Saturday, October 24, 2015

Marian Miracles as a Genre

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.



  1. I like the move you make here, to suggest that we consider the miracle stories as constituting a particular genre or story form, but (as I think you yourself acknowledge) there is a way in which this is simply dodging the question: what was the genre for? This is a problem with all categories: how do we decide was is substantive of the genre and what accidental? What a proper member of the genre and what an imperfect one? What is to prevent the genre splitting back into parts--some stories not just poor examples of the genre, but examples of another subgenre altogether? Perhaps what we need is a redefinition of fairy-stories, along the lines Tolkien suggested? The one thing that I think we can be clear about, in contrast with the early 20th century descriptions of these stories, is that they do fit the category "popular" very well, if by "popular" we mean "not elite." But then we are still beset by the theological and metaphysical questions that they raise: are these pious fables or historical anecdotes? Exempla or entertainment? (NB I am *not* suggesting that these questions are easy to answer!) There is a reason that categorization is the first step in inventing an argument! RLFB

  2. “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 think that you're right on both these counts; however, I don't believe there needs to be a dichotomy here. So many fairy tales or folk tales have a pedagogical element to them, whether it's some important point about the way the world works, or a way to teach children not to wander into the woods alone. I feel that the exempla do all of the things that you've described: they take a theological message (very possibly the same message tale after tale) and they tuck it into a narrative. You learn about the importance of praying to the Virgin, of going to church, or of keeping your vows, and at the same time you're entertained, or you gain a little insight into the life of a king, or a monk, or a peasant. I think this makes the exempla an effective way to communicate a theological idea while making it accessible, and perhaps more importantly, immediately applicable, to a wide variety of audiences.


  3. It seems in your last paragraph that you suggest that because the stories were codified by monks and kings that they necessarily have theological value. However, could the stories instead by used to get the reader’s attention and demonstrate the power of the Virgin (maybe a particular site of the Virgin’s power)? The first prologue in the Rocamadour miracles seemingly invite peoples to “come and witness the amazing sights” and to “put their faith in things that are incredible.” In this way, the miracle stories could be seen as a way to awe the reader like the peasants have been awed by the oral tradition. While the writer of the prologue does gesture at some other, more theological motivations directly before that statement, it seems that a lot of the Rocamadour stories are designed to awe. Who then read these stories and was awed? As mentioned in class, these stories were clearly widespread (seen in their repetitions in different collections). Do the aims of the stories (as part of a “genre”) have to have been the same? Seen especially in the story of the Italian knight who denies the power of Rocamadour, it seems that the Rocamadour stories almost act as advertisements. If that is the case, they might be less concerned about theology and more about awing the reader. Does an analysis of the Rocamadour miracles as advertisement complicate their theological value?


  4. I like the tact you take of taking seriously the objections of 20th century scholars to the corpus of Marian miracle stories. Just as we must remember that the compilers of these stories were not stupid, as you point out in your final paragraph, so to we must not think their critics are either, though we might believe that they're wrong. The idea that flawed/simplistic Marian stories might essentially just be an example of bad genre writing is also, I think, quite insightful, although likely impossible to answer without a fuller understanding of the genre of Marian miracle stories in particular and perhaps more broadly medieval miracle stories in general (in what ways are these distinct from the Marian stories?).

    One area we might look for theological depths in these apparently simple stories is in their language and structure. We've mentioned a number of times in class the dense Scriptural associations of our authors. It's entirely possible that the authors of these miracle stories are doing so in a manner too subtle for those of use who have not memorized huge swathes of the Bible to recognize. Similarly, the rhetorical structure of the stories may tell us something as well, medieval authors were far more well trained in this area than us and therefore more sensitive to how rhetorical tropes were deployed in any given story. Finally, the example of story 93 is interesting in thinking through this question. Might this story serve as a sort of apologetic for the apparent weaknesses of other tales of Marian devotion. Yes, they might be simplistic or even theologically misguided, but is it the ultimate intent and truth lying behind the words, crude as they might be, that is of true import?

  5. It is rather confusing to suppose that Mary works as both an "advertisement" and a figure of devotion in all of these stories- in fact, it seems as though those two ideas contradict each other to some degree. I would like to then expand on the theories presented both by the author and the comments by making the claim that we are in fact dealing with two separate genres here. Because Mary is a human character, she, like the saints, left behind physical artifacts that many monasteries have “laid claim to” and sites through which she is affiliated with. In fact, I’m sure in doing research we’d find that many sites/monasteries/towns have laid proper claim to “Saint …’s skull” or “Mary’s shroud” or “that place where Mary/some other saint appeared once for so-and-so reason”. So this is how we can classify the Rocomadour readings- as variations on “advertisements” of a sort (although we can also assume that some are serious expressions of praise or at least adaptations of serious stories due to dispersal of the stories and their potential advertisement value). The others I think rest under the monks’ actual devout interpretations and desire to teach about the obedience necessitated in praising Mary. As you point out, these stories do “contain a richer theological depth” that does not emphasize a place, instead emphasizing the greatness of the Virgin and her protection of those that devoutly follow her. We have to separate the subgenres first lest we become confused when trying to rationalize this advertisement of place with devout emotion and worship.

  6. I thought you made a really good point when you said that some of the miracle tales are more refined than others, and the whole genre should not be lumped together. To your argument that some have more theological merit than others do, I would add that just because they belong to the same genre does not mean they support the same theological thread of thought. They do not all have the same conceptions of Mary, or of what proper Marian behavior is. For example, while many of them followed the pay tribute to Mary, received intercession model, “Of the Tumbler of Our Lady” departed from that. The Tumbler tumbles himself to death out of service to Mary, and although “the Mother of God received his soul” (55), this does not really seem like a Marian intercession to me. The message does not focus on serving Mary so you receive rewards; the message is that the correct way to serve Mary is the heartfelt way, and perhaps the physical way (given the Cistercian monks views on the piety of physical labor). In the case of the “Tumbler of Our Lady”, the choice of the genre of miracle tale seems like it might have been an intentional embrace of the “popular tradition” to enhance the anti-elitist messaging of the tale. So, I definitely agree that the genre should not be viewed as one note.