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  • Women on the Edge of Glory: Tarsiana, Oria, and Liminality
  • Matthew V. Desing

The extent to which the author of the thirteenth-century Castilian version of the Apollonius of Tyre legend, the Libro de Apolonio, infused his poem with Christian theological elements has been the focus or ancillary concern of much scholarship on the text over the past fifty years. While scholarly opinion varies in regard to the depth of the poem’s christianization, one area that scholars have plumbed for clues is the web of connections between the poem and contemporary medieval hagiography; articles that primarily examine these connections include those of Ronald E. Surtz, Marina Scordilis Brownlee, and Patricia Grieve. The majority of the scholarship that treats the subject of the poem’s Christian elements, whether influenced by hagiography or not, tends to focus on the male protagonist of the narrative instead of the two primary female characters, Apolonio’s wife Luciana and his daughter Tarsiana. In a previous article (“De pan y de tresoro”), I have proposed a sacramental reading of the poem in which both of these female characters play significant roles, but in which Tarsiana becomes quasi-priestly in nature. In the present article I similarly examine Tarsiana’s [End Page 229] expanded religious role, but through the lens of hagiography and models of medieval female sanctity. Such an undertaking could be voluminous in nature if one were to take into account all available models of female piety in their numerous incarnations in medieval hagiography. Here my goal is much more focused in that I examine points of comparison between the character of Tarsiana and one of the most well-known female characters of thirteenth-century Castilian literature: the explicitly saintly protagonist of Berceo’s contemporary hagiography, the Vida de Santa Oria. Narrowing the focus even further, I concentrate on two scenes that are either visionary or vision-like, are closely connected to the liminality of rites for the dead and purgatorial piety, and in which the dominant Christian symbol of the Eucharist plays an important role. Through this analysis I propose that the author of the Apolonio was informed by contemporary hagiographical models of female sanctity, as exemplified by Santa Oria, in his christianization of the character of Tarsiana.

The Apollonius of Tyre legend was one of the most well-known narratives of the European Middle Ages. All versions, whether in Latin or in one of the various medieval vernaculars, tell of the wanderings of the young king of Tyre and his family throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Castilian version begins with the young protagonist being forced to flee his kingdom. Having lost everything through a series of misadventures, his fortune turns when he is welcomed into another royal court as the music teacher of the princess and promptly wins her heart. He marries the princess Luciana, and when she is several months pregnant, they decide to return to Apolonio’s homeland. Luciana goes into childbirth during the voyage and appears to die, at which time the bereaved king leaves his infant daughter in the care of foster parents in the city of Tarsus. Taking her name from the city, the infant Tarsiana grows into a beautiful and intelligent girl, which arouses jealousy in her foster mother who decides to have her killed. In a scene with an otherworldly ambiance, the assassin interrupts Tarsiana’s graveside rituals at the tomb of her recently deceased nursemaid at which time her story nearly comes to an end. Tarsiana escapes the assassin through prayer and the chance interruption of events by pirates, and it is precisely this scene [End Page 230] and its repercussions that will be examined for its similarities to the Santa Oria. After many years and various trials, Apolonio’s family is reunited, and the ending of the poem brings an overtly Christian message to bear on the pagan plot structure of the tale.

At first glance, Berceo’s Santa Oria tells a very different kind of story. The Christian nature of the text is explicit due to its hagiographical subject, but this late work by Berceo is not a typical saint’s life.1 Unlike Berceo’s hagiographies of San Millán and...


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