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  • "En palonbar criadas":Monastic Environment and Religious Identity in the Poema de Santa Oria
  • Isidro J. Rivera

Est quidem biformis cella iuxta cellensium mores,

dura sed carnalibus, amoena sed spiritualibus.

Peter of Celle, De afflictione

Written late in Gonzalo de Berceo's career, the Poema de Santa Oria (henceforth PSO) relates the heroic life of Oria, a young woman who moves through various stages of her life as daughter, recluse, and member of a community committed to spiritual growth and ultimately salvation.1 Born in the village of Villavelayo, northern Spain, in the mid-eleventh century, Oria entered the Benedictine Monastery of San Millán de Suso at age seven and became an emparedada, a term used to denote a religious woman who opts for permanent enclosure inside a church or monastic structure. Within the context of Iberia, this phenomenon came to be associated with a life consecrated to a solitary existence where the monk or nun would be considered dead to the world, a type of living saint who opted to undergo immurement and had chosen a renunciatory life dedicated to asceticism, prayer, and mortification.2

During the Middle Ages, the community at San Millán where Oria underwent her reclusion was known for its fervent practice of ascetic monasticism. Christened in the eleventh century Aemilianus in honor of Millán of Vergegio, a sixth-century gyrovagus [an itinerant hermit without fixed residency and leadership] whose eremitic and ascetic practices fostered deep religiosity in the area, this monastic enclave played an important role in the expansion of Christianity into Islamic territories and stabilization of religious practices in the area.3 The current Monastery of San Millán consists of two distinct units: Yuso (a reference to its lower location in the valley) founded in the eleventh century and Suso (meaning "upper [End Page 35] location" in the valley) built in the sixth century. The Mozarabic-inspired structures of Suso house a chapel with the sarcophagus of San Millán, an ossuary, and several cells built in the caves along the mountainside, including one cave where Oria was supposedly buried:

. . . en una angustura,dentro de una cueba,como merescié ella,

so una piedra dura,non de tal apostura.


[in a narrow place, / within a cave, beneath a hard stone, / just as she merited, not of such renown.]

A plaque at Suso also identifies the location for Oria's tomb:

So esta piedra que veedese el de su madre Amunnafueron de grant abstinençiaporque son con los ángeles

yaze el cuerpo de sancta Oriafembra de buena memoria;en esta vida transitorialas sus almas en gloria.

[Beneath this stone that you see lies the body of Saint Oria and that of her mother Amunna, a woman of good memory; they lived, in this transitory life, with great abstinence, so that their souls are with the angels in glory.]4

Like the plaque that marks Oria's tomb in Suso, Gonzalo's poem seeks to memorialize Oria's commitment to a life of reclusion, contemplation, and self-discipline. One of the purposes of Gonzalo's poem is to inspire the faithful to engage in the type of intense spirituality associated with the ascetic monasticism that shaped Oria's life. The decision to enter the monastery and become a recluse ultimately transforms Oria into an exemplary figure to be emulated by the faithful. While many scholars have viewed this poem as hagiographic, strictly speaking Oria is not presented as a formally canonized saint. Instead, as Emily Francomano has noted, Oria's exemplarity is based on "the 'white' martyrdom of fasting, mortification of the flesh, and penitential imitatio Christi."5 The monastic life with its routines of prayer and work is an anticipation of this celestial life.6 In this context, this looking forward conforms to Elena Lombardi's formulation of spiritual desire as "the privileged channel through which the (moral, corruptible, sinful) human being experiences the absolute perfection of God."7 The journey toward God is deeply rooted in medieval culture, in which daily devotion and spiritual work constituted an important activity for the devout Christian. Gregory the Great defines these Christian desires as vertical, journeying toward a...


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