15.03.22, Smoller, The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby

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A. Katie Harris

The Medieval Review 15.03.22

Smoller, Laura Ackerman. The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 343. ISBN: 9780801452178 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
A. Katie Harris
University of California Davis

For many modern scholars, the life and career of Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) remains controversial, especially for the antisemitic tenor of his sermons, his targeting of Jews and Muslims as objects of conversion, and his links to the violent anti-Jewish riots that swept the Iberian kingdoms in 1391. For late medieval and early modern writers who sought to craft an appropriate vita for the celebrated Dominican friar, however, it was not Ferrer's antisemitism but his apocalyptic preaching and his dogged support of the Avignonese papacy that presented difficulties. In examining how would-be hagiographers surmounted Ferrer's problematic legacy, Laura Ackerman Smoller's excellent, highly original new book examines not the life but the afterlife of Ferrer. Ranging expertly through an expansive temporal and geographic terrain--from Ferrer's death to his canonization in 1455 and into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and from Brittany, site of Ferrer's tomb, to devotional centers in France, Spain, Germany, and Italy and across the Atlantic into colonial Spanish America--Smoller traces the shifts and changes in representations and stories about the Valencian preacher and uncovers a multiplicity of Vincent Ferrers and a multiplicity of ideas about sanctity. The saint-making process, she finds, is "a long, multifaceted conversation" (15) among many voices.

This multivocal aspect of the creation of Saint Vincent Ferrer offers an important challenge to André Vauchez's highly influential La sainteté en Occident aux derniers siècles du moyen âge (1981), especially to his argument that after 1445, the papal curia's ever greater control over canonization limited the role of local witnesses and imposed a normative notion of sanctity that often had little to do with local tastes or needs. In the first half of the book, Smoller persuasively argues that testimony collected for Ferrer's canonization proceedings, which were opened in 1451, show that local ecclesiastical and political leaders in Brittany, Toulouse, and Naples did not simply read from a script sent down from Rome but instead shaped the process and testimony in accordance with their own agendas. Individual witnesses, too, turned their testimony to their own ends. The first chapter explores the politics of sainthood and the political meanings of Vincent Ferrer for his three powerful main supporters: the dukes of Brittany, the ruling house of Aragon, and the Order of Preachers. For the first two, association with Ferrer lent an "aura of sacred legitimacy" (33), while for the Dominicans the celebrated friar represented a potent challenge to their main mendicant competitors, the Franciscans, and their recently canonized confrère Bernardino of Siena. The second chapter examines the inquests into Ferrer's fama sanctitatis and the ways in which local elites invested in the success of Ferrer's candidacy shaped witness testimony and crafted images of the future saint that differed considerably from place to place. Smoller finds that while the investigating authorities in the Brittany inquest allowed witnesses to range rather freely in their testimony in order to craft an image of Ferrer as a miracle worker, the smaller and more tightly controlled inquests in Naples and Toulouse generated testimony focused on the candidate's holy life and his work in bringing Jews and Muslims to Christianity and in healing divisions. She also argues that the inquests themselves, especially the ceremonies that surrounded them, helped advance Ferrer's saintly reputation and "gave out equally powerful messages about who Vincent's best friends were"--i.e., the influential backers of his candidacy. In chapter three, Smoller offers careful, nuanced, and perceptive readings of the inquest testimony to uncover the experience of individual witnesses, and shows how hints within the text reveal how witnesses absorbed models of sainthood through the questions they were asked and through overhearing or learning about one another's testimony. Further, witnesses used the inquest to shape their own images of the future saint and to promote their own, individual agendas. The inquest was, she argues, not a one-way affair but instead "a spider's web of communications among participants on both sides of the bench" (86).

In the remaining three chapters and the epilogue, Smoller examines how images and ideas about Vincent Ferrer continued to shift and to change in the centuries that followed his canonization. The fourth chapter examines Ferrer's life as crafted by Pietro Ranzano, a humanist-educated Dominican who was tapped to write the first, official vita of the newly-minted saint. Reading against the grain, Smoller uncovers the strategies by which Ranzano smoothed over the lingering difficulties of Ferrer's loyalty to Avignon and his failed predictions about the advent of Antichrist, fashioning instead an image of the saint as a talented preacher, a converter of Jews and Muslims, a powerful intercessor before God, and above all a healer of the Great Schism. Ranzano reinforced Ferrer's role as a restorer of religious unity by highlighting a miracle story in which the saint reassembled and revived an infant that had been dismembered and cooked by its mother. This arresting tale, found both in text and in visual representations of the saint, serves as a leitmotif that runs through the remaining chapters. Chapter five examines alternate textual and artistic depictions of Ferrer and his life that competed with Ranzano's official vita and "stand as witness not simply to the different materials available to a late-fifteenth century hagiographer but also to the various ways in which individuals experienced the new saint" (161). Far from simply repeating Ranzano's canonical Ferrer, artists and authors relied on a range of alternative sources, including some now lost writings that Smoller skillfully reconstructs from textual hints, and shaped their images of the saint according to agendas that did not always reflect those of the papacy or the Dominican Order. For some, Ferrer was primarily an inspired apocalyptic preacher and exorcist; for others, he was mainly a miracle worker or a reformer come to shake up the Dominican Order. Even those vitae and artistic depictions that depended most heavily upon Ranzano's text seldom presented the official image of the saint and his life. The dismembered infant became not a reminder of Ferrer's efforts to end the Schism, but an emblem of his thaumaturgic powers.

In the sixth chapter, Smoller tracks Ferrer's image and the miracle story of the chopped-up baby through the religious upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not surprisingly, the post-Tridentine Ferrer reflects the preferences and concerns of the period, as hagiographers countered Protestant critics with an emphasis on the saint's miraculous powers and tackled head-on the problematic portions of Ferrer's life by applying to their work new scholarly standards for historical writing. Other authors sought to tie Ferrer to local communities like Brittany or Valencia. Smoller finds that while by the end of the seventeenth century, Ranzano's version had triumphed, local communities continued to make Ferrer their own, pressing the saint "into the service of local assertions of identity, as once-independent regions like Aragon and Brittany were subsumed into the powerful monarchical states of the early modern world" (273). The epilogue follows Ferrer across the Atlantic to the Spanish American colonies, where instead of Ranzano's peacemaker or converter of Jews or Muslims, both textual and visual representations tended to emphasize Ferrer's miracles and his apocalyptic preaching.

Throughout, Smoller deploys an impressive and exceptionally thorough array of sources, textual and visual, print and manuscript, and her readings are skilled and insightful. Her interpretation of the inquest records is masterful, as she ferrets out the "small cracks" (97) that hint at the otherwise lost experiences of individuals. Her analysis of the many Ferrers in the hagiographical literature is detailed and engaging. Smoller strikes a judicious balance between a Ferrer whose image was wholly shaped by elites and imposed from the top down and a popular cult that bubbled up from the bottom, finding instead a multiplicity of Ferrers and a cult that evolved and changed over place and time. The extended time frame, spanning the medieval/early modern divide, gives her analysis a depth not found in many similar studies. All of these qualities, coupled with the author's fluid and engaging style, make Smoller's The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby a standout in religious history and a methodological model for future studies.

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A. Katie Harris

University of California Davis