Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Legitimacy and Belief

The readings on Marian apparitions brought to the fore the shifting nature of legitimacy when it comes to seeing the Virgin. This concern is particularly clear in the Christian, which records the visions through a formalized documentation of their authentication. There is a change in who is receiving visions of the virgin and in why these recipients are considered worthy. In the previous accounts of Marian visions we have read the recipients of the visions are all women who have taken Holy orders [Technically, no--only priests take holy orders. The women had taken vows. --RLFB]. These women spent most of their lives immersed in prayer and meditation centering around Christ and the Virgin, and several of them were well known for their theological and scholastic work as well. They form a stark contrast with the recipients of visions in the Spanish account; poor, uneducated shepherd boys and a girl whose parents are “known to be stupid”. The factors that mark a given person as a suitable visionary have been altered.

The women were seen as acceptable and even perhaps natural recipients of visions because of their high levels of piety and devotion. They had all chosen a religious life and had received a more thorough spiritual education because of this. The young visionaries seem to have been seen as legitimate for exactly the opposite reasons. They were young, with no known special spiritual education or understanding before their visions. Their lack of education in spiritual matters is key. The previous visionaries would have had all kinds of detailed scriptural knowledge of what Mary should look like. Their religious education made them far more likely to have false visions - whether knowingly or unknowingly. Their knowledge was now seen as contaminating their possible vision. The young children did not have this problem; because of their supposed ignorance their visions could be “tested to determine their validity

Except it’s not quite that simple. Although the imagery in the visions draws on a long and theologically complex tradition there are ways in which the Spanish vision recipients could have been exposed to it despite their lack of higher religious education. The imagery of their visions came from the same tradition that would have influenced the sermons and services they heard at church. More importantly, it would have influenced the visual depictions of the Virgin, present at her alter. Despite not possessing the complex scriptural knowledge to interpret the visions, they very well may have seen visual representations of it before. In fact several of them even mention recognizing the Virgin because she resembled her statue. So while the idea may have been to locate visions in people deemed to be outside the tradition, it is possible that its permeation led to it being the latent image source in the population.

            This positional shift in legitimacy also plays into a couple of the larger questions which have been coming up in class, namely to what degree was the Marian tradition ”popular”  and what role skepticism played, particularly in light of the focus on authentication.

            To the first point, getting at the level of permeation this tradition had in the general population is incredibly difficult because the written records and examples of this tradition come from the educated, literate, religious elite. Those sources that do deal with unlettered masses tend to do so from a surface level perspective. They engage with the story through their actions but the finer points of their driving thought processes, which might contain clues as to how they arrived at their belief in the virgin, remain opaque. The surviving physical representations of this tradition - primarily statues and other alter decorations - and the accounts of the vision recipients in Spain point toward at least a rudimentary understanding of the practical application of the Marian tradition, if not its deeper theological basis. This could be compared to the many people today who recognize that H2O is water, but may not know that H20 stands for dihydrogen monoxide, or have any understanding of the molecules that compose it and the bonds that hold them together. They understand the end result, that the formula H2O stand for water, without seeing all the steps taken to reach that formula. It could be possible to understand that the alter statue of Mary represents her without seeing all the encoded meaning and scriptural interpretation required to create it. In this way the Marian tradition could be extremely “popular” while still remaining fully accessible only to a few.

            The second question centers around whether or not people where accepting these vision and miracle accounts at face value or with reservation. While there is potential skepticism at play here it is not, as might be expected by a modern reader, concerning the visions themselves. Belief in the Virgin’s power to work miracles and do the impossible seems to be as strong as it ever was. There is a marked concern with ensuring that the visions are authentic, however this actually strengthens the argument that people really believed. Fraudulent visions, whether wholly falsified or of demonic origin, are only of concern if people might believe them and be misled. If people where skeptical of the truth Marian visions then there would be no need to authenticate them because they would hold very little power. The idea of policing miraculous claims about the Virgin is also not a new development. Pilgrimage sights such as Rocamadour had done so for centuries by controlling the record of miracles attributed to their Virgin.  If there is skepticism at play here, it seems to be directed at the institutions of the Church, not the Virgin herself. There is a sense of unease with vision recipients who are to close to the church, not with the visions. Although the church still has the power to decide on the truth of visions it has lost at least part of its place as an acceptable source of them.

- M. Coker 


  1. I like your claim at the end that the skepticism surrounding the apparition narratives we read is centered more around the Church than the Virgin, and I think it would be very interesting to explore in greater detail just what caused this epistemic shift regarding what made visions believable. The obvious event precipitating this shift is the Reformation, what about the Reformation (and the Counter-Reformation) made the learned less privileged sources? Why did it make ignorance (or, as you detail, apparent ignorance) so important?

    Also worth considering is the degree to which our knowledge of these vision is shaped by the learned interpreting and guiding the words of the unlearned, what effect might this have? And, to go beyond this relatively obvious question, to what degree are "popular" traditions shaping the opinion of these learned interlocutors? Digging through this is perhaps one of the most fascinating and frustrating tasks for the historian interested in "popular" religion.

  2. You do a good job summarizing the major questions of interpretation that these visionary accounts raise for us, but we needed to hear more about the particulars in the accounts that you would point to in support of your broader claims. Not all of the visionaries in the Spanish accounts were, in fact, children, although most seem to have been fairly young. To test how much they may have been influenced in their descriptions by statues they had seen or sermons they had heard, we needed specific examples of the language invoked in their descriptions. This kind of detail is also necessary for evaluating who, exactly, is being skeptical of whom and for what reasons. RLFB

  3. I agree, “the imagery in the visions [does] draw on a long and theologically complex tradition…” In the Santa Gadean account, for example, we see the account from the “unlearned” Pedro brimming with learned and traditional Marian references. The honey and wax evoke the praise of Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus 24. Verse 20 states “For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and those who drink of me will thirst for more” (NRSV). Mary’s appearance in the hawthorn bush evokes the tree language in the same passage, as well as Revelation 12:1. There it reads, “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun…” (NRSV). Hawthorns bloom white, and more explicitly the testimony calls the woman who appears, “a lady…who shone brighter than the sun,” (28). The supposedly unlearned shepherd Pedro’s name is associated with a learned description of a Marian appearance, steeped with imagery from the Wisdom tradition.

    In this way, there seems to be a central paradox embedded in the new schema by which visionaries are judged. While they have to be ignorant of the tradition, they are also expected to produce accounts that verify it. In this way, I think your comment that “There is a sense of unease with vision recipients who are too close to the church, not with the visions” is apt. The visionaries can no longer be members of religious communities – like Hildegard or Elisabeth. However, they are required to produce visions that are in concert with the traditions closely linked to those communities.

    A. Fialkowski

  4. RLFB's comment indicates the necessity of looking at the language used in describing the visions to determine the extent to which the visionaries were influenced by Marian images transmitted through statues or sermons. Like the aspects of the Santa Gadea account that A. Fialkowski unpacks, the miracle at Jaen also comprises some Marian imagery, namely the same notion that Mary "shone brighter than the sun" (like the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelation 12:1). The Jaen miracle, however, also features a ghostly procession that does not relate directly to any image associated with Mary in the Scripture or in the Marian tradition, save perhaps a feast day procession. Without the additional Marian imagery witnessed by the Santa Gadea visionaries to bolster the claim, and with the disparate accounts of those who claimed to have seen the Virgin, the Jaen apparition seems to be more influenced by visionaries' prior understanding of Mary—one, Maria Sanchez, even describes the vision as "very similar to the image of Our Lady on the altar," a bright, gilt statue holding a child (47). William A. Christian Jr.'s compilation of the Jaen accounts do not mention what kind of skepticism they faced or the Church's specific response, however, which renders the task of deciding who is skeptical of whom and why difficult.