Scent of the Vision: Odoriferous Rewards in Fermoso cuento de una santa enperatrís que ovo en Roma & de su castidat
The fourteenth-century manuscript, Escorial h–I–13, is a collection of nine hagiographic-chivalresque tales, all protagonized by a female heroine who triumphs over great persecution.1 The first five works are explicit hagiographies while the last four are romances but, despite this transition from religious saints’ lives to secular romances, the nine pieces exhibit a significant unity. Their pro-feminist tone (Spaccarelli 46) and general plot structure (Maier and Spaccarelli 21) serve as common threads.2 [End Page 259]
The collection is further unified by the similar ways in which the women suffer their trials.3 The ideals set forth by the saints in the first tales are enacted by the earth-bound women who follow, setting up a model for the manuscript’s female audience.4 As the reader enters the second half of the manuscript, finding lives more similar to her own, she is nonetheless reminded of the absolute holiness to which she should attain. Although she could easily hold up each of the romance heroines as a chaste and saintly model, the holiness for which she should strive (and its subsequent rewards) is most powerfully portrayed for her in the penultimate romance, Fermoso cuento de una santa enperatrís que ovo en Roma & de su castidat (hereafter Santa enperatrís).5
The last three narratives of the manuscript –in order, Otas de Roma, Santa enperatrís, and Carlos Maynes– share a common plot, the not unfamiliar [End Page 260] tale of a saintly empress falsely accused of adultery. While the goodness and chastity of all three heroines merit salvation from their trials there is a clear distinction between the levels of holiness manifested in each story.6 Carlos Maynes, the least spiritual of the three, abounds with references to religious ritual, but the relational aspect of religion (a certain friendship between the empress and God or Mary) is missing along with any miracle as are found in all the other works of the manuscript; instead of heavenly aid, the empress Sevilla is assisted by the very human Barroquer.7 In Otas de Roma Florencia’s plight takes a more religious and magical tone. The empress is saved from being raped through a magical stone she was given and which she later uses to cure the lepers. The structure of her magical release, however, lacks the focus of a heavenly intervention that is found in Santa enperatrís.
Making Santa enperatrís distinct from the other two is the use of a vision of the Virgin Mary which identifies the saintliness of the Empress, a vision around which the sum of the work revolves. The Virgin appears to the Empress as she is at her lowest point, both to rescue her and to announce that her suffering is no more. In that same encounter, she is rewarded with the enchanted herb, the plant and its power directly transferred to the Empress. In contrast, Florencia, although spared from rape by her magical object, endures further trials before her life is turned around. For the Empress, the vision is the consummate pivot point, an event and reward which “permite señalar su cercanía a la tradición hagiográfica desarrollada inicialmente en el códice” (Zubillaga CXLVI).
The vision-event serves as an axis around which the entire story revolves, clearly dividing the narration in two –the first part of the Empress’s life [End Page 261] shows how she effectively earns the otherworldly second half of her life, “viviendo y muriendo en olor de santidad” (González, “Una santa” 164).8 The impact of the vision is easily observed and below I will outline how other vision/sight elements likewise affirm the saintliness of the Empress. When considering this sainthood of the Empress, however, one who dies with the odor of sanctity, we must probe beyond the figurative poetry of the expression and it is in this search for literal scent in the tale that we discover a panoply of olfactory holiness. Smell is found loosely paralleling its “superior” scent, sight, but serves in an elevated fashion. The olfactory extends beyond the use of vision through the second half of the narrative so that the Empress literally lives and dies in a holy aroma that sets her apart from those with whom she interacts and the other empresses in the manuscript, uniquely identifying her as a living saint. The use of smell to distinguish this fictional work as a hagiographic text raises it above the other romances of the collection in accord with various “hagiographies [which] have adopted the martyr’s scent of sanctity and added it to their saint’s stories to improve the status of their heroes and place them firmly in the tradition of the martyrs” (Evans 196).
Considered the highest sense from the time of Plato through, and beyond, the Middle Ages, sight functioned in a powerful way as a conduit for knowledge —individuals knew the world through what they saw— a role which manifests itself in the sight language used to express how we come to know things (Akbari 3–4).9 Although the analogy linking sight and knowledge lessened in the approach of the end of the Middle Ages, vision “continued to [End Page 262] be used as part of the rhetoric of mystical experience and affective piety well into the fifteenth century” (Akbari 236). While visions are not uncommon in medieval religious culture, the importance of seeing was not limited to experiencing these appearances, in whatever form they came. Rather, seeing also included the sight of physical, holy objects. Although there are any number of relics the sight of which may have granted blessing or miracles, the seeing of the host in the mass celebration took on such great importance in the later Middle Ages that simply beholding it was considered as powerful as consuming it (Bynum 54–55).
Although sight reigned supreme, a complete sensorial perception of the medieval world required all five senses. In her groundbreaking book Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Caroline Walker Bynum describes the extraordinary nature of medieval feasts, events that were designed for the participation of all the senses, not simply taste. She goes on compare these secular feasts with all their wonder and illusions to the reception of the Eucharist:
Given such assumptions about and expectations of food, it is small wonder that medieval mystics considered sounds and sights as crucial to the eucharistic banquet as eating, or that they sometimes felt they “ate” or “received” with their eyes or in their minds and hearts. It is no accident that Christ’s feast involved all the senses, since secular banquets did so. (61, my emphasis)
As the senses are called upon together in medieval culture, one should not be surprised to find sight and smell, or any combination of senses for that matter, working together in a piece such as Santa enperatrís, a hagiographic text purposed to inspire devotion. Let us briefly consider one example from Byzantium, that of relief icons, three dimensional religious works of art which were undoubtedly intended to engage with all the senses. What is known of them in modernity must be experienced only with the eyes as the other four senses are denied the originally intended interaction by the display cases in which they are now housed (Pentcheva 1). In the design of these ninth-century icons, the exchange between human (senses) and icon served to negotiate the highest potential of significance in the work of art. [End Page 263]
Every sense was required to create the icon’s greatest meaning, from touching the icon to seeing the light reflecting off it to hearing prayer and music in the church to smelling the burning incense (Pentcheva 1–2). All of this was arranged to work together to create a complete devotional experience for the faithful who would engage with it.
While things seen are much more prevalent in the religious literature of the Middle Ages, we cannot of course deny the function of the other senses and I will show in what follows that smell must be considered along with vision for its complementary and distinct purposes in Santa enperatrís.10 I will begin with an analysis of the more obvious role of vision in the work and then proceed to the manifestation of smell, demonstrating how the latter augments the former and extends even beyond the use of vision to affirm the holiness of the empress in a singular way.
The devotional quality of the text can best be understood when considering the Empress’s vision of the Virgin Mary as central to the story and, as explained above, an event around which the rest of the narration turns. Although the entirety of her life can be described as “saintly”, there is a marked difference in the Empress’s post-vision life, and consequently, I propose to look briefly at the story divided in three parts as they relate to the Empress’s life –pre-vision, the vision itself, and post-vision.
Before the vision, her life was distinguished by her beauty, royal status, good deeds (which were readily acknowledged by the citizens of Rome) and a repeated recognition of her bodily restraint. Throughout that portion she [End Page 264] is many times referred to as santa and casta. Indeed the reader is told from the beginning of the noble and life-long sanctity of the Empress: “e por ende vos contaré de una enperatrís que amó & temió de todo su coraçon a nuestro Señor Jesu Xristo & a Santa María su madre. E por su amor amó mucho castidat, así en la niñez commo en la mançebía commo en la vejez” (177) –a sanctity so well established and practiced, “que viento nin tormenta nin mala andança non la pudo mover” (184). This characterization persists during her trials as we hear her constantly calling out to God and the Mother of Christ to preserve her chastity and to rescue her: “¡Ay, Santa María Virgen, Señora, quel fijo de Dios troxiste en tu cuerpo, socórreme aýna, ca mucho lo he menester, e ruega al tu glorioso fijo que me acorra, ca me semeja que mucho me tarda” (191).
The Empress’s vision deals with both the present (while the Virgin is with her) and the future (post-vision) as Mary helps her in that moment and also lays out how the Empress’s life will change from that juncture onwards. There are three key points to the Empress’s encounter with the Virgin. First, the vision itself can be seen as a reward. She is granted this vision, this interaction with the Mother of Christ. Second, the Virgin’s announcement and promise reveal that the Empress will be alleviated from suffering, she will be rescued from her current situation and will not be required to undergo any more trials (her refining process is complete). That subsequent future life promised her is the final part of her reward and she is now given the opportunity to live out her true vocation as a saint and to reject the comforts of the world, devoting herself entirely to a life serving Christ.11 Lastly, she is given a herb with healing power, one that gives purpose to her life of earthly sainthood but also, as I will argue further on, serves to point to the hagiographic distinction of the work through its visual perception and olfactory identification. [End Page 265]
Another crucial facet of the vision of Mary is that it emphasizes that the aid the Empress receives is from above. Although she defends herself and resists temptation as best she can, she is very decidedly receiving assistance from both God and Mary. The author assures that the devil, even though he tempts people well, cannot finally get to those who are truly fixed on staying pure: “Mas aquellos & aquellas que aman de corasçón la Virgen Santa María & quieren mantener casto corasçón, non los puedes assý engañar” (194) and that in specific regard to the Empress, “ya tanto non la pudo tentar; ca assý firmó corasçón en castidat, ca así fue esmerada commo oro en fornaz” (194).12
The vision-event serves as a reward for the Empress and a turning point in the narrative but the seeing of the Virgin (visually taking in her appearance) is what most comforts the Empress.13 Even before she is granted the vision of Mary, the narrator tells that “Aquella … que todos conseja & todos conforta, confortó a la enperatrís que tanto era triste & desmayada & amorteçida” (207). Directly following that, “La sabrosa Virgen … veno confortar a la enperatrís sobre la peña do séya, e mostrósele en visión tan clara” (207) and here one begins to see the strong correlation between the Empress seeing the Virgin and being assuaged in her trials. While the news that her trials have ended and that her attackers will be cursed with leprosy is indeed relieving, it is the sight of the Virgin that most consoles and revives the persecuted Empress.
Mary continues to explain to her that upon awaking, “toda serás confortada de tu fanbre & averás alegría & plazer de que me viste” (207). The narrator confirms this in the next segment: “La santa enperatrís fue muy confortada de la visión que vio de la gloriosa” (208) and that, as promised, “Toda su fanbre [End Page 266] se le olvidó y sus males” (208). While she was in her most wretched state “bien sabía que do ella era tan desacorrida que non pudiera aver conforto de ninguno, que la veniera visitar & acorrer la madre del rey de gloria” (208). She knew only the Mother of Christ was able to help her, saving her from her physical ills but also encouraging her simply by visiting the Empress and giving a vision of herself to her saintly friend. The Empress is even comforted by the remembrance of the vision once she awakes: “Quando se la enperatrís despertó, maravillóse de la visión que viera & fue muy confortada & muy folgada” (208).
The importance of vision in Santa enperatrís goes one step further still. The sight of devotional objects, so significant in the Middle Ages, appears in the narrative, adding an extra element to vision. After telling the Empress that she will be relieved of her hunger and be filled with happiness for having seen the Virgin, Mary continues with her blessing:
E porque sepas mejor que me viste, tanto que despertares, cata sobre tu cabeça, & fallarás una santa yerva a que yo dare tal virtud & tal graçia, que a todos los gafos a quien la dieres a bever en el nonbre de la madre del rey de gloria, que luego serán guaridos & sanos; ya tan perdidos non serán. (207)
The stated value of the herb lies in its healing powers. The Empress will be able to return to the men who harmed her and give them back their health with just a drink of the liquid.
What we must notice here, however, is that this is the second part of the explanation for the gifting of the herb. Mary states her main purpose in giving it as “porque sepas mejor que me viste.” The physical presence of the herb verifies that the Empress did indeed see the Virgin in a vision; Mary’s primary concern in this intercession for her friend is to let the Empress know that she truly was visited by the Mother of Christ and to ensure that she is comforted and encouraged by that knowledge. Moreover, the herb serves the purpose of a relic — it is what remains of the Virgin and represents her to the Empress. The latter carries it with her on her journey, making very practical use of it by healing lepers, but at the same time she is afforded constant sight of the herb. As many people looked to a saint’s body part or [End Page 267] item of clothing, the Empress is blessed by continually being able to see the herb, a reminder of the Virgin Mary’s help, presence and reward in her life. As she goes out into the world taking the herb with her, she is strengthened by the continual re-vision of the physical herb.
While it would be enough to study how this narrative is replete with the three types of vision, it would be inattentive to not note the powerful way in which smell aligns with these salient vision points and serves to complement the “higher” sense.14 Upon waking from her three-day slumber and marveling over the vision she had, the Empress remembers Mary’s promise that she would give her a healing herb:
E cató so su cabeça & falló la yerva que viera en visión. E bien sopo luego que non fuera devaneo nin anteparança. Desý fincó los inojos & dio gracias a santa María & tomó la yerva. Mas nunca omne vio tan fermoso nin que tan buen olor diese, así que todo el ayre aderredor ende era complido. (208, my emphasis)15
The author explicitly states that the herb smells wonderful and that the air all around it and the Empress is overwhelmed by the scent. As the Empress carries the herb with her (sustained in part by the sight of it) she is reminded of its presence and power by the pleasant smell that now envelopes her. In a way, the smell of it is more powerful because the Empress need not do anything to be reminded of Mary’s presence with her and her earlier [End Page 268] promises. Benefitting from the sight of the herb requires that she actively look at it. The reception of the smell, however, is much more passive; to benefit from it she must simply be in the presence of the herb.
Smell also joins with sight to comfort the Empress. In the Virgin’s promise to the Empress toward the end of her vision she assures the saintly woman that “Agora te avonda así de la vista de mi faz que fanbre non te faga mal” (207), asserting the power of the sight of her face to take away the Empress’s hunger and vulnerability.16 Moving backward in the narrative, however, we find that the Empress’s hunger is taken away even before her visit by the Virgin Mary. In the midst of her trial, directly before falling into the sleep that will provide for the vision, the Empress cries out to Mary for help, asking her not to forget her in her suffering. After this she falls into a restless sleep but Mary extends herself to her friend before visiting her in the vision: “Mas el santo lirio & la rosa, que bien huele sobre toda cosa, confortó la fanbrienta del su olor santo & glorioso, en guisa que la amortiguada ende fue confortada & abondada” (206). The Empress’s hunger is first taken away by the smell of “el santo lirio & la rosa”, both flowers representative of Mary. She is sustained in this way much like the medieval holy women who fasted for long periods of time and were sustained only by the Eucharist (Bynum 93).
Smell and scent complement vision. The smell of the herb comforts and sustains the Empress as does the sight of it. The Empress is revived and aided through her vision of Mary but first she is relieved through the smell of the Virgin’s presence. Although smell appears in tandem with vision in these two ways, it also works distinctly throughout the remainder of the narrative to identify the Empress as a saint living on earth.
The newly acquired status of the Empress, her healing ability, power over others and earthly sainthood can all be better understood when considered within the context of the medieval perception of smell –the saintly smell [End Page 269] pleasant while sinners stink– not only in the appearance of certain odors in the post-vision portion (thus clearly differentiating it from the first half) but also in the way that it is used to distinguish the saintly Empress from others, in particular the sinful leprous seducers whom she encounters as a healer.
In the Middle Ages the religious significance of smell is revealed in the importance of perfume and incense in the church, along with the preoccupation with good and bad smells in people, indicators of sanctity and sin, respectively. Launert points out the importance of smoke for purification and the accompanying notion that smoke represents the soul leaving the body to meet with God. At the same time, it serves as a boundary excluding the ungodly. Launert also affirms the importance of the use of incense to form a connection between the believer and God (in fact, Launert says this is the raison d’être of perfume in the church): “by heightening his senses it increased the capacity of the worshipper to meditate and concentrate on prayer” (9).
Since pleasing aromas, in this case through incense, represent intimacy with God, smell also serves to distinguish between the people who enjoy this intimacy (saints and martyrs) and those that are separated from him by sin; simply put, those who smell good are good while those who smell bad are bad.17 Woman, whose incomplete body yielded stinking, monthly filth, served as a prime subject for the embodiment of evil in medieval theology.18
At the other end of the spectrum is the belief that good smells are signs of [End Page 270] sanctity and chastity, both of which represent a connection with the Virgin Mary. The belief that the body of the Virgin was without sin is presented in the Middle Ages through the image of a perfumed rose and a thorny plant, representative of the relationship between Mary and sinful humanity (Twomey 1). In having a naturally pleasing aroma, Mary is distinguished from the rest of womankind whose inherent odor was unpleasant.19
Relatedly, many faithfully affirmed that saints and martyrs emit a sweet fragrance, in life as well as in death. Suzanne Evans’s brief study of the scent of martyrs and saints in Christianity and Islam explains that the pleasant smells these certain bodies possessed in death came to permeate their lives as well (197). In this “olfactory theology” the sin and holiness of a person can be revealed by his or her smell: “Fragrance can be seen as functioning similarly to a martyrology. Like the story, the fragrance emanates out with its presumed proof of divinity and impacts all who perceive it” (Evans 195).
Saints’ lives record holy men and women who were surrounded by pleasant odors, of flowers and incense, in life and, much more commonly, in death. The pleasing aroma in death is particularly significant when considering that the saintly Empress awakens from her three days of “death” surrounded by the fragrance of the magic herb. There are numerous examples of saints whose bodies, even hundreds of years after burial, do not reek of decay when transferred to other tombs. These chronicles are accompanied by explicit mention that the bodies had not been buried with spices and perfumes as was common among those who could afford them.20 [End Page 271]
Complementing the link between pleasant smells and the saintly is the connection between stink and sin, that “the odour of sanctity stood in opposition to the stench of moral corruption” (Classen, Howes and Synnott 53) and which is exemplified in the rotting lepers of Santa enperatrís.21 Michael Solomon explains that one facet of the correspondence between sin and foul smells is the medieval belief that sexuality led to illness, Adam and Eve having introduced sex and lust after their sinful fall in the Garden (The Literature 50). As intercourse was a prime manner in which disease was passed between people, leprosy came to be recognized as the epitome of transgression:
Leprosy, perhaps the most dreaded, the most symbolically saturated, and certainly the most socially stigmatized disease of the Middle Ages, was linked to hypersexuality in the sufferer, who was thought to transmit venereally the horrors of autoamputations, nasal destruction, facial coarsening, and vocal changes. (50)
Therefore, the foul smell which results from this physical illness is a signifier of the sinfulness of the lepers who, as sexual deviants, suffer from this disease of rotting flesh and its accompanying stench.22
Solomon writes specifically about the identification of the leper in his study on “diseasing the other” in Francesc Eiximenis’s Lo llibre de les dones. Part of this recognition consists of identifying the “other”, he who has the illness and can contaminate others (“Fictions” 278). In order to recognize the illness, for the purpose of distancing oneself from it, one must group the sick [End Page 272] together and find a way to classify them. This socially-driven classification and subsequent ostracization gives further power to leprosy’s moral disgrace and condemning effect.
Eiximenis adds to the discussion by associating severe sin with the woman’s body, expressing that, “el pecat més greu de la dona és la manca de castedat, els pecats de la carn, la luxúria” (Piera 314). This sin in women results in bad smells and the contamination of the air, bringing to mind the medieval belief that the body naturally attempts to clean itself, the filthy insides leaving the body and thereby producing foul smells.
These olfactory perceptions surrounding men, women and illness reveal the powerful way in which smells work in the second half of Santa enperatrís. After her transformative vision, the lovely smelling Empress commences her healing journey and we begin to see the ways in which, by her elevation, she takes on the role that Mary held for her in the first part of the story. The lepers and their families then assume the previous position of the Empress in their need for and supplication of the newly sainted heroine. Although she cures many lepers before returning to her seducers, there is no mention of the rot or smell associated with any of them until she is called to heal her second seducer, the description of whom assures us of his great sin: “tanto era gafo & podre que venino corría dél, así que non avía en el mundo omne nin mugier que se dél mucho non enojase” (212).
This image, however, hardly merits a nod when compared to that of her brother-in-law, whose description holds nothing back in painting a picture of the scabies, scabs, blisters, pus, and worms that cover him:
Ca tanto que levantó la traiçón a la enperatrís, así fue su carne llena de sarna & de postillas, que non podería ser más. E ante quel año fuese pasado, fue tan gafo & tan podre que fue cobierto de gusanos. Asy lo ferió Dios de tan vil enfermedat por la mentira & por la traiçón que levantara a la santa dueña, & era tan coitado que más de veynte vezes en el día maldezía la muerte porque le non llegaba que lo matase. E asy raviava de podraga que avía en los pies, & yazía baladrando en el lecho, llamándose catyvo, mesquino & avía el rostro tan ampollado que non avía omne en el mundo que se mucho non enojase [End Page 273] dél, e tal era por todo el cuerpo que non avía en él tres dedos de carne sana. (218)
Picturing this, one cannot help but imagine the accompanying smell. It is, however, provided explicitly for the reader: “e tal era por todo el cuerpo que non avía en él tres dedos de carne sana, & así era postelloso & lleno de venino, & tan mal fedía que non avía omne poder de se llegar a él sy ante non atapase las narizes, assý commo faría por un can podre” (218). In this encounter, one envisions the vivid juxtaposition between good and evil, the Empress enveloped by the saintly scent of the Virgin Mary, smelling of flowers, and the leprous brother-in-law smelling of rotting dog, the saint and the sinner both identified by the odor they emit.
The protagonist’s final vindication is characteristic of the chivalry tale and easily recognized in the unfolding of Santa enperatrís. Although her exoneration is most obvious in her elevation to sainthood and the illness of her pursuers, it is imperative to also consider the identifying power of smell in the Empress’s absolution. As a woman, the Empress, even in her saintly state in the second part of the narrative and with her acquired power over others (namely her male persecutors), does not have the same means of self-defense as a man. Despite the changes she has undergone and her new healing ability, she is still viewed as a woman and as such, one whose tongue is not to be trusted.23 However, she does not need that appendage for [End Page 274] the truth to be told. The truth is declared to all who approach the leprous seducers, as their rotting flesh speaks of their sin and reveals the Empress’s innocence.24
This leads finally to a consideration of how the body relates to the overt presence of smell in the narrative, more specifically, the differences between male and female in relation to open body cavities. There is a strong correlation between a woman’s foul-smelling body and her monthly cleansing, the idea that the rot and filth from inside her come to the outside, thus focusing on this gender-differentiating aperture. When the narrator (and Mary) assigns the Empress a pleasant smell via the herb, it is as if to say that her body has been closed off and she is no longer a woman in that physical sense.25 Rather, like other saints, both female and male, she has been assigned a type of androgyny that results from her sainthood.
Further evidence of the limiting of her womanhood is found in the scene immediately preceding the Virgin’s appearance where the Empress loses her speech and even the simple movement of her tongue, essentially closing off her mouth. This paralysis relates to the Empress’s bodily transformation since “[w]omen’s compulsive orality was considered another product of their feminine fluidity [in that] they gushed with speech as they gushed with body fluids” (Classen 74). Her saintly body has now been figuratively sealed, her speech removed and the smell of her genitalia replaced by the scent of flowers. Thus, her two most considered and condemning apertures are closed off, equating her more closely with men and beyond that, with the saints.26 [End Page 275]
At the other end of the spectrum are the lepers. Their previous state as healthy men gave them a relatively closed-off body, especially when compared to women. Due to the disease, however, their bodies are covered with open wounds, wounds that are not only apertures but ones from which come foul smells. In this state, their bodies decaying and disintegrating, the lepers more closely approximate decomposing dead men.27 The perceptible image of a corpse brings to mind Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection, the disintegration of established boundaries, in particular those corporeal limits through which break the body’s insides. The disgust for and fear of a woman’s monthly “breakdown” is replaced in this narrative by the lepers’ bodies, whose insides are revealed through their open sores, mimicking the state of a corpse. Here one “behold[s] the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders: fainting away. The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject” (Kristeva 4). The abject clearly resides with the lepers, that same quality having been removed from the Empress.28
Although she is still working on earth and only retires away from the world to a convent (and not to death), the Empress possesses those qualities found in saints. She is already other-worldly as she moves about healing lepers. While this is obvious in a number of distinctions, that of her smell, particularly in contrast to the smell of others, operates in a unique way. It identifies her as a saint, it ties her directly to the Virgin Mary from whom came the herb [End Page 276] and scent and it gives her a power that she could not otherwise have had. The role of odors in this text leads to the conclusion that the Empress, an anomaly as a woman who smelled good, is indeed to be considered saintly.
A return to the impetus for this study, the Empress’s vision of the Virgin Mary, will help bring it to conclusion. The appearance of the Mother of Christ illuminates the entire tale, shedding light on the chaste and saintly behavior of the Empress in the first half of the narrative and blazing a purposeful path for her in the latter. The vision, the manner in which it is merited and its aftereffects clearly mark the tale as hagiographic — the audience is duly impressed by the saintly protagonist and encouraged to follow her example. The roles of the vision-event, the Empress’s seeing of the Virgin and her later visual perception of the herb point to the sovereignty and distinction of this loftiest sense in the Middle Ages. Notwithstanding sight’s clear preeminence, however, it has been shown that the olfactory enhances the identification of the Empress as a living saint.
The scent of the lily and the rose comforts the Empress and announces the presence of Mary before she is seen while the scent of the herb lingers and reminds of the vision long after it has passed. In this way, smell surrounds the vision, laying a foundation for it and at the same time pointing back to it, highlighting (in the structure of the story) the glorious appearance of the Virgin to her friend. Despite the strong ties between vision and devotion in the Middle Ages, there is precedent for considering the function of the other senses for the same purpose for, as this study of Santa enperatrís has demonstrated, they may have more to tell us. Although the vision is central to the story and stands out for various reasons, the final powerful image the author leaves is not of the Virgin Mary. Rather, the reader’s mind last visualizes the pleasant-smelling Empress at the bedside of the stinking, leprous brother-in-law –an earthly saint ministering in Mary’s stead– and she is reminded that these men were not in the end saved by looking to the Virgin but by ingesting –physically imbibing as one does with scent– the fragrant, healing herb. [End Page 277]
1. Two critical editions of the manuscript (traditionally known as Flos Sanctorum) were published in 2008 by Carina Zubillaga and John K. Moore, Jr. In a descriptive fashion, Zubillaga titled her edition Antología castellana de relatos medievales while Moore’s Libro de los huéspedes recalls Thomas Dean Spaccarelli’s title for the manuscript based on the host/guest theology of the works. Quotations are from Anita Benaim de Lasry’s edition.
2. Emily C. Francomano concurs, emphasizing that: “nine narratives selected by the anonymous compiler affirm nine times over women’s intelligence, stability, and constancy, championing the role of women in Christian spirituality and marriage. Each narrative may be read as an incidental case for women and, when considered as a purposeful anthology, the collection itself appears to have been intentionally designed, at least in part, as a defence of women” (“Lady” 136).
3. For one example, the physical alterations and desert wanderings of Mary of Egypt (the third narrative in the manuscript) are shared by Graçiana, Florençia, the Empress and Sevilla (Francomano, “Lady” 137).
4. Spaccarelli posits that the collection was intended for those making their way to Santiago de Compostela, primarily female pilgrims. While both González and Francomano agree on the female audience, their focus does not fall on the guest/host theology but on the contrast between evil men and saintly women. Gónzalez understands the injustices shown to married women to present “una astuta y eficaz defensa del convento” (“Una santa” 161). In contrast, Francomano agrees with Anita Benaim de Lasry in that the manuscript presents a model for married women, demonstrating how to blend “secular and domestic concerns with significant piety and devotional practices” (“Manuscript Matrix” 144).
5. The story narrates the tale of the Empress of Rome who, in the absence of her husband, rejects the lovers who attempt to seduce her, thereby maintaining her chastity. After much suffering (at the hands of various men), the Empress finds herself on an island where she has a vision of the Virgin, who comes to her aid and essentially rewards her for her saintliness and chastity, promising an end to her trials. On waking from the vision, the Empress discovers that part of her new life is conditioned by a special herb given to her by the Virgin, one which she will use to cure lepers (and which smells quite agreeable). She follows her path backwards visiting her last pursuer who is now suffering from leprosy. In this is shown God’s punishment for this man’s sin, his attempt to seduce the Empress. After confessing his sin, the Empress cures him and continues back to Rome where she carries on healing lepers. The emperor, her husband, hears about this healing woman and sends for her to cure his leprous brother, the same brother-in-law who had tried to seduce her at the beginning of the story. She arrives at the side of the infirm and, again after requiring a confession, heals him. The Empress also reveals herself (her physical features had been greatly altered) but rejects her husband’s wish that she stay with him. Instead, she chooses to retire to a convent and live as the bride of Christ.
6. It would be remiss not to consider the following three affirmations of the unique religiosity and holiness upheld in Santa enperatrís. First, considering the suffering of the women portrayed throughout the manuscript, Spaccarelli concludes that the Empress’s afliction here is “probably the clearest rendition of the imitatio Christi” (92). Second, we must note the absence of names in the work (titles are given to reference the characters). The only proper names used are those of religious and biblical figures which, as González points out, gives the story a sermon quality (“Una santa” 156). Third, the Empress is the only married protagonist who does not return to her husband at the end of the tale choosing instead to enter the convent, rejecting the pleasures and confines of the material world.
7. See Benaim de Lasry for a more complete explanation of this motif in the work.
8. In the hagiography of Mary of Egypt, the Virgin’s interference in the life of the prostitute also serves as a turning point for Mary, who rejects her sinful life, adopting one of great piety, in a manner reminiscent of the transformation of Saul to St. Paul (see Acts 9:1–19). While both Mary and the Empress pass through physical transformations, Estoria de Santa María Egipciaca obviously differs from Santa enperatrís in that it deals with the Mother of Christ calling Mary from her evil ways, ensuring salvation after death. The Empress’s encounter with the Virgin results from her holy behavior (she is already on the path to salvation) and she is more immediately saved from her earthly trials.
9. Akbari gives various examples for the connection between sight and human reason evident in language: saying “I see” to indicate we understand something or offering a “point of view”, for example.
10. Although sight and hearing were traditionally considered the highest senses, there has been recent work done on the role of taste and touch in medieval religious beliefs. Gordon Rudy studies the language associated with these two senses, particularly as it relates to the inner, “spiritual senses” identified by the early Christian Church Father Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux’s varying presentation of the order of the senses. Rachel Fulton focuses primarily on taste in matters of knowing God. She recognizes that taste and touch are more personal because they require proximity to the object being perceived, the former in particular being “arguably a somewhat threatening sense” (170) since one must take something into his or her mouth and absorb it in order to sense it. Smell falls between the sight/hearing and taste/touch groupings. It can be used to perceive something from a distance, as with sight and hearing, but it also requires the risk of proximity to the odor in that the smell must be taken in through the nose, entering the body as with taste.
11. I am distinguishing here a contrast between living a saintly life before and in the midst of her trials and the merited opportunity to live as a saint on earth in the post-vision period and as she enters the convent. This distinction is one that can be seen in the lives of historical spiritual women such as Teresa de Cartagena, Santa Teresa de Ávila, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who were allowed, both physically and mentally, to set themselves apart from the world in their dedication to a life serving Christ. The fictional Empress is granted this privilege (to renounce her previous earthly duties) through the appearance of Mary.
12. The reference to the Empress being purified by fire just as gold is refined also alludes to the Virgin Mary and makes a further connection between the heroine and the Mother of God. Lesley K. Twomey discusses the use of gold to represent the Virgin in literature, noting that “a favoured way of expressing Mary’s pure, unblemished nature is found in allusions to alchemy, and gold- and silversmithing” (138).
13. The importance of seeing the Mother of Jesus is emphasized by the language used to explain it; the author employs forms of the repetitive construction “ver la visión” to accentuate the participation of the Empress in the event.
14. There are two sides to the sense of smell, what an object emits and that which is perceived by the smeller. Fulton’s study (see n 10), for example, looks at the effect of taste on the believer and one could surely do the same with smell considering the devotional role of scents. This present study, however, is limited to the smell given off by objects and people in Santa enperatrís for what is thereby revealed about those who emit the odor.
15. The Empress’s three days asleep recall the Old Testament prophet Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale. This transition period marks the end of his resistance to God’s call to go to Nineveh. Released from the whale, he makes his way to the sinful city, proclaiming God’s imminent destructive wrath, an announcement which leads to the Ninevites’ repentance. In a similar fashion, the Empress’s rebirth brings her into the paths of sinners, contrasting her holiness with their iniquity. They are ultimately led to confess their sin and repent in order to be healed. Above all, these three days point to the period of time that Christ spent in the tomb. His Resurrection from death illuminates the Empress’s own potential physical death (had Mary not protected her) and her resurrection to a new life in the second half of the narrative.
16. Bynum notes that “In early Christian hymns, hunger seems to mean human vulnerability (either inflicted by nature’s rhythm of scarcity and plenty or espoused deliberately in fasting); the implication is, therefore, that the hungry will be satisfied. In the spirituality of eleventh-and twelfth-century Europe, however, hunger began to mean a craving that can never be filled” (66).
17. For further examination of the fear of the physical body, its excretions and analogous smells as part of the medieval contentions between Christians, Muslims and Jews (particularly as concerns the women of each group), see Cuffel.
18. R. Howard Bloch’s discussion of the senses in medieval thought helps explain further the anxiety toward the female body. Males were linked to the mind and to reason, whereas females were associated with the senses, intimately connected to the physical world, as opposed to the spiritual, and, therefore, innately inferior and worthy to be feared for their “material corruption” (27). Bloch concludes that this explains, “the association throughout the Middle Ages as well as much later between the repression of heresy and antifeminism. Those who don’t believe, who remain on the side of the letter, the body, and the senses, are perceived to be women, and women, those who do not give up the feminized principle of the body, those to the letter of the law, are, finally, heretics” (31–32). Allen and Archer, among others, provide extended (and excellent) overview of the polemic of women in the Middle Ages.
19. For further consideration of the connections between woman, Mary, and Eve, see Reed and Ellington.
20. Susan Ashbrook Harvey discusses the martyrdom of the bishop Polycarp in the second century. The accounts of his death describe not the smell of burning flesh or the sight of a body consumed by flames as one would expect to read but rather: “The air they breathed billowed with the aroma of baking bread — the comforting promise of daily sustenance and for Christians the center of (sacrificial) fellowship in the name of Christ. Moreover, the fire seemed not to destroy Polycarp’s body, but rather to purify it as in a crucible, until the air no longer carried the stench of burning flesh, but instead a fragrance as sweet as frankincense, the precious savor of sacrifice pleasing to God” (12). To be sure, the unpleasant smells of an ascetic life surrounded many a saintly person, but this physical stench was later replaced by the odor of sanctity (Harvey 217). Virginia Burrus also treats the matter of “saintly stench” in her analysis of the fifth-century Life of Syncletica. Attacked by the devil, Syncletica’s body dissolves, bit by bit, such that her illness, “effectively confounds the distinction between living body and putrefying corpse” (105). Syncletica is left with a horrendous stench that repulses those who would care for her. Burrus proposes, however, that “the intensity of Syncletica’s stench is the fragrance of her sanctity, her fleshly corruptibility her self-transcendence” (170 n 41).
21. Evans likewise points out the negative end of the smell spectrum: “The sweet aromas of sacred purity were not the only smells to be described. A repulsive stench was associated with evil and sin” (197).
22. Leprosy affected not only those participating in the sexual act. It was also thought that “improper coitus” could breed children with gross defects, leprosy in particular (Solomon, The Literature 56) and that women who engaged in sex while menstruating could beget little lepers (87).
23. Her brother-in-law says this explicitly when reporting of her attempts to seduce him upon the return of the King, her husband: “ca desque la mugier vee su mejoría, tan dulce & tan sabrosa é su palabra, & tanto sabe mentir, & jurar & porfiar que ninguno non se le podería ygualar por seso que oviese” (188). The lying woman, not to be trusted, is a topic of concern for Alfonso Martínez de Toledo, Archpriest of Talavera, whose well-known Corbacho (fifteenth century) treats the theme in Chapter X of the second part, “De cómo la mujer miente jurando y perjurando,” and claims that “Non es mugier que mentiras non tenga” (179). The topic also appears as part of the Malleus maleficarum, a study of witchcraft written by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger towards the end of the fifteenth century. In it the authors claim that women deceive men in any number of ways, ultimately leading them to sin. In numerous other medieval misogynist texts the women described are most criticized for their incessant talking: The Art of Courtly Love, Andreas Capellanus (twelfth century); Roman de la rose, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (thirteenth century); Lamentations de Matheolus, Matthieu le Bigame (thirteenth century). Solomon elaborates in his study of the Arcipreste de Talavera and the Spill: “The idea of the capacity of speech to infect, contaminate, or poison is more than just metaphorical thinking on the part of Martínez: Medieval epidemiology … recognizes that speech could physically harm another human being” (The Literature 84). Speaking to a woman, then, who was innately contaminated, “was to expose oneself to her disease” (85).
24. Although I make the argument here that speech is not needed by the Empress, Francomano (“Lady”) lays out the success that St. Katherine and the women who follow her in the manuscript have in debate with men.
25. Sealing her body also serves to restore her virginity, elevating her holiness and directly confuting the claims of her adultery.
26. Interestingly, González makes the argument that in Carlos Maynes, the empress Sevilla takes on a more masculine position in the final scene when she removes her clothing to then be dressed in robes by her husband, symbolically restoring her. That she does this voluntarily equates her with male saints as opposed to female saints whose nakedness came by force. This image is juxtaposed with that of her husband, “quien ha sido humillado y, por lo tanto, feminizado con la pérdida de su caballo y espada y la certidumbre de una derrota inminente” (“Carlos” 23).
27. Although the Empress is certainly alive and I am making the case that she is a living saint, we recognize that the usual state of a saint is dead. Their bodies are anomalies in smelling pleasant and not decaying as dead bodies do. The leper, in contrast, although alive, carries the attributes of death in his body.
28. The transmutation of man and woman in the narrative (unfolded in the physical changes of the lepers and the Empress, respectively) point to another part of Kristeva’s theory, the interconnectedness of the abject and religion: “The various means of purifying the abject — the various catharses— make up the history of religions” (17). The Empress’s transformation reveals the purifying of her sin-filled female self thereby presenting a figure worthy of emulation.