus (I.viii), Berceo introduces the episode as a proof-text to demonstrate the prophetic gift bestowed on Domingo by God and the Virgin Mary. The geographical specificity Berceo introduces, situating San Pedro de Arlanza with precise landmarks, as well as tracing the movement of the remains from a depopulated ruin to the flourishing monastery fit to enshrine the martyrs’ glorious tombs, significantly expands upon the information taken from the source:
Contra tierra de Lara, faz a una contrada, en río de Arlança en una renconada, yaze un monesterio, una casa onrrada, San Peidro de Arlança es por nomne clamada. […]
Travessaron el Duero, essa agua cabdal, abueltas Duratón, Esgueva otro tal; plegaron a Arlança acerca del ostal, non entrarién las gentes en sivuelque corral.(265–72)
Weiss notes that “the monasteries of San Millán and San Pedro de Arlanza drew on, and further promoted, nationalist myth and legend” in a way that intersected with both the emergent conflict between Church and State in the thirteenth century and the relation between Christianity and Islam (226–27). These very issues inform the geographical specificity that Berceo introduces into this episode, and further, explain his complication of Grimaldus’ account of the cause for the 1060 translation of the martyrs. In the Latin, the abbot Garcia’s “uisum divinitus” (I.viii.10) is the sole reason for the translation. “Tempore Fredelandi” (I.viii.8), specifying the era of Garcia’s [End Page 180] abbacy, is Grimaldus’ only mention of the king. Berceo’s transformation significantly augments Fernando’s responsibility, attributing the idea to the king prior to any mention of the abbot. Earlier, the poem drew a very stark contrast between Fernando’s brother, García of Nájera, whose rapacity led to Domingo’s exile from San Millán,12 and Fernando himself, who bestowed the Silos house upon the banished monk and voiced a political philosophy explicitly endorsing the primacy of religious rule in a well-ordered kingdom:
Es por un monesterio un regno cabtenido, ca es días e noches Dios en élli servido; assí puede ser un regno maltraído por un logar tan bono si es esperdecido.(204)
Fernando’s expanded role in the translation of the martyrs’ relics signals both his exemplarity as a Christian monarch and his analogous role at the Silos monastery, first in restoring it from its fallen condition by installing Domingo as abbot, then by endowing it, a priori, with the abundant relics Domingo foretells.
The translation of the martyrs draws a map through Spanish territory. The movement of their bodies traces a geographical line linking the “viejo cimenterio” (267c) that signifies a lost Christian past to a present in which Christian kingship and sacral space have both been recovered. Domingo’s prophecy further connects the saints’ progress through central Iberia, albeit obliquely, to a future that will be achieved with the completion of Domingo’s own transit between his earthly life and the life to come, and the conversion of his bodily remnant into holy relics.
The Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos expresses and resolves the dread of frangible and broken borders through the figure of the saint’s body. The metaphorical identity of body and culture suggests that the body, and in the case of an imagined Christian realm, the saint’s body especially, is an [End Page 181] apt staging ground both for what we avowedly are and, even more critically, for identifying everything strange that we are adamantly not (Napier 142).13 There is, significantly, no ‘normal’ body in premodern thought. The notion of a bodily norm arises with industrialization in response to the physical requisites of factory labor (Davis 24–25). While the modern notion of disability indexes deviation from a normative standard, grotesquery as the medieval form of corporeal otherness responds to an ideal body. All real bodies fall short, are deviant with respect to the unrealizable exemplar. Within this corporeal economy, the saint’s body is the most anomalous according to several registers of value. The anomaly lies in the saint’s incarnation of just such an impossible ideal, if not aesthetic then certainly spiritual. Moreover, the saint often embodies this ideal within a form that is itself broken, abused, or markedly altered.
When, for example, Millán submits to ecclesiastical authority and descends from his mountain hermitage to meet with the Bishop of Taraçona, his appearance astounds onlookers:
Entró en la cibdad la cabeça premida, la barba mucho luenga, la crin mucho crecida; dizién los omnes todos, qisque por sue partida, en omne tal fereza que nunqa fue oída.(VSM 78)
Millán’s body wears signs of animality that cloud the very distinctions that consolidate and sustain humanity. The saint’s embodiment of “tal fereza”, however, signals the falling away not of human, but of earthly attachments. Just as the reference of lacerio, as I will show, bifurcates, signaling the transcendent realities indexed by the saint and also the earthbound and [End Page 182] inglorious fact of human suffering, the zoomorphic body that here glorifies Millán by disclosing his exalted otherness has an opposite effect when inhabited by a supplicant at Domingo’s shrine. A paralyzed woman is lead on a leash to the tomb, where she lies howling “like a mangy cat” until Domingo accomplishes her cure:
Non entendién en ella de vida nul consejo, los uessos avié solos cubiertos del pellejo; domingos e cutianos lazrava en parejo, doliéles la su coyta a todo el concejo. […]
Prisiéronla los omnes a qui dolié su mal, cargáronla en andas presa con un dogal; fueron pora’l sepulcro del confessor cabdal, en qui avié Dios puesta gracia tan natural.
Levaron la enferma al sepulcro glorioso, de qui manava tanto miráculo precioso, pusiéronla delante al padre poderoso, yazié ella ganiendo como gato sarnoso.(VSD 583–86).
The simile likening the woman’s suffering to that of a “gato sarnoso” provoked an apologetic gloss from Dutton that while “[a] la mentalidad moderna esta imagen parece ofensiva… para Berceo y sus contemporáneos era más bien realista” (172). Such an explanation passes over the bestial imagery in the preceeding quatrains. The woman’s body is covered by a pellejo, a term designating an animal’s hide, and her conveyance to Domingo’s shrine “presa con un dogal” (585b), likens her to a leashed dog. The repetitive instistence on animality in this episode pushes the imagery beyond mere realism. The extraordinary language of Millán’s brutish body speaks in two registers, translating its very debasement into a sign and a source of divine power. The debased embodiment of the female invalid, on the other hand, if it refers in multiple registers, links the human and the animal in a way that exposes a horrifying fluidity of the border between them. The purchase of the woman’s restoration to full humanity through the payment of animal tender in exchange for her personhood both confirms and repairs the troubling porosity of the line between human and animal disclosed by [End Page 183] her bodily torment:
En toda esa noche non pegaron los ojos, faziendo oraciones, fincando los inojos, quemando de candelas mucho grandes manojos prometiendo offrendas, ovejas e annojos.(587)
Anxiety about unstable boundaries, as we have seen, informs the poetics of Berceo’s saints’ lives. Lived experience in thirteenth-century Spain required the peaceable negotiation of borders that were constantly shifting. Like the mutability of conquered territory as Muslim lands were recodified as Christian realms, individual identity within Iberia was prone to flux. Social and religious identities moved in tandem with political control of the land. Christians became Muslims, Jews and Muslims became Christian, masters became vassals and vassals, masters as towns and trades fell under the rule of Christianity or Islam throughout centuries of coexistence and skirmish. Within the world of Christian hagiography and miracle collections, broken bodies became healed; sinning bodies were converted and redeemed. These multilingual, multicultured, hybrid identities became fixed and legible through styles of embodiment that are often inscribed in pain. Akin to the preparation of an entrant into a monastic practice, acts of deliberate self-making subsume individual selfhood through the incorporation of a disciplina, an authorized religious or secular identity that had to be learned and lived in performance.
Those who come to the saints for relief endure afflictions figured in terms identical to those that define the suffering of sanctified bodies: Berceo names both with derivatives of the verb lazrar. As with the signifiers of animality in the opposed examples of San Millán and the paralytic healed at Domingo’s shrine, the reference of the term bifurcates. Lacerio traces an ascendant path when associated with sanctity; the anguish of the unsainted, in contrast, remains earthbound. The San Millán narrator’s description of another paralytic’s arrival at the saint’s hermitage offers a grotesque icon of the abasement of the woman’s suffering body:
Fue puesta a la puerta la enferma lazdrada, del mal e del lazerio sedié muy crebrantada; [End Page 184] yacié la mesquiniella en tierra abuçada, ca non podié erecha levantarse por nada.(134)
Berceo’s narrators are no less insistent in focusing attention upon the lacerio of the saints, but the transfiguration of their suffering is evident in the opposite trajectory it describes. While the woman’s prostration on the ground starkly betokens the horror and anguish of humanity’s sinful condition, which again pushes identity towards animality, Berceo’s saints all refer, through their bodily torment, to matters celestial. The extraordinary embodiments of Berceo’s saints translate mundane suffering to martyrdom, the condition that draws a line through the matter of human life and death to mark off that portion most saliently imbued with the divine. Everyday sufferers demarcate baser territories. Nonetheless, Berceo’s common language of anguish yokes exalted and vulgar conditions and signposts the gravity of the afflictions borne on ordinary bodies. Esther Cohen points out that “from the thirteenth century onward human involuntary pain began to be equated with the voluntary pain of the saints: it was a God-given blessing, a purifier of souls, and destroyer of vices and appetites” (37). Berceo’s thirteenth-century hagiographies constitute not an incipient example, but an already fully realized and highly nuanced expression of this equivalence.
Most often the transaction of miracle in the life of a saint involves only two earthly principals: the saint, who conducts miraculous power, and the sufferer who pleads for pity and relief. The petitioner arrives, appeals, is healed, and leaves the confines of the narrative to carry the tale of his cure beyond the boundaries of the represented world. Lappin demonstrates that Berceo alters the strict insularity of miraculous exchange by identifying the companions who brought sufferers to the shrine or by describing the social landscape set awry by the contortions and ravings of the stricken individual (246–249). This expansion of the information given in the Latin hagiography creates compassionate bonds of family and community that encompass both saint and supplicants, and so, Lappin suggests, establishes a context of social and religious solidarity.
María de Castro and the epileptic Garci Muñoz stand out in the Vida de Santo Domingo by violating both the norms established within Grimaldus’ [End Page 185] vita and Berceo’s own deliberate transformation thereof. Their suffering explicitly occasions the injury of a larger community, not only violating the Grimaldan standard of isolate saint and isolate sufferer, but also disrupting the backdrop of social harmony that Berceo takes pains to establish. Their arrival at Silos entails their own spectacularly disturbed bodies, but also a social universe that is out of joint. The bodies of these two figures, indeed, stage the drama of social disintegration and reparation that is at the heart of the miraculous exchange they bring to the narrative.
María is the subject of the first miracle reported in the poem, and her entry onto the stage of Domingo’s intercession generates disproportionately rich description. With her introduction, a narrator who has been stinting with visual detail develops a voracious eye, devoting multiple quatrains to the spectacle of the woman preening before her catastrophic debilitation. His gaze first settles upon her gathering her money to go to the market in her finery, later follows her along the road where she is stricken, and finally compasses the vision of her groomed body transformed into a site of repulsion:
Alegre e bien sana metióse en carrera, no lo sé bien si iva de pie o cavallera, enfermó adesoras de tan fiera manera que se fizo tan dura como una madera.
Perdió ambos los piedes, non se podié mover, los dedos de las manos no los podié tender, los ojos tan turbados que non podié veer, ningunos de los miembros non avién su poder.(291–92)
The narrator goes on to describe how the woman’s illness affected her speech, in both form and substance, and ignited the wrath of her companions. Her illness strips her of linguistic, cognitive, and bodily coherence, and ultimately wrests from her the very semblance of humanity, transforming her into an inanimate object:
Avié de su estado demudada la boca, fablava de la lengua mucha palabra loca; nin mandado nin parte non sabié de su toca, [End Page 186] avién los companneros grand rencura, non poca.
Com avié ojos feos, la boca avié tuerta, qualquiere de los braços tal como verga tuerta, non podrié del fogar exir fasta la puerta, todos sus bienquerientes querriénla veer muerta.(293–94)
The narrative of Domingo’s miracles-in-life opens with this provocative woman whose illness incites the scorn, shame, and hatred of those closest to her even as it excites the narrator’s gaze and spurs him to uncharacteristic descriptive intensity. María de Castro’s suffering refers beyond her own person to pressure the community around her. Her circle of family and loved ones constitutes a corporate body that is itself injured and diminished by her illness. In this, María’s body becomes a social agent in a way that likens her to the saint. Similarly, but with an opposite valence, Domingo’s “cuerpo tan lazrado” –the repeated epithet that invests the saint’s suffering with the heroic stature of epic (226a)– refers beyond itself to a whole communion of saints, and ultimately points unerringly toward God. Saint’s and sinner’s bodies each metonymically encompass a larger totality that is a ‘communion’: of persons, in the case of María de Castro, and of a celestial community of saints in Domingo’s case. The saint’s petition for God’s mercy and curative intervention, the first of such prayers the poem cites, emphasizes the congruence of their suffering through repetitions of derivatives of lazrar, the verb that repeatedly denotes his own bodily state. Entreating not solely on María’s behalf but also for her family and friends, Domingo’s prayer insists on the social impact of the illness and consequently yokes the suffering of the bystanders to that of both María and the saint himself:
Deque a esta casa viva es aplegada, Sennor, mercet te clamo que torne mejorada; que esta su companna que anda tan lazrada al torno d’est embargo sea desembargada.
Estos sus companneros que andan tan lazrados, que sieden desmarridos, dolientes e cansados, entiendan la tu gracia, ond sean confortados, e lauden el tu nomne, alegres e pagados.(302–03) [End Page 187]
The woman enjoys a quick and complete cure. Moreover, Domingo’s intercession restores not only her health, but also the social bonds that were broken through her illness, and so, the health of the fractured community. Completing the analogy established between María’s and his own body, the quatrain that closes this episode explicitly returns each of the miracle’s protagonists to a community that absorbs and is fulfilled by them:
Fincó el padre sancto entro en su mongía, al Criador sirviendo e a sancta María; bien sana e alegre fo la duenna su vía, la vecindad con ella ovo grand alegría.(314)
Both Domingo, with his epic identity as the “cuerpo tan lazrado”, and the woman retain a somatic mark that distinguishes them and undergirds the system of bodily reference the poem establishes. Domingo dismisses María de Castro with a lesson in bodily mnemonics. The trauma she has undergone now becomes a text that issues directives for pious living: “en quanto podieres guárdate de peccar, / deve est majamiento por siempre te membrar” (313cd).
Esther Cohen points out that “[t]he very contemplation of future pain reified it, turning forebodings into either present tribulation or future remission” (40). Graphically enumerated eternal torments awaiting the unrepentant sinner had a powerful deterrent effect in sermons, and earthly suffering was to be welcomed for shortening time in purgatory, both in recompense for pains endured, and also by preventing further sin. María’s majamiento reifies her affliction, turning past pain into an object of contemplation and an instrument of instruction. Her suffering is transformed, indeed, translated as an embodied ‘rule’ that can govern her restored life.
The poem once again conflates the agency of María’s bodily experience with that of the saint. Just as her lacerio assimilated her own bodily condition to Domingo’s and extended beyond her own person to encompass the community around her, the trace it leaves links saint and sufferer. The regulatory text that her body has become through the inscription of the majamiento echoes the poem’s earlier evocation of Domingo’s carnal substitution of the text of the Rule that governs his monastic community: [End Page 188]
Dioli tamanna gracia el Reï celestial que ya non semejava creatura mortal, mas o ángel o cosa que era spirital, que bivié con ellos en figura carnal.
En logar de la regla todos a él catavan, en claustra e en coro por él se cabdellavan; los dichos que dicié melados semejavan, como los que de boca de Gregorio manavan.(120–21)
As we have seen, María de Castro’s spectacular ills first mark her off from her fellows. Her grotesque suffering expels her from society, compromises her humanity, and compels the hatred and horror of her family, but ultimately her healed trauma marks a site of memory, correction, and conversion. Just as her illness likened her to Domingo, so too her restoration makes of her body a regla that reflects the corporeal exemplarity of the saint and undoes the destructive effect of her disease, whose remnant now serves as a devotional object and governing text for both her own and her community’s guidance.
The placement of the María’s story as the first of the miracles-in-life sequence significantly alters the order established by Grimaldus. In the Latin text the first reported miracle, immediately following the translation of Vicente, Sabina, and Cristeta, is that of Oria’s release from temptation (I.ix). Oria’s narrative is followed by the healing of a blind man, and then the cure of María de Castro Ceniza (I.xi). All are included within the Latin hagiography’s first book. Berceo shifts these three miracles (and all others that Grimaldus includes in his first book) to his second “libriello” (289a).
More importantly, he inverts the order in which María and Oria appear, and directly juxtaposes them. Berceo’s organization thus prioritizes these two miracles and correlates them, inviting a reading in which each informs the other. The opposition between the two figures is salient. Where María first appears in “buenos pannos, aguis[ando] sus dineros”, going out “pora mercado con otros companneros” (290 c), Oria’s narrative debut controverts the presentation of her forebear point by point. She travels without company, arriving at Silos alone as a “romeruela lazrada” (320c). Eschewing finery [End Page 189] and wealth, she declares her desire to “prender orden y velo” and “yazer en pobredad” (322 bc). Her rejection of the marketplace toward which the jaunty María heads is extreme; shortly after taking her vows she is enwalled in an anchorhold. Oria’s likeness to Domingo is direct and literal, while María’s is oblique and figurative.
Neither her devotion nor her seclusion protects Oria from assault. Her cell proves an insecure boundary, vulnerable to assault and allowing entry to the devil:14
Prendié forma de sierpe el traïdor provado, poniéseli delante el pescueço alçado; oras se facié chico, oras grand desguisado, a las veces bien gruesso, a las veces delgado. Guerreávala mucho aquél que Dios maldiga, por espantar a ella fazié mucha nemiga; la beneíta ninna, del Criador amiga, vivié en grand lacerio, quiquier que al vos diga.(328–29)
Lacerio forges a link between the suffering anchorite and her exemplary mentor, but it is a bond that also embraces the rejected example of María de Castro. The latter equivalence is underwritten by the scriptural resonance of the diabolical assault: “En essa misma forma, cosa es verdadera, / acometió a Eva, de Adám compannera” (330 ab). Berceo’s rearrangement of the sequence bequeathed him by Grimaldus thus assimilates the anchorite’s tale to the prior miracle and, contravening Oria’s chosen isolation, places her within the same female community to which María belongs.
The introduction of the image of warfare in the devil’s attack, moreover, links Oria’s tale to that of the epilectic Garci Munoz, which encompasses aspects of each of the first two miracles. Like María, Garci Munoz brings before the saint both a physical condition that attracts disproportionate notice and a lacerated social body in train. Like Oria’s, his affliction is, from [End Page 190] the first, objectified and represented as an evil entity. His neighbors and relatives, the narrative reports, would as soon see him dead as themselves further dishonored by his behavior, and Garci Munoz himself despairs, relinquishing all hope of both recovery and worldly comfort:
Era la cosa mala de tan mala natura que li fazié torvar toda la catadura; fazié el omne bono tanta desapostura que todos sus amigos vivién en grand ardura.
Eran de su salud todos desfeüzados, tanto vedién en élli signos desaguisados; si lo toviessen muerto non serién más plagados, ca se tenién por ello todos por desonrrados.
El enfermo él misme querrié seer más muerto ca a parte ninguna non trovara confuerto; si non porque la alma prendié en ello tuerto, por lo ál más querrié colgar en un veluerto.(401–04)
The poem’s introduction of Garci Munoz and his illness, while ostensibly straightforward, in fact entails significant complications of discourse, theme, and genre. At once it both raises and rejects conventional expectations. The report of the failure of diverse licit and illicit curative measures is stock hagiographic formula. In two lines of a single quatrain, Berceo dispatches the efficacy of prayers, fasts, charms, doctors, candles, and offerings: “Oratión nin ieiunio no li valieron nada / nin escantos nin menges nin cirio nin oblada.”.. (403ab). What is omitted here, tellingly, is the standard final recourse, the last-ditch visit to the saint’s shrine. The narrator substitutes suicide for pilgrimage as the sick man’s last resort (404). In a further departure from generic conventions, Domingo himself, not the victim or his family, sets this miracle in motion. The illness is so extravagant that its report circulates through the region and reaches Domingo at his monastery. The passage inverts the expected reportorial patterns that typically complete miraculous transactions. Most often, the succored person goes forth to carry the tale that a hagiographer will, ultimately, fix in a written text. Here, it is the saint who responds in writing to a tale that circulates orally when he [End Page 191] sends the encumbered family an invitation to come to Silos with the sick man in tow.15
Just as the contact between saint and sufferer has been brought about through extraordinary means, the narration of the cure strays from expected practice. As the episode of Domingo’s intervention opens, the narrative emphasizes this miracle’s deviation by evoking the paradoxically routine nature of the saint’s protocols of miraculous healing:
Tornó a su costumne el sancto confessor, entró a la eglesia rogar al Criador, que tolliese d’est omne esti tan grand dolor, que non avié en élli nin sangre nin color.(409)
In its very assertion of custom the poem signals the exceptionality of Garci Munoz’s case, which unfolds as a spectacular performance. In an extended metaphor that will govern the representation of Garci Munoz’s cure from this point forward, his affliction is figured, like Oria’s serpent, as a combatant engaged in warfare against him. Berceo pushes the analogy even further here, likening Domingo himself to a warrior, and the miraculous remedy to a victory wrested from an epic battle:
Era la malatía vieja e porfidiosa, de guarecer muy mala, de natura raviosa; no la podié nul menge guarir por nulla cosa, dizié: ‘Válasme, Christo, fijo de la Gloriosa”. […]
Prendié sobre sus carnes grandes aflictïones, conduchos descondidos, muy frías collations, faciendo amenudo preces e oraciones, vertiendo muchas lágremas ennas demás saçones.
Perserveró el padre sufriendo tales penas, sobre Garci Munnoz tovo tales novenas; era tan descarnado en estas quarentenas, [End Page 192] como qui yaze preso luengament en cadenas.
Maguer era la gota contraria de sanar, el confessor caboso óvola a sacar, ca non quiso el campo élli desamparar fasta non ixió ella a todo su pesar.(410–16)
Significantly Domingo’s battle against Garci Munoz’ affliction is waged predominantly through ascetic rigors to which he subjects his own flesh. Moreover, Domingo’s depleted condition at the end of the rout foretells the miracles he will perform after death, likening the saint to the prisoners he will deliver from their chains in the dungeons of Al-Andalus.16 Exemplary steadfastness defines him as both soldier and healer, and he holds to the battle that finally defeats the enemy and frees the conquered territory of Garci Munoz’ body from illness’s ravages:
Don García fo sano, gracias al Criador, fincó con su victoria el sancto confessor; todos tenién que era est miraclo mayor e de todos los otros semejava sennor.(417)
The metaphor of crusade in the campaign against Garci Munoz’s ailment finds echoes in the saint’s biography as well as in his posthumous miracles liberating Christian captives. As in the illness and miraculous cure of María de Castro, individual and communal injury intersects in the body of the suffering sinner. María’s illness, as we have seen, encompasses a broken community, and Domingo’s intercessory effort explicitly includes and succors her compatriots. Here, Garci Munoz’s illness metaphorically expresses and resolves larger anxieties about religious polity and the constitution of an imagined Spain. When Domingo forfeits a life of contemplative solitude to [End Page 193] submit instead to the rigors of monastic discipline, the poem figures his novitiate as the preparation of a “novel cavallero” (84a). This explicitly links Domingo’s religious training to military exercise. The chief duty of a knight was the defense of the faith; he was “the preeminent guardian of the boundaries of the Christian body; its integrity and contours were his responsibility” (Fradenburg CMT 198).
In the course of his miraculous cure, Garci Munoz’s body, like Oria’s isolate anchorhold, becomes a battlefield. The occupied territory of the suffering body in turn effects a transformation of the figure of Domingo, eliciting a martial identity and a force capable of routing an enemy the poem describes as ancient and stubborn. The explicit identification of Garci Munoz’s recovery as the greatest of all the saint’s miracles both relies upon and undergirds the poem’s deliberate conflation of bodily, geographical, and social territories. The poem’s multiple evocations of “Espanna”, I would suggest, further this thematic nexus, as does the epic-tinged identification paradoxically occasioned by mention of Domingo’s tomb: “…pora espannoles fue en bon punto nado” (552d), in which Berceo gives voice to “one of the first, if not the first” uses of ‘espannol’ in a Spanish text (Lappin 230). To be sure, the community defined as ‘espannol’ is, within the poem, wholly Christian. Just as María’s cure brought about the restoration of a fractured community, Garci Munoz’s occupied and liberated body stands, within the poem’s metaphorical economy, as a figure for the remaking of an imagined Christian Spain.
Berceo’s vaunted reliance on Latin sources belies the fact that even where there is harmony between the translation and the Latin, the vernacular rendering always transports meaning into entirely new linguistic and literary modes, crafted for new audiences and to new purposes. Imbuing inherited stories with new significance is a linchpin of medieval vernacular literary composition as well as of Berceo’s own strategy (Cazelles 31, Snow 1–5). Vernacular hagiography provides an especially fit vehicle for exploiting the productive tension between old and new because it engenders dual thematic trajectories from a single, cohesive narrative: on which buttresses its truth-claims through the Latin antecedent, and another reflecting contemporary [End Page 194] social, spiritual, and ecclesiastical values (Tibbets Schulenberg 17–57).17 In Gonzalo de Berceo’s saints’ lives the human body is the figure in which those values find their most powerful expression.
Corporeal practice stands not only as a means of access to the divine, but also as a primary site of the social negotiation of identity. The body animates and makes real both the assumption and the rejection of identity, and corporeal style spells the difference between spiritually, socially, and politically distinct selves. Where individual embodiment is so highly charged as a marker of orthodox or heterodox identity, it is not surprising that corporeal practices were subjected to ongoing surveillance in an effort to guarantee the integrity of the Christian corpus mysticum (Nirenberg 127–165; Ellis 202–204). Every body potentially held the border against, or opened it to, a devil whose conquests might topple the precarious Christian governance of individual bodies and of territories.
Berceo’s vernacular hagiographies inscribe a stable social body through the authorization of bodies –those of both saints and exemplary sinners– that are allowed to remain irreducibly other. The uncommon bodies of saints, with referential and hyper-individuated flesh, point beyond the bounded system of human society to phenomena beyond those vulnerable to time, decay, and dissolution. Around these figures, exemplary in their bodily and spiritual cohesion, other less integral bodies congregate. The pained bodies that gather around hagiographic subjects and discourses perturb individual, social, and even human coherence and signal the elusiveness of a complete identity that is always desired yet never attained. They are, in Douglas’s oft-quoted phrase, “matter out of place” (35), obtrusive signs of the failure of the borders that delineate sanctioned identities.
The suffering bodies displayed in Gonzalo de Berceo’s saints’ lives link to one another, to the saints, and to communities both celestial and terrestrial through a common vocabulary of affliction and through the redemptive circuit of miracle. The spectacular ills of María and Garci [End Page 195] Munoz mirror the socially constructive and spiritually ameliorative capacity of saintly embodiment. Their physical traumas, however, at first curtail the “proliferations, connections, linkages” (Grosz 170) that define the circulatory capacity of the body in the world. Enacting an entirely negative version of the saint’s bodily agency, their experiences of affliction and alienation lead to a social crisis, creating an irreparable breach in the collective body and leaving a ruin in the place of community. In the absence of miraculous curative intervention, their loss of bodily integrity entails the devastation not only of their own physical selves, but also of both personal and communal bonds. Berceo’s hagiographic vocabularies of pain, though, ultimately articulate a redemptive outcome. As a conduit of a miraculous power that links the humble stuff of humanity to divine majesty and grace, the saint’s body effects the transcendence of both individual and societal traumas and establishes a corporeal regime in which individual pain is the catalyst that brings about the renewal of sundered communities. Restoring the circuit of connection that belies the apparent isolation of individual embodiment, the exemplary cures of María de Castro and Garci Munoz, like the restorative transit of the martyrs’ translated bodies through Iberian space, restore ever larger collectivities, reflecting and culminating in the saint’s own embodiment of an intact, if yet imaginary, Christian nation.
I am grateful to Kristen L. Olson, Teresa Scott Soufas, and the anonymous readers at La corónica for their generous readings of this essay in its various stages. [End Page 196]
1. See Elaine Scarry’s discussion of the negative relationship of pain to language and the political consequences of the inexpressibility of pain (1–42).
2. Sontag, Moore, Linton, Garland Thomson, and Davis discuss social and cultural strategies of marking bodies as deviant and dangerous. Elliot traces the recodification of the pain resulting from female somatic spirituality according to ecclesiastical interests, so that physical states read as markers of sanctity were redefined as indices of mental illness, heresy, or diabolical possession.
3. Medieval scholars point out the limits of the applicability of Scarry’s analysis. Morris observes that medieval pain, far from closing off experience beyond the self, in fact opens it (135). Esther Cohen’s recent work on pain in the middle ages delineates how “an intrinsically individual feeling became a social, religious, and cultural phenomenon” between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries (3). Bynum has argued that the ascetic body stands as both the aperture and the structure that allows spiritual experience to transcend the self.
4. Two significant exceptions are the work of Mary Jane Kelley, linking the imagery of blindness and sight throughout Berceo’s oeuvre to the expression of sinful disorder and spiritual health, and Devoto’s examination of Berceo’s use of insanity or unsoundness of mind to figure spiritual deviance.
5. While Catharism never enjoyed wide acceptance in Iberia, it had gained some ground in Aragon and Catalonia and may have won the sympathy of some secular priests, and even secured adherents in local monasteries. Teófilo Ruiz finds little trace of the heresy in northern Castile beyond sporadic references in the late twelfth century (25–26), but Gregory Andrachuk cites a papal document issued in 1236 permitting the Bishop of Palencia to pardon accused heretics to suggest the existence of heretical activity in Gonzalo de Berceo’s region. Lucy K. Pick notes that despite the doubt contemporary historiography sheds on the extent of Cathar activity in Iberia, “leading contemporary churchmen believed they were there and posed a threat” (144).
6. Pick argues that there was scant appetite in the early thirteenth century for “reconquest”, designating a pervasive ideology of permanent conquest and settlement to restore a political and religious hegemony lost in 711. Rather, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, Archbishop of Toledo from 1209 until 1247, promoted a French ideology of crusade, with which he infused his chronicles of anti-Muslim warfare (21–70). While the scope of this article does not permit an extended discussion of this topic, I believe that even a cursory consideration of narrative events supports the argument that an ideology of crusade and permanent settlement animates, at the very least, the lives of the Domingo and Millán.
7. Gampel (17–21) and Gerber (93–99) describe the role of the Jewish and Muslim populations in the administration of towns situated in newly Christian territories. As Gerber points out, the position of Jews was particularly precarious in reconquered towns where competing social forces kept the balance of power unstable, and Jewish administrators came to serve as the unwelcome effigy of the king as municipal interests cohered in opposition to royal power.
8. Critics have long recognized the martial component of Berceo’s construction of Santo Domingo. In the introduction to her 1973 edition of the poem, Labarta de Chavez defines the Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos as “en esencia un cantar de gesta a lo divino”, and suggests that to a much greater degree than even the warrior San Millán, Santo Domingo is “concebida en términos de héroe épico al extremo” (19).
9. Editorial glosses reflect the polysemy of the line. Ruffinatto takes the phrase to refer to the saint, noting that “el de ‘protector de los confines de la patria’ es uno de los principales atributos de los santos de la época” (1978, 75), and later, “[e]ntre las cualidades de los santos castellanos … destaca precisamente la de ‘guarda o amparo de la tierra’ contra los moros” (1992, 258). Dutton’s gloss refers to the location of the monastery “en o cerca de la frontera” (VSD 156). Lappin reads “salva la tierra” as a pun indexing both the protective and the sanctifying power of the saint, “who preserves [or crosses] the frontier (Cult 230, 266 n.19).
10. All citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Brian Dutton’s edition.
11. Dutton’s gloss points out that the concept expressed in the phrase “tenerli la frontera” derives from Arabic usage and codifies both geographic and spiritual defense: “[l]as fronteras geográficas y religiosas del Islam son idénticas y la frontera que se defiende contra el diablo, la frontera geográfica o del alma, parte del concepto de la chih ad o de la guerra santa” (VSD 157–58).
12. Enraged when Domingo reprimands him for demanding a part of San Millán’s treasure, García forces the abbot to eject Domingo from the house, ultimately hounding him out of the realm and into Fernando’s territory (127–80). An identical conflict, it is worth noting, led to the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, who was roasted on a grill for refusing to relinquish the Church’s treasure to Valerian.
13. John Block Friedman’s taxonomy of the monstrous in medieval literary culture is an indispensable introduction to the subject. David Williams delineates the significance of the monstrous in medieval thought, giving prominence to the influence of theological constructions in shaping the monster’s flesh and its meanings. Jeffrey Cohen’s anthology spans topics from the early Middle Ages to contemporary American popular culture, all linked by an approach to representations of the monstrous as a destabilization of the human. Strickland links the monstrous in medieval art to Christian attitudes towards cultural and religious Others –Ethiopians, Jews, Muslims, heretics, and Mongols– who were conceived and represented in similar terms.
14. Deyermond contrasts Berceo’s treatment of the Oria episode with Grimaldus’, and notes Berceo’s emphasis of the erotic aspect of the attack.
15. Grimaldus too has the saint initiating contact with Garci Munoz (I.xiv. 24–26); Berceo invents the written letter, and heightens the lengths to which both Domingo and Garci Munoz go in their struggle to defeat the tenacious affliction.
16. Lappin points out that while Grimaldus includes miracles of liberation in his Latin hagiography, Berceo heightens the emphasis on conflict between Islam and Christianity, reflecting an evolution in the cult of Domingo whereby liberation of war captives became increasingly salient (275–327). This identity, in fact, became so predominant in popular devotion throughout the thirteenth century that the shrine-book of posthumous miracles attested at Domingo’s tomb is predominantly devoted to miracles of liberation from the Moors (sixty-six out of seventy-seven total miracles.)
17. Daas and Lappin both trace the shifts in cultic practices and priorities as they impinge on the figure of Santo Domingo in literary and ecclesiastical culture and in the popular imagination.