Faculty Spotlight: Smoller’s Work in Progress

The Saint and the Chopped-Up BabyThis semester we are featuring the work in progress of Professor of History and MALS Advisory Committee member, Dr. Laura Smoller. She is near completion of her book tentatively titled The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer and the Religious Life of Later Medieval and Early Modern Europe. This book gives readers a peak into the lives of the people and religious institutions in medieval Europe through the lens of canonization inquests for St. Vincent Ferrer.

Of her disciplinary approach in the book, Dr. Smoller says, “My main discipline is history, although I think of myself primarily in terms of the multi-disciplinary field of medieval studies. In this book, one finds (besides history) a little art history, a little history of science, a good deal of textual analysis of a rather literary bent, a little reception analysis, a lot of religious studies, and a little anthropology. I cross boundaries of time (medieval to early modern), space (Europe to New World), and language (sources in Latin, French, German, Italian dialects, Catalan, and Spanish) in this book.  In other words, I don’t stay put, intellectually.”

Smoller goes on to describe her book in more detail: “I wrote this book because I fell in love—with a set of documents, the canonization inquests for the Valencian itinerant preacher St. Vincent Ferrer, particularly the large, sprawling series of three hundred and thirteen depositions taken in Brittany in the years 1453-54. What drew me in were the stories: stories of a preacher so old and debilitated that he had to be helped to the pulpit, but who became as spry and animated as a young man of thirty when he began to preach of the imminent Last Judgment and of sinners’ need for repentance; stories of bizarre illnesses and mishaps—the man whose intestines hung down to his knees, the youth who expelled some 65 stones–; and stories of ordinary people at the most dire moments of their lives, saved by the intercession of Vincent Ferrer. Whatever caveats scholars may raise about the way in which procedures shaped and distorted witnesses’ words, I had the sense that in these stories I had come as close as I ever would to hearing the voices of ordinary people in the later Middle Ages.

As I continued to read their tales, something else began to strike me. People did not tell the same story in the same way. In some cases, witnesses added seemingly inconsequential details to the same basic narrative, as in the tale of the child who asked to eat an egg on the moment of his miraculous cure from plague. But in other cases, the differences were of seemingly greater import: Could all witnesses hear and understand Vincent’s sermons, no matter how far away they stood and no matter what their native language? Was the miraculé out of his senses or possessed by demons? Had the victim really died? Who had initiated the vow to Vincent Ferrer that brought about the miracle? Pondering these differences and their possible significance, I realized that, in the period from Vincent’s death in 1419 up to his canonization in 1455, he was, in a sense, a symbol without a fixed meaning, if not quite a blank canvas, at least one in which only the broadest of outlines had been sketched, and one on which different observers and narrators could put their own stamp. And I became fascinated by those contested meanings of the potential saint and by the ways in which individuals and institutions told stories about Vincent in order to make claims about themselves.

Still, I had assumed–perhaps because André Vauchez, ending his magisterial study of canonizations in the early fifteenth century, had remarked on the greater control exercised over the cult of the saints by the fifteenth-century papacy–that once Vincent was canonized in 1455, that fluid situation would come to an end. Or if canonization did not cement a fixed image of Vincent Ferrer, at the very least, that stabilization would come in the “official” biography of the saint, composed by a Sicilian Dominican named Pietro Ranzano in the year following Vincent’s canonization, at the behest of the Pope and the head of the Dominican Order. Ranzano’s vita, which portrays the saint as an effective converter of Jews and Muslims and as instrumental in healing the Great Schism, in fact informs modern hagiography about Vincent, epitomized in the devotional card one can buy in the Valencia Cathedral today. But, even though Vincent’s canonization came in the same decade as the new medium of print that might have broadcast such an official image, Ranzano’s Life was not printed until the late seventeenth century. And further, if one looks at early vitae of Vincent, from the first half-century or so following his canonization, there exists an almost bewildering array of portrayals of the new saint in manuscript, print, and art, few of which take up Ranzano’s “spin” on the holy preacher.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lives of Vincent continue to demonstrate their authors’ appropriation of the symbol of Vincent Ferrer in order to drive home their own various polemical points, whether those be anti-Protestant propaganda in the wake of the Council of Trent, exhortations to proper Christian behavior, or assertions of an autonomous regional identity in the face of aggrandizing territorial states. Only gradually and only late in the century, do the works seventeenth-century hagiographers, struggling to compose accurate and authenticated vitae that also exalt their subject’s heroic virtues, come largely to focus on the same sets of themes emphasized in Ranzano’s “official” biography: his conversions of Jews and Muslims and his role in ending the Schism. Seeking to explain how Vincent could have so long remained a partisan of the increasingly repudiated Avignon papacy, seventeenth-century hagiographers multiplied explanations of the division’s uncertainty and, in some cases, seized upon the false contention that Vincent had in face been present at the Council of Constance that solved the crisis. In the meantime, the publication of Ranzano’s text as the sole vita in the self-assuredly canonical Acta sanctorum in 1675 assured its status as Vincent’s “official” life.

A single miracle found in the canonization inquests and highlighted by Pietro Ranzano illustrates the way in which divergent narrations of the same story helped their tellers to shape an image of Vincent Ferrer that served their own individual purposes. The tale involves a crazed mother, who cuts up and cooks her own infant son, only to have the child restored through the merits of Vincent Ferrer. In testimony from the canonization inquests held in Brittany and in Naples, this miracle appears as one worked after the saint’s death, and at least one version includes lurid elaborations perhaps drawn from local folklore. Pietro Ranzano would seize upon this tale, making it the first of the miracles he attributes to the living saint and one of the longest of the narrations in his vita. Ranzano’s transformations and translocations of the story in place and in time allowed him, I argue, to use this miracle to underscore Vincent’s role in healing the monstrous Schism in which Mater Ecclesia had rent asunder the body of the faithful. Early lives of Vincent Ferrer, some drawing on Ranzano’s vita and some on the material in the canonization inquests, perpetuated these two competing versions of the tale of the chopped-up baby. Fifteenth-century artists, accordingly, portrayed this miracle sometimes as occurring at Vincent’s tomb and sometimes as worked by the living saint. Only one painting fully takes up Ranzano’s equation of the chopped-up baby with the divided church of the Schism years, depicting Vincent before an altar-like setting in which the divided, then healed child takes the place of the corpus Christi, the consecrated host that symbolized the body of the faithful.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors continued to recount the story of the saint and the chopped-up baby in their Lives of Vincent Ferrer, and the theme remained a frequent feature in Vincent’s iconography at the time. Although post-Tridentine hagiographers were interested in highlighting Vincent’s role in ending the Schism, they did not appear to equate that work with the miracle of the chopped-up baby. One appeal of the tale must have been as an answer to Protestant claims that the age or miracles was over. But sixteenth- and seventeenth-century tellers also inserted details that helped with assertions of local sacred identity in various regions, whether in moving the site of the miracle from Brittany to Morella, Spain, or in identifying the chopped-up baby with a Sicilian Dominican preacher who helped spread the cult of Vincent Ferrer. All of this attention helped assure the miracle’s wide depiction in art, where it served as an emblem of the saint’s intercessory powers well into modern times. And as European missionaries brought the Christian message to the New World, the chopped-up baby continued to epitomize Vincent’s miracles, while the effectiveness of his apocalyptic preaching in converting sinners, Jews, and Muslims spoke to the self-image of the friars who traveled to convert the Americas in preparation for the millennial kingdom of the saints.

In the end, to trace the emerging cult of Vincent Ferrer is to observe what religious scholars like to call “lived religion,” the way in which people use religious ideas to shape the worlds they make for themselves, as well as how religious idioms and practices are formed in turn by those worlds. The process of establishing a stable image of the saint was not as automatic as fifteenth-century popes had hoped or as modern scholars might assume. Rather, for nearly three centuries after Vincent’s death, the meaning of this potent symbol continued to be debated, negotiated, and revised in a cacophony of voices that affords a glimpse of the vibrant world of late medieval and early modern Catholicism.”

Posted in: News, Newsletter

Comments are closed.