The Politics of Salvation: Gonzalo de Berceo’s Reinvention of the Marian Myth by Martha Mary Daas
In The Poetics of Salvation: Gonzalo de Berceo’s Reinvention of the Marian Myth, Martha Daas adds to the current discussions on mester de clerecía poetry from the standpoint of didactic intent. She posits modern theories of myth production (mythopoesis) as a way to reveal Berceo’s propagandistic agenda which, she claims, was not predicated on merely advancing church authority in all spheres of daily life. Taking a nuanced look at the Milagros de Nuestra Señora, Daas moves beyond the notion that Berceo appropriated the increasingly powerful cult of the Virgin to advance the Church’s socioeconomic, cultural, and political agendas. Daas identifies gaps in Berceo’s collection of Marian miracles that reveal covert mythologies that undercut the overarching and orthodox view of the Church’s power play. As a critical tool, she employs primarily Antonio Gramsci’s theories of myth production which contend that any myth or ideology reflects not only the ruling class’s (in this case, the Church’s) hegemonic view but that it [End Page 373] also is influenced by popular agency. Daas does not see myth as immutable, as Roland Barthes proposes, but political in the sense that it is linked to dominant discourse and ideology but not a slave of it.
The book has six chapters, with the first dedicated to a discussion of the importance of the monastic system in La Rioja to which Berceo belonged. Specifically Daas deals with the conflict between the monasteries and the authority of the bishops, especially due to the former’s promotion of lay spirituality and education. She claims that Berceo’s Marian works and hagiographic poems recognize a spiritual egalitarianism and, as such, his texts challenge the hegemonic agenda of the Church but do not question elements of dogma.
The second chapter, “Sin and Sacrament,” discusses the thirteenth-century Church’s far-reaching influence in matters related to laws on sex, marriage, and inheritance. Daas claims that Berceo’s miracles present an opposing view to the strict guidelines the Church was struggling to put in place. His Marian tales rather emphasize the Christian message of mercy and contribute to a myth-making process in which the general populace would recognize themselves in the characters portrayed.
In her third chapter, Daas explores theories of myth creation in general and specifically as regards the promotion of the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The fourth chapter focuses on hagiography and its claim to “historical status” (51). In this vein, after the myth of the Virgin Mary was clearly established, especially in the writings of Jerome and Augustine, Berceo’s text stakes a claim to historical authority.
The fifth chapter of the book, “Berceo’s Poetic Agenda”, argues that while we cannot deny that the Riojan poet’s texts stem from the authoritative discourse of the Church, there are aspects of these works that make them ideologically unique. She cites specifically Berceo’s awareness of the role of the monastery in disseminating education and cultural materials to the masses and Berceo’s language and style. The poet’s concern with communicating with his audience and his oral style of writing, according to Daas, point to “a desire to aid his community rather than serve the greater Church” (67).
The sixth chapter deals with Berceo’s “radical” approach to the Marian myth. Daas claims that unlike the Virgin portrayed in Latin source texts or in Alfonso X’s Cantigas de Santa Maria, Berceo defies canonical precepts and portrays Mary as a co-redemptrix. (Regarding this issue, I am sorry that Daas did not consult [End Page 374] my article “The Co-Redemptive Role of Mary in Gonzalo de Berceo’s El duelo de la virgin”, that appeared in volume 49.2  of Romance Notes.) She does not view Berceo’s presentation of Mary as heretical but rather as evidence of an ideological debate about Mary that reflected popular sentiments toward her.
In her short conclusion, Daas returns to the theoretical issue of the interrelatedness of myth and ideology. While she admits that, on the surface level, Berceo’s portrayals of the Virgin Mary dovetail with the view of her perpetuated by the Church, she also views Mary’s independent actions (what Daas calls “acts of will”) within the collection as clues to the gaps that existed between official ideology and popular conceptions of that ideology. By revealing contradictions in Berceo’s Milagros she believes that we may arrive at a better understanding of the poetical agenda of his work.
Daas is especially skillful in not only pointing out the differences in Barthes’s and Gramsci’s theories of myth-making but in reconciling some of those differences, especially with reference to the realm of poetry. Her reading of the Milagros supposes a Berceo more inclined to the active practice of Christianity than a strictly contemplative existence. His close relationship to the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla and its interests is widely known. The monastic role in education and its desire to communicate with the faithful contributed to his production of works of Marian lore that clearly do not contradict predominant dogmas but that are flexible enough to respect, and reflect, popular belief. While at times the book is a bit repetitive, it makes some very valid arguments that contribute to our understanding of Berceo as poet, his own consciousness of his role as author, his unique contributions to the mythology surrounding the Virgin, and, by extension, to mester de clerecía poetry in general. [End Page 375]