And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 12. februar 2015

Humilitas Christi - the washing of feet in medieval hagiography

Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Royal 2 B III, psalter, Netherlands, minatures from 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

Today I have been teaching on Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin, and we had a look at the ways in which Saint Martin imitated Christ. One of these ways was Martin’s performance of humility by washing the feet of his visitors, thus imitating Christ’s humility as he washed the feet of his disciples (cf. John 13:1-17). Martin performs this imitation Christi in two ways. The first episode we encounter is where he, while still an unbaptised soldier, reverses the hierarchy in the relationship between him and his slave, and Sulpicius Severus tells us that “it was usually Martin who pulled his slave’s boots off and cleaned them, and when they took their meals together it was often Martin who served at table” (II.5, translated by Carolinne White). Towards the end of the book, Sulpicius tells of his own meeting with the aged Martin, then bishop of Tours, and the link with Christ becomes clearer as we are told that Martin “himself brought water to was our hands. In the evening he washed our feet himself and we did not have the courage to resist or refuse” (XXV.3, translated by Carolinne White).
Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Egerton 1139, Psalter, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143
Courtesy of British Library

The washing of feet is in Christian thought seen as one of the ultimate signs of Christ’s humility. In medieval monasteries, it entered the liturgy during the Easter celebration. The liturgical calendar, strictly observed at all monasteries, is divided into the sanctorale, the celebration of saints, and the temporale, the commemoration of the life and times of Christ. These two liturgical layers run parallel, and the tempora Christi are re-enacted in the monastic liturgy. As part of this re-enactment it was customary to invite twelve beggars into church and feed them and to have the high clergy wash their feet.
Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Harley 1810, Eastern Mediterranean, last quarter of 12th century or first half of 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

This ritual of imitation is sometimes also found in hagiography, where the washing of feet is used to illustrate the virtue of humility, a virtue expected of all Christians and all saints, but perhaps particularly from the more high-born, in keeping with the Gospel text from Luke stating that those who put themselves high shall be brought low and vice versa.

Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Lansdowne 420, psalter, England, 1st quarter of the 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

One example of this episode in a hagiographic context can be found in Bede’s life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In chapter five Bede recounts how Cuthbert performed his office as guestmaster at the monastery of Ripon, and how Cuthbert had been tested by God in the following way:

Going out in the early morning from the inner buildings of the monastery to the guests’ chamber, he found a certain youth sitting within, and, thinking that he was of the race of men, he speedily welcomed him with accustomed kindness. He gave him water to wash his hands; he washed his feet and wiped them with a towel and placed them in his bosom so as to chafe them humbly with his hands; and asked him to wait until the third hour of the day and be refreshed with food”
- Bede, Vita Sancti Cuthberti, translated by Bertram Colgrave (Colgrave 1969: 179)

Cuthbert washing the feet of an angel
Yates Thompson 26, Prose life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of 12th Century
Courtesy of British Library

The guest turns out to be an angel of the Lord, and for his kindness in his imitation Christi, Cuthbert is rewarded with loaves of heavenly bread which “excel the lily in whiteness, the rose in fragrance, and honey in taste.”

The exercise of humility was, as stated, a highly valued virtue in the saints. In the case of royal saints, the humility and the spurning of the world were emphasised with a typical monastic flair for irony. In the case of Louis IX of France (d.1270, can.1297), his humility was one of the primary virtues for which he was praised during the long canonisation proceedings. In his proper imitation of humilitas Christi, Louis washed the feet of three poor men. This episode can be found in one of the earliest hagiographies about Louis, written in the 1270s by the royal confessor Geoffrey of Beaulieu:

It was his practice on any given Saturday to wash the feet of the three of the poorer and older men who could be found, which he did on bended knee, humbly, piously, and in a most secret place. After washing, he dried their feet and humbly kissed them. In similar fashion he brought water to wash their hands, which he kissed in the same way. He then provided a certain sum of money to each, and he himself waited upon them as they ate.
- Geoffrey of Beaulieu, The Life and Saintly Comportment of Louis, Former King of the Franks, of Pious Memory, translated by Larry Field (Gaposchkin and S. Field 2014: 77

Louis serving the poor
Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France, between 1332 and 1350
Courtesy of British Library

Geoffrey then adds another episode to the chapter:

[O]nce on a certain Sabbath, when he was at the Abbey of Clairvaux, he desired to take part in the washing of the feet of the monks, which they call the “mandate.” That is, according to the custom of their order, after Vespers, the monks wash each other’s feet with solemn devotion. The king himself, out of humility, many times wished to lay aside his cloak and humbly wash the feet of the servants of God with his own hands, on bended knees.
- Geoffrey of Beaulieu, The Life and Saintly Comportment of Louis, Former King of the Franks, of Pious Memory, translated by Larry Field (Gaposchkin and S. Field 2014: 78

Geoffrey here hammers home that Louis was a man of exceptional humility, and he concludes his chapter by saying “I do not know if there was another person of his station who was his equal in all the world.”

These episodes are just a few of the many examples of the importance of the foot-washing ritual in Christian hagiography, and the primacy of humility that was one of the many constants in medieval moral theology. The case of Louis IX also illustrates that to the persons of royal birth, it was necessary for them to subvert that hierarchy by which they were given the power to rule if they were to be worthy of a place in the sanctorale.

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