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

mandag 26. oktober 2015

Saint Boniface and the Miracle of the Fox

I recently finished reading the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a collection of stories about saints and miraculous events from Italy and sometimes the nearby world in the sixth century. This opus, divided into four books written in dialogue form between Gregory and the monk Peter - is a huge treasure trove for a medievalist, both for its interesting insights to daily life in Gregory's time, but particularly for a saint scholar such as myself since this book was written at a time when hagiographical typology still was in its first formative period. Many of the stories recounted by Gregory contain similarities with other stories, both earlier and later, and these make for interesting comparisons. The most famous dialogue is undoubtedly the second book, which is a comprehensive hagiographical vita of Benedict of Nursia.

I hope to return to Gregory's Dialogues frequently, and in this blogpost I wish to present you with a miracle that happened to Saint Boniface when he was a young boy:

Boniface used to tend his mother's hens in a yard near the house. Frequently a fox would come from his den nearby and carry off some of the flock. One day when the boy Boniface was standing in the yard, the fox came as usual and took one of them. The boy quickly ran into the church and fell on his knees: 'O God,' he prayed in a loud voice, 'can you be satisfied to see me go hungry at my mother's table? Look! A fox is eating up all our hens!'  The moment he finished the prayer he ran out again. Almost immediately the fox came back, opened his jaws to free the hen, and fell dead at Boniface's feet.
- Gregory the Great, The Dialogues, translated by Odo Zimmerman, 2002: 40-41

The monk Peter finds this story to be a charming account and deems it to be a childish favour (but in a positive way). Gregory then responds that God sometimes fulfill small requests to keep our faith going for greater ones.

In addition to the typological details of this brief account - an animal returning with its prey, the culprit falling dead at the saint's feet - we also see echoes of the age-old iconography of the fox as the trickster and symbol of slyness and theft. This was an iconography which held great currency in the medieval imagination, and it was this which gave us the many stories of Renard the Fox, stories which became so popular that the name "renard" supplanted the word "goupil" as meaning "fox" in the French language.

Fox with duck
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

Ai vist lo lop - I saw the wolf
Medieval traditional about a wolf, a fox and a hare
Performed by Arany Zoltán

3 kommentarer:

  1. Thanks for sharing!
    -- a fox

  2. Is this St. Boniface the fourth or the first one?

    1. That is a good question, and unfortunately I do not have the answer ready at hand (my copy of the Dialogues is in another country at present). The problem is that there are two well-known saints called Boniface who died prior to Gregory writing his Dialogues, and there are also two popes by that name. Furthermore, it might be that this Boniface is one of those saints that might have been venerated in Gregory's contemporary Italy, but which have subsequently been more or less forgotten.