IMC 2008: Sessions

Session 514: The Saint, the Natural, and the Supernatural World, I: Changing Boundaries of Natural and Supernatural

Tuesday 8 July 2008, 09.00-10.30

Sponsor:Hagiography Society
Organisers:Ulla Bucarey, Universität Augsburg
Christian Krötzl, School of Social Sciences & Humanities, History & Philosophy, University of Tampere
Moderator/Chair:Ulla Bucarey, Universität Augsburg
Paper 514-aPlague and Miracles in the 15th Century: The Case of Vincent Ferrer
(Language: English)
Laura Ackerman Smoller, Department of History, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Paper 514-bNatural or Supernatural Healing?: Conceptualising Lay and Clerical Approaches to Recovery Miracles
(Language: English)
Sari Katajala-Peltomaa, Historiatieteen Laitos, Tampereen Yliopisto
Paper 514-cReal Actors in a Natural World?: Apparitions of Saints and Devils in Healing Miracles
(Language: English)
Christian Krötzl, School of Social Sciences & Humanities, History & Philosophy, University of Tampere

In his provocative The Black Death Transformed, Samuel K. Cohn looks afresh chronicles, plague treatises, and saints’ lives to undercut modern scholars’ most common assumptions about late medieval plague (pestis) and its effects on the European psyche. As Cohn notes, miracle stories about plague often show an interaction with, competition with, or even at times a downright hostility to the medical profession. Thus, tales of miraculous cures of plague are a good lens through which to examine the intersections between natural and supernatural in the later Middle Ages. This is particularly so when one examines the material generated during the canonization process – whose aim was in part to produce authenticated miracles, and not just saints’ lives. Working from the dossiers published in the Bollandists’ Acta Sanctorum, Cohn lamented the paucity of such tales for the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as their limited geographic scope (he identified nine saints, including Vincent Ferrer, who collectively performed a total of 21 plague miracles, largely in Central Italy). Yet, in the canonization inquests for St. Vincent Ferrer, carried out in 1453-54 in Brittany, Toulouse, and Naples, there are abundant tales of miraculous cures from plague, particularly in Brittany, in which an outbreak of disease formed the backdrop against which the inquest was carried out. Examination of the plague miracles narrated in the Vincent Ferrer inquest affords a look at how witnesses (many of whom in Brittany were of humble status) understood the disease they called pestis and its symptoms in both its natural and supernatural aspects. On the one hand, witnesses described a consistent cluster of symptoms that pointed to pestis and to impending death therefrom. On the other hand, many Bretons were insistent that there was a supernatural component to this visitation, that pestis would not leave the duchy until Vincent Ferrer, who lay entombed in the ducal city of Vannes, was canonized. Furthermore, witnesses describe both medical and spiritual efforts to heal the diseased. Both the form and content of tales shows a delineation between natural and supernatural, distinctions posed in anticipation of or in response to questions from the panelists carrying out the canonization inquest. In acclaiming a cure to be supernatural and miraculous, witnesses at the same time were articulating the limits of the natural.
Faith healing was an essential element in medieval Christianity. Saints had the ability to heal and to protect: their shrines were considered as healing centres and their powers were documented in miracle collections and canonisation records. Different approaches to miracles can be analysed in the records of canonisation inquiries. The commissioners of high clerical rank posed the questions of putative saint’s life and miracles and laymen and women, beneficiaries of and witnesses to the miracles, answered them.
The aim of this paper is to explore the differences and similarities in lay and clerical approaches to recoveries and faith healing. Did commissioners and witnesses conceptualise and categorise these phenomena similarly? Where did the dividing line between natural and supernatural healing run in the recovery miracles?
The canonisation processes of Thomas Cantilupe and Nicholas of Tolentino offer a valuable insight into both lay and clerical attitudes and viewpoints.
High and Late Medieval Collections of Post-mortem-Miracles contain a certain amount of cases where the saint himself/herself is reported to have acted physically as a doctor in healing miracles, performing chirurgical operations, advising on cures or guiding the person seeking help. Another typus are physical apparitions of the devil, mostly connected to cases of insanity. Most interesting are cases connected to canonization enquiries, where testimonies were included: what did they describe, how did they see and feel the apparitions?