Middle English Word of the Moment

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Gilte Legende and disjointed saints.

There are the saints everyone knows. They tend to have a well-defined life story, usually set in a particular place and time in history, a collection of miracles done before and/or after their death, and a particular personality and purview that leads to them being called on for certain things (patron or not).

Then there are the saints who are essentially a collection of folklore and local associations, or blends of one and another, Christianised versions of a couple of incidents from classical mythology with some half-remembered local story mixed in and tacked on to the name of someone who might be a regular saint or might be a duplicate or no one at all, really. And these ones rather tend to fail on the whole coherent narrative front.

Most of the stories in the Gilte Legende are actually somewhere between these two categories. Nicholas, for example, is well known and well defined and doesn’t stand much danger of being confused with anyone else. But the events of his life are more a series of vaguely connected events than any coherent narrative; and over a third of the space devoted to him in the Gilte Legende[1] is a conglomeration of miracles[2] attributed to him that took place after his death, which are essentially two stories repeated with slight variants, or at least miracles organised along two common themes (whence his popular personality):

  • A Christian debtor attempts to cheat a patient Jew, who brings him to judgement. The Christian hands the Jew a staff, swears that he has given the Jew the money he owes him, then receives his staff back. He goes free, but is hit by a cart which kills him and breaks open his staff to reveal the gold inside. Men advise the Jew to take the money, but he refuses and says that he will only do so if the dead man should come to life again by the power of St Nicholas. This duly happens, and the Jew is christened.
  • A Jew takes an image of the saint and keeps it in his house, charging it to keep watch over his goods. When thieves break into the house and steal everything but the statue, the Jew “bette [the image] and tormented it cruelli” (Nicholas ll. 244-45), and the wounded saint, appearing to the thieves and berating them for getting him thumped, so terrifies them that they return everything they stole. And everyone lives happily ever after – ie, the thieves become righteous and the Jew becomes a Christian.
  • Nicholas raises a dead child to life, after the sorrowing father berates him for neglecting to protect a family who was so devoted to the saint.
  • A man prays to St Nicholas that he might have a son, promising to give the son and a gold cup to the church. The child being of age, the father has a cup made, decides he likes it too much to give it up, has another of equal weight and value made, and offers that instead. He travels to the church by boat, and commands his son to bring him water in the first cup, upon which boy and cup fall overboard and are lost. Arriving, he offers the second cup, but it is thrown down from the altar three times. Then the child appears, with the first cup, and claims to have been saved from the sea by St Nicholas. The father, rather prudently, offers up both cups.
  • A child is born, again by Nicholas’ intervention, and his father builds a chapel to Nicholas in gratitude. The king takes the child into service, and on St Nicholas’ feast day the child misses his home, knowing how his father would be celebrating it. Standing before the king and holding a rich cup he bemoans this, and the king declares that “for ought þat þy Nicholas can doo þou schalte abide here now” (ll. 305-6). And of course Nicholas immediately poofs him back home to his father. Or possibly he was born in Normandy and kidnapped by the sultan while overseas (Crusading? Serves him right), who liked to beat him, particularly on Christian saints’ days, for some reason. But praying to St Nicholas on that saint’s day, and thinking of the joy at his house on that day, he awakes to find himself in his father’s house again.
Despite the fact that he apparently has popular, wide-spread, firm associations for many people, Nicholas remains thematically disjointed. The Jew has little to do with the child, and neither has any obvious parallel in the story of his life. One can argue similarities between the miracles. For example, the theme of guarding possessions and the possibility of covetousness appears in both Jew stories and the second child story, and the cup appears in the third but has lost its narrative function. The grieving father in the first child story berates Nicholas in a way that seems similar to both Jews exhorting Nicholas to return them their possessions, providing a link to the idea of the child as property to protect to the other stories. But the connection is a tenuous one and no more convincing than, I daresay, one could make between almost any collection of stories attributed to multiple saints.

Saint Nicholas, however, looks like a picture of unity compared to Saint Makary. Here’s what he gets up to:

  • It begins “Makarie went oute of a place of desert and entred [in] the sepulture of a dede man and leyed his hede downe vpon the dede bodi in stede of a pilow” (St Macarius ll. 1-3). No, there is no context or motivation or preamble – why do you ask? A fiend with nothing better to do decided to scare him and made the dead body speak. Makary “dred hym nothyng” (l. 7), but instead beat the body up, which made the fiends flee and is probably exactly what Jesus would have done.
  • This one time Makary was heading for his cell and met a fiend who told him he couldn’t attack him because of his humility.
  • When Makary was feeling troubled by temptations, he used to take a sack of gravel and go walking in the desert, of which he said to Theosebe (no, we aren’t told who he is) “I slee hym that sleith me” (l. 22).
  • Once he met a fiend who was tempting his brethren with wine. And he asked the fiend which of them was succumbing, and the fiend told him Theotist. And so Makary talked to him and told him that wasn’t such a good idea, and next time he met the fiend, the fiend was rather piqued that Theotist was now holier than all of them.
  • Once he found a severed head and had a chat to it about where its soul was.
  • While going into a “ferre desert” (l. 50) he dropped rosary beads to mark his way, probably figuring that this sack of gravel was really heavy and the birds wouldn’t eat rosary beads. But a devil gathered them up and put them next to his head, which just goes to show that birds are secretly evil.
  • Once he advised a brother who was considering leaving his cell not to do so!
  • Once he killed a flea for biting him, or possibly a fly, and then repented and went to live naked in a desert so lots of flies could bite him.

See what I mean? The only common threads are that sometimes he talks to dead people and that he likes a nice masochistic stroll in the desert. I think I like him.

The entry for St Julian the Hospitaller is disjointed in a rather different way [3]. The author is confronted with the fact that there are, in fact, six or possibly seven different Julians that his audience may be familiar with (not to mention St Juliana), and the only way they can be distinguished is by their stories. So he tells all the stories, while insisting that his focus is on the Hospitaller – although only 64 lines out of 218 are actually about that man. To summarise:

  • Julian was bishop of Emans, and people claim he was Simon the leper that Jesus healed. And people say that this is the Julian that people pray to for safe harbour, but they would be wrong.
  • There was another Julian of Auvergne, who was beheaded by the provost Crispin.
  • There was also another Julian who was the brother of… well, a Julian. They built a church and made people stop and help them work on it and smote people who tried to trick their way out of it.
  • Then there was the Saint Julian that we were going to talk about, who killed his own mother and father out of ignorance when they were his guests. Which is why we pray to him for safe harbour. He saw the error of his ways, you see.
  • Also there was Julian the Apostate who did nasty things to Christians. But he was not a saint. Saint Basil smote him. Do not get any of the other Julians confused with him. No, not even the one who killed his guests who were also his parents. He didn’t mean to.

And of course, when dealing with saints, there’s always the really literal meaning of disjointed. One could probably make a very complicated connecting argument out of the disjointed nature of the tales reflecting the torn-up bits of martyrs scattered hither and yon, sometimes over an entire country (or beyond, thank you Pardoner). It’d be a bit of a reach, because it assumes some kind of overreaching cultural intent behind these stories – authorial intent pretty much goes out the window when you’re just collecting a bunch of stories from all over the place and trying to work out how they fit together without changing them much.

Although, come to think of it, from one angle it’s not that far-fetched – if it’s about possession and example, which end up being the same thing, just with different intents of proof. As for example: the physical limbs of a martyr (or traitor, as I wrote about once before) can be strewn over a wide range to provide an example to as many people as possible, from the point of view of their enemy, and to prevent their reassembly come Judgement Day. But for the sympathetic, or the faithful, their very triumph over the latter obstacle is proof of their power, and their power is by the same token disseminated over a wider range, letting more villages and provinces lay claim to a bit of a saint - or a bit of the saint’s stories. And in many cases, the post-mortem perambulations of the persecuted in popular legend may be due precisely to the pressures of possession – we have a bit of his arm bone in our reliquary, his head was carried through this very town on the way to its burial, Bertha’s great-grandmother had a friend who touched the cloak of the person carrying his ashes towards Rome. And, well, if so many people from all over the place can lay claim to him, he (or his bits) must have really got about.

Of course, in many cases, it’s just that the stories were never whole in the first place. And that cutting fictional people up is fun.


[1] Following Hamer’s two-volume edition, EETS 327-328, 2006-2007. Of the entry on St Nicholas, ll. 1-199 are his life, 200-319 later miracles.

[2] What's the collective noun for miracles?

[3] The actual story of Julian’s life, when we reach it, is conversely as perfectly structured a narrative as one could wish for. I may look at it in another post.

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