The miraculous touch
For our medieval friends, the Christian faith was as natural as the sunrise. Miracles were a common topic for the legends, sermons, art and literature of the period, and were most prized for their illustration of divine power and their effect in leading the unbelievers to knowledge of the true God.

Many of the medieval tales of miracles seem quite farfetched to the modern eye, and even the most devout Christians today are inclined to dismiss them as the fruit of pious myth. Having perused many of these legends, I am inclined to think that notion too drastic. It is true that many probably were not intended to be taken literally, and that others are sheer fabrication. But I also believe that many of them may have really occurred (albeit not exactly as depicted in popular legend!). Divine power is boundless, and, in an age when man was open to rather dramatic manifestations of this power, and therefore would have benefited from such occurrences, it well may be that miracles were far more common than today. (Particularly since I am one who believes the divine sense of humour is not to be minimized!)

In recent centuries (and I say this largely with regret), religion is often centred on fellowship and a concept of morality that is based on what are perceived as the needs of society. The intellectual may admit to belief in a creator or "higher power", but seldom will admit to a faith in the "anthropomorphic image of God" that hasn't been in vogue since the age of reason. It was quite different in the Middle Ages. Much as popular devotion centred largely on aspects of the divine with which the common man could commonly identify (as is clear from the very popular tales of the Child Jesus, and the elaborate family trees spun for the Holy Family), God was the Father of mankind, and interacted frequently with those He created. Divine providence, which was concerned with the eternal joys that awaited the faithful believer, was forever at work.

In those days, when all Christians could relate to the occasionally fantastic tales of miracles, these edified the believers. It is quite different now, when prudence is considered essential to the faith's not being exposed to ridicule. In those pre Reformation times, when such beliefs as the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist were universal, Eucharistic miracles (such as the Host's bleeding copiously when a desperately sacrilegious girl snatched it to be used in a love potion) would have been presented in a common language which would disappear during the renaissance. Consider, as well, that this was an era more poetic than rational, and there would have been far more allowance for dramatic licence.

Though the believer's fascination with miracles will ever endure, our medieval friends had a perspective of which many may not be aware today. Within the last few centuries, reports of miracles usually have concerned healing or apparitions that carry warnings about impending events on earth. While healing and apparitions were staples of the medieval concept of the miraculous, the focus was not on their impact in their physical or worldly aspects. Perhaps there was a strong sense that the Almighty was quite a showman, but the tales of miracles always had the aspect of either converting an unbeliever, clearing the doubts of one who wavered in the faith, or assisting the holy in achieving yet a higher degree of virtue.

This, of course, is consistent with the Judaeo-Christian view of the miraculous. However, it will assist our understanding if we consider, for a moment, the medieval faith. (Before getting to the fun!) During the Middle Ages, the majority of children did not live to maturity, and forty was a ripe age for those who did. It was highly unlikely that a child would have both parents living until he reached maturity. Wars, many, deadly communicable diseases, filth, and generally unhygienic living conditions made sudden death a stark reality for all, rich or poor. No one had the fantasy of immortality on earth that would appeal to those of the late 20th century.

Thus, there was no idea that sickness, death, political unrest, or poverty were inconsistent with the notion of a loving God, because there were no illusions that some magic cure could eliminate them. The sufferings of this life could be intense, but perfect and eternal joy awaited those who remained faithful to God. If God granted a miracle of healing, or of a dead person's being restored to life, it was not merely for their health or for the welfare of their families (and so forth). This action would testify to divine power, and, by, for example, bringing a sceptic to the faith, would fulfil the divine plan of eternal happiness for which acceptance of the faith was prerequisite.

Of course, in some cases, the miracles were merely favours for special friends. Colette of Corbie, who later would found the strictly observant branch of the Poor Clare nuns, was tiny as she was reaching maturity. A simple reminder, in the words "is it your will that I always be so small?", led the Almighty to grant her a height of five foot six inches - quite statuesque for the period, particularly for a French girl.

Elizabeth, duchess of Thuringia, was known for her great charity towards the poor - which she expressed in manners that would be considered quite extreme in any age. On one occasion, she placed a poor beggar (in some versions, a leper) in the royal marriage bed, and was quite dismayed when her husband, Ludwig, who might judge such actions excessive, unexpectedly returned at this point.

The legend has it that Ludwig saw (depending on the version) either a large crucifix or the image of the Christ Himself in the bed when he beheld the leper. My inclination, here, is to take this as symbolic, and as meaning that Ludwig's compassion was fired by seeing the image of Christ in this poor man. Indeed, that is a greater miracle.

The popularity of stories of the saints, which largely were derived from the Dominican Jacopo de Voragine's "The Golden Legend", made the volume the top best-seller of the late medieval period. Unlike the delightfully irreverent "miracle plays" of the time, this weighty work illustrates that Dominicans were given to scholarship rather than levity, and contains scholarly defences of the miraculous occurrences.

My personal favourite from that collection concerns an occurrence at the time of Christ's birth which may have changed the course of history had the emperor passed it down to Herod the Great, Tiberius (and hence to Pontius Pilate.) We learn that, at the time of Jesus's nativity, Caesar Augustus had a vision of a rainbow surrounding the sun. He beseeched the Roman gods for an explanation, and they informed him that a great King of Kings was born who was the Son of the Living God. The enlightened Caesar promptly erected an altar in honour of the Son of God ...which, I would imagine, was to enrich the collection of relics in some prosperous medieval household.

The tales of the earliest Christian saints never included rescue from the torture and martyrdom that guaranteed them the best spots in heaven, but often included conversions of their Roman persecutors. (Who then, of course, also became prey for the lions.) Those en route to the arena frequently raised the dead to life, thereby, unknowingly, inspiring the sort of conversions that would enrich many a film of the 1950s.

Of course, God, as Father, often had to step in to save a soul from naughty conduct. The Golden Legend tells us of a peasant who violated the sabbath by plowing on Sunday. The most unfortunate man found that his hand stuck to his plow, where it would remain for two years - until said peasant was happily released after a prayer to Saint Julian.

Francis of Assisi's stigmata are a bit too sublime to examine here, but a delightful tale of a more homely miracle fits in well. During one of Francis's impromptu sermons, a donkey began braying to high heaven, certainly spoiling the meditative mood. Our Francesco, never one to hesitate at addressing any one of God's creatures, meekly requested that Brother Ass cease the racket. Naturally, the donkey promptly obliged. Francis, fearful that the incident would become the latest topic amongst the villagers, halted his sermon and began saying funny things to make them laugh.

The great saints were known to have many encounters with Satan, who'd take any form that suited him, but who never caught on that he could not win. They also were given travel assistance by talking animals (even a unicorn here or there). Nicholas of Tolentino (yes, the Saint Nicholas) restored the partridges on his dinner plate to life. There are hundreds of legends where either those seeking heroic sanctity or relics of same were permitted to be vehicles of divine power.

Farfetched though some of these stories may be, their enduring charm comes from seeing how very much centred our medieval friends were on God. We may laugh at their imaginations, but it is difficult not to envy their open, trusting, and homely faith.

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Text for all pages © 1996,1997 by Elizabeth G. Melillo, Ph.D.