During our class discussion on the selections of miracle stories, one interpretation from the early 20th century was introduced; it held that these stories were generally nothing more that capricious fairy-tales or folk myths except where Mary filled in the role of the supernatural force. Though this viewpoint was generally dismissed in class, I was interested to take a look through the readings and find which stories might have given rise to this view, and in fact, it is not difficult to find examples – even in this small snippet of the extant Marian miracle stories – that seem to support this claim.
Looking first in The Miracles of our Lady of Rocamadour, one can find many examples of stories which all effectively have the same plot line: someone is afflicted with some wound, disease, or physical defect then they call on Mary who cures them. The subjects and circumstances vary wildly from a knight who lost his teeth (I.17) to a man struck in the eye with a lance (I.30) or from a Countess with a tumor (II.4) to a woman cured of her inability to speak (II.5). However, this kind of story does not come only from the Rocamadour text. Likewise, in Johannes Herolt’s collection, there are stories such as number 83 wherein a painter, who had depicted Satan as ugly and Mary as beautiful, was protected from Satan’s vengeance by Mary. The trope being exercised here is just that Mary protects those who serve (though here it feels more like flatter) her. These sorts of stories seem to be the ones to which these early 20th century scholars were referring since these types of stories seem to lack any sort of real theological depth to them – other than reinforcing divine mercy through Mary. Furthermore, these stories also may become some of the more problematic ones for later protestant thinkers who rejected the Marian cult on the grounds that these stories depict Mary alone dispensing mercy – as was briefly touched on towards the end of class.
Now, against these stories, several members of the class – myself included – raised a number of other examples. These included, among others, the story of the tumbler, the thief who hung for 3 days – included both in the collection of Alfonso X as Cantiga 13 and as story 5 in Herolt’s text – as well as Cantiga 5, the story of the empress aided by Mary. As was discussed in class, these stories seem to contain a richer theological depth. Since, for example, the thief who was to be hung was not simply saved by Mary; rather, he was hung for 3 days while still alive – surely an unpleasant experience and at least some sort of retribution for his crimes – and then was given another chance by Mary. The thief took this opportunity to become a monk and devote himself to penance. Likewise, the story of the tumbler describes a monk who deeply wishes to devote himself to Mary, but he does not know the proper words of the office. Therefore, instead he goes during each of the services of the office to physically exert and exhaust himself in tumbling before an image of Mary. This story explores the idea that the most important aspect of service – whether in the office or in tumbling – is that it be honestly heartfelt. Stories such as Herolt’s story 93 of the witless monk who only knew Mary’s office express a similar phenomenon. In both cases, neither monk knows the proper forms to praise God in the latter case or Mary in the former case, but they do earnestly what they know. This wins them favor. I’ll not go into more depth on this and the other stories since this was covered during class, but I wanted to summarize it quickly here in order to contrast the nuance of this story with the simplicity of the preceding ones.
Returning again to the tacit question from the opening, how should these stories be interpreted? Are they capricious or are they, in fact, another way for monks to spread certain theological positions in entertaining stories that might appeal to the lay-people? I would argue that this, in a way, is not the appropriate question to be asking of all these stories, for this is a question which better applies to a single miracle-story. In fact, these stories should be considered a genre in medieval literature. At first, it feels a bit odd to consider them to be a complete genre in and of themselves, but thinking of them in this way provides the solution to this argument between the opinion of early 20th century scholars and the general view at which our class arrived. Every genre has both good examples of the style and bad examples.
One could argue that this does not in fact resolve the debate since one must determine whether this genre is merely silly, folk tales or rather a legitimate, theologically rooted form. I believe that it is the latter, and there are two main reasons why this is the case. Firstly, many of the simpler or more capricious stories need not damage this viewpoint since they’re simply examples of bad execution in the genre. Secondly – and more importantly however – one must also remember who wrote all these texts. The Rocamadour text was written by the local monks, and Johannes Herolt himself was a monk. Finally, regarding the Cantigas, if Alfonso X ordered them to be written, it’s a safe wager that monks or priests did it; if Alfonso X himself wrote them, he was referred to as el Sabio, the wise, and was himself very highly educated. All these authors of the collections, which make up the body of this genre, were well educated and devout, so it would logically follow that they would not take the time to produce these manuscripts if they were really as trivial as some would claim. Rather, it would seem to me that the more reasonable conclusion would be that these tales – as they are recorded – do carry theological weight and import whether or not their counterparts in the oral tradition did as well.