Friday, October 16, 2015

A Comparison of Damian's Anecdotal Examples

Much of Thursday’s class discussion centered on Peter Damian’s anecdotal examples of the power of faith. It left me with a two distinct impressions: that Damian almost-always mentions Mary in his examples and that his examples mostly center on people outside the church. To test my theories, I tallied up the examples that do not come directly from scripture and found the following results: Damian mentions Mary in seven out of his fifteen examples and the main character is a member of the clergy in nine out of the fifteen (four involving Mary).

My chart of Damian’s anecdotal rather than scriptural examples:

I found it helpful to examine each of my notions separately and have thus divided my response into three sections: Mary, clergymen and conclusion.

Impression: Damian almost-always mentions Mary in his examples
Fact: Damian mentioned Mary in seven out of his fifteen examples

Due to our classes’ subject matter, it makes sense that I was biased in favor of finding more Mary in the texts than there actually was. However, I believe my bias was reinforced by how well the themes of these stories fit in to what we have already been talking about: the belief in Mary brings forgiveness, salvation or punishment.

In the cases of the cleric from Letter 166, the cleric from Letter 106 and the layman from Letter 106, a person who believes in God and specifically offers prayers to Mary is blessed. If I understood Professor Fulton-Brown in class, she said that offering prayers to Mary was a service to her because to worship Mary is to worship the creator, because she gave birth to him, which is to worship the church, because he gave birth to it. If this is correct then it also makes sense that in the case of the middle-class person from Letter 17, even though the story does not specifically mention Mary but speaks more generally about devotion to God, Damian still brings Mary in at the end. To Damian, it is important to tie praising Mary to devotion to God and the most “fervent” love of all.

Damian also gives examples of times when devotion to the virgin redeemed a sinner. In the stories of the clerk from Letter 17 and the vassal from Letter 106, someone who sinned is able to find forgiveness and salvation through Mary. This reminds me of our modern understanding of the phrase “Hail Mary”—a kind of last-ditch attempt at salvation or success when all is almost lost. Mary, the intercessor, may have mercy for you if you’ve shown her devotion.

Lastly, in the final story from Letter 142, a monastery is punished for ceasing to honor Mary and order is only restored when they resume their hours. The bishop in the cleric story in Letter 106 is also physically punished for dismissing the cleric who prayed to Mary. In keeping with the theme, devotion to Mary is able to bless and forgive and to stop praying to the mother of God has severe consequences. This reinforces the point from class that praying to Mary is a service to her.

Something else I noticed is that Letters 166, 17 and 106 begin with stories referencing the virgin while Letter 142 ends with one. I don’t feel comfortable making concrete extrapolations from this data but to me it implies that Damian thought discussing Mary was very important. After all, she leads three of his letters and in the one admonishing hermits for living impiously, she factors in to his closing zinger.

Impression: Damian’s examples mostly center on people outside the church
Fact: The main character is a clergyman in nine out of the fifteen examples (four involving Mary)

I’m not as off as I appear. The letter that is to religious hermits, Letter 142, speaks only of monks, perhaps to give the listeners more concrete and relatable examples. This letter also involves more stories of bad behavior and punishment than the others, perhaps to scare Damian’s audience. If you discount Letter 142 as an outlier, the ratio of clergy-centered to non-clergy centered anecdotes is 5:6.

That being said, the clergy come up much more often than I originally thought in the stories. I think that one reason they didn’t register as much in my mind is that I somewhat expected their presence. It was layman, middle-class man and vassal who claimed to have brushes with divinity that surprised me more.

Damian may have anticipated my expectation. With the exception of Letter 142, each letter includes a fairly even balance of clergy to citizens. (Note: Letters 166 and 106 also have an even balance of stories that reference Mary.) Given that the ratios are close to even, perhaps Damian was attempting to show that devout worship is as important and accessible for the common man as for the clergy. This is somewhat evident in his declaration in Letter 17 that even if you can’t make it to church, “pay in kind your dues to the Lord with that commodity which is at hand. Thus, if there are psalms to say, say them; if only one” (155). Notably, this is the only letter that is to a non-clergyman. Perhaps in the cases of Letters 106 and 166, he was trying to encourage the clergy to instill these lessons in their flock. Or, if he was feeling sassy, saying if the common man can do it, so can you.


To draw convincing conclusions about Damian’s formulaic and rhetorical strategies would take more data but I found my chart helpful for synthesizing his anecdotal stories and comparing my (erroneous) assumptions to the facts. What I found is that Damian mentions Mary about half the time, always in regard to devotion and the power of prayer, and that in all but one letter, he gives examples from the lives of both clergymen and civilians.



  1. Interesting that so many of the stories about Marian devotion are closely linked with death, and, as you note, our last-ditch attempts at salvation. What might this say about the character of the Virgin as understood by Peter and his contemporaries? She seems to be the final court of appeal, or perhaps the one sympathetic figure, our advocate, in the foreboding court of God's justice. Understandable then, why such a figure would engender such tremendous devotion, the idea that even if we've failed often and terribly Mary might just be moved enough by our devotion that she helps us out in the end. It's also worth considering how this makes us think about God, above I described His judgement as foreboding, is that an accurate description? We've talked quite a bit about the notion that Mary reveals God, how do Damian's stories about Mary depict Him? Does devotion to Mary obviate the seeming contradiction of God as both supremely loving and the final judge?

  2. Very good thought to check your impressions against the actual numbers of stories and characters mentioned. Of course, I chose these four letters out of all of Peter's letters (we have 180 extant, which is a sizable collection!) because they are the ones which mention the office of the Virgin, so there is already a sampling bias here. This is one of the persistent challenges for us as historians: are we seeing the whole picture or only what we are looking for? Very good on your part noticing that you tended to edit out the clerical characters on first reading and pay more attention to the lay people. This is exactly the kind of bias that scholars have often brought to studies of Mary, simply assuming that she was more appealing to a particular group (e.g. women) without double checking to see whether the evidence we have actually bears this emphasis out. We will be reading more of these miracle stories--keep your eyes open for who appears in them! RLFB