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

mandag 2. mars 2015

Debating Jews and Pagans - Rhetorical prowess as Imitatio Christi

This spring I’m teaching a course on texts from the medieval cult of saints. I’ve designed the course myself, which has allowed me complete freedom in the selection of texts for the syllabus, and through this course I aim to acquaint my students with the variety of medieval literature, and the tropes of medieval hagiography. The most important of these tropes is the omnipresent imitatio Christi, the various ways in which the saint emulated the life and teachings of Christ. This is an old trope that had its origin already in Luke’s account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, and it was a compulsory feature in every hagiographical account – although it was rendered in various ways.

These first weeks we have lingered in the early centuries of Christian literature, and we have spent a lot of time on early virgin martyrs such as Agatha, Lucy and of course Catherine of Alexandria. In class I have challenged the students to identify the various forms of imitato Christi, and I’ve been very pleased with how quickly the students have adapted to this way of analysing texts. However, I recently became aware of one form of imitatio Christi which I had overlooked, and perhaps as expiation for this negligence, I intend to talk a bit about it here.

I realised my omission when I came across an illumination from a French book of hours. The illumination was tweeted by Professor Johan Oosterman, and, as seen below, it depicts Christ disputing with the elders in the temple.


Christ disputing in the temple
 BnF NAL3093, Très belles Heures de Notre-Dame, 1375-1400, f80
Courtesy of Gallica BnF

The illumination presents a story told to us in the Gospel of Luke 2:41-52, where Joseph and Mary lose track of their child during a visit to Jerusalem, and find him in the temple (NIV): After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:46-47). This anecdote serves to illustrate the superiority of Christ’s teaching over the misguided teachings of the Jewish elders, and this is a recurring topic in the Gospels, perhaps most poignantly expressed in Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV): When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Christ disputing
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

To conquer those of a different faith through debate is a recurring topic in hagiography, and appears already in the Acts of the Apostles. From Acts 6:8-7:53 we are told how Stephen championed Christianity before the Jewish council after he had been turned in by a group of Jews. The episode is a conglomerate of Christ disputing with the elders in the temple and Christ before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the council, as recounted in the passion story. In this way, Stephen’s imitation Christi is twofold, and his imitation reaches a third and ultimate point in his martyrdom. This is not to say that the episode is fictitious or that it is doctored by Luke to correspond to the life of Christ, but to a medieval reader of hagiography, it is very likely that this amalgamation would have been evident. Stephen’s debate is also the centre point of Jacobus de Voragine’s account of him in Legenda Aurea.

Martyrdom of St Stephen, the most famous scene from the Acts of the Apostles
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0102, f.312v, Sacramentarium, Use of Paris, c.1270
Courtesy of Enluminures

Another early Christian account of a debate between a saint and representatives of a different faith is found in Athanasius’ Life of Antony (mid-fourth-century), the first hagiography of Antony of Egypt, an account which was also widely disseminated in the Latin world thanks to Evagrius’ translation. In chapter 72 of Evagrius’ translation and onwards through chapter 80, Antony’s rhetorical prowess is demonstrated through various monologues against pagan philosophers who sought him out in his desert lodgings. The account opens with the following comment: “[Antony] was also remarkably wise: considering that he had no education it was amazing how very clever and shrewd he was” (White 1998: 53). Antony’s uneducated thwarting of pagan philosophy is a logical result of the promise of Christ found in Matthew 10:19-20, where it is stated that during persecutions the Holy Ghost will speak through the persecuted, and it is this divine aid that allows Antony to render the pagans “struck with wonder and amazement” (White 1998:59).

Antony, hopefully not debating his pet-pig
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, p.279, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, c.1480-1490
Courtesy of Enluminures

The debate against non-Christian is also an important feature of the legend of Pope Sylvester. Sylvester is most famous for his baptism of Constantine after the emperor had been cured of leprosy, and for his battle against a dragon deep in the recesses beneath Rome. In the account of his life in Legenda Aurea, however, the major feature is his debate against the Jews, a debate that brings about the conversion of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The debate is arranged as a duel, where the Christian doctors are set to debate with 161 of the most learned men of the Jews” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 65) under the auspices of pagan judges, and if one debater fails to counter the arguments of the other, he must step down and leave the scene for another on his team. Sylvester is the first Christian contender, and in due course he conquers the twelve most brilliant Jews – presumably a representative for each of the twelve Jewish tribes. The contest ends not with rhetorical defeat, but in a stand-down of miracles, in which Sylvester brings a bull back to life, which the Jewish master Zambri had caused to fall dead to the ground, allegedly by whispering the true name of God into its ear.

Sylvester baptising Emperor Constantine
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0102, f.312v, Sacramentarium, Use of Paris, c.1270
Courtesy of Enluminures

Catherine and the philosophers
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.208v, Graduale, Use of Notre Dame de Fontevrault, c.1250-1260
Courtesy of Enluminures

The most famous of these debaters of the faith is of course Catherine of Alexandria. The story of the young Christian girl debating fifty great pagan philosophers was well-known throughout the entire Middle Ages, and her life was translated into several European vernaculars, including Anglo-Norman and Middle Welsh. Catherine is often depicted with a book to symbolise her wisdom, sometimes together with the instruments of her passion, such as the big wheel or the sword that ultimately killed her. The most expansive account of this story with which I am familiar is not the Legenda Aurea, where Jacobus’ chief interest seems to be an orderly and summarily categorisation of Catherine’s virtues and knowledge. A fuller rendition of Catherine’s contest can be found in the Life of St. Catherine by Clemence of Barking, written in the mid-twelfth century. Clemence’s portrayal of Catherine’s debate is an evocative and emotive, and often contains brief digressions and expositions on truth and folly. The pagan philosophers are depicted as arrogant and jealous, being foolish for trusting more in their philosophy than the pure faith of Catherine.

Katherine and the instruments of her passion
MS Yates Thompson 3, French book of hours, Roman Use, c.1440-c.1450
Courtesy of British Library

The story begins with Catherine defying Maxentius of Alexandria’s persecution of Christians, imploring him to cease the sacrifices to the pagan gods. Maxentius the tyrant starts debating with her, but finds himself at a loss for words and decides to bring in the fifty finest philosophers of pagandom, who will be debating against Catherine. At the onset of the debate, a self-appointed spokesman for the group rises to his feet, and before he starts speaking he is psychologically dissected by Clemence, who – notwithstanding the theological commonplaces against philosophy – shows a keen discernment in her portrayal of the human mind. After a short exposition of the nature of arrogant men, Clemence lets the philosopher exclaim sarcastically:

Emperor, I am utterly astonished that you have taken such wretched  advice and promised us such a great reward for vanquishing a woman skilled in debate. We have travelled far and it was well worth it on her account! How gloriously our names will be remembered after such a victory! If one wretched clerk had defeated her, that would have been quite enough effort expended, and yet on her account the finest clerks on earth are gathered here! Philosophers and grammarians, especially rhetoricians and good dialecticians, have come here for a truly important matter. She will certainly be able to oppose them, to lay out her arguments and demolish theirs! Whoever she is, summon her, and we shall make her concede and confess that she has never seen or heard men as wise as those she has found here.
- Clemence of Barking, Life of Catherine (translated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne), 1996: 10

Catherine and the outraged philosophers
Rouen - BM - ms. 0221, f.256, Diurnale, Domincans at Poissy, 13th-14th centuries
Courtesy of Enluminures

The debate then ensues and Catherine emerges victorious, causing the tyrant Maxentius to exclaim: “Lords, what has happened to you? Have you all lost your wits? Why are you struck dumb and dismayed on account of a woman?” (Wogan-Browne 1996: 19). Catherine’s rhetorical prowess also converts a number of the philosophers, and leaves Maxentius with no other alternative than to sentence Catherine to her death. Then we are told the famous passion story, where the wheel on which she is about to be racked is broken by divine intervention, and where she is ultimately beheaded.
The converted and martyred philosophers
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.124, Martyrology obituary, Douai, last quarter of 13th century (from Courtesy of Enluminures

The examples above are just a handful of cases where the saint’s imitatio Christi takes the form of the theological debate against non-Christians. On a minor scale, this feature can be found in most accounts where the saint is brought before a pagan king, as often was the case in the stories of the early martyrs, but the martyrdoms mentioned above have the rhetorical contest as one of the primary forms of imitatio Christi. The topos grew out of a climate in which Christians saw themselves attacked by the intellectual establishment comprised of grammarians and pagans well-versed in the works of Greek and Roman philosophers. Even after Christianity had become the intellectual and spiritual establishment, the topos continued to attract the minds of the faithful, and that the contest between philosophy and spiritualism never entirely went out of fashion can be seen in the famous case of Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Catherine and the philosophers
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0688, f.034v, Book of Hours, c.1435-1440
Courtesy of Enluminures


Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton, 2012

White, Carolinne, Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn, Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths, Everyman, 1996

Ingen kommentarer:

Legg inn en kommentar