• Dreams of Death in Medieval Castilian Hagiography: Martyrdom and Ideology in the Gran Flos Sanctorum

Critical discourses dealing with the explosion of oneiric and visionary activity in the Middle Ages have offered crucial insights into questions of symbolism and representation, the systems of theory and classification that inform and underpin the development of individual narratives, and the relevance of visions and dreams to broader psychological, sociological, and theological discussions. A salient element of these discourses, however, is that, almost without exception, they have tended to deal with texts, whether verbal or pictorial, in terms of the primacy of the oneiric or the visionary within the global structure or intellectual fabric of the narrative. The pioneering work of Constance B. Hieatt and A. C. Spearing, for instance, focuses on the dream as a meta-framework, and engages with texts in which oneiric experience functions as the essential unifying device. Later contributions, such as those of Kathryn L. Lynch, Steven F. Kruger, and Isabel Moreira, have provided [End Page 159] more detailed and nuanced readings, while Barbara Newman’s timely survey has offered a series of salutary insights into the relationship between theory and methodology, particularly from an interdisciplinary perspective. Comparably informative approaches have been adopted in discussions of early Castilian production, and of particular note are the studies of Harriet Goldberg, Julian Palley, Jacques Joset, and Teresa Gómez Trueba, whose focus is predominantly literary, and that of Victor I. Stoichita, which offers an engaging assessment of the impact of the visual tradition. This work has been constructive in formulating approaches to individual texts, and has led more broadly to an informed appreciation of the chronological and intellectual shaping of dream-vision conventions per se. However, it has been less beneficial in providing a mechanism for appraising the content of the vast body of texts that are only partially conditioned by oneiric or visionary activity, or where the functional significance of dream visions is reduced to that of a convenient narrative device.

The question in part is one of the perceived reality encoded into texts of different generic types. In fully developed dream visions the rules of construction depart from those of normative reality: objects speak; abstractions are given life; the logic of the physical universe becomes subservient to the demands of allegory. The inconceivable becomes possible, and the indescribable, all but routine. Readers of body-and-soul debates, for instance, instantly accept that a purulent corpse can talk and that a soul can assume the form of a dove or a small child. In Razón de amor and the Vida de Santa Oria we are confronted by talking goblets in a pomegranate tree and celestial ladders in the sky. In fully developed dream frameworks we embrace such codes without hesitation and seldom query the broader fundamentals of construction. Only the most esoteric suggestions, such as those traced by Alan Deyermond in the enigmatic and contradictory text of the Libro de Buen Amor, initiate a search for elusive contextualizing parameters.

It is understandable that the main thrust of critical discourse should have been in this area: the departure from reality establishes a sense of wonder and awe that merits detailed inspection. Yet the corollary is that the clash between vision and normative reality in texts that deal predominantly with [End Page 160] the latter has been all but ignored. Momentary intrusions that rupture, but do not permanently alter, the temporal fabric of medieval Castilian narratives have seldom been accounted for or discussed systematically. The result, inevitably, has been an element of distortion, as the focus of criticism has fallen on the most visually evocative examples of oneiric and visionary experience rather than its broader aetiology. Specific forms such as the tripartite journey (where the dreamer is transported from a situation of waking reality to a complex symbolic locus of meaning followed by a moralizing conclusion) have been discussed at the expense of texts which are less imaginatively constituted, particularly in their use of imagery and symbolism. In hagiography, attention has been lavished on journeys to the otherworld in works devoted largely to them, but seldom to elements of the otherworld intruding into the quotidian life of the individual. This seems most unfortunate in view of the fact that these experiences tend to produce turning points that lead to outcomes that become central to the definition or validation of saintly experience. The dream, in short, has been appraised as a conception, a genre, a mode of writing, but seldom as a workaday unit of narrative construction comparable to other devices in the storyteller’s arsenal.

A cognate problem concerns the rigidity of approaches towards questions of taxonomy, with the establishment of an artificial distinction between visually symbolic modes of communication, which have stimulated critical interest (particularly the decoding of allegory and the relationship between signifiers and signifieds), and experiences which have been relegated to the broader and less cohesively defined category of the miraculous, where they have remained largely unstudied.1 This omission partly reflects the influence of modern psychoanalytical scholarship and its intersection with traditional attempts to decode the symbolic meaning of dreams, but it can also be attributed to a relative lack of interest in the exploration of questions [End Page 161] of narrative equivalency, particularly in terms of the functional effect of devices that appear from certain perspectives to serve significantly differing ends.

An obvious lacuna in scholarship is a consideration of the relationship between the dream vision and theophany or divine visitation, where celestial beings appear in revelations that are functionally equivalent to dream visions but share none of their overarching generic conventions. A comparable oversight can been seen in the apophatic tradition, which characterizes or evokes by negation, and is commonly evidenced in hagiography by auditory message phenomena delivered by the unseen, unknowable, and ineffable voice of Christ. The saintly recipients of both types of experience (as is the case with those who are rewarded with dreams and visions), receive instructions that produce narrative turning points, and in certain instances reshape death ideologically as martyrdom. Accordingly, it becomes counterproductive to regard them as anything other than aspects of a broader continuum of human/divine interaction.

The question of classification raises a number of more fundamental issues of narrative management, particularly temporal development and its understanding in critical theory. It asks us to consider the distinctive effects of analepsis and prolepsis, and how a moment of human/divine communication, whether oneiric or otherwise, is capable of effecting a fleeting hiatus, an impermanent but significant temporal dislocation that brings closure to past actions whilst anticipating future outcomes.2 Prolepsis, in particular, exerts a significant influence: its anticipatory dimension cues portions of a divinely ordained state of future reality into the present, albeit in provisional terrestrial form. In so doing, it signals an end to the current state of reality which, by implication, compels the audience to engage in a process of synchronic and polychronic juggling, with past, present, and future bound ineluctably together. Dreams, visions, and other forms of human/divine interaction impact in this way on broader processes of memory and cognitive recall, jockeying for positional superiority with [End Page 162] expository mechanisms encoded into texts as part of their horizon of expectation.3 The interaction between them, as Teresa Bridgeman has recognized, produces a type of complementary narrative dualism in which “explicit proleptic information [displays] a higher degree of ontological certainty than inferences constructed from textual implications, whether strong or weak” (131).

It becomes crucial, in view of this, to focus on questions of audience curiosity, the arousal of suspense, and the latent desire encoded into proleptic elaboration for the process of temporal normalization that comes with the realization or resolution of the narrative mechanisms described within it. It is human nature, after all, to hope that dreams might come true, and to react with joy when they do; otherwise, they serve merely to tantalize and defeat expectation. Prolepsis serves in this sense, as Genette claims, as “a mark of narrative impatience” (72), focusing on the future not for its own sake, but as a means of struggling out of the past. Unsurprisingly, its contextual function can be related to conflicts of immediate and significant importance, and perhaps the most familiar in hagiography is in the cult of the martyrs, where celestial intervention is presented as an ideological force capable of legitimizing and validating a process of willing submission to death. The saints, who stand as mediating filters of celestial knowledge, become witnesses to the sacred plan for humankind. This allows them not simply to embrace the ontological certainty of the afterlife, but to encourage others to do so, either by their actions, or as is often the case, as they return posthumously to the world, in this way building cyclically on the process that precipitated their arrival in heaven. The texts in this respect pit lived experience against received knowledge, and in so doing, establish a gulf between saint and audience. This, however, is tempered by an underlying egalitarian ethos, which on several occasions leads not just to the conversion of pagans, but to their direct and enthusiastic participation in the Christian cult of death. The result is a situation in which dreams, visions, and other [End Page 163] forms of human/divine interaction function ultimately as discourses of power and legitimization, capable of exerting indoctrinatory pressure in the interests of ensuring hegemonic conformity to an idealized conception of the ultimate desirability of martyrdom.4

Compilation A: The Gran flos sanctorum

A corpus of texts that presents a unique challenge in its treatment of visions and dreams is the Gran flos sanctorum, an anthology of saints’ lives compiled during the mid to late fourteenth century. The purpose of the collection has not been determined with absolute certainty, but most likely, in view of its polished lexical sophistication and reliance on oral formulas, is that it was designed to be read aloud, possibly for the instructional benefit of monks or nuns. The corpus, in part, can be identified as a reworking of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (ca. 1264), although as recent studies have shown, the incorporation of additional materials, particularly those garnered from supplementary sources such as the Acta sanctorum, considerably amplifies its remit.5 In its formal arrangement the anthology respects the sequence of the liturgical-sanctoral calendar, and beginning with Advent, offers more than two hundred readings for delivery on individual feast days. These are spread over five extant manuscripts (BNM 780, BNM 12688, BNM 12689, Escorial h–II–18, and Escorial h–III–22), and while readings for some saints can be found in two recensions, and some in three, not one appears in all five. The only significant example of revision is offered by BNM 780, which [End Page 164] displays evidence of systematic textual correction and marginal annotation.

The treatment of source materials is by no means uniform. Of the texts recycled directly from Voragine, most preserve elements of his idiosyncratic approach to narrative, particularly the partial abbreviation and modernization of sources, the elimination of moralizing digressions and explanatory glosses, and a certain elasticity of style. Others, however, are either abbreviated, replaced, or expanded by supplementary sources that are carefully synthesized in order to produce longer and more authoritative versions. Some additional materials date from the earliest years of Christian consciousness and offer an impression of sanctity that is subtly different from that of Voragine. In certain instances the texts of the sanctoral even appear to challenge his method of compilation by opting to interpolate sections of the source texts that Voragine had himself rejected when preparing his own versions. Other materials, however, postdate the completion of the Legenda aurea and give an impression of sanctity that is distinctly medieval. It becomes difficult, in view of this, to see the collection as a fully unified entity. In fact, its content could be potentially be thought of in geological terms as a series of sedimentary layers, some partially or wholly disturbed by interference, and others displaying evidence of large-scale fossilization.

The unstable impression produced by the process of reworking is complemented by a complex achronic approach to the evolutionary metamorphosis of sanctity, which places readings for New Testament figures sequentially alongside accounts of martyrs (which constitute approximately half the total number of feasts) as well as later ascetic, visionary, and ecclesiastical saints. Some, such as Fursey, have seldom stimulated critical interest, despite offering lengthy descriptions of visionary experiences in the liminal borderground between life and death (see Escorial h–II–18 fols. 157va–58vb and BNM 12689 fols. 102ra–03va). Others, such as Patrick, are shaped in comparably evocative terms but have fared more favourably, attracting a bewilderingly disproportionate volume of critical attention, largely as a result of the continuation of the Purgatory theme in later [End Page 165] treatments.6 Female saints, such as Elizabeth of Hungary and Clare of Assisi, on the other hand, have most frequently been studied as products of the mantic tradition of medieval female sanctity.7 Inevitably, this work, although extremely valuable, has detached them from earlier narratives, where the female role is equally significant, and has even on occasion presented their experiences as if they somehow developed and flourished in a vacuum.8 Correspondingly, the broader implications of the collection, and the development of an appropriate theoretical approach to its visions and dreams, have not yet been addressed; and it is in this respect that its intellectual orientation proves most elusive, as an eclectic and unstable assortment of literary and theological traditions combines to produce a meta-narrative of significant complexity.

In contemporary usage, the clarity of medieval terminology has become unnecessarily problematized, producing dilemmas of methodology and approach that can be related to the issue of taxonomy. Visions are granted by God, whether the subject is asleep or not, while dreams refer to the physical state of slumber. In this respect, visions can be experienced either as waking encounters or while the subject is unconscious. The Old Testament, which is influential but by no means definitive, counsels on the danger of false dreams, notably in Deuteronomy 13:1–5, Jeremiah 23:25–27, and Zechariah 10:2. Hierarchical distinctions between dreams, visions, and direct revelations, on the other hand, are formulated by passages such as Numbers 12:6–8. The Bible succeeds in this respect in establishing a quadripartite system of classification, with the lowly state of fantasy or apparition [End Page 166] followed gradationally by dreams, visions, and direct revelation. Yet this system was complemented in the Middle Ages by several other methods of classification, the most influential being those of St. Augustine, as outlined in his De Genesi ad litteram, and Macrobius, whose Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis found a particular place in the medieval imagination. In practice, of course, the various models were fused, as the texts of the sanctoral oscillate between textbook definitions in the interests of narrative cohesion. This is partly a product of the process of revision and partial homogenization that marked their incorporation into the Legenda aurea, but also partly of its subsequent unravelling, as the fruits of Voragine’s labour were reworked into the vernacular or replaced by alternative versions.9

The intricacy of this process makes it important to reconsider the status of the sanctoral as a unified collection, and to think in particular about the relationship between self-contained daily readings and the annual narrative established by sequential progression through the liturgical-sanctoral calendar. It becomes crucial, above all else, to ascertain whether ideas are implicitly embedded into texts where they are not explicitly evoked, and to ask whether individual readings should be treated as fully autonomous constructs expressing potentially different, or only partially compatible, points of view. The tension between these extremes reflects most pertinently on questions of memory and cognitive association in the minds of the audience to whom the collection would originally have been addressed. We might ask, for instance, whether frequent allusions to a particular theoretical dream tenet would serve to reinforce it, or whether an annual reminder embedded into a single reading would be enough to trigger or reinforce a process of cyclical recollection. Inevitably, this leads also to a consideration of the broader issue of ideological indoctrination, and the extent to which visions and dreams are shaped in the sanctoral with a specific conception of martyrdom in mind. This is perhaps most important in view of the essential paradox of sanctity in the Middle Ages, with martyrdom continuing to stand as the ultimate expression of individual sacrifice, but as one of ever [End Page 167] decreasing relevance to the specific socio-cultural environment in which the audience lived.

Gervasius and Protasius

A text pregnant with oneiric authority and suggestiveness is the reading for Gervasius and Protasius (19 June), which, in contrast to Voragine’s partially streamlined version, offers a richer and more complex narrative account (see BNM 780 fols. 197va–200va). The central section of the work focuses on St. Ambrose, who is instructed in a tripartite sequence of visions to find the bones of the two saints, which have for many years lain forgotten. Some aspects of the sequence are predictable and make explicit allusion to traditional oneiric commonplaces. Its context, for instance, is marked temporally as Easter, and accordingly, connotes impressions of death and resurrection. The narrator’s waking apprehension, on the other hand, reiterates the habitual link between conscious activity and subconscious reworking:

Ca como en la quaresma pasada me diese el Señor gracia para ser conpañero de los que ayunavan e oravan, estando yo un día en oración fuy apremiado de sueño, e nin velando conplidamente nin durmiendo enteramente, vi con ojos abiertos estar comigo dos mancebos muy fermosos, vestidos de vestiduras muy blancas e claras, conviene saber de tavardos e mantos e calçadas calças, e oravan, las manos alçadas. E non syntiendo en mí graveza grande nin pequeña, non podía fablar con ellos lo que deseava mi conciencia. Mas segunt ya dixe, non estava del todo despierto, e por ende non les podía preguntar e saber dellos lo que deseava la mi voluntad.

The question of classification, however, is far from straightforward: Ambrose, initially describes an unreliable hypnagogic state comparable to a Macrobian visum, but as his eyes are open and he is unable to speak, his experience could be interpreted as a biblical visitation, an Augustinian visio spiritualis, a Macrobian somnium, or perhaps even a combination of the three. This ambiguity, however, serves a purpose, for by compelling the audience to ponder the significance and reliability of dream conventions, it succeeds not only in stimulating interest, but in establishing the text as an essential point of both factual and theoretical reference within the liturgical-sanctoral [End Page 168] cycle.

As Ambrose progresses to a second vision, the relationship to theory becomes more intricate. Ambrose himself alludes to the importance of discernment, fearing the potential for “escarnio de los diablos”, as well as problems of corporeal interference caused by vapours rising upwards from the stomach from undigested food. To remedy this, he prays furiously and increases the severity of his fast, punishing the body in order to liberate the soul from its fleshly impediment so as to precipitate a second encounter. His renewed vigour affords him a vision at the symbolically significant time of midnight on the following day, but it is only on the third day that the sequence reaches its predictably typological climax. Now severely weakened by hunger and his body fully eliminated (“estando ya fallescido el mi cuerpo por el ayuno”), Ambrose is rewarded by an experience that could be classified as a biblical visitation, an Augustinian visio intellectualis, or a Macrobian oraculum. His guide, St. Paul, is recognized from artistic reproduction, as the text plays consciously on the relationship between visual and visionary: “aparesciéronme aquellos dos mancebos con otro tercero semejable al apóstol Sant Paulo, segunt me lo enseñava la pintura que es entre nós acostumbrada.” The message conveyed by his guide is simple: if he is to learn the identity of the handsome youths who stand before him, he must dig beneath his feet, unearth their bones, and find the book that tells their tale. Only then will their achievements receive recognition and his curiosity (and, by implication, that of the audience) be fully satisfied. The vision, in this sense, is not about an experience narrated for its own sake, but about a factually verifiable discovery that functions partly to recognize individual sacrifice (and thereby legitimize the cultic status of two long-forgotten martyrs), and partly to reinforce the reliability and truthfulness of divinely transmitted dream-knowledge per se.

Its importance, however, can be appraised in other respects. As protagonists, Gervasius and Protasius say nothing, and are shepherded by St. Paul, whose infallible status bestows upon them a grandeur and a dignity that a passion without a comparably elaborate framework would be incapable of providing. His personal imprimatur functions in this sense as a guarantee of veracity [End Page 169] and a validation of orthodoxy. The vision, imbued with an impression of momentous solemnity, becomes an instrument of power and indoctrination, underlining the extent to which the dead remain part of the living, as divine authority is channelled through emissaries who seek to uphold the structures of ecclesiastical control long after the conclusion of their worldly travail. This is reinforced by the structural organization of the vision in concentric layers, with Ambrose and Paul functioning as intra-diegetic narrators, leading to a tangible kernel of physical relics and the transmission of auctoritas in the form of written testimony.

Striking in this respect is the latent inculcation of ideology, for if dead saints are able to function in visions and dreams as celestial intermediaries, it follows by implication that death is not an immutable state, but merely the fulcrum of a see-saw ambivalence in which the saved remain physically present on earth through their bodies while already received as souls into heaven. Correspondingly, while the living (the audience to whom the text would have been addressed) struggle to attain fixity or permanence, seeking reassurance and consolation in the physical residue of the saved, the dead continue to thrive as if living, safe in the assurance that the achievement of salvific certainty cannot now be undermined. In this respect, the dead are not banished from existence, but reinterpreted, as Paul Binski has rightly argued, in the context of a radically reconfigured relationship to the living (12). The living, in contrast, are encouraged to see themselves not as alive, but as the dead-to-be; figures trapped in a qualitatively inferior realm of uncertainty in which the intercession of departed souls becomes essential. The resultant paradox shatters the apparent fixity of the boundary between life and death, as the emphasis of the sanctoral falls not on a definitive act of terrestrial/celestial severing, but on provisionality, the power and importance of redemptive procedures, and the ultimate posthumous recoverability of the soul.

The experience could, of course, be dismissed as an elaborate literary mechanism designed purely in order to pass on credible written evidence of saintly sacrifice. Ambrose, after all, receives information and digs a hole in the ground, but is otherwise incidental to the narrative. Of greater functional [End Page 170] importance is the sophisticated combination of analepsis and prolepsis, as his experience serves to bring closure to actions set in motion long ago, whilst at the same time offering anticipatory projections of future cultic status and a place of homage ossified physically around the bones of the two saints for the benefit of the dead-to-be. Discernment, in this sense, is not a process of verification (of questioning, as Ambrose does, whether the vision could be dismissed as a diabolical fantasy), but of legitimizing the discovery of relics and written testimony in relation to questions of conformity to the spirit and legacy of Scripture. The process, by implication, produces an element of assimilation into the broader Christian community which, particularly at the localized and cultic level at which the sanctoral would have been delivered to its target audience, is strengthened immeasurably as a result. Martyrdom in this sense becomes a mode of construction and of self-definition, a heritage on which to graft an understanding of Christian identity capable of binding the past ineluctably to both present and future. The vision, correspondingly, becomes a mechanism not just for the transition between otherwise inaccessible states, but for ontological analysis and self-reinvention, with death seen not as the cessation of existence, but as a transformative obstacle to be negotiated on the long and arduous path to celestial fixity. The emphasis, in short, falls on becoming, self-renewal, and the absolute desirability of a virtuous death.10

A Topos Adapted

The centrality of saintly bodies to the development of the Church as an institution is a theme developed by other readings in the Gran flos sanctorum, although perhaps for reasons of unnecessary duplication, none is as richly detailed in its treatment of visionary and oneiric experience. Marcellinus, for instance, lies unburied for thirty-five days before St. Peter appears before the new Pope, Marcellus (26 April), and implores him to bury his body (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 390rb–91rb). The request, which is couched in gloriously ambiguous terms (“non entiendo que estó enterrado”), fuses the body of the individual with the office that it represents whilst exploring [End Page 171] broader notions of power and authority. A martyred cadaver, despised in life, becomes priceless in death. Its present and future locations relate martyrdom to cultic status (as well as St. Peter, the Pope, and the Church) as the text reiterates the extent to which analepsis and prolepsis are functionally interrelated. Most remarkable, however, is the replacement of the oneiric and visionary fanfare present in the reading for Gervasius and Protasius by a simpler but equally effective formula. Peter appears before Marcellus in a biblical-style visitation. Marcellus is neither shocked nor surprised. The narrative remains unquestioning and unreflective, marking the encounter with the mundane verb aparesció. What follows thereafter is courteous, businesslike, and unspectacular; but importantly, a lost body is reclaimed through an act of celestial intervention.

Comparable in approach is the reading for Quentin (31 October), where an angel appears before a devout Roman lady, imploring her, some fifteen years after the saint’s death, to locate and bury his corpse (see Escorial h–II–18 fols. 194va–95ra). In other texts, however, the proxies disappear, as dead saints deliver messages directly to the living. Peter the Exorcist (2 June) appears three months after his death, communicating information on the location of his martyred cadaver and a request for burial (see BNM 780 fols. 189rb–90rb). Almost identical is the reading for Vincent (22 January), where the saint appears before an assembled gathering and is thereafter interred with honour (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 124rb–27ra and BNM 12688 fols. 221vb–24ra). In each instance an absence of reference to theory or doctrine relegates visionary experience to the status of a routine narrative turning point. Specifics go unreported, frameworks are not developed, and implicit conceptual assumptions are left unstated or unresolved. Significant in this respect is the representation of death as a semi-permeable boundary, accessible to the saved through visions and dreams, but not ordinarily to the dead-to-be. An elaborate topos is reduced in this way to a simplistic reported form. Dead saints return to address the living and are buried with all due ceremony. Their bodies are absorbed into the collective body of the Church in a process that becomes routine and mundane. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the need for discernment is eliminated. [End Page 172]

The process of simplification is in part a product of traditional hagiographic construction, which relies on the deployment of familiar, malleable topoi capable of iterating universally intelligible aspects of doctrine. Yet we should also think of the Gran flos sanctorum as an annual or cyclical narrative delivered to a captive audience of monks or nuns, and potentially over a mind-numbing succession of years. Individual sequential progression and annual repetition in this sense go hand in hand, combining to produce a meta-narrative that encourages minimalism in the re-explanation of human/divine interactions that can safely be taken for granted. From this perspective, the collection’s passion narratives seem Janus-like. As discrete elements, they focus analeptically on the resolution of action strands primed for closure, but proleptically on the establishment of tomb cults and acts of popular devotion, both within the text and in the audience that celebrates their legacy. They also, by implication, relate historical commemoration to the prospect of salvation, the end of time, and celestial reunion. Concomitantly, at a meta-level, a two-way process of temporal conditioning reflects both forwards and backwards through the liturgical-sanctoral cycle to establish and then reiterate commonplaces of understanding. Thus, once formulated as topoi, theoretical conceptions, such as those evidenced by the reading for Gervasius and Protasius, can be invoked with an ever decreasing level of narrative complexity. In fact, for those with better memories, an annual reminder may well be more than enough.

It is perhaps for this reason that the topos mutates in other ways, often in relation to family bonds, a topic of particular resonance to those in holy orders. Savinian (19 August), for example, is martyred, and his half-sister, Savina, rewarded by revelations that lead to his tomb (see BNM 12689 fols. 63vb–65va). Her journey focuses on the traditional clash between the inevitability of death and the difficulty of acceptance, but most notable is that as soon as she arrives, she genuflects, prays, and promptly yields up her soul; the finding of one body producing a second death and a double feast. Natalia, likewise, travels to Constantinople to seek out the body of her husband, Adrian (8 September), and having encountered him in a dream, follows him into Paradise (see Escorial h–II–18 fols. 130ra–32va and BNM [End Page 173] 12689 fols. 73rb–75va). Perhaps most thought-provoking, however, is the example of Dafrosa (2 December), wife of Flaminian, whose experiences are recounted in the legend of their daughter, Bibiana (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 409rb–10va). Flaminian is martyred and his flesh left for dogs, but that night Dafrosa gathers it and inters it in their home. Flaminian subsequently appears to her in a dream and implores her to accept the crown of martyrdom, which she graciously accepts. The dream in this way reiterates the traditional link between context and content, presenting Flaminian’s appearance partly as a consequence of the physical and mental exhaustion caused by Dafrosa’s nocturnal subterfuge. Crucially, however, the relationship between analepsis and prolepsis is differently weighted, for in contrast to narratives that focus on the unresolved fate of the physical body, the major forward-looking outcome in this instance is the death of the dreamer. Flaminian’s remains, already gathered and interred, constitute the background to the dream rather than the reason for it, and so his role is reduced to that of a messenger (or harbinger of death) who seeks merely to gain the celestial company of his widowed spouse. Ironically, as is the case with Savina and Natalia, the most tangible outcome is the production of a fresh corpse for burial. The structural inversion is effective, particularly in conveying emotion, but of greater conceptual significance is that individual oneiric experience here provides the exclusive justification for an act of voluntary submission to death. In effect, Savina, Natalia, and Dafrosa opt to die by finding legitimization for their actions in dreams. Their experiences may be successful in bringing closure to previous action strands, but by choosing to die in order to follow their loved ones, they succeed also in shunting the emphasis of their respective narratives from the physical discovery of relics to active participation in the cult of death. The dream in this respect becomes a bridging device, serving not solely as a means with which to negotiate the gulf between the living and the dead, but perhaps more importantly, as a source of indoctrination capable of quashing fear and encouraging Christians to embrace the absolute ontological certainty of the afterlife.

With other saints, the process of simplification continues to a point where [End Page 174] words alone are enough. Barbara (4 December), for instance, embraces a savage and brutal death when she hears the voice of her ineffable celestial lover encouraging her to join him in Paradise: “Ven, amiga mía, e entra a las moradas perdurables del mi Padre” (see BNM 780 fols. 141ra–44ra and Escorial h–III–22 fols. 410va–13vb). An angel spurs on Blaise (3 February) to accept the traditional crown of martyrdom (“Ve a rescebir la corona que te está aparejada del Señor”), while Margaret of Antioch (20 July) reacts to a celestial voice by imploring her executioner to despatch her without further ado.11 The unquestioningly enthusiastic reaction of these saints makes it possible to raise more detailed questions about narrative equivalency, and to consider the extent to which critical discourses have discussed visions and dreams in isolation from auditory message phenomena and the broader continuum of human/divine interaction. Perhaps more important, however, is the question of ideological indoctrination, and the way in which death is approached in the sanctoral from a fundamentally partisan perspective. For Barbara, Blaise, and Margaret martyrdom is not an act of cessation, but a transition from ontological insecurity to the salvific certainty of Paradise. Its manipulation in imagery is varied, but whether presented in the form of marriage or regal investiture, the emphasis falls on a glorious solemnization of the bond between human and divine.

Yet for the Romans, death has a very different meaning, and by seeing figures such as Barbara, Blaise, and Margaret stubbornly throwing away their lives on a futile endeavour, it is more than likely that they would have regarded Christianity (a religion centred on the worship of a criminal, a corpse) as little more than a fanatical and misguided cult of death.12 In this sense, martyrdom is not a state, but a matter of perspective; and it is in the construction of perspective that we are able to learn most about questions of indoctrination and ideological manipulation. The veracity of experiences that lead to physical proofs such as books and bones is effectively self-affirming. Visions, experienced individually, and communicated within the [End Page 175] text intra-diegetically, can be verified in terms of outcome, although not for the factual authenticity of their content. For that, we must trust in the power of divine intervention and the word of its recipients. Experiences that lead directly to death, in contrast, raise thornier problems, for at the risk of stating the obvious, the essential structural outcome is the demise of the medium used to convey the information that authenticates the presence and influence of divine authority. With Savina and Natalia, death is prefaced by the discovery of relics that partially ameliorate the dearth of corroborating evidence. Yet with Dafrosa there is no such evidence, and no mechanism (other than innate suggestions of piety) for evaluating the veracity or content of her dream. With Barbara, Margaret, and Blaise, in contrast, the problem is even more pronounced, as they each propel themselves to martyrdom under the influence of voices that they alone can hear.

For a Roman inquisitor examining hagiography with cynical eyes, the problem could potentially be framed in relation to issues of psychological motivation, near-death experience precipitated by torture, or the morbid Christian obsession with death.13 The phrasing of some texts almost seems to invite this. Eulalia of Merida (10 December), for instance, is subjected to a protracted sequence of tortures, but is consoled by the sight of angels eagerly awaiting the climax of her passion: “E alegrávase en el Señor, ca veýa ya a los ángeles que estavan delante della e esperavan la fin de la su pasión” (see BNM 780 fols. 98ra–102vb, Escorial h–III–22 fols. 430ra–35va, and BNM 12688 fols. 49rb–53rb). Significantly, the angels are invisible to the pagans who surround her, and as Eulalia fails either to talk or interact with them, their presence becomes problematic. In fact, we might legitimately question not only the distinction between vision and hallucination, but the reliability and trustworthiness of a narrator who is able to communicate information that is clearly incommunicable.

Pagan and Christian

The treatment of visions and dreams elsewhere in the collection, however, militates against cynicism, as it becomes clear that readings for saints such [End Page 176] as Eulalia are underpinned by a series of additional unstated constants. Most striking is the treatment of conversion, with the unseen hand of the divine occasionally alighting on pagans, affording them access to experiences to which others are denied. Peter the Exorcist’s executioner (2 June), for instance, watches the soul of the saint carried aloft by angels, and several years later converts to Christianity (see BNM 780 fols. 189rb–90rb). More immediate is the conversion of the torturers assigned to Martina (1 January), who are inspired by a disembodied voice and summarily despatched as martyrs (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 485ra–88ra and BNM 12688 fols. 163ra–66vb). Yet perhaps the most notable polarity is established by the reading for Cyriacus (8 August), where a disembodied voice promotes martyrdom in typically formulaic terms: “Venit, benditos del mi Padre, e rescebit el regno que vos está aparejado desdel comienço del mundo” (see BNM 12689 fols. 13vb–14vb). Crucially, this message is heard by the Christians and by the pagan alguazil, Anpronianus, but not by the Emperor who, when confronted by an act of defiant conversion, wastes little time in taking Anpronianus’s life. The implication is that acts of human/divine communication are not only selective, but conditioned by factors over which the living have no control.

The readings for Peter, Martina, and Cyriacus deal with conversion in subtly different ways, but in so doing, they confirm the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and Rome. With Peter’s executioner, the process of conversion is protracted but unstated, as he passes through various stages of acceptance before embracing the inevitable. Martina’s torturers, on the other hand, are offered proof of salvation, and immediately upbraid the Emperor for his blindness. Their words underline not just the intensity of their conversion, but the fostering of an atmosphere of evangelical certainty which is radical, immediate, and above all, aggressively confrontational. Most spectacular, however, is the conversion of Anpronianus, as he fashions a telling juxtaposition by collapsing a request for baptism into an explicit yearning for martyrdom: “Yo te conjuro por Jhesu Christo que me des baptismo e me fagas contigo alcançar la corona del martirio.” Although the theology of baptism is concerned with the death of sin, and it may be in this respect that the progression from baptism to martyrdom is but a small step [End Page 177] in his mind, he succeeds nonetheless in formulating a paradox, for despite accepting the importance of the sacrament, the implicit assumption is that a life of Christian purity can be fixed only in the afterlife. The corollary is that death is presented not solely as a reward for Christian service, but as an essential and immediate objective.

The strength of Anpronianus’s conversion makes it possible to relate medieval Castilian hagiography to contemporary discourses on fundamentalism and radicalization.14 The former pagan, influenced by a voice that he cannot explain by rational means, adopts a new religion and immediately covets the celestial fixity of the afterlife. The present, which offers nothing but violence and uncertainty, is of little interest or value. Life has no meaning. What is most remarkable, however, is that his situation is not uncommon. In the legend of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (10 March), for instance, a pagan sentry experiences a vision denied to his fellows, and swiftly takes steps to ensure his own martyrdom (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 533rb–34rb and BNM 12688 fols. 294vb–95va). In the reading for Timothy (22 August), on the other hand, a saint and a converted pagan embrace martyrdom simultaneously (see BNM 12689 fol. 40rb–va). Unusually, this comes as a result of theophany, as a brace of angels directs the attention of those gathered to an opening in the heavens, where Christ, holding a bejewelled crown, boldly announces: “Con aquesta corona serás cononado de mi mano.” The ensuing double martyrdom offers an arresting take on the notion of visio Dei, as expounded by Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Yet of greater significance is that a lone pagan, here picked seemingly at random, experiences a vision denied to all others. The extent to which the reward comes as a result of an unstated inner quality that somehow renders him ripe for conversion is an issue left unexplored. What the legend succeeds in promoting, however, is an important ideological shift in the relationship between admiration and emulation, with martyrdom here presented as an exclusive and highly desirable experience to which only the chosen few are [End Page 178] invited.

In other texts, dialectics of inclusion/exclusion are explored in a more theoretically informative manner. Savina (19 August), for instance, experiences a vision in her sleep, which can be seen but not heard by her foster-sister, who is marked out thereby as a figure of lesser importance in a hierarchy of perception.15 Secundus (3 April), on the other hand, experiences a sequence of revelations on the path to conversion, while his companion, Sapricio, is left to languish in comparative ignorance (see Escorial h–III–22 fols. 357vb–59vb). The distinction between the two characters is reinforced partly by suggestions of spiritual predisposition, with the latter attributing the inexplicable to the pagan gods, and the former, to the hand of the divine. Yet of greater importance is a qualitative distinction in sensory perception, for when confronted by an angel, Secundus experiences the encounter as a direct revelation, while his companion wonders if it has been a dream. His question, “¿Quién es aquéste que nos fabla asý como en sueños?”, recalls the distinction between Savina and her foster-sister. Notable in this instance, however, is a more aggressive undertone that leads Secundus to respond by stating that what has for Sapricio seemed like a dream, has for him been an unambiguous source of “amonestación e esfuerço”. For this, and several other reasons, the two friends become subject thereafter to a spectacular bifurcation, with Secundus eagerly seeking out martyrdom, and Sapricio ready and willing to inflict torture and death on pagans (such as Secundus) who convert to Christianity as a result of the visions that they experience. The process, in this sense, is not simply one of division, but of the full-scale reinvention of identity, as the self/other relationship is destabilized by procedures of recognition, disavowal, and repudiation in which Secundus is effectively transformed into his own antithesis. The text in this way emphasizes the importance of visions and dreams as catalysts not just for conversion, but for the establishment of violent and irreconcilably polarized [End Page 179] conflicts between individuals and the religions that they represent.

The collection is in this sense more unified than it at first appears, for despite drawing on material from a range of sources and historical periods, its strategies for indoctrination and ideological manipulation are not only clear, but consistent, particularly at the level of meta-narrative, where latent triggers encoded into individual narratives are activated by procedures of cognitive recall set in motion by texts that are positioned at different points in the cycle. Visionary, oneiric, and auditory experience, whether offered to pagan or Christian, or whether developed or left largely implicit, is presented throughout the sanctoral as a force of psychological reassurance capable of convincing its recipients that the pain of martyrdom will be worthwhile, and that suffering will be rewarded in the afterlife. As the ontological certainty of future salvation intrudes into the present, the dead-to-be look beyond death to a divinely sanctioned reward, and become willing to subject themselves to extreme forms of physical sacrifice, often encouraging their executioners to descend into a frenzied cycle of depravity by treating them with a tone of evangelical contempt. Those who look on (both within the narratives, and more broadly, its audience) are polarized accordingly, with those who admire and emulate pitted against the brutish and the unenlightened.

It becomes clear in this respect that the texts of the anthology are predicated on topoi, which twist and mutate as they are deployed, but remain anchored nonetheless to a semantic nucleus of certainty in which death is consistently and comprehensively presented as an aspirational reward. This central aspect of doctrine is complemented by ancillary constants, notably the use of symbolism, which is used for ideological reinforcement, sometimes visually, but also in oral form. The constants vary in number and distribution, but are arranged around the nucleus in a reassuringly familiar series of concentric circles. Questions of formal quality, as well as the timing and specificity of deployment, vary from narrative to narrative. This produces a sense not just of semantic equivalence, but of functional interdependence in a mobile system in which ideas continuously and systematically regroup in a transparent, coherent, and readily identifiable fashion. This should, of course, produce an element of predictability, and in some senses it does. Visions of death, [End Page 180] after all, can be collated without difficulty, and common denominators traced with relative ease. Yet such is the vastness of the Gran flos sanctorum that what emerges is not a sense of how similar its texts are, but of their particularity, with no two readings presenting topoi, especially from the point of view of temporal arrangement, in precisely the same sequence. This leads to an impression not of stale borrowing, but of narrative equivalency and imaginative sequential formulation, with aspects of reproduction and evolution manipulated ideologically in order to establish a minutely varying sense of the absolute ontological certainty of salvation. The result is a collection in which death and martyrdom, legitimized by the authority of visions and dreams, become not only familiar, but gloriously enticing.

Andrew M. Beresford
University of Durham

Works Cited

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1. In his work on the taxonomy of the miraculous, Mark Corner recognizes the importance of the root miraculum (“object of wonder”), but concedes that a working definition of the miracle must be qualified in a Christian context by terms such as “beneficial”, “religiously significant”, or “special or immediate act of God” (15). Ironically, much the same could be said of the dream vision or almost any other form of human/divine interaction.

2. For analepsis, prolepsis, and broader questions of anachrony, see Genette (67–79). The applicability to hagiography of Genette’s other theories remains untested.

3. In his discussion of the theory of the aesthetics of reception, Hans Robert Jauss defines the horizon of expectation in terms of the social norms and historical situation of a given time and place as conditioned by the (inevitably variable) responses of readers.

4. A comprehensive survey is beyond the remit of this discussion, but it is worth noting that these relationships are far from uniform. The visions, dreams, and deaths of medieval saints are often inimitable, and establish elements of hierarchization capable of marking out their experiences as those of a spiritual elite. Dreams of other types, notably of birth and destiny, on the other hand, establish a protracted temporal disjunction, analogous or identical to the effects of prophesy, which can be read in Genettian terms as a partial (rather than complete) analepsis, where the anachrony is not immediately resolved, but continues to a point where it rejoins the primary narrative sequence (see Genette 77). The function is not in this respect to follow anticipation by immediate proof, but to establish a frame that can be reactivated by procedures of cognitive recall (see Bridgeman 130). The result, inevitably, is a very different type of narrative structure.

5. For studies of its formation, scope, and content, see Thompson and Walsh, Beresford, The Legends (63–90), Hernández Amez, Descripción y filiación 33–166, Beresford The Severed Breast 15–57, and Aragües Aldaz.

6. See, amongst others, Solalinde, Mulertt, van den Zanden, MacBride, Avalle Arce, Galo González, and Baños Vallejo and Uría Maqua (87–89, 105–07). The Gran flos sanctorum preserves two recensions: Escorial h–III–22 (fols. 209ra–12ra) and BNM 12688 (fols. 318rb–21ra).

7. For Elizabeth, see Escorial h–II–18 (fols. 231ra–40ra) and BNM 12689 (fols. 180ra–90ra), and Clare, BNM 12689 (fols. 21va–24ra). For an introduction to the visionary and mystical experience of medieval women, see Furlong, and more recently, Minnis and Voaden.

8. Hernández Amez (“Las vidas”) and Gatland detach female saints from the broader context. Beresford (The Severed Breast 140–49) comments briefly on the artificiality of gendered division, but a balanced and systematic survey, showing exactly how and to what extent female saints differ from their male counterparts, is long overdue. For a discussion of dreams in Elizabeth’s vita, see Buxton’s contribution to this cluster.

9. For dream systems in antiquity, see Miller, and for the Middle Ages, Hieatt, Spearing, Lynch, Bitel, Davis, Strickling, and Newman.

10. For an exploration of ontological reinvention in the legends of the desert ascetics, see Beresford, “Reformulating Identity”.

11. For Blaise, see Escorial h–III–22 (fols. 270ra–72va) and BNM 12688 (fols. 168rb–71ra), and for Margaret, BNM 780 (fols. 245ra–47rb).

12. For a compact synopsis of the early Christian obsession with death, see Bowersock.

13. For near-death experience, see Kellehear.

14. For broad theoretical reflections on the question of self-sacrifice and its ideological implication, see amongst others Weiner and Weiner, Cormack, and Castelli. For the historical background and the Christian cult of death, see Bowersock.

15. BNM 12689 (fols. 63vb–65va). Savina stands as a precursor of later saints such as Elizabeth of Hungary and Clare of Assisi, where the question of exclusivity is taken to extremes, as experiences (vaguely perceived but materially denied to others), are presented as proofs of extraordinary and incomparable status. For an analysis of Elizabeth, see Buxton’s contribution to this cluster.

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