Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sacred and profane dismemberment

At a seminar last Thursday, we were debating the mediaeval cult of saintly relics, which started me thinking about the prevalence of the theme of dismemberment in the Legenda aurea, a thirteenth-century best-seller that gives accounts of the legends attached to saints' lives. Many of the saints, of course, were martyred, and the descriptions tend to be lurid, and heavy on the dismemberment.

Just for example:

Sir Thomas Becket, of course, was set upon by four hot-headed young knights who thought to do Henry II a favour: "And then smote each at him, that they smote off a great piece of the skull of his head, that his brain fell on the pavement... And when he was dead they stirred his brain, and after went in to his chamber and took away his goods, and his horse out of his stable, and took away his bulls and writings."

St Winifred was one of those pious, holy virgins we hear so much of, who told her would-be rapist she'd rather die than betray her incorporeal spouse - "I will in no wise consent to thy foul and corrupt desire, for I am joined to my spouse Jesu Christ which preserveth and keepeth my virginity" - so he obligingly cut off her head. Interestingly, in this case, the head was fixed back on afterwards, bringing her back to life - "And ever, as long as she lived after, there appeared about her neck a redness round about, like to a red thread of silk, in sign and token of her martyrdom."

St Theodore had a particularly delightful scene. Refusing to recant his religion (and, incidentally, having burnt down the temple of Mars instead), "he was hanged on a tree by commandment of the emperor, and cruelly his body was rent and torn with hooks of iron, that his bare ribs appeared. Then the provost demanded of him: Theodore, wilt thou be with us or with thy God Christ? And Theodore answered: I have been with my Jesu Christ, and am, and shall be. Then the provost commanded that he should be burnt in a fire."

St James the Martyr found himself in a similar predicament, only longer. They cut up his body member by member, starting with the little finger, asking after each amputation whether he recanted. Instead, he made a parable out of Christian numerology about the number of fingers he had lost, or the significance of this or that part of the body: "Then the seventh finger was cut off, and he said: Lord, I have said to thee seven times in the day praisings.... Then the butchers having despite, cut off the great toe of the right foot, and S. James said: The foot of Jesu Christ was pierced and blood issued out." After some time of this, the Christian was obdurate, but the "butchers" swooned. "And after they came to themselves, and cut off the left leg unto the thigh, and then the blessed James cried and said: O good Lord, hear me half alive, thou Lord of living men and dead; Lord, I have no fingers to lift up to thee, ne hands that I may enhance to thee; my feet be cut off, and my knees so that I may not kneel to thee, and am like to a house fallen, of whom the pillars be taken away by which the house was borne up and sustained; hear me, Lord Jesu Christ, and take out my soul from this prison. And when he had said this, one of the butchers smote off his head."

And so on. There are many in there. But why the emphasis on tearing bodies apart? I suspect one answer is the simple delight in gory detail which we all know to an ineradicable element of human nature - I'm sure I don't need to quote all the horror films that capitalise on that. There is also, of course, the sympathy factor, getting the audience on side with the good Christians undergoing a type of Christ's death for our sake. Another answer may well be the fact that the stories of martyrs tend to have two distinct themes - the completely unattainable heights of disinterested spirituality, which it is very hard for ordinary humans to relate to, and the gruesome story of their death, acted out in great detail on the physical body in which every human has a share. The horror of the physical ordeal, which we can all at least imagine, is a good deal easier to relate to than the first theme, but the way they are usually interwoven (the torture or threats of it as a result of one's religion, and one's religion as a solace in the torture), perhaps help to draw them together, to make that unattainable perfection of soul a little less daunting to approach.

There is also a strong symbolic element to most of these accounts - James provides his own allegorical commentary, and the decapitation element of Winifred and Thomas' stories relates to the theme of authority. The struggle between Henry II (theoretically the head of the country) and Thomas as Archbishop (head of the church) over whether secular or religious power should hold sway both justifies the knights' attack on the head of Thomas' physical body, and simultaneously makes it pointless - the spiritual body is what counts. Winifred protests that she is "joined" to her spouse Jesus, and with the husband allegorically believed to be a woman's head, her attacker's choice to strike that off is more than just random pique. She is vindicated by being brought back to life and re-"joined" to that head.


Whatever the reasons for gruesome dismemberment in saints' stories, heightening the prestige of the saint, preparing for the relic cult, impressing with their endurance, anything - how does this relate to the mediaeval forms of torture and execution, particularly the hanging, drawing and quartering inflicted on that worst of social enemies, the traitor? As I'm in between the researching and drafting stages of my essay on Edward II at the moment, the images of execution and "let the punishment fit the crime" are rather clear in my head at the moment - particularly as regards Hugh Despencer.

There is, of course, a good deal of symbolism or allegory involved in the prescribed punishment. Lady Despenser detailed a lot of this in a blog post a month ago. The curious thing is that
the hanging, drawing and emasculation (possibly an innovation designed especially for Hugh, and allegedly at Isabella's insistence, though I don't place a lot of credence on that) can all be seen as paralleling the purification aspects of saintly dismemberment, by atoning for crime, burning out the sin, amending the soul. However, if the body is then quartered and the quarters separated, as Lady Despenser points out, the person will be unable to reassemble their body come the day of Judgement. In other words, the soul is denied immortality.

Inconsistent? Perhaps. The gruesomely public aspect of the execution does mean, I suppose, that for the vast majority of people it was essentially retribution and example. It's probably fair to say that the same is true of our justice system today. We do like to think that we focus a little more on the aspect of redemption (or rehabilitation, as we'd put it), that it is in fact an invention of our modern enlightened times; but is it, in fact, present in the symbolism of mediaeval acts of judicial violence, and their disturbing vicinity to the legends of injustices committed on the bodies of saints?

Or did people just like really violent things? Never discount the lowest common denominator!


Lady D. said...

Great post! I bet saints would be hard pressed to get life insurance today!

By the way, emasculation was quite often a part of the hanging/drawing/quartering punishment - for example William Wallace got it too in 1306.

I think it was a far more violent society then than today and people had a much closer relationship with death too. However, maybe some of the symbolism tried to cover a lust for violent entertainments.

Ceirseach said...

Ah, thank you, I suspected emasculation may have happened before, despite some claims to the contrary. I didn't know poor old Wallace got it, but I can definitely see how they might have thought his testosterone needed taking down a peg or two!

As to violent entertainments - I'd definitely agree there! And people say children today are being desensitised to violence by gameboy consoles. Titus Andronicus was pretty mild stuff compared to some of the shows being put on in theatres even in Elizabeth's time. And of course, the gory effects had to be realistic when you consider that the audience could check their verisimilitude just by wandering down the street to the bear pits or something unpleasantly judicial...

Yes, it was probably convenient to justify some of that with a little religious allegory!