The Riojan poet, Gonzalo de Berceo, who is also the first Spanish-language poet known to us by name, was born in the late twelfth century in the village of Berceo in northeastern Castile. The date of his death is uncertain, but was probably between 1252-1264. Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora (1246)1 represents the first collection in Castilian of the miracle tales of the Virgin. Such vernacular collections, modeled on Latin versions, flourished in the thirteenth century, the “Century of Mary.”2 Two well-known compilations include, for example, the Cantigas de Santa María, of Alfonso X (The Wise), and the Miracles de Nostre Dame of Gautier de Coincy. Until the twentieth century, scholars believed Gautier’s collection, which was written more than a decade earlier than the Milagros and is similar in presentation, had been Berceo’s source. In 1910, however, Richard Becker discovered a Latin manuscript in the Library of Copenhagen (MS Thott 128), which clearly could have “served [. . .] as a model for both Berceo and Gautier.” In 1971, Richard Kinkade suggested the Latin MS 110 (Spanish National Library) as “a more direct source” for the Milagros (Mount and Cash 7). In addition to the Milagros, Berceo wrote two other works of Marian devotion (Loores de Nuestra Señora and El duelo de la Virgen), four works of hagiography (Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos, Vida de San Millán de la Cogolla, Vida de Santa Oria and El martirio de San Lorenzo),3 two doctrinal poems (El sacrificio de la Misa and Los signos del Juicio Final), and three short hymns translated from known Latin originals. All of the saints of Berceo’s hagiographies had some connection to San Millán de la Cogolla, the monastery with which he was associated all his life. He was educated there as a child and in his adult life, as a secular priest and confessor, he probably served as notary to its abbot, Juan Sánchez (Dutton, “Profession” 143), and possibly as a teacher in the monastery school (Uría xiii).
Berceo wrote in the learned verse form of cuaderna vía (quatrains of fourteen syllables with a caesura in the middle and consonantal mono-rhyme), the poetic style of the mester de clerecía, the cleric’s or scholar’s art. Generally learned and/or religious, the mester de clerecía employs, however, many “well-proven techniques” of the minstrel’s art, or the mester de juglaría, such as “oral presentation, direct address, picturesque details and digressions, and the use of popular speech and proverbs” (Mount and Cash 2).4 Some of the best examples of mester de clerecía from Berceo’s day include the Libro de Alexandre, about the life and adventures of Alexander the Great, the Libro de Apolonio, an account of a Greek romance about Apollonius of Tyre, and the Poema de Fernán González, a narration of the heroic military accomplishments of the first count of Castile. The nature of the mester de clerecía reveals that its authors were knowledgeable in law, grammar and rhetoric, thus linking them to an urban world and an education in the universities or cathedral schools of the region. Berceo’s works reveal that his rhetorical skills encompassed considerable musical, biblical, doctrinal and juridical knowledge. His abundant use of legal elements, in particular, has lead to much speculation that he could have been educated at the Estudio General de Palencia (Dutton, “Profession” 144). He refers in the Milagros (325d) to one of its founders, don Tello Téllez Meneses, the bishop of Palencia, and to the university of Palencia itself in the Vida de Santo Domingo de Silos (462ab). The Estudio General de Palencia was well known for its famous professors of law, who were invited from Italy to teach there by the university’s other founder and patron, Alfonso VIII, the king of Castile (Uría xi-xii). Berceo’s name is referred to in two documents of notarial character: as “Maestro de Confesión” and executor of a will in one, and in the other, as a witness in a commercial transaction made by Juan Pérez, the bishop of Calahorra. Berceo’s name appears as a witness in documents of San Millán throughout his lifetime. In 1221 he held the title of deacon and in 1237, that of priest (Gerli, “Introduction” 11).
Notwithstanding the cultured verse form and quantity of learned themes of the mester de clerecía, its employment of the popular poetic formulas and use of the vernacular language instead of Latin, suggest that its audience was not limited to clerics. In the Middle Ages, the mester de clerecía became a didactic instrument designed to instruct and attract followers of the Church, and entailed an effort toward establishing the authority of Church doctrine (Gerli, “Introduction” 17). The miracles communicate dogmas of the Church by means of playful, grotesque, poignant, and violent narratives that have broad audience appeal. For example, the Virgin Mary’s interventions save a pregnant abbess from scandal, encourage mob violence against Jews, enable the repayment of debts, trap some thieves and rescue others, bring a self-castrated pilgrim back to life, retrieve contracts made with the devil, and chase away a drunken monk’s frightening hallucinations. Ana Diz characterizes the miracles as pious literature whose objective is to promote “la religiosidad popular, enseñar devoción y perpetuar la tradición mariana” (21). In the Marian tradition, devotion to Mary, however minimal, always outweighs deeds when the Virgin bestows a favor. Joël Saugnieux illustrates this point that the moral deeds of the protagonists in the miracles do not take precedence: “[e]n los Milagros [. . .] Cristo y la Virgen no se muestran exigentes ni sobre la cantidad, ni sobre la calidad de las obras realizadas” (16).
Studies such as that of Saugnieux, who shows that “Berceo no innova, y [. . .] se contenta con beber del fondo común de la espiritualidad de su época” (43), often concern themselves to clarify the seemingly unorthodox portrayal of the Virgin, rather than Christ or God, as possessor of the final word on the salvation of her devotees. While it is true that Mary’s elevated status in the economy of salvation “may not adhere to strict Catholic theology, neither is it a strange aberration that makes Berceo’s perception of her role unique” (Mount and Cash 13). Saugnieux situates the epoch and place in which Berceo lived as “absolutamente privilegiados desde el punto de vista de la mariología,” and explains that the clergyman poet, the juglar a lo divino, was witness to two cultural phenomena of great importance:
Berceo exhibits a conception of the universal mediation of Mary “que procede en línea recta de San Ildefonso y de la cual, sin duda, ha tenido conocimiento gracias a la liturgia hispánica” (49). San Ildefonso was the first great disseminator of Marian theology and of Hispanic liturgy (48), and the first miracle in Berceo’s collection pays homage to his contribution to the celebration of Mary. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) was instrumental in the codification of Marian devotion: “Aunque la mariología parece ser un fenómeno de gran extensión en la devoción del siglo XII, se codifica gracias a la obra de San Bernardo y se da a conocer, sobre todo, en su famoso sermón titulado De aquaeductu” (Gerli, “Introduction” 21). From these two influences evolved the idea that Mary can save those whom God would condemn, and that, without her, no one may be reconciled with the Father. Even in cases where reconciliation might seem impossible, far from always following the opinion of Her Son, Mary often imposes Her own upon Him (Saugnieux 57).
An allegorical Introduction precedes the twenty-five miracle narratives that comprise Berceo’s collection. The source for Berceo’s Introduction remains a mystery and may be original to Berceo himself. A medieval audience,6 however, would have had familiarity with its metaphors, images and themes. The fundamental metaphor of the Virgin Mary as a “perpetually green meadow where the pilgrim can rest and enjoy spiritual delights” mirrors the locus amoenus motif of the Middle Ages (Mount and Cash 7). In this Introduction, Berceo alludes to the “Fall of Man”:
Ten verses later, Berceo glosses the meaning of these fruit trees as miracles of Mary:
Michael Gerli finds that Berceo’s Introduction, as allegory, tells the story of humankind’s Fall and Redemption “por medio de imágenes que evocan el Paraíso del Génesis, y a través de alusiones a las profecías del Antiguo Testamento que anunciaban a la Virgen María” (“Introduction” 47). Berceo’s typological images and allusions evoke “la posibilidad de la restitución de la humanidad a la gracia perdida, la posibilidad de un retorno al Edén” (47). By viewing Berceo’s Introduction in light of the story of ‘Fall and Redemption,’ we can visualize it as a narrative frame in which the miracles that follow “reflejan metonímicamente el mismo concepto en su plano individual. Estos últimos narran no el drama de la Caída y Salvación del hombre arquetípico, sino el de los hombres, los peregrinos, nuestros vecinos y nuestros contemporáneos” (47-8). This typology of ‘Fall and Redemption’ represented by a symbolic link of Eden and the Anunciation often formed the duality known in thirteenth-century Spain as Ave/ Eva, Eva/ Ave (Gerli, “Tipología” 8). Berceo’s illustration of the ‘Fall and Redemption’ paradigm by means of Old Testament events and figures that prophesy Mary, firmly establishes the Christian doctrine of prefiguration in which Mary (and Christ) appear as the fulfillment of what Marina Warner describes as “one unbroken chain of prophecy” (62).
This elaborate attention to the doctrine of prefiguration, a theme fundamental to Christianity, suggests the instructional and sermonic duties of a teacher and priest: “todos los poemas del maestro Berceo contienen aspectos fundamentales de la doctrina cristiana; responden, pues, a la actividad catequística y pastoral, propia del sacerdote y el maestro” (Uría xiii). In fact, as Isabel Uría points out, “la época en que vivió, su relación con el monasterio emilianense y su profesión de sacerdote y maestro son circunstancias que se reflejan en sus obras, a la vez que dan razón de los temas que trata” (xiii). In addition to doctrinal themes, Berceo’s poetry reflects his relationship to the monastery of San Millán. It is known, for example, that the devotional objective of hagiography generally encompassed a promotional motive as well: to attract financial support to often struggling monasteries. All of the saints’ lives that Berceo wrote about had some direct connection with San Millán. In the thirteenth century, a general state of monastery decline corresponds to the proliferation of hagiographic works. San Millán de la Cogolla was no exception to the tides of history. Early in the century, its bishopric, Calahorra, had fallen into debt and disarray. Disputes among the parishes and religious houses ensued over claims to financial endowments. Thus, as Brian Dutton sustains, Berceo’s poems about saints’ lives can be viewed as propaganda, as publicity destined to attract pilgrims to his convent in order to increase the income of the San Millán monastery.
The miracle tales of the Virgin do not necessarily directly participate in this propagandistic aspect of hagiography production. Dutton’s research, however, documents the existence of a shrine of the Virgin at the chapel of San Millán at least thirty-eight years before an altar even was dedicated to the chapel’s patron saint (“The Virgin of Yuso” 83-4). He concludes that the Milagros, like the saints’ lives, probably also served as publicity for San Millán:
Who are the people that God wishes to ‘traer a est logar’? The logar must be San Millán de la Cogolla, and since the words quoted come almost in the middle of the Milagros de Nuestra Señora, is it not highly probable that the ‘sennores e amigos’ are pilgrims who have come to San Millán, to pay homage to the Virgin there? Could not Berceo’s Marian works in fact be his contribution to the entertainment and enlightenment of the pilgrims who came to visit the shrine of the Virgin? (“The Virgin of Yuso” 86-7)
The lines Dutton refers to, which are part of the opening quatrain of “La abadesa preñada,” do not appear in the Latin versions of this miracle (Dutton, Obras 174). I quote the verses here in order to convey the compelling effect of this miracle’s introductory lines:
Even without knowing about Dutton’s discovery, we cannot deny that the verses address an audience who has actively ‘arrived’ to the place of miracle recitation. The monastery of San Millán not only had its own local cult of the Virgin, but also was located near the famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. In the eleventh century, San Millán had acquired the inn of Azofra, located on the French road to Santiago close to Nájera, along with its church, where pilgrims who died on the route were buried. Nájera was not far from San Millán (Dutton, Obras 9). One can assume that pilgrims in route to Santiago, at least the ones who spoke Spanish, also could have been entertained and edified by the Milagros, and/ or encouraged to visit the shrine of the Virgin at San Millán. Certainly recitations of the miracles would have accrued fame, if not financial support as well, to Azofra.
In view of these propagandistic motives, Diz points out that since an ideology often becomes the vehicle of artistic expression, it is unclear whether or not the ideal of a supposed separation of art and politics even exists in practice. Even when an artist has political motives, or vested interests of any sort, it is improbable that these motives and/ or interests could dominate every aspect of the process of producing the work of art (36). We can differentiate, therefore, between propaganda for a church and that of an ideology of faith, even when the two motives coexist:
Thus we can visualize the propagandistic aspect of hagiographic creativity as converging with a larger worldview of faith and religion that art simultaneously identifies with and defines.
With this in mind we can clearly see why Saugnieux cautions that we incur error if we identify the clergy as completely “bajo la influencia de la religión culta [. . .]. Hay que distinguir entre religión popular y religión culta en el mismo seno de la clase sacerdotal” (103). He argues that when studying the history of religion and Church power, a complicating element lies in the fact that the makers of Church policy are not necessarily the same persons that interpret and implement it: “quienes encarnan la institución eclesiástica y definen el precepto no son necesariamente los mismos que tienen el poder cultural o político en la sociedad” (104). Furthermore, it is impossible to study separately “religión culta y religión popular,” that is, the ideal vs. the reality of its practice. Rather, we must study the tensions, “las relaciones dialécticas,” between the two (105). The clerics of the Middle Ages belonged to different levels of culture in terms of education, social class, and/ or that of the spiritual charges of their parishes. In the religious writings of the mester de clerecía, we have “un espacio privilegiado para el estudio de las relaciones dialécticas” in the mixture of popular and orthodox forms (107). Saugnieux defines what I consider to be the je ne sais quoi that Berceo’s Milagros possesses:
This idea of placement and prioritization, rather than exclusion, describes well the object of my study: the Milagros’ hierarchical aesthetic of the Virgin Mary as Holy Advocate and intermediary par excellence for Christian souls. My approach is to attempt to contextualize within a historical framework of Church reforms and canon law the ambiguity in relation to Christian doctrine of topics in the miracles related to law, sex and anti-Semitism. The signpost I follow will be, in most cases, Berceo’s use of legalistic stylistic devices.
In Chapter One, “Mary as Holy Advocate of Canon Law,” I explore the role of legal formulas as a literary device in Berceo’s characterization of Mary. In the miracles “San Pedro y el monje lozano,” “Los dos hermanos,” “El labrador avaro,” and “El milagro de Teófilo,” the representation of Mary as Holy Advocate appears to fuse secular and religious concepts. Celestial mediation of the laws of judgment becomes conceptualized in terms of a terrestrial court of appeals. Berceo’s use of legalistic themes and embellishments emphasizes the relevance to canon law of issues in the miracles, such as confession, documents and Church properties. I situate Berceo historically in his clerical and notarial world of burgeoning canon law and locate his poetry within the context of devotional poetry of the Lateran reform era. In “La iglesia robada,” “Milagro de la casulla de San Ildefonso,” and “La iglesia profanada,” I consider the role of Mary as an endorser of the authority of the law to prosecute offenses against the Church.
In Chapter Two, “Sex, Law and the Clergy,” I evaluate the propaganda of the legal drama in “El sacristán fornicario” as it relates to the sin of fornication and the sacrament of confession. The juxtaposition of these two topics relates directly to canons of the Fourth Lateran Council regarding confession and the celibacy of the clergy. I show that a tone of ambivalence regarding sexual chastity in the miracles involving sex and the clergy, which also include “El monje lozano,” “La abadesa preñada,” “El romero engañado por el diablo,” and “La boda y la Virgen,” is common to other literatures and discourses of the clergy in Berceo’s day. In “El romero engañado,” I explore the notion of ritual purity as a moral justification for a celibate clergy and its roots in the rhetoric of the monastic reform movement. In “La abadesa preñada,” “El monje lozano,” and “La boda y la Virgen,” I contemplate the pragmatic side of the argument for enforced celibacy of the clergy, problems involving Church property, that originally gave momentum to the Gregorian reforms. Here I also explore the ambivalent stance of the clergy itself in regard to clerical debates about the merits of marriage vs. fornication.
“Christians and Jews of the Cities,” Chapter Three, identifies motifs of Christian anxiety in issues relating to doctrinal hegemony and community authority in urban settings. A narrative mechanism by which the fusion of secular and sacred law can validate collective justice against the Jews in “Los judíos de Toledo,” or unite Jews and Christians in “El judïezno,” is present in situations where legitimacy of Christian religious images and prefiguration dogma are at stake. Images of the Church validate intermediary dogma in issues involving money in “El mercader de Bizancio.” In these miracles, anti-Jewish stereotypes reflect Christian ambivalence regarding the Jewish basis of the Christian religion, and are often employed to undermine authority figures of urban communities that are Jewish: a rabbi, a father, and a moneylender. In the “Conclusion,” I return to the medieval concept of hierarchy and multiplicity to propose what I consider to be the three triadic hierarchies of order that appear to structure the direction of Mary’s mediation in the miracles I study here.