14.04.15, Timmons & Boenig, eds., Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin

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Paul E. Larson

The Medieval Review 14.04.15

Timmons, Patricia and Robert Boenig. Gonzalo de Berceo and the Latin Miracles of the Virgin: A Translation and a Study. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. 189. ISBN: 978-1-4094-4190-8.

Reviewed by:
Paul E. Larson
Baylor University

A wonderful compendium to the study of Berceo's miracle stories, this new study by Timmons and Boenig offers medieval scholars a look into the sources that inspired Berceo's work. By publishing both the Latin texts that Berceo probably had on hand as he wrote his vernacular versions of the miracles and, ironically, modern English translations of those Latin texts so that any scholar or student may readily access those original Latin texts, the authors open up a new line of inquiry regarding both Berceo's creativity and his originality. In a sense, Timmons and Boenig are doing the same thing that Berceo did: translate the difficult Latin texts so that more people would have access to them. The book revolves around the hypothesis that Berceo had access to a Latin language manuscript that contained the same stories as MS Thott 128 (Copenhagen), and that he used that manuscript as the inspiration and basis for his famous miracle collection: Los milagros de Nuestra SeƱora. By offering scholars both the original Latin texts of that medieval manuscript and a modern English translation of those texts, the authors lay bare the creative process of Berceo, exposing his elisions, suppressions, and additions as he spun out his vernacular poetry versions of these pious short narratives.

For those who already have read the Berceo's stories, we know that he addresses the relationship between people, their sins, and God, and how Mary and Jesus mediate that relationship. The medieval imagination of Berceo turns rather matter-a-fact Latin prose narratives, which can be read here, into a lively group of Marian miracles which have been luxuriously fleshed out by the Spanish poet. Some of our best hispano- medievalists--Gerli, Borland, Reilly, Dutton, Keller, Deyermond--have traded thrusts and parries with the Riojan poet, trying to explain the magic of the mester de clerecia poetry, rhymed quatrains of fourteen syllables, which tell the human stories of ego, pride, shame, and, finally, redemption. Berceo infuses his poetic narratives with humor and pathos, creating stories with which listeners might relate their own lives and faith journeys. The stories, the art of Berceo, all swirl around the image of Mary as a powerful spiritual figure, the mother of God, immaculate, as redemptress and intermediary between her son, Jesus Christ and the world of Christian believers on Earth. Within the Christian worldview of these stories, Mary wields enormous power with her son to grant mercy to a host of sinners who are, in effect, his audience. The very fact the Berceo takes time to translate the miracles at all speaks both to his broad vision as a spiritual writer and his enormous creativity as an artist. Similarly, the inclusion of both new English translations of the miracles and the original Latin speaks to a broader vision of the authors concerning literary theory, translation, and interpretation.

In their original Latin form, the stories simply and flatly chronicle the lives of regular people--monks, priests, laborers, thieves, pilgrims, and the poor. Yet, the Latin sources are not for public consumption in the sense that while keeping them in Latin, the stories could only be read by monks, priests, scribes, a small circle of educated people who could contemplate human weakness, the ensuing crisis, and redemption in the form of Mary, a humble human being who was chosen by God as a special person within the Christian imagination. Berceo was daring enough to risk translating those Latin prose narratives into a lively collection of short stories that to this day capture our imaginations, intrigue our intellects, and bear up under the tightest scrutiny concerning human behavior, even at its venal worst. The pantheon of human failings which are chronicled by these stories is vast and breath-taking from the simplest narratives concerning the resolute kindness of a very poor man who gives his last dime to others to an extended and complicated analogue of the Faust story in which a man denounces his faith in God, rejects his salvation in Jesus Christ, and signs his soul over to the devil in order to get his old job back. Within that wide gamut of stories we might read about an alcoholic priest, a womanizer, a cheater, a priest who denounces his vows, a shipwrecked pilgrim who sacrifices himself to save others, or a pilgrim who, tricked by the Devil, commits suicide before reaching his destination.

By making these texts accessible, Timmons and Boenig are undressing and demystifying the creative process of a medieval author such as Berceo who was involved in both translation and creation. By including new English language translation of the Latin, the authors are problematizing the practice of translation (especially for themselves) and the parallel act of creation, since no translation will ever remain faithful to its source. In other words, the English translations of the Latin are of an unadorned variety which naively pretends to neither subtract nor add to the literature and supposes that little is either gained or lost in the process. Yet, translations are, by definition, new texts, and just as Berceo's work was new, so are the texts proffered by Timmons and Boenig. Berceo's theory of translation is an ongoing mediation between the Latin in the manuscript and the new story he is writing. In order to share the Latin language miracles with a broader audience than just his inner circle of Latin speakers, Berceo created something new that was both a loyal expression of the original stories and a new vehicle for his pro-Marian point of view that would then reach a broader audience of non-Latin speaking pilgrims and followers. During Berceo's thirteenth century, outside of the monasteries and churches and the educated elites, any use of classical Latin had disappeared and spoken romance was the lingua franca of the region, so what better way to divulge more widely these miracles than to translate them into romance? By examining the original Latin and the new English translation with Berceo's work in Castilian, one gets the sense that his theory of translation seems to be both broad and loose, at times, brazen, as he changes the circumstances of his characters, manipulating plot lines, inventing dialogues, moralizing, adding additional information and suppressing details in order to write a more perfect story. Was what Berceo was doing a translation? Or was he freely re-writing the Latin the sources, using them only as a starting point for his own versions of the stories? The question of translation underpins the creative process for the cleric who is essentially creating a new analogue of the same story--the bare bones of the story are essentially the same, but the language, the details, and the tone of the story are changed, which in turn changes the meaning of the story for both Berceo and his audience.

This compendium to Berceo studies also contextualizes--historically, religiously, socially--the thirteenth-century milieu in which Berceo was writing. Beyond translating, the exercise of creating new miracle stories is a spiritual one for Berceo, and Timmons and Boenig constantly remind their readers that these stories do not appear in a vacuum, and that the religious context and spiritual practices matter while reviewing the historical importance of Marian miracles in the Middle Ages. Abundant footnotes and critical references anchor their essays, including "The Life and Times of Gonzalo de Berceo and His Audience," in the current context of medieval Spanish literature, thought, and criticism. In other words, they read the miracles as more than just artifacts from another time, locating them, instead, within their hispano-medieval context. Timmons and Boenig include short essays on six of Berceo's miracle stories, demonstrating the importance of the Latin sources as a gloss to Berceo's work. By analyzing the differences between the Latin and the Spanish, the reader or critic can begin to understand those issues that Berceo felt strongly about as he emphasized certain aspects of the Latin miracles while erasing others. The authors offer a quick look at the "Fornicating Sexton," "The Wedding and the Virgin," "The Jews of Toledo," "The Little Jewish Boy," and "The Pregnant Abbess," all stories which are seminal to understanding the rest of the milagros, and are all emblematic examples of different kinds of miracle stories.

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Paul E. Larson

Baylor University