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22.10.13 Salter, Saints, Cure-Seekers and Miraculous Healing in Twelfth-Century England

22.10.13 Salter, Saints, Cure-Seekers and Miraculous Healing in Twelfth-Century England

Ruth Salter’s examination of the experience of miraculous healing in twelfth-century England is the first volume in what is sure to be a promising new series from York Medieval Press on Health and Healing in the Middle Ages. Salter’s book engages the question of how spiritual healing fit within a wider economy of medical care in high medieval England through the perspective of the “cure-seekers” themselves--the men, women, and children whose blindness, paralysis, chronic pain, or serious illness led them to seek the intercession of the saints at shrines scattered across post-Conquest England (and in one case, Scotland).

Salter focuses her attentions on seven Latin miracle accounts produced by clerics resident at monastic foundations with shrines whose cults were either created or reinvigorated in the twelfth century. Salter focuses on just the twelfth century because the period saw “a notable increase in hagiographical production” following the Norman Conquest, as the native English sought “to celebrate their Anglo-Saxon saints in the face of potential Norman skepticism” (4). Indeed, five of the seven miracula analyzed by Salter were composed in the twelfth century to recount the miracles of Anglo-Saxon saints. These are theMiracula S. Swithini,composed in the early twelfth century by an unnamed monk resident at Winchester Cathedral, the location of Swithun’s (d. 863) shrine; the Miracula S. Dunstani,composed c. 1115 by Eadmer of Canterbury Cathedral, where Dunstan’s (d. 988) shrine was located; books one and three of theLiber Eliensis,composed in the mid-twelfth century by an unnamed Ely monk, containing the vita and miracula of Æthelryth (d. 679) whose shrine was located at Ely Cathedral; the Vita et Miracula S. Moduenne, composed between 1118 and 1135 by Geoffrey of Burton, abbot of Burton Abbey in Staffordshire, the location of Modwenna’s (d. c. 571) shrine; and finally, the Vita et Miracula S. Æbbe,composed in the very late twelfth century by an anonymous monk at Coldingham Priory on the coast of Berwickshire in Scotland, site of Æbbe’s (d. c. 683) shrine.

The other two miracula studied by Salter relate miracles performed at shrines that were new in twelfth-century England. The Vita et Passio S. Willelmi Martyris Norwicensis,composed by Thomas of Monmouth at intervals between 1150 and 1173, recounts the miracles performed by William of Norwich, the boy believed to have been murdered by Norwich’s Jewish community in 1140/41. Finally, the Miracula S. Jacobi,compiled at Reading Abbey in the late twelfth century, relates miracles performed at the shrine of St. James following the abbey’s acquisition of his left hand, supposedly a gift from Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I. Specialists may lament the fact that Salter did not choose to publish her transcription of the only surviving manuscript witness to theMiracula S. Jacobi as one of her Appendices. Though Brian Kemp translated “The Miracles of the Hand of Saint James” into English in 1970, the Latin text has never been published, and it is the only one of these seven miracula not available in a scholarly edition.

These seven miracula allow Salter to undertake a “localized” or microhistorical analysis of twelfth-century miraculous healing, though she readily acknowledges her debt to the macrohistorical scholarship of Ronald C. Finucane and Robert Bartlett. Salter sees her work departing from that of Finucane and Bartlett in two respects, however. First, though she does subject her miracula to statistical analysis, providing numerous tables quantifying the most common ailments suffered by cure-seekers, the gender ratio of cure-seekers, the ratio of lay to clerical cure-seekers, and the distance travelled by cure-seekers--to name just a few--her book’s aim is to give readers a “familiarity with the individual cure-seekers and the cults they appealed to” (5). Second, she resists Finucane’s tendency to assign modern medical terminology to find out “what really happened” to medieval cure-seekers. Instead, she takes the view that the accounts of healing miracles in her seven miracula “represent real, lived experiences of suffering and cure” (22).

Salter structures the chapters of her book around a series of questions: first, how did the monks residing at these saints’ shrines understand illness, injury, and healing? Second, what sorts of ailments and injuries were suffered by cure-seekers? Third, who were these cure-seekers in terms of gender and social status? Fourth, from whence did cure-seekers come to receive healing? Fifth, how did they get there? And finally, what did they experience upon arrival at these seven shrines?

Chapters 1 and 2 situate miraculous healing within the context of medieval medicine. Fruitfully engaging the scholarship of Monica H. Green, Winston Black, Michael McVaugh, and Tony Hunt, Salter demonstrates that English monasteries were important nodes for the transmission of the new Arabic medicine emerging in southern Italy. The monks who witnessed miraculous healing at saints’ shrines may very well have read learned medical manuscripts, but for most, awareness of healthcare only extended to the rituals outlined in the Benedictine Rule: bathing, bloodletting, and tending to the poor and ailing as charity work. Chapter 2 turns to the ailments and treatments described in the miracula themselves. After tallying up the ailments mentioned in all seven miracle accounts, categorizing them, and sorting them by gender, Salter turns to more qualitative analysis. Though she contends that cure-seekers nearly always tried earthly remedies before they petitioned the saints, these treatments were only occasionally described in the miracula. She compares those few descriptions of earthly remedies to contemporary medical texts, including the Pantegni of Constantine the African and Physica of Hildegard of Bingen, before analyzing their Latin terminology to ascertain whether miracula reflect an engagement with learned, scholastic medicine.

In chapter 3, Salter makes the most of her narrative sources to paint a picture of the sort of people who sought cures at saints’ shrines. In total, the seven miracle accounts record the stories of 259 “cure-seekers,” of which only eighty-six of these individuals are named (Salter lists them in Appendix 1) and twenty-one are identified with a lay profession (these are listed in Appendix 2). She finds that the vast majority of cure-seekers mentioned in her seven miracula were members of the laity (238 in total), with only twenty-one cure-seekers coming from the clergy. Among the laity, there were slightly more men than women (131 to 107). Eighty-two of the total cure-seekers were youths or children, and of these, fifty were male and thirty-two female. Surprisingly, there is no mention of nuns as cure-seekers in her seven miracle accounts, though Salter notes this absence should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in saintly intercession, but rather as the result of nun’s stricter rules of enclosure.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the distances traveled by cure-seekers to saints’ shrines and the routes they took to get there. Salter finds that most cure-seekers were healed by their local saints at shrines close to home. Of those 183 cure-seekers whose place of origin is mentioned in the miracula, 102 traveled less than twenty miles to petition their chosen saint, and only 14 traveled over 100 miles across England in search of a cure. Given these numbers, chapter 5’s focus on twelfth-century England’s roadways and the potential threats cure-seekers might have faced on long-distance travel (including bad weather and bandits), feels somewhat extraneous. The two chapters might have been combined.

Finally, chapter 6 investigates cure-seekers’ transgression of sacred space when they arrived at their intended shrines, located in cathedrals or monastic foundations. Though Salter notes that the language of the miracula imply that cure-seekers were always welcome in these spaces, she finds evidence to suggest that they were sometimes a burden. In the case of William of Norwich, Salter suggests that the translation of his shrine to four different locations around Norwich Cathedral resulted from the clergy’s discomfort with so many lay cure-seekers invading their secluded spaces. In other cases, however, monks seem to have developed close relationships with lay cure-seekers who were regular visitors. At Burton Abbey, a poor, paralyzed woman who was “supported in the monastery” was miraculously cured by St. Modwenna, at which point she was able to stand and her clothes were insufficient to cover her body (196). The monks who knew her well were quick to order her new clothes.

Salter’s stated intention is to situate miraculous healing “within the gamut of medieval healthcare” (88-89), however, it must be said that her aim is blunted through her allegiance to the narrative perspective of her sources. Though Salter acknowledges that her twelfth-century hagiographers had obvious incentives to disparage earthly medicine and ascribe all healing to the saints, that oppositional framing persists throughout her book precisely because of Salter’s intention to take miracula seriously as narratives of healing. The intention is certainly laudable--“debunking” or medicalizing these miracles would make for a tedious book--but while Salter takes pains not to cast doubt on her sources’ accounts of miraculous healing, she readily passes judgement on the efficacy or inefficacy of earthly medicine. So, for example, in chapter 2, she notes the case of Osbert of Notley, whose eye condition only worsened after he applied ointments prescribed by a physician, resulting in his visit to the shrine of St. James at Winchester. Later in the same chapter, she recounts the story of the wife of John Vicecomes, who underwent a painful treatment for intestinal problems that involved cauterizing her groin. According to their miracula, adverse effects from these earthly cures drove both to seek miraculous healing--an explanation that Salter readily accepts. She asserts that “[s]aints provided cures for those who had been let down by medical practitioners, herbal treatments or invasive surgery” (90). She speculates that Osbert’s eye ointment might have contained pepper or rue, both of which could have irritated his eye exactly as the miracle story reported, and characterizes the cautery procedure as “ineffective.”

No doubt it was ineffective, just as Osbert’s eye ointment was probably also an irritant. But, if we are to apply logic and evidence to demonstrate the inefficacy of temporal medieval medicine, should we not also acknowledge that lighting a candle before a saint’s shrine was equally unlikely to produce a cure? Ironically, in her attempt to avoid retrospectively assigning medical definitions to these experiences, Salter inadvertently presents medieval cure-seekers as modern medical consumers, disgruntled and in want of a second opinion. Too often, miraculous healing is presented as a straightforwardly superior medical alternative rather than an effect of a complex set of beliefs about the power of the divine, suffering, and redemption--beliefs which were powerful precisely because twelfth-century people could not expect that they would ever be truly “cured” of paralysis, chronic illness, or blindness, either by a physician or by divine intercession. It was holy to suffer, just as it was holy to be cured.

Salter should be commended for doing so much with sources that are, by their very nature, formulaic and not particularly forthcoming with narrative detail. Using nearly every tool in the historian’s toolbox to extract as much information and insight as she can from these seven miracle accounts, her book is packed with demographic data that historians of medieval English medicine will find useful. Armed with this data and a handful of compelling miracle stories, she constructs a comprehensive picture of the journey from suffering to health for cure-seekers in twelfth-century England.