In praise of the Liber sanctae fidis

I am of course primarily a charter geek, but it’s hard to form much attachment to individual charters. If I had to I’d pick the one that Adam Kosto opens his 2005 Speculum article with, because not only is it nuts, the fact that it still exists is nuts.1 But more on that another time, maybe. The point is that they’re small, so you can’t form much of an attachment to the author or the characters unless they also appear in other charters, so you don’t then get to have a favourite source so much as a favourite scribe.2 What then is my favourite source? Well, teaching reminded me of a very likely contender, so I’ll tell you about it.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

In 1013 a chap called Bernard of Angers made a pilgrimage to a place in the Languedoc called Conques, which he’d been hearing a lot about at Chartres, in whose famous school he was studying. He was determined to find out the truth of these stories, which marks him out as that most unusual of things, a medieval sceptic. And, when he arrived in the Languedoc, and first met its peculiar love of reliquary statues that were carried around like trophies on special occasions, his reactions were everything John Calvin could have wanted:

I also thought this practice seemed perverse and most contrary to Christian law when for the first time I examined the statute of Saint Gerald [presumably of Aurillac] placed above the altar, gloriously fashioned out of the purest gold and the most precious stones…. And soon, smiling at my companion, Bernier—to my shame—I burst forth in Latin with this opinion:
“Brother, what do you think of this idol? Would Jupiter or Mars consider himself unworthy of such a statue?”
Bernier had already been guided in forming his judgement, so he mocked the statue ingeniously enough, and beneath his praise lay disparagement. And not at all undeservedly, for where the cult of the only high and true God must be practised correctly it seems an impious crime and an absurdity that a plaster or wooden and bronze statue is made, unless it is the crucifix of our Lord…. This incorrect practice has such influence in the places I mentioned earlier [Auvergne, Rouergue and the Toulousain] that, if I had said anything openly then against Saint Gerald’s image, I would probably have been punished as if I had committed a great crime.3

Despite this sceptical attitude, Bernard soon came to make at least one exception to his principles on this account, and he was persuaded to by a twelve-year-old girl with a childish love of jewellery. The specially odd thing about that is that she had been dead for about 600 years and her remains were in one of those statues, she being of course Saint Faith, Sainte Foi or her name in whatever other language you may wish to name her in. And this is the statue.

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Reliquary statue of Sainte Foi de Conques

Bernard had reason to be dubious, because the saint hadn’t been resident at Conques that long: she was martyred at Agen at the beginning of the fourth century, and her relics had rested there quite peacefully until the monks of Conques, which was a daughter house of a monastery at Figeac and seems to have lacked a saint of its own, stole them in 866. This action more or less had to be, could only be, justified by miracles indicating that the saint was happily channelling God’s will in her new home, but the profusion of these seems to have been enough to set Bernard’s mind a-twitch. After a few months at Conques, however, he was not only convinced, he decided to write them all up, something in which the monks appear to have been happy to entertain him, and the saint also since she carried out a miracle while he was there which he rushed to see (though it is sketchy as all get-out, I tell you, as he never saw the supposedly-blind girl before she was supposedly healed and didn’t know how bad her sight was before).4 Some time later, he came back and wrote up some more, and then there were two separate additions of further miracles by some of the monks, presumably after Bernard was no longer available. Sainte-Foi de Conques was a big pilgrimage church on the route to Santiago de Compostela so the throughput of potential curables was quite high. Like many of the churches on those routes, quite a lot of investment had been put into Conques to make it worth diverting to see, and it still is.

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

So why is this a great source, what makes it any better than the average collection of miracles? Well, a bunch of things, starting with the author.5 Bernard is exactly the guide we need into these cults, because he himself starts from a direction we recognise, that of not believing it (though he was plainly a devout and indeed reformist Christian). By the end he has not only drunk the Communion wine, but is actually the saint’s propagandist; all the same, he retains the outsider’s view of what’s strange and funny that we usually have to assume we’ve lost because the insider doesn’t see it like that. Of course, he travels with his own set of dogmatic and social assumptions, but they are ones that we have a reasonable handle on because of Chartres’s educational system producing quite a number of characterful writers. This means that we get a fascinating and useful account of an area where things were not necessarily like elsewhere in France, full of new castellans, prominent noblewomen and lively saints’ cults. It’s probably no wonder that I first met this source in the writings of Pierre Bonnassie.6

Secondly, it’s funny. Saint Faith seems to have had something of a local reputation for liking a laugh, indeed. In a bizarre picture of what was probably a Peace council to which the reliquary statues of various saints had been brought, Bernard makes it seem like a many-way football match in which his team is first to score when he writes as follows:

The most reverend Arnald, Bishop of Rodez, had convened a synod that was limited to the parishes of his diocese. To this synod the bodies of the saints were conveyed in reliquary boxes or in golden images by various communities of monks or canons. The ranks of saints were arranged in tents and pavilions in the meadow of Saint Felix, which is about a mile from Rodez….

A boy, blind and lame, deaf and mute from birth, had been carried there by his parents and placed close beneath the image [of Saint Faith], which been given an elevated and honourable position. After he had been left about an hour, he merited divine medicine. When he had received the grace of a complete cure, the boy stood up speaking, hearing, seeing, and even walking around happily, for he was no longer lame. And when the common people responded to such an amazing event with uproarious joy, the important people at the council, who were seated together a little farther off, began to ask each other: “Why are those people shouting?”

Countess Bertha replied, “Why else should it be, unless Saint Faith is playing her jokes as usual?”

Then all of them were flooded with both wonder and joy because of the exquisite miracle. They called together the whole assembly to praise God, recalling frequently and with very great pleasures what the respectable lady had said—that Saint Faith was joking.7

Part of the fun here is lost to us, in that Bertha is quoted using a peasant word, joca, for the saint’s jokes, and this seems to have been some of the cause of delight, but of course the main part of the story here, beyond the cure itself, is that Faith’s fame is so widespread and her actions so frequent that when there is a popular clammer, the nobility’s natural assumption, even miles from Conques, is that Faith’s acting up. And she does seem to, and not always completely benevolently. Her main line in miracles as told by Bernard is cures of the sick, yes, but she also quite likes trinkets and jewellery. And if you had one she wanted, she would get it:

A young man called William, a native of Auvergne, was worried about a distressing situation and filled with unbearable anxiety, so he vowed to Saint Faith his best ring, which was set with a brilliant green jasper. Things turned out for him better than he had hoped in the matter, so William went to Conques because he was concerned to fulfil the vow he owed. But when he had approached the sacred majesty, William brought out and presented three gold coins, for he calculated that he should be able to redeem the promised gift with one that was larger even though it was different. When he was already about six miles from Conques on his return journey, William suddenly felt drowsy, so he stretched out on the ground and fell asleep for a little while. He soon awakened, but he didn’t see his ring, which until then he had worn on his finger. Then he searched his companions thoroughly and very closely but he didn’t find it anywhere, and he looked in his own clothing, and found nothing. He even proceeded to untie his belt once more, thinking that chance it might have slipped through an inner fold of his clothing, but there was nothing. What, then, should he do? Downcast and filled with confusion he turned his mount back toward Conques. He returned very quickly to the saint and prostrated himself at the foot of her image. There, in a tearful voice, he complained bitterly about the loss of his ring in this way:

“Oh Saint Faith, why have you taken my ring from me? Give it back to me, I implore you, and be satisfied with receiving the ring as a gift. I will give it to you and won’t think it lost, but rather safe. I have sinned, I confess, I have sinned before God and before you, but, Lady, do not look to my transgression but to the customary compassion of your kindness. Do not cast me, a sinner, into sadness, but forgive and make a gift return with joy.”

While William was constantly repeating these and other similar pleas, he looked to the side. Marvellous to report! but believable to the faithful, he saw his ring lying on the pavement. Immediately he snatched it up and returned it to the holy virgin, rejoicing greatly, and those who were standing there marvelled at the sight, for they saw Saint Faith’s power even in trivial matters.8

You’ll notice that she presumably also kept the money… And the reason her statue is quite so over the top is that when a gift like this was made, of jewellery, it was added to the reliquary, which is why the truly sharp-eyed will see that the left leg of her chair is adorned with, among other things, a nineteenth-century cameo. But this is the sort of personality that comes through, a kind of mostly-benevolent magpie poltergeist with a strong sense of entitlement and a weak sense of property combined with a compassionate care for the sick. And at this point, if you’re teaching this, you can remind the students that she was after all only a little girl, twelve says the literature, which fits with that relatively nicely, and you can probably get them to talk a little bit about how the saint’s character comes through in the stories. And then at some point you can pass some remark calculated to make them realise that, modern cynics though they may be, somewhere along here, about when they started taking seriously the character of a four-hundred-years-dead child as shown in the supposed supernatural events reported by her supposedly credulous and self-interested publicity merchants, they took the blue pill and briefly joined the saint’s cult, in as much as they believe in her enough to impute characteristics to her. Then, of course, they will likely shake themselves mentally and dismiss it all as fabrication and rationalise it, but for a little while they were travelling with Bernard, in his mindset of an initially-sceptical but finally-enthralled enquirer from outside, and that’s a teaching moment worth many lesser ones. I don’t know how many other sources there might be that can do this, but I am very fond of this one.

1. Referring to Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74, and Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-96), doc. no. 549 of 990, in which one Ramio guarantees one Juli that he, Ramio, will not prosecute him, Juli, for all the bread and wine he stole from Ramio when they lived together. How this comes to be of any relevance at all to a cathedral archive is beyond my imagining, and Adam’s too, though it might, as I’ve had suggested to me, have had relevance for John Boswell.

2. My favourite scribe would undoubtedly be the judge Bonhom of Barcelona, who was not only legible, but learned, verbose, conscientious and inclined to over-share, so that he, for example, apologises in one signature for the document being a bit wonky because he was sleepy when he wrote it, or explains in another case that he wrote it on two occasions in two different inks. This is really useful to me, even though he was presumably only trying to prevent people suspecting his charters were fake. That, of course, tells us that people were checking such things… For more on Bonhom, see Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), pp. 84-92.

3. The Latin text of one of the versions of the text—it seems to have circulated as booklets, which weren’t always assembled in the same order, which is just one more reason why it’s such a rich source—was printed in Auguste Bouillet (ed.), Liber miraculorum sanctae Fidis, Collection des textes pour servir à l’étude et à l’enseignement de l’histoire 21 (Paris 1897), but I’m here using the translation of Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994), which adds various other materials and is much more than just a convenient Englishing. There this extract is cap. I.13. I’ve taken the liberty of converting her spellings to UK English, just because I find it hard not to auto-correct that, and also of leaving Saint Faith’s name in normalised English because otherwise it’s the only one that isn’t.

4. Ibid. I.9.

5. Well, here, starting in fact with the fact that apparently the people at large in Aurillac didn’t understand spoken Latin by 1013. Take that, Patrick Geary! But of course we wouldn’t know that without Bernard having been happy to write about himself and his doubts in this way.

6. P. Bonnassie, “Les descriptions des forteresses dans le Livre des Miracles de Sainte-Foy de Conques” in Mélanges d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Médiévale en l’Honneur du Doyen Michel du Boüard, Mémoires et Documents publiés par la Société de l’École des Chartes 27 (Geneva 1982), pp. 17-26, transl. J. Birrell as “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. J. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132-148.

7. Sheingorn, Book of Sainte Foy, cap. I. 28.

8. Ibid., I.21.

18 responses to “In praise of the Liber sanctae fidis

  1. That really is a fascinating example of the different levels of orthodox and popular religion interacting. Also, it’s rather surprising to find that the would-be heart of Catharism was formerly known for its saints cults!

    • It really is a hotbed in that area, you have the Peace of God movement, really vocal and popular (and near-idolatrous) saints’ cults and then not just Catharism but a range of lesser heresies too. Whether the fragmented political authority is a cause, or another symptom of whatever the causes are, is an open question. Certainly, however, I think we can say that religion was popular here, in several senses!

  2. Don’t have much to add except that, yes, that source is awesome. I love teaching it too (and do so at every opportunity).

  3. A very timely post (for me anyway). Just minutes before reading this post in my Google Reader the copy of Sheingorn’s The Book of Sainte Foy” that I ordered for my library’s collection was delivered to my office. It must be a sign!

  4. highlyeccentric

    Oh, that is adorable!

  5. Ah! Very nice to read this after having just finished an undergraduate thesis on the Book of St Foy (comparing Bernard’s text to St Odo’s ‘Life of Gerald’, to look at shifts that may – or may not! – have occurred after either side of everyone’s favourite revolution…)

    Yes, it is so enticing, for all the reasons you mention. I always felt particularly intrigued by how Bernard himself appears like a modern-day anthropologist, working in the field, with that apparent combination of disdain and endearment, condescension and fascination, that we imagine many a European ethnologist having developed while carrying out research.

    You can go further too – Bernard even appears to offer the sort of analysis of the local behaviour that a modern anthropologist might – e.g. those passages where he describes the role and function of ritualistic activity in carrying the relics out on progress around disputed property.

    And in the first passage you quote, I think you’ve skipped the exact bit, where he finds the statue of Gerald (which was pleasant for me to find!), he actually draws back from condemning the idolatorious practicea, not just because of the perceived effective power of St Foy, but also on the basis that the development of local custom has led to the development of a sort of crutch upon which local religiousity, belief and enthusiasm depends, giving the idols a level of circumstancial legitimacy.

    Did Philippe Buc ever mentioned St. Foy? Seems about as perfect a match as he could hope for, for his argument…

    • I confess, I haven’t read Buc’s part of the whole ritual argument yet. I need to at some point, because it bears in passing on a piece of work I have brewing about the extent to which charters represent ritualised ceremonies. I love the anthropological comparison with Bernard, though I’m not sure my favourite anthropologist would find the comparison flattering. The work of which you speak sounds quite high-level for an undergraduate thesis; I hope it scores as highly as you need it to and more. I would imagine that to be a really interesting study; I’m not sure Duby or Bonnassie ever made the two sources meet like that, did they?

  6. Just whipped through the Buc, but I think I still warm to the Koziols of this world more, after reading his scathing review!

    Thanks for your kind words re. the thesis – I’m obviously hoping the same! No, as far as I could see, neither Duby nor Bonnassie consider them together. Duby has a few very brief mentions of ‘Gerald’, in which he proposes it’s proto-‘Three Orders’ stuff, but he keeps it there. So as long as I didn’t go on about castle around Conques too much I wasn’t stepping on either set of toes. However, to my initial annoyance, once I started reading for this it turned out that Barthelemy *has* written about both – the two texts are the subject of a whole chapter in ‘Chevaliers et miracles: La violence et le sacré dans la société féodale’! Luckily for me – in my no-doubt very biased opinion, of course! – it wasn’t very good, a bit ‘Barthelemy-by-numbers’. One could probably write the chapters for him… ‘Gerald’ isn’t unusual, we already have ‘knights’, their violence is counterbalanced in dispute-processes by ‘roman laws’ or ‘peace of god’ – what’s the difference? etc.’ So nothing’s really changed between either text, each author just picks out different ‘sides’ of the dispute process…

    • I’ve taken the liberty of removing your parenthesis about certain elevated professors in case it should come back to haunt you next time they should Google themselves… but I know just what you mean(t). It doesn’t do to ignore Barthélemy, not least because, look, he had the same ideas as you, but also because he is not repetitive through lack of imagination: my impression is that he keeps saying the same things in new ways because he doesn’t feel that people have taken them on board properly. There are counters to some of his arguments available, but they haven’t always been put into that service.

      I’m not sure which works of Duby you might have checked, but it seems to me that I remember more than an occasional reference to the Vita Geraldi in Société mâconnaise, so if you didn’t look there yet it may still be worthwhile.

      • Ah yes, good move – I forget how small a world it is!

        Sorry, I’m sounding too dismissive of Barthelemy, who I do actually think is good overall (I certainly don’t think he’s ignorable), and even in this chapter I fully admit to there being very useful insights (and obviously anything I say critically can’t be much more than grossly provisional!) And to clarify statements made by the-alluded-to-learned, they were still saying that Barthelemy was very good (a complement said-person certainly didn’t extend to some of the others involved in the debate!) But I couldn’t help agreeing to an extent on this particular work – Barthelemy has said explicitly what you’ve said, that he keeps on saying the same thing (in different ways) because not everyone’s accepted his argument yet! And that’s not a terrible position to take necessarily, but I just feel that after a while you’re going to have to combine that project with other things that are fresh and innovative – to avoid stagnation (or, as the effect has apparently been on some, boring the very people you’re trying to convince!)

        I’ve forgotten now exactly which references to the VG are where in Duby, but yes you’re right he does give it more than passing attention, but its not so extended (I’ll have to check Soc maconnaise again…)

        Also as someone who hasn’t commented before I should by now have thanked you for the great job you’ve done with the site! Always makes an interesting read when I take the time to come here. And I hope research and teaching are both still enjoyable.

        • It’s quite a big world, but this blog has quite a high Google ranking, so a certain amount of care now governs my writing here. Which is no bad thing. Thankyou for the kind words on what I write. As for the enjoyment, well, that would be an ecumenical matter. Ask me at Leeds or similar if you’re there :-)

          I am badly behind with Barthélemy’s work, as with Buc’s, because the big feudal transformation paper is never the one that can be finished soonest basically. I think I would agree with you about the need to renew, though, I mean how much fun can it be flogging the same horse for twenty years? There is also a weakness of peer review in that stuff so repetitive gets published, of course, but Prof. Barthélemy would hardly be the first French academic to build a CV out of an endlessly repeated thesis, and I can think of at least two far less interesting or important. Not specifically a French problem, of course! But I have noticed it there.

          • *Had* quite a high Google ranking… A quick check reveals that this does not apply to searches for certain learned professor. In fact I come up against posts from other places linking here first. Weird.

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