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Senior Correspondent

I recently signed a contract with the Oxford University Press to compile a little book to be called A Cabinet of Medieval Curiosities — one of a number of such “cabinets” already published or in the course of preparation. I’ll be grateful for any curiosities suggested by my readers. The medieval genre of sacred biography (i.e., saints’ lives) is a rich acre, and I have begun rummaging around in the two classic English language collections of the Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler and by Sabine Baring-Gould. I am in search of a certain Celtic holy man whose name I have forgotten. Beheaded by his pagan tormentors beside a watercourse, he showed his contempt for the whole proceedings by then swimming across the stream with his head in his teeth.

Miracles, often extravagant and preferably in profusion, were a requirement of medieval saints’ lives. Indeed the practice developed of separating them off in a special sub-volume called Miracula so as to allow the straight biography to flow more smoothly. Modern biographers might find a useful hint here. Most of the ones I’ve read recently could be improved by segregating about a third of their materials in a subsidiary volume of Sexualia.

Of course if you are looking for real curiosities, the periods of the alleged Renaissance or of the Enlightenment are the places to do it. Hagiography comprised a significant portion of the ecclesiastical literature of the Middle Ages. It is not to be supposed that the new scholarly spirit enabled by the printing press would neglect it entirely, and it soon attracted the same energetic and exacting philology that had produced numerous impressive editions of classical texts and Erasmus’s groundbreaking edition of the Greek New Testament. The great scholarly experts in saints’ lives were a group of Jesuits in the Low Countries who had taken scholarly hagiography as their special vocation. They continue to this very day and are generally called the Bollandists after one of the prominent early scholars, John Bolland (1596-1665), though the chief protagonist of the episode I am about to relate was Daniel Papebroch (1628-1714).

The amazing fruit of the Bollandists’ labors is called the Acta Sanctorum, the vast scholarly library of saints’ lives searched out from the monastic and secular libraries of Europe, a collection indispensable for the scholar of medieval history, literature, and folk lore. The monastic historian David Knowles, in his endlessly engaging and informative lectures on Great Historical Enterprises, reports an episode of seventeenth-century ecclesiastical warfare concerning the Acta that, though deadly serious to its contemporary combatants, must strike most modern readers as whimsical.

Few works would seem less likely candidates for ecclesiastical censure than the Bollandists’ huge volumes of erudite piety. Their dangers are perhaps real enough — it might prove fatal to attempt to read one in bed. Avoirdupois, however, is not primarily a spiritual peril. Yet for two decades of the seventeenth century several recently published volumes of the Acta lay beneath the condemnation of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Bollandists’ whole enterprise languished while Daniel Papebroch conducted tedious and dubious battle for his brothers’ vindication in ecclesiastical courts in Rome and elsewhere.

Papebroch’s crime was to have cast doubt, in the editorial apparatus to the life of Saint Albert of Jerusalem (Alberto Avogardo, 1149-1214, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem beginning in 1204) upon the origin myth of the Carmelite Order. The Carmelites, often called the White Friars, were one of the four new orders of mendicant friars to win papal approval — along with the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians — in the early thirteenth century. The actual date of papal authorization was 1224, but the Patriarch of Jerusalem had some years earlier confirmed their rule within his jurisdiction. But the White Friars themselves claimed that the Order had been in continuous existence on Mount Carmel since the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who were in fact the first Carmelites. It is probable that for many of the early friars the idea of the historical connection with Elijah was as authoritative as the words of the rule itself. The idea that a Christian religious order should antedate Christ by a millennium or so seemed to present no problem for the Carmelites.

Certainly the legendary origin of Carmel was already widespread in the general religious culture of the late Middle Ages, where it was by no means always swallowed whole. Chaucer refers to the myth — with obviously satiric intent — in the “Summoner’s Tale”.* But in Spain, where the Order was very strong — Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were two famous sixteen-century Spanish Carmelites — and where the inquisitorial spirit was alive and kicking, one doubted it at one’s peril. If you think your Division of Motor Vehicles is a malign and intractable bureaucracy, you are doubtless right.  Now imagine such an entity with the power to burn you at the stake and you have something of the tenor of dealing with a consistory court in the Archdiocese of Toledo.

That’s what poor Father Papebroch was up against. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen even to a Jesuit! As Knowles suggests, such a curious episode in the history of scholarship would deserve a more thorough study than a blog entry. It’s a little hard to imagine, though, a scholarly journal sufficiently specialized to be interested.

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