Fantastic History #65: Miracles by Dr. Michelle Herder

Stories of miracles occur in countless medieval European manuscripts. They were told in sermons and collected in their own right: cures, impostures, rewards, punishments, story after story of the workings of divine power in the lives of ordinary people. Fantastical stories, presented as true.

I teach medieval history at a small college, and miracle stories always present obstacles for students. They respond, understandably, with skepticism. Few of my students are believers, or at least they don’t believe in that particular way. So they ask: did medieval people really believe in miracle stories? Sometimes they try to find a rational explanation for the supposed miracle, speculating about how some real-life coincidence might lie behind a story. Sometimes they think that the medieval clergy who wrote down these stories must have been deliberately committing fraud. Often they conclude that people in medieval Europe must simply have been extremely gullible.

But if we can suspend our disbelief, miracle stories open a door. Perhaps not a literal door to a long-gone world in which divine power could heal the sick or punish the wicked directly and dramatically – but perhaps instead miracle stories can shed some light on the beliefs and mindset of the people who told them, wrote them down, and passed them around. Many stories were well-known; clergy used them as examples in sermons, artists depicted them in church decoration. The book of saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend contains numerous stories of miraculous deeds, adventures, and violence, and was one of the most widespread texts of medieval society, translated into numerous languages. (In contrast, many medieval tales that are better-known to modern people, such as Beowulf, survive in only a single manuscript.) Though European Christian clergy wrote down most of the miracle tales that survive, the stories give us glimpses of the lives of a wide range of people, including, poor, ill, and disabled people.
Around the year 1000, Bernard of Angers recorded a number of miracles attributed to Saint Foy, or Faith, according to legend a young girl martyred long ago. Bernard knows his readers might not believe in Foy’s holy influence. In fact, he presents himself as a skeptic, only recently converted into a devotee of this particular saint. Eager to demonstrate Saint Foy’s bona fides, he takes care to assure readers that he heard all these stories from people who had seen them firsthand.

Saint Foy’s miracles are shockingly punitive. People who denied her monks their donations were killed by a collapsing roof. An unfortunate fellow named Vuitbert, blinded through a mentor’s cruel betrayal and reduced to poverty, received his sight back through his devotion to Foy. But, Bernard tells us, the miracle turned out to be conditional: when Vuitbert succumbed to worldly temptations and paid less attention to his saint, his sight once again dimmed, and only a performance of penitence and devotion to Foy restored his sight again. Though the stories praise Foy for her beauty and purity, she evokes a jealous fey rather than a holy martyr. But this does not appear incongruous to Bernard, who takes these stories as examples of Foy’s great power.

In some stories miracles compensate for personal failings. In one, a young nun flees her cloister and embarks on a life of sin, retaining only her devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Much later, the woman regrets her choices and returns to the monastery… where she finds that Mary herself had taken her place, adopting the runaway nun’s appearance and living an entirely virtuous life. The runaway could therefore resume her place without confessing her adventures outside the cloister to anyone. This admittedly begs the question of how the story came to be known at all – but the point is that Mary rewards devotion, even from those who might seem unworthy of her favor. Like Foy, Mary blesses those who are loyal to her.

Miraculous cures are the perhaps the kind of miracle story we would most expect to see, and at the same time the hardest for a modern reader to believe without reservation. Take, for example, the case of a boy born deaf and mute; at the age of eight he had been taken in by a blacksmith, who taught him to help around the forge. The smith also took him to church with his family, where the boy learned the movements and gestures of prayer, though presumably without understanding. By age twenty he had moved on to other work, and then followed along with the massive royal entourage conducting the body of King Louis IX to its burial place near Paris. At the tomb, so the story says, the boy had a revelation: during a Mass he suddenly acquired the ability to hear and speak. Frightened by the unfamiliar noises of the world, he made his way back to the blacksmith, who took him in again and began teaching him words. Eventually, the formerly deaf young man took the name Louis, in honor of the saint whose miracle had cured him.

In another story from the same collection, a widowed laundress named Nicole suffered a paralysis at age forty-two. Unable to work, and able to eat only soft foods, she relied on her friend Contesse, who cared for her and took her to the public baths in hopes that the hot water would help her recover. Another friend, a woman called Perronele the Smith, paid for a cart to take Nicole to the tomb of Louis IX. There she was cured of her ailments, and walked home with her friends.

It sounds as though Nicole experienced a stroke, something from which people do recover. But a person born deaf suddenly gaining the ability to hear? That scenario sounds far less plausible to a modern reader.

In that case, however, Louis himself testified to this miracle before the investigators who were collecting miracles for Louis’s saintly portfolio, just as Nicole did. In documenting cures, the investigators noted details of the witnesses’ lives and experiences, to make their case for Louis IX’s sainthood convincing. Those details themselves show how people helped friends and neighbors who had become disabled, and how a deaf boy found work, and a place in the world. Fantastical though they are, miracle stories give us glimpses of mundane details and motivations that bring the medieval past to life.

Further reading:

Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sherry Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of its Paradoxical History, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Pamela Sheingorn, The Book of Sainte Foy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.


Dr. Michelle Herder Professor Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #64: Six Tricks I Use in Writing About Dinosaurs by Rosemary Claire Smith

Whenever I tell someone that I write stories featuring dinosaurs, a smile crosses their face. I mean really, who isn’t captivated by dinosaurs? These fantastical creatures are gigantic, incredibly ancient, and dominated the world for over 185 million years. I’ve talked to a number of authors who’ve thought about writing dinosaur stories, but shy away from doing so. Wouldn’t it be fun if more writers gave it a try? After all, you use precisely the same techniques and tricks you draw upon to write about many other specialized topics.

1. Start with what interests you the most about dinosaurs.
Yes, I’m talking about steak-knife teeth of an Allosaurus, or the football-shaped thagomizer at the tip on an Ankylosaurus’s tail, or the undulating motion of a Spinosaurus as its tail propels the monstrous beast through Cretaceous waters, or the leather-like wings of the Quetzalcoatlus northropi stretching as wide as a small biplane when it soars over Mesozoic skies, or the trumpeting of the Parasaurolophus blowing air through the resonating chambers of the three-foot-long hollow horn atop its head. I’ve relied upon a number of these features in my own stories and my interactive fiction role playing game, T-Rex Time Machine.

That said, several aspects of dinosaur physiology simply don’t interest me. For example, I’ve never managed to read to the bitter end of a scientific paper about dentition or hypothesized jaw musculature or chewing motions of herbivorous Ornithiscian dinosaurs. Nor do I find this a hindrance. In fact, forcing myself to work in these topics risks losing the interest of my readers, for they will unerringly pick up on my own boredom.

2. Keep up with new developments (without letting them overwhelm you.)
Spinosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Velociraptor: These are not your father’s dinosaurs. Much more has changed than just the demise of the dimwitted tail draggers of days gone by. In fact, there’ve been tons of new developments after the release of the first Jurassic Park/World movies. A paleontologist I know recently estimated that for roughly the past fifteen years, an average of forty six species have been discovered and/or described in the scientific literature EVERY YEAR!

The existence of feathers made a big splash, as did microscopic evidence of pigmentation and skin impressions. But there’s more. Vast Hadrosaurus rookeries have been discovered complete with eggs containing unborn dinosaurs. That’s not your bag? Then how about theropods such as Deinonychus that may have hunted in packs? The point is you don’t need to confine yourself to overworked tyrannosaurs or plodding, plant-munching Diplodocus, or graceful giraffe-necked sauropods. Not when there is the possibility that, like bighorn sheep, bone-headed Pachycephalosauruses might have been the head bangers of the Late Cretaceous.

A plethora of scholarly journals and periodicals aimed at intelligent laypersons publish articles on recent excavations and new paleontological research. Few writers can possibly keep up, but we don’t have to! On line courses provide a great way to organize your knowledge and fit isolated facts and bits of information into a coherent framework. These courses never fail to give me new ideas and stimulate my writing.

3. Don’t worry about your research becoming as outdated as canals on Mars or cold-blooded tail-draggers.
Speaking of recent developments, I once asked a friend who also writes dino tales if he worried about the premise, or even some of the telling details, becoming obsolete after his recent book was published. He said there were things that had become outdated before publication. Did that worry him? Not in the least! If it’s a good story, it’ll survive. Not convinced? Then consider the vast swaths of time and territory from which we have no fossils whatsoever. It’s entirely possible that the species or anatomical feature you lovingly describe or the behavior you postulate was close to correct somewhere once. Fun fact: It is estimated that less than 10% of the varied dinosaur species living during the Mesozoic left fossilized remains that we’ve discovered. Some undiscovered specimens lie beneath the 75% of the world covered with oceans. Others are buried by layer upon layer of sedimentary rock hundreds or thousands of feet deep. A great many individual creatures succumbed to decomposition or predation upon their deaths, leaving no remains that ever became fossilized. Even when fossilization did happen, subsequent metamorphic processes or simple erosion destroyed those remains.

4. Do fieldwork (safely).
I may not have a time machine, but I can still learn a lot by direct observation. My subjects are birds and reptiles, the more exotic, the better! Today’s alligators, crocodiles, and birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologists consider modern birds to be avian theropods. As such, birds and crocodiles can give us insights into traits and behaviors they have in common with dinosaurs, such as laying eggs. This might also extend to vocalizations, territorial defense, seasonal migrations, and mating practices. I had great fun using these as jumping off points in “Dino Mate,” T-Rex Time Machine, “Not with a Bang,” and other stories.

Nevertheless, I’m no Steve Irwin, nor even Richard Attenborough, when it comes to my risk tolerance. While I stick close to home these days, my backyard provides fascinating examples of nest building, food acquisition, and cooperative behavior among the cardinals, crows, doves, robins, chickadees, sparrows, and suchlike. For more excitement, nature shows are another great source of ideas.

5. Set your story in a fascinating setting.
“White room syndrome” is the bane of many writers who dislike ginning up settings and tend to skip over descriptions when reading for pleasure. Too often, writers fall back upon settings that have done to death. Dinosaur stories are no exception.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With dinosaur remains having been discovered on every continent, including Antarctica, there is simply no need to situate a Mesozoic tale in an overworked location such as the high plains of the United States or Canada. I set one dinosaur story, “Dinomate,” in Subsaharan East Africa where the Kentrosaurus once roamed. I think of this Jurassic dinosaur, which is a relative of the Stegosaurus, as a dinosaur designed by committee. Half of that committee favored a ridge of plates arching along its spine and the other half went for three-foot long spikes. So in the finest committee tradition, the Kentrosaurus sports both plates and spikes. Similarly, I used the temperate Cretaceous forests of Antarctica as the backdrop for my story, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” Looking ahead, I have plans—big plans—to hop backward to Cretaceous Northeastern China. That’s where paleontologists discovered Epidexipteryx hui a weird little tree-climber sporting a finger about a third the length of its body.

6. Smash disparate notions together in your large idea collider and work with whatever falls out.
The first story I sold, “Mom and the Ankylosaur,” came out of desperation while I attended a writers’ workshop. I cast about for a new, interesting angle regarding my favorite critters. Another writer attending the workshop knew and shared a great deal about hypnosis. That’s how I embarked upon a story about my mother trying to hypnotize dinosaurs. But rather than picking a standard off-the-toy-store-shelf sauropod, I chose an Ankylosaurus, that armored tank of the Cretaceous. Similarly, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs” grew out of the fact that Antarctica not only had dinosaurs like Antarctopelta (a variant on Ankylosaurus) and Giraffititan (a type of brachiosaur), but also kimberlite formations suitable for diamond mines.

Looking back, I got my start in the dino-tales business not because I had a formal degree in paleontology, but simply because I’ve loved these great beasts ever since I first set eyes on a Brontosaurus skeleton at age five. If dinosaurs are your jam, then go for it. Doing research will be great fun, I promise you. On a cold winter day when the wind howls outside, there’s nothing like checking how warm it is amid the Jurassic cycads. Hmmmm…maybe I’ll crank up the temperature another degree or three for my protagonist. Those dinosaurs won’t mind.


Rosemary Claire Smith’s interactive fiction adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine, is available from Choice of Games. She’s an AnLab Readers’ Award finalist, a former archaeologist, a lawyer, a photographer, but most importantly a fan of dinosaurs as well as just about any oversized furry animal. She’s been blogging for the past 156 million years. Her shorter work appears, or is forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Fantastic Stories, Amazing Stories, Hybrid Fiction, Drabblecast and other magazines and anthologies. Follow her on Twitter at @RCWordsmith or Facebook as Rosemary Claire Smith.