And today’s tasteless hagiographical miracle is…

The Porte de Saint-Marcel, Die, Drome, France

The Porte de Saint-Marcel, Die, Drome, France

Burgundian royalty, right, they didn’t worry about the proprieties so much. I have lately met in the Vita of Saint Marcel of Die a story which, because of the lengthy and elaborate post-Roman Latin, I shall not give in translation.1 Instead, I shall paraphrase. Queen Carathena of the Burgundians has proudly built a new basilica to Saint Michael Archangel in Lyons, and gathers ecclesiastics from all round to dedicate it. Bishop Marcel, renowned holy man, miracle athlete and of course good friends with the queen, figures that this is an ideal time to ask her to ask her husband King Gundobad if something can’t be done about the tedious royal services the city of Die has to render to the Burgundian ruler. Gundobad, however, is unmoved by the queen’s entreaties, or even the bishop’s own ‘familiar’ address on the subject,2 but so as not to appear unbending on the subject, gives the bishop a small manse on his route back home so that he has somewhere to stay en route.3 While Marcel is staying at his consolation prize, one of the queen’s favourite slave-girls is possessed by a demon,4 and rages wild in a sleep from which she cannot be woken. But wait! Marcel appears to the queen in a vision and promises the queen that he will heal the girl, and makes as if to mop her limbs with his clothing. When the queen herself awakes, she hies off to the house where Marcel had stayed in Lyons, hoping that some fragment of his clothing has been left behind. Triumphant, she comes away with a handkerchief with which she has wiped up some sputum the holy man of God had hawked onto the wall, “not made in the filth of drunkenness but in the most worldly chewing of fasting”, and lets it soak in water with which she then washes the girl’s nose and mouth. Once suitable entreaties are offered up to God, she soon recovers.5 When this news is passed to the king, of course he realises the true holiness of Marcel and grants him the tribute exemption he’d originally been after, after which the girl mends enough to eat. A miracle!

There is actually a lot one could say about this besides “ewww” and snark in the footnotes: the rôle of the bishop as his city’s representative to a quite distant king; the effective powerlessness of the bishop in the face of a royal refusal; the power of the whim of the queen in ecclesiastical society as the Church marshals itself for survival in the new régime; and of course, the fact that making potions out of people’s bodily leftovers is possibly not the whitest of magics if viewed in the brilliant light of modern or even Hincmarian orthodoxy, even if it is for a benign purpose (because, after all, a saint’s mucus could hardly serve any other purpose now could it? Right!…) And the actual edition adds even more layers, as the text appears to come from a manuscript that once belonged to a sixteenth-century forger who disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and so the whole thing may not be quite kosher (leaving aside questions of whether saint-spittle is halal, I mean). So lots to say. But I have, as ever, masses to do, and no time to do it in, so I just offer the anecdote for your commentary should you have any…


1. Paraphrasing from a scratch translation of the text in François Dolbeaux, “La vie en prose de Saint Marcel, Évêque de Die : Histoire du texte et édition critique” in Francia: Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte Vol. 11 (Sigmaringen 1983), pp. 97-130, cap. 9.

2. Even in the Latin this reads as if the bishop patronised the king rigid about the importance of being nice to bishops from good senatorial family. One can understand how Gundobad wasn’t persuaded.

3. I. e. “tell you what, here’s something to help you on your way home…”

4. This seems to happen a lot where Marcel goes. It’s like inviting Miss Marple to a weekend at your country house, they ought to know the dangers of associating with him…

5. Whether from the possession or the treatment isn’t actually clear in the Latin.

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11 responses to “And today’s tasteless hagiographical miracle is…

  1. …so the whole thing may not be quite kosher (leaving aside questions of whether saint-spittle is halal, I mean).

    You are going to hell for that.

  2. Not to mention that those medieval s sure lacked the ick factor. Perhaps we are the ones too antiseptic that we find bodily fluids of any sort to be icky (although clearly we have got the hygiene thing right).

  3. highlyeccentric

    I love hagiography.

    I don’t think there’s anything else one can say to that.

  4. Now wait a minute – didn’t your mother ever lick a tissue to clean your face off with when you were little? It’s not quite the same as scraping it off the wall but still – at least the queen didn’t avail herself of some Holy Urine.

    • She didn’t put it in my mouth, though, I think that’s an important distinction. Neither did she cough on it first. You are right that it could be worse, though, for sure…

      • I’m trying to work out whether this is more disgusting than John 9:6, where Jesus spits on the ground and then puts mud and spit on a blind man’s eyes. I intuitively think St Marcel’s version is more disgusting, but I’m not sure why. Whether it’s because the Biblical story is more familiar, or a vague instinct that fresh spit is somehow less repulsive than reconstituted spit, I don’t know.

        There’s a fair amount that’s been written both on the history of disgust (William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust) and the evolutionary psychology of it, but I’m not sure I want to read up on it, partly because reading about such things can itself cause psycho-somatic effects.

      • Some of the old medical treatments were worse. One of my K’zoo ’09 acquisitions is Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healingby Stephen Pollington (2000). Dung is mentioned several times including, “the droppings of pigs to drive off warts in conjunction with crowfoot.” and “a pigeon’s and a goat’s droppings in a cure for aching limbs, a sheep’s in a remedy for a spider’s bite, a horse’s in a cure for heavy menstruation, a goose’s for a thorn sting.” p 173

        I haven’t read the book through yet but these are medicinal listings under “Dung” so it would be pretty tough to misread it. I seem to recall some topical medicinal uses involving urine too but I can’t recall where at the moment.

        And I don’t even want to get into personal grossness. Let’s just say I was not unique among young men (and occasionally young women) living in rural America, and I console myself with the belief that I built up a hearty immune system – an on occasion pocketed a few dollars in the time-honored tradition of, “I’ll give you five bucks if you’ll . . .”.

        In any case, IMO the poor, possessed girl should consider herself fortunate the Queen didn’t return packing the saintly man’s chamber pot. ;)

  5. Pingback: “omni tempore quo leprosus est et inmundus solus habitabit extra castra” « For I Have Tasted the Fruit

  6. Pingback: Kalamazoo and Back, IV: in which I am substantially preceded « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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