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.

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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 #49: Whose Middle Ages? by Ariel Bolton

In recent years many writers of secondary world fantasy have been making a conscious effort to broaden their world building beyond the pre-modern quasi-European settings that have been the defaults for decades. Nevertheless, a lot of us still like to set at least some of our stories in analogues of medieval Europe. That’s why the most stimulating writing book I’ve read recently is Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past (Fordham University Press, 2019).

It’s a collection of short chapters, each looking at a different way that twenty-first century culture, from op eds to renaissance fairs, has referenced medieval history and tried to turn it to present-day purposes. The pieces are all written by scholars of Medieval Studies, mainly historians and art historians, and they’ve been edited by five professors at Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies.

While the book wasn’t meant specifically for writers of fiction, I found it useful as a catalyst for thinking about some of the tropes and casual assumptions in our genre that are due for overhaul and re-imagination. Here are some examples.

“Real Men of the Viking Age” by Will Cerbone examines the trope of the Viking as a lone warrior with a taste for plunder and axe violence. Cerbone points out that while such men certainly existed in early medieval northern Europe, the Icelandic literature that is the source for much of what we know about Norse culture consistently portrayed them as “tragic misanthropes, awful neighbors and primitive monsters.” The valorization of strongman characters who cared for no community happened only centuries later, when European nationalists tried to use Norse literature as origin stories justifying their own aggressive agendas.

“The Invisible Peasantry” by Sandy Bardsley discusses all the sources that historians use to construct a picture of medieval peasants’ lives. Despite the fact that this class left very few records of their own, a remarkable amount of information about them can be discovered in court documents, tax rolls, sermons, mystery plays, and archaeological sites. When the peasantry, who made up 90 to 95 percent of the population, are left out of modern stories and re-enactments of medieval life, it is not for lack of information about them.

“Ivory and the Ties that Bind” by Sarah M. Guérin traces the source of the ivory used to make three thirteenth-century statuettes found in the Louvre. The fact that French artisans could procure the tusks of savanna elephants to carve reminds us that neither medieval Europe nor medieval Africa were as isolated as has traditionally been believed. In reality, a complex series of economic ties linked Mande hunters in what is now Senegal with Amazigh caravan traders crossing the Sahara, port cities in North Africa, and Italian merchants plying the Mediterranean.

Stephennie Mulder’s “No, People in the Middle East Haven’t Been Fighting Since the Beginning of Time” takes on the cliché that Diana Wynne Jones dubbed the “Fanatic Caliphates”. Some of the responsibility for this image of the Middle East falls on medieval Arab chroniclers themselves, who were fond of depicting conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites as eternal and unrelenting. However Mulder, an architectural historian, points to evidence that tells a more complicated story. The Mashhad al-Husayn (shrine of Husayn) in Aleppo honours a major figure of Shia Islam, but it was built with the help of a Sunni governor during a period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries known as the Sunni Revival. Inside, linked inscriptions honor the twelve Shiite imams and the four caliphs revered by the Sunnis. Hundreds of structures with similar programs were built and visited by both Shiites and Sunnis in the medieval Middle East, complicating the rhetoric of the chroniclers with the reality of everyday life.

Other chapters discuss medieval sexuality, immigration in the Middle Ages, blood libel, concepts of race, and the crusades. Each one ends with three or four suggestions for further reading. It’s a quick and digestible tour of some of the flashpoints in the current study of the Middle Ages. If you love medieval world building, but worry that it sometimes lacks texture, this book can be used as a primer for imagining a richer, more nuanced medieval world without accidentally setting off alt right dog whistles or tripping over discredited Nazi lore.

A recurring theme in Whose Middle Ages? is the invocation of distorted medieval imagery and medieval themes by modern people to further present-day political agendas. The old medieval tropes still have a power to stir emotions and shape narratives. And that is where our role as writers comes in. We need to think carefully about how we use the power of medieval world so that it is used for good.

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Ariel Bolton lives and writes in Toronto. Bits of her PhD in Medieval Studies sometimes show up in her work. She has published work in Flash Fiction Online, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and the anthology Myriad Lands.