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  • Rabid Melancholy in Cantigas de Santa Maria
  • Luis F. López González

Human frailty is the bedrock of Alfonso X’s 420 hymns and miracles, known as Cantigas de Santa Maria (ca. 257–280). This collection of poems, written in Galician-Portuguese, uses infirmities and psychological conditions to set the stage for the Virgin Mary, on whose praise the poems were written, to display Her power and mercy upon the suffering. Cantigas de Santa Maria (Cantigas hereafter) covers a wide range of afflictions common in medieval European societies, including lovesickness, madness, and leprosy, all of which were linked to melancholic disorders.1 Striking a perfect balance between medicine and literature, King Alfonso’s Cantigas represents an informative portrait of thirteenth-century Castilian ways of life and belief systems informed by a well-defined set of shared sociocultural norms. Human illnesses, an ever-present concern in medieval daily life, affected all members of the social body. Even kings, who were believed to rule by divine grace as God’s vicars on earth and thought to have thaumaturgic powers, were as susceptible to the vagaries of human frailties as the most vulnerable in society. King Alfonso, who was falsely accused by his son Sancho IV of suffering from leprosy (“leproso”) and madness (“loco”), is the subject of five cantigas (209, 235, 279, 366, and 367) that depict him on [End Page 203] the verge of death before Mary heals him (Keller and Kinkade 1983, Kinkade 1992).2 Because of the biographical elements that enshroud them, these personal poems have been of central concern to Alfonsine scholars and medical historians (Presilla 433–440, Kinkade 1992, Romaní et al. 2016, De Assis Aquino Gondim et al. 2018). The five cantigas (223, 275, 319, 372, and 393) recounting harrowing stories of six folks who suffer from the deadly condition of rabies have received less attention. In medieval medical lore, rabies was classified as a type of melancholy known as the disease of “fear of water” (hydrophobia). The etiology of rabies was either the bite of a rabid dog or the bite of another human carrier. This study aims to shed some light on the clinical epistemology of hydrophobia, including causes, effects, and common treatments in order to understand how the narratives of these victims fit into the fabric of King Alfonso’s Cantigas.

Despite being the primary carriers of the virus, dogs play an inconsistent role in the backdrop of the five miracles about rabies. In Albrecht Dürer’s Melenconia I, the “dog of Melancholy” (Klibansky et al. 383) is an essential component of the engraving’s aesthetics. Unlike Dürer, King Alfonso does not include dogs in any of the five cantigas. There is, nevertheless, an implied association between the source of the disease and the victims’ canine behavior and actions. The absence of dogs in the diegesis foils their role as main transmitters of the condition. In the Cantigas, aside from a few similes (“come can”), only miracle 286 explicitly includes a dog, but dogs are always referred to as symbols of predacity, rabidity, and incarnations of Satan, rather than as man’s faithful friends.

Cantiga 38 tells the story of a gambler (“tafur”) who casts a stone at the sculpture of Mary and Jesus, breaking Jesus’s arms, which were in a blessing position. This blasphemous act of defacement prompts demons to retaliate against the apostate tafur. The poet refers to the avenging devils, who act on Mary’s behalf—if not behest—, as rabid dogs who lacerate the aggressor’s flesh: “porén sas carnes os endiabrados/con gran ravia as començaron todas roer” (vv. 71–72).3 The [End Page 204] implication of the demons lacerating the gambler’s flesh is that they act like rabid dogs. In cantiga 404 a devout priest (“crerizon”) who has become insane (“ca frenesia o tornou sandeu” v. 55) bites and eats his tongue and lips like a dog (“come can” v. 76), while cantiga 286 narrates the story of a man who prays in the entryway (“portal”) of a church. One day a big dog (“un gran can” v. 20) approaches him threateningly, interrupting his prayers. The accompanying miniatures, which...


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