Tag Archives: Conques

Seminar CLXXXI: things missing from the Miracles of Saint Faith

Somehow my seminar report backlog is still in May 2013, which was clearly a very busy month, but this was the last thing in it, 29th May when Dr Faye Taylor came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to give a paper entitled “Miracles and Mutation in Southern France”. This was part of a larger project in which she was evaluating what hagiography can tell us about the social changes enveloped in the interminable debate over the supposed feudal transformation, and here she focused on one of the two pieces of it that have been made most crucial to it, and one beloved of this blog, the Miracles of Saint Faith.1

The reliquary of Sainte-Foi de Conques

The lady herself, in her somewhat incongruous housing at Sainte-Foi de Conques.

To remind you of the nature of this text, it is a four-part collection of miracles performed by Saint Faith, or Sainte Foy, a child martyr under Diocletian who in the ninth century was stolen from her first burial place and set up at the abbey of Conques, where she seems to have liked it and caused a great many miracles while the abbey grew slowly and steadily due to her and its position on the pilgrim route to Compostela. The first two books were written by a northerner, a Chartres-trained clergyman called Bernard of Angers, whose changing reaction to the saint’s cult from shock at the idolatry of the reliquary statue and the processions it got taken on slowly becomes convinced and somewhat blinkered devotion to the cult, so that he wound up collecting its miracles and then updating them. The third and fourth books are however later additions done in-house by anonymous authors, and are worth considering separately. Bernard’s work was very good, though; as I have observed here before, it’s very hard to read the stories he gathered and not get a clear sense of the saint as a sort of gleeful magpie child with powerful friends in Heaven, and I’m not going to attempt to rationalise her out of my prose in what follows.

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France

View of the rooftops of Conques, SW France. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon A70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For Dr Taylor, however, the best way to see Saint Faith in these stories was as a saint becoming a lord. Apparently Conques shed its vicecomital abbots in the late tenth-century; this now confuses me looking back at my notes, because I have it down that these abbots were of the vicecomital family of Conflent, which is to say that we’re talking the kindred of Bishops Guisad II and Sal·la of Urgell and of the vicar Sal·la of Bages, all figures well-known on this blog, but I knew nothing of this and even now can’t find any other note of it.2 So I think I must have misunderstood. In any case, without their lay lords’ protection the monks at Conques seem to have relied on their saint, putting her reliquary up behind the altar and before long getting a bright young man from Chartres in to write up how dangerous she was to cross.3 46% of the miracles involve people of the knightly or castellan classes, who were presumably the intended audience for these cautionary tales (and Faith’s miracles are apparently unusually often punitive, 176 punishments in 155 stories!), and a lot of them are located in the Rouergue, at least early on; in the later books the focus shifts, Book III especially liking Clermont and the Auvergne whence came the then-Abbot Odolric, which is suggestive. Faith defended her patrimony, therefore, she had fideles who helped from whom she expected devotion and service, and she went visiting; she was carried in procession in the reliquary to her various properties, apparently before this was usual. She was not necessarily a figure of peace, however, and neither were her monks: Pierre Bonnassie saw in the Miracles a landscape of castellan violence but Conques itself was retaining mercenary soldiers and some of its monks bore arms! It’s hard not to see the abbey as as much of a participant as any of the people the miracles are directed against in the general fragmentation of peace and defence that makes up a lot of the so-called Transformation.4

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

If it’s possible to do a post about Conques without picturing its fantastic Romanesque tympanum, I don’t want to know. By Peter Campbell (self-made, Canon a70) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the violence and the castellans and the shift to, er, alternative norms of conflict resolution, there are some things in the stories that one would not expect and some things that one would missing, or so Dr Taylor argued.5 In some of these cases I agree with her, but in others my sketchy acquaintance with the text leaves me not quite comfortable with her argument. Certainly, I agree and had not previously noticed that the language of feudalism, beyond fidelis, is basically absent here: the lordships we see are not ‘banal’, don’t have judicial power and so on; they are based on little but lineage, wealth and warfare, at least as we see them active. Neither have we any trace of ‘bad customs’, feudal dues and so on; in this respect everything is as it was although, according to Dr Taylor, missing the big lords who had once held it together. I thought that this might be fair for Conques itself, which does seem somewhat to sit in a bbubble in these texts, but though they might be locally forgotten they don’t seem to have been gone: at the occasional councils we see in the Miracles there are still dukes, counts and so forth, and they knew who Faith was.6 That was indeed more or less the point of including such stories, I think Dr Taylor and I would agree, but as with the Peace of God, another supposedly missing element, that they only come up in such contexts is hardly proof of their absence. It is surprising, however, how little such supposedly big movements in society seem to have affected Saint Faith and her followers, I do agree there.

Manuscript portrait of Pope Gregory VII receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove

A man who knew about reform, Pope Gregory VII, apparently borrowing the Advice Dove beloved of his predecessor Gregory I. Does anyone know what manuscript this image is from? It’s floating around the web without attribution. At least it means I haven’t used exactly the same images as I did in the last Saint-Foi post…

The biggest of these missing elements, however, was reform, and here it’s too intensely subjective to be able to call. I think that the various places I’ve been in hearing people argue about the Church reform of the tenth and eleventh centuries have convinced me that although Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III knew and could say what they meant to be done in the name of Church reform, and we might also be able to say this in England thanks again to a few figureheads with a clear agenda, on the ground and especially early on it was a lot less clear what reform should mean.7 A new freedom from lay lordship, as at Conques, might indeed have been part of it in most places; views on Church wealth, clerical marriage and even payment for office however took a lot longer to be widely shared and we can easily find tenth- and eleventh-century churchmen doing reform-like things on some of these scores while completely ignoring other parts of the later agenda. (Bishops Sal·la of Urgell and Miró Bonfill of Girona would be classic cases indeed, and the latter especially: he went to Rome and was charged by the pope with the task of reforming the Catalan Church, apparently without reference to the fact that Miró himself was also Count of Besalú!8) Dr Taylor put some work into arguing that once it had shed its lords (whom I wish I could find) Conques was as unbothered by reform as it was from these other currents of the age, on which it bobbed without being moved. Me, I have to wonder whether the monks would have agreed…


1. 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); Pamela Sheingorn (transl.) with Robert A. Clark (transl.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia 1994).

2. On that family see Manuel Rovira, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249-260, online here.

3. Cf. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Thomas Head and Sharon Farmer, “Monks and Their Enemies: A Comparative Approach” in Speculum Vol. 66 (Cambridge 1991), pp. 764-796, DOI:10.2307/2864632. On the text see Kathleen Ashley & Pamela Sheingorn, Writing Faith: Text, Sign, and History in the Miracles of Sainte Foy (Chicago 1999).

4. Pierre 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; Thomas N. Bisson, “The Feudal Revolution” in Past and Present no. 142 (Oxford 1994), pp. 6-42. I don’t myself remember references to such monastic soldiery in the text but I don’t have any trouble believing that there are some.

5. Stephen D. White, “Debate: the feudal revolution. II”, ibid. no. 152 (1996), pp. 205-223, repr. as “The ‘feudal revolution’: comment. II” in idem, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005), II; idem, “A crisis of fidelity in c. 1000″ in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimation in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and societies, 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 27-48.

6. Liber Miraculorum Sanctae Fidis I.28.

7. For example see John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).

8. A paper on each of these guys lurks among my conference trash, and writing this up makes me think suddenly that perhaps they are in fact the same paper. For now, please forgive me if I don’t give a reference here: I just have too many! Miró’s trip to Rome is documented in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Antoni Riera i Viader, Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Empúries, Besalú i Peralada, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LXI (Barcelona 2003), doc. no. 469, however.

Leeds 2011 report 3: Catalans, coins, churches and computers

[Edit: hideously mixed-up footnotes now all match up and exist and so on.]

Looking back at it, it does seem rather as if the 2011 International Medieval Congress was fairly intense for your humble blogger. Having been called to the warpath the previous day and then entirely surrounded by people with Livejournals, the third day of the conference, Wednesday 13th July, also provoked me in various directions. I’ll try not to relive too much of the drama, not least because I intend a separate post for one of the episodes, but this is roughly how the day went.

1014. Concepts and Levels of Wealth and Poverty in Medieval Catalonia

It is unusual for Catalan scholars to turn up in England, where Spain is usually represented only by Castilians, and I had read work by two of the speakers in this session and also its organiser, so I was determined to show my face. In fact the group had already discovered my book and thus my existence, so it was all quite well-timed and it seemed like a jolly happy meeting. There were also of course some papers and those went like this:

  • Pere Benito Monclús, “Famines and Poverty in XIIth-XIIIth-century Catalonia”, looking closely at who spent their wealth on feeding the poor in time of famine when the usual Church safety net was stretched too far, concluding that it was the public power last of all.
  • Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Rich Nobility and Poor Nobility in Medieval Catalonia, 10th-12th Centuries”, stressing how little we have actually found out about quite a chunk of the medieval Catalan nobility, and how varied it is; this was not really news to me as such, but it was actually really nice to hear someone talking about my research area as if it mattered all the same.
  • Sandrine Victor, “Salaries and Standards of Living in Catalonia according to the example of Girona at the 15th century”, was doing careful quantitative studies of the demographic distribution of wealth, and had a lot to say about labourers and their accommodation (almost always rented, unlike their masters’ owned houses) in the late medieval city.

The last of these papers was perhaps the only one that was presenting new work as such, work in progress even, whereas Senyors Benito and Rodríguez had both elected to give papers that were kind of introductions to their topic for specialists from other fields. There were quite a lot of these papers at Leeds this year, it seemed to me, and though I would rather see more developed or developing work, I understood why they did; they wouldn’t have known there would be anyone who knew the area there and I’m hardly a whole audience anyway. It was impressive how many languages the questions were in, though: English, French, Castilian and Catalan (one question in German, too, that had to be translated), and the conversation afterwards was, well, extremely informative. But we’ll get to that next post.

1121. Making the World Go Round: coinage, currency, credit, recycling, and finance in medieval Europe, II

I got into this session late somehow, probably because of hunting really bad coffee with Catalans and then realising I needed to be across the campus next, but what I caught was interesting.

  • Gareth Williams, “Was the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England a Queen? A Possible Posthumous Coinage in the Name of Harold II”
  • What was going on here, as far as I could divine after my late entry, was that there seems to have been a very short-lived issue of coins in the name of King Harold II from the royal nunnery of Wilton, almost all known from one hoard that also contains 1067-68 coins of William the Conqueror. Gareth suggested that the responsible party might be Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor’s widow, Harold’s brother, who owned the nunnery, and who didn’t submit to William straight away; that seems to make sense of what we’d otherwise have to assume was counterfeiting so that was pretty cool.1

  • Tom J. T. Williams, “Coins in Context: minting in the borough of Wallingford”
  • This was an interesting combination with the archaeological attention that Neil Christie had given Wallingford the previous day, though possibly only really interesting to numismatists; it did however include the fact that we can use Domesday Book to plot where one of Wallingford’s moneyers, Swærtlinc, actually lived in 1086, and he’d struck for Harold II as well so some English at least did come through, even if at a low level.2 One of the questions raised (by Morn Capper) was whether moneyers were too important to remove or too humble, and we still don’t know, but Mr Williams is I believe aiming to try and answer this for the later period as Rory Naismith tried to answer it for the earlier one, so we shall see I guess!3

  • Henry Fairbairn, “The Value and Metrology of Salt in the late 11th Century”
  • As you know I think the salt trade’s important—I must have read something once4—but I don’t really know how important so this was worth hearing. The units involved in salt-measuring are a bit obscure but by working up from tolls, we came out with figures of approximately 150 g of salt per penny in a world where a pig is 8 pence and a sheep 2 and a half. That makes salt less of a bulk product and more of a luxury than one might have thought and it must have been hard to get very much of it if you were a peasant. So that’s not nothing.

1202. ‘Reading’ the Romanesque Façade

I had wanted to go to this session partly just to see beautiful things and get my Team Romanesque badge metaphorically stamped, but also because Micky Abel whom I met a long time back was supposed to be presenting. In fact, though, she was unable to be there and then I got distracted by books, and so I missed much of the first paper. I have hardly any notes, but it was gorgeous to look at, because it was about the Conques tympanum and we know how that goes, right?

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques

Typanum of the church of Sainte-Foy de Conques, from Wikimedia Commons

  • Kirk Ambrose, “Attunement to the Damned at Conques”, thus argued that the passivity of the victims on the Hell side of the tympanum was actually supposed to frighten the viewer, and
  • Amanda Dotseth, “Framing Humility at San Quirce de Burgos”, took us through a complex system of sculptural ornament that seems to have been dismantled and put back in a different order at some point in its history, but which also may have encoded the monks of the relevant church into the artwork
San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

San Quirce de Burgos, including its intriguing portal

1301. Digital Anglo-Saxons: charters, people, and script

This was essentially a session advertising the work of the Department of Digital Humanities of King’s College London, still the Centre for Computing in the Humanities when the conference program was printed. The DDH is one of KCL’s expansion zones, and there’s a lot to advertise, so it was something of a shame that Paul Spence, one of the speakers, had been unable to show, not least because that was the charters one. Instead, however, his paper was kind of combined with one of the others. Thus, we got:

  • John Bradley, “Anglo-Saxon People: PASE II – doing prosopography in the digital age”
  • This put the expanded version of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, which now (as you may recall) contains all the people in Domesday Book too, into a wider context and emphasised how they had gone for a structure dictated by information, not by sources or persons, which he called a `factoid’ model. This seems like a really useful way to think about treating this kind of data, actually, and I was impressed with the flexibility it seems to have permitted them. Of course, I’d never then actually attempted to make serious use of PASE and having done so for this post now I’m slightly less sure how much use it is to me…5

  • Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”
  • Dr Stokes’s paper was about ASCluster, the umbrella project that tries to manage all the data that the DDH handle in their various Anglo-Saxonist endeavours together. Since they don’t all focus on the same sorts of data, trying to create a way of making them all connect is actually really tricky. You would think that pulling a personal name out of their charters database and also PASE and getting all the information together should be simple enough but the databases weren’t designed together and they aren’t searched in the same way, and so on. I could feel his pain; I remember these kinds of dilemma all too well. By the sound of it they have some challenges still to defeat, though the ability and lateral thinking on the team demonstrated by these two presentations would encourage one to think that they will in fact defeat them.

You can tell perhaps that I had mixed feelings about the efforts here. This is not just that I doubt that the money they’re likely to sink into this integration of their projects is going to see a return in terms of use; it’s already possible to search these things separately and compare the results oneself, after all. That isn’t actually their problem: they made a case for doing it, got the support and are setting about it, fine. Lack of use is a problem that a lot of this sort of project is suffering and we will hear more about this in future reports. No, my cynicism came from a much simpler source, which is that I had never at this point nor at many points subsequently managed to get their exciting-looking database of the Anglo-Saxon charters, ASChart, the one that I do have a use for, to work. Once I knew of it, I quickly found that the site would never load, from wherever I tried it, home, office, JANET or commercial internet, never. And I tried it many times, in the months after this session, every time I happened to have reason to check on this post whence I’d linked it in fact; nada. They must have known it didn’t work, because it can’t have been serving any pages, and yet it kept being advertised as a completed project, while actually the only recourse was Sean Miller’s scratch pro bono equivalent. This kind of thing annoys me. The result of an unsuccessful attempt to replicate an already-existing resource should not be that your team gets showered with more money and converted into a full department, especially in a time and at an institution where huge cuts had only a little while before been projected across the whole of the humanities. I don’t want them all fired, of course, quod absit but I would like the system to reward and therefore encourage fulfilment of the things that the money was awarded for. But no-one in power checks up and so there’s no consequence, bar slight embarrassment, if those things don’t work, and the system doesn’t actually incentivise them to improve the situation.

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

Screen capture of ASChart project homepage

I was all set up for this rant when I got round to writing this post, therefore, and so it comes as something of an anti-climax to have to say, er, now that I check, it seems to be fixed. But it does, so I do. If the DDH team are reading, therefore, I’d better say thankyou for putting the effort, the bigger server or whatever in that has made this resource finally available, not least because as far as I can see there was little that required you to do so. So, it’s up, and even if the charters after 900, i. e. most of them, are not yet there and the links through to PASE crash in a sea of Tomcat errors, nonetheless it is better—in fact the Tomcat errors have gone away even while I’ve had this post in draft and those links now work!—and I suppose therefore that we may hope for better still. There are now diplomatic indices, linked from marked-up XML texts, which bodes extremely well for the future when the whole corpus is loaded and is something that I would love, especially just now, to have for the Catalan material (albeit that there is something like six times as much of that and no-one has databased any of it except Joan Vilaseca). This also means that when they get the post-900 material up, the whole thing will actually deliver something that Sean’s site doesn’t already do, though his free-text search is still unique and could be used for some of the same things. Well, anyway, we have two online Anglo-Saxon charter databases now, and yes, I have said before that I wish funding bodies would JFGI when they get an application for such a project, in case it already exists, but these two both have their points and I am running out of reasons to be cross with the DDH so perhaps I’ll try and stop?

ASCharters site screen capture

ASCharters site screen capture

Anyway. That was the last session of the day, and then there was dinner and then finally the dance, which was absolutely tremendous fun even if I did miss `Blue Monday’ but about which little can usefully be said here that hasn’t been said already. So with that I’ll wrap this up and move on to the more Catalano-centric post promised at the beginning there.


1. We know an unusual amount about Edith, which is coordinated and analysed in Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith: queenship and women’s power in eleventh-century England (Cambridge 1997).

2. I’m not quite sure I’ve got this right, because try as I might I can’t get him out of PASE—ironically given the above!—but he comes out of a search of the Fitzwilliam’s Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds no problem, and PASE have that data (I know, I gave it them) so he ought to show up. In fact only three people from Wallingford come out of PASE Domesday at all. I must not be using it right. That can’t be broken as well, surely?6 And even EMC doesn’t show any coins for him from Harold’s reign. I can only guess that the British Museum collections must have some unpublished examples; this could certainly be true.

3. Now available in the shiny new R. Naismith, Money and power in Anglo-Saxon England: the southern English kingdoms, 757-865, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series 80 (Cambridge 2011).

4. In fact, what I must have read is John Maddicott’s “Trade, Industry and the Wealth of King Alfred” in Past and Present No. 123 (Oxford 1989), pp. 3-51 (to which cf. the following debate, Ross Balzaretti, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. No. 135 (Oxford 1992), pp. 142-150, Janet Nelson, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred”, ibid. pp. 151-163 and John Maddicott, “Trade, industry and the wealth of King Alfred: a reply”, ibid. pp. 164-188), since that’s what I have notes on, but what I probably should have read is Maddicott’s “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

5. See n. 2 above.

6. Afterthought: PASE’s About page says it excludes `incomers’, and this is a Norse name.7 Can that be what’s happened here, that the Danish-named moneyer isn’t being included as English? Because, er, that seems analytically questionable to me…

7. Also, if the DDH team are reading, the About PASE link from the Domesday search interface page goes to the Reference page, not the About page as it does from other screens.

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.