Lately, I have been closely reading The Golden Legend, William Caxton’s late-fifteenth century English edition of the Legenda aurea, a comprehensive reference work of saint’s legends. While reading the chapter on Saint Swithun, this passage stood out to me:
“And on a time there came a woman over the bridge with her lap full of eggs, and a reckless fellow struggled and wrestled with her, and brake all her eggs. And it happed that this holy bishop came that way the same time, and bade the woman let him see her eggs, and anon he lift up his hand and blessed the eggs, and they were made whole and sound, ever each one, by the merits of this holy bishop, and being then glad she thanked God and this holy man for the miracle that was done to her.”
I find the juxtaposition between the lofty bishop and saint and the mundane woman with her broken eggs to be highly funny. The saint not only makes the time to stop for a woman with some broken eggs, but even uses his divine connection to God to restore them!
Oddly enough, this is not the only medieval account I’ve read in which broken eggs are miraculously restored. In the Life of Margaret of Ypres, by Thomas of Cantimpré (the same hagiographer who wrote the Life of Christina the Astonishing), the willful teenage ascetic is so busy meditating on God that her mother becomes angry with her for neglecting the housework. One day, in order to make it look like she helped out, she dumps out a bowl of what she believes to be broken eggshells into the yard. Of course, the eggs were whole rather than broken, and Margaret’s mother is furious. Margaret, however, prays to God and he deigns to restore them whole.
It just goes to show you–no problem is too small for divine intervention!
My latest research has had me scouring through medieval religious tales, searching for narratives concerning ghosts and resurrection. Most of the tales I’ve found tell of dead who return to life, granted a second chance to confess and do penance so they may escape hell. But I’ve stumbled across several stories that bear remarkable similarities to modern tales of zombies and vampires. William of Newburgh, a twelfth-century English historian, documents a number of these narratives. One story ends with two men digging up the grave of a corpse who’s been terrorizing the town:
Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.
William tells several other stories of corpses rising and attacking the living. Perhaps a future research project?
The Fordham Medieval Sourcebook has a translation of some of these tales.
A recent research project has me poring through bird entries in medieval bestiaries and encyclopedias. I find the genre fascinating and wish I had more time to study it thoroughly. The entries are a strange mix of actual bird behavior, pseudo-scientific biological explanations, and spiritual moralizations. The funnest bits, of course, describe sexual habits. The partridge entry in Thomas of Cantimpré’s De natura rerum has this to say on the matter:
When the males fight for the females, the victors trample on the vanquished and mate with them, and, as the experimentor says, their lust is so vehement that they forget which sex it is. . . . The hens are said to be so lustful that they conceive merely by smelling the male. For at that time they stick their tongues out from sexual desire. When they mate, they exhale a nasty smell.
That’s one fertile bird!
This year I’m presenting with the Medieval Section of the American Folklore Society. I’m investigating the relationship between the medieval tale of Saint Andrew and the Three Questions, in which Andrew saves a bishop’s soul from the devil disguised as a maiden by answering his three riddles. Andrew’s answer to the devil’s last question, “What is the distance between heaven and earth,” isn’t even a real answer, but an acknowledgement of his ignorance: “You would know, because you fell that distance!” I have found analogues of this tale present in modern folktales, including one collected by the Grimms. But more interesting are the ways that the riddle contest is used in medieval religious legends in different contexts. In my paper, I sketch out some of the ways in which the riddle contest moves between different genres and accomplishes different narrative goals.
My panel information is below:
Claiming Authority, Resisting the Devil: How Lay Appropriations Shaped Medieval and Early Modern Traditions
Fredericka Schmadel, “An Uppity Street Nun’s Quest for God”
Steve Stanzak, “Sacred and Secular Narratives: How Saints and Soldiers Decipher the Devil’s Riddles”
Charlotte Artese, “’They Will Not Intercept My Tale’: Oral and Classical Traditions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus”
Dan Terkla, “The Duchy of Cornwall and Hereford Mappaemundi: Heritage, Patronage, and Commemoration”
My review of Bernard Mees’s Celtic Curses is now published with the Journal of Folklore Research. Read my review below, or at the Journal of Folklore Research webpage:
Bernard Mees’s recent work, Celtic Curses, arrays an impressive range of scholarship on ancient and medieval Celtic cursing practices. Most treatments of this topic focus primarily on literary representations of curses in the British Isles; Mees, however, also considers the historical and archaeological evidence for cursing practices among both Insular and Continental Celts. Throughout his work, the author offers careful close readings of actual curse texts and situates them as best as possible into their historical and cultural contexts, attempting to show how curses were used in particular real-life situations. For this work, the volume was nominated in 2009 for The Folklore Society’s Katherine Briggs Award. Continue reading
My review for Jan M. Ziolkowski’s recent book on medieval Latin fairy tales is now published with my usual venue, the Journal of Folklore Research. I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially its pointed criticism of some recent fairy tale scholarship that ignores viable medieval evidence. Medieval studies in folklore certainly has had its heyday, but those days are long past. It’s refreshing to see some medieval folklorists reminding the discipline of its origins.
Read my review at the Journal of Folklore Research website or below.
We do not, and never will, have access to oral folktales from the Middle Ages. Although unfortunate, this does not mean that folktale scholars should give up hope of ever understanding storytelling in the medieval period or that all our written evidence should be discarded as inauthentic and therefore not valuable. Jan M. Ziolkowski’s book, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies, advocates for a “use what’s available” approach to medieval literature, taking into account the varied and nuanced textual practices in use at the time. Some texts with value to folklorists have survived the centuries, and careful attention to historical and cultural contexts may reveal much about medieval vernacular practices. Folklorists who dismiss written evidence out of hand solely because of its medium downplay the complexity inherent in folklore’s transmission. Continue reading
Recently during a medieval Christianity course I was introduced to saint Christina the Astonishing, a Flemish beguine saint who torments herself in these horrible, awful ways–boiling cauldrons, hanging in gallows, drowning, running through thorns. Christina does all these things without being harmed, although she feels the pain caused by them. Christina’s actions cause strife within her community, who thinks she might be possessed. Throughout, we see Christina struggling to fit in with her community her gifts always marginalize her. I found the juxtaposition of divine deeds and very human struggles fascinating.
For Christmas, Keith bought me a print painted by an artist who imagines Christina as a feminist, rebellious saint. The one I received is here. The painting depicts a scene in which God resurrects Christina to do his work on earth. She awakens during her funeral mass and flies to the rafters, shocking all those in attendance. I love how the artist highlights the feminist, rebellious undertones in the hagiography, portraying Christina in red and focusing on the priest’s attempt to restrict her actions. The artist also has another Christina painting with some of the same themes, but sadly there’s no print available.
My review of Jan M. Ziolkowski’s new critical edition of the bawdy medieval text Solomon and Marcolf appeared yesterday in the Journal of Folklore Research. This was a wonderful collection of medieval proverbs, folktales, and traditional lore. Read my review below, or at the JFRR webpage:
Few medieval texts offer such a rich repository of traditional lore as Solomon and Marcolf, which imagines a battle of wits between the biblical King Solomon and the bawdy folk hero Marcolf. Although the text has been reprinted often in its original Latin, Ziolkowski’s new critical edition is the first attempt to translate the original text since the sixteenth century.
In addition to his new English translation, Ziolkowski also includes the original Latin text, a thorough introduction, an exhaustive commentary, extensive textual notes, several indexes (including an index of motifs, proverbs, and tale type numbers), and a hefty bibliography. Also included is a number of appendices: one provides a chart mapping out manuscript variants of the dialogue section, and others provide supplemental texts, including an alternate beginning and ending, a number of sources and analogues, and a modern English translation (by Diana Luft) of a late sixteenth-century Welsh version of Solomon and Marcolf. The volume as a whole is a masterpiece of textual scholarship that should, despite its playful narrative content, be taken seriously by folklorists. Continue reading
My review of Marytrdom, Murder, and Magic came out today. I used this book for my readings course on medieval saints’ legends course last semester (directed by Constance Furey). Sections of the book also connect directly to my work with William of Norwich for my MA thesis.
Although much of its content was interesting, I found some of the assumptions the author made fundamentally flawed. You can read my review of the volume here, or below.
In Martyrdom, Murder, and Magic, Patricia Healy Wasyliw surveys medieval cults of child martyr saints. Although not a folklorist, Wasyliw situates these saints and their cults under the purview of folkloristic research. Saints and saints’ cults were sometimes recognized and maintained by the official church in Rome, but they were just as often sites of diverse folk religious practices. The institution of sainthood in the later Middle Ages, Wasyliw argues, consisted of an “uneasy coexistence of local, regional, and papal influences” (2). Even in the very beginnings of Christianity there existed the notion that models of sanctity and saintly power could also be applied to children in the same manner as adult saints; in several instances, Wasyliw emphasizes that the creation of child saints allowed medieval peoples to grieve for dead children, despite the doctrinal issues surrounding childhood sanctity. Children could not acquire sainthood through the traditionally adult routes of asceticism and excessive piety. Martyrdom, however, offered an avenue for medieval peoples to locate sanctity within the domain of childhood. Continue reading