Saintly Reparations

Barbara Newman, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

This newsletter’s guest columnist is Prof. Barbara Newman who is the John Evans Professor of Latin and Professor of English, Classics, and History at Northwestern University. For over thirty five years now, Barbara’s esteemed work has shaped and contributed to the fields of hagiography, women’s spirituality, and medieval religious culture. Her two most recent publications, The Permeable Self : Five Medieval Relationships (Univ. Pennsylvania, 2021) and The Works of Richard Methley (Liturgical Press, 2021) speak to her continued innovative and cross-disciplinary approach, and point to her ongoing efforts to make the medieval world more accessible through the translation of primary sources.

What penance, what payment, could possibly compensate for the horrors of slavery—or of colonialism, or the Holocaust? Clearly none. Yet few public issues of our time arouse more controversy than this matter of reparations. The recent firestorm over the fall of affirmative action is a case in point. Even when the original wrong seems beyond repair, we feel a profound moral need to do something, to perform some kind of public penance. At the very least, what was stolen can be returned. Whether it be Native American remains or Egyptian mummies, art collections confiscated by Nazis or Greek antiquities in the British Museum, our institutions are regularly shaken by demands to repatriate plundered artifacts. Such gestures have been called “merely symbolic,” but when the actual harm to human lives is beyond telling (let alone mending), symbolism matters.

We may think of reparations as a uniquely modern issue, but it is no such thing. I would argue that the penitential character of medieval hagiography, especially in its more theatrical forms, stems in part from the saints’ awareness that the rich have always robbed the poor, while elites profit from the labor of the marginal. This theme is especially prominent in vitae from the thirteenth century, an age when the oppressions of the old feudal economy competed with those of the new mercantile economy. Saints who stemmed from wealthy backgrounds (as most did) often began their careers by trying to expiate the guilt of wrongful gains. When young Francesco di Bernardone stripped bare before the bishop of Assisi, renouncing his father’s trade, he was not only choosing “naked to follow the naked Christ” but also to live in solidarity with the poor, who had no access to the commercial profits that had enabled his lavish lifestyle. Angela of Foligno, one of the more flamboyant Franciscan mystics, longed to divest herself of her ample possessions, but passing through the needle’s eye was not easy. When she sold her country villa to give to the poor (“it was the best property that I owned”), many said she was possessed by the devil, and at least sometimes she agreed with them. So great was her need for public, theatrical penance that she desired to walk naked through the streets, with rotting fish and meat tied around her neck, while everyone mocked her.

Medieval preachers’ denunciations of usury can make us nervous, partly because they often had anti-Semitic overtones, partly too because our own bank accounts depend on the practice. But the “unnatural” way that money could breed money, with no equal exchange of goods or services, aroused reformers’ fervent antipathy. Women who inherited such wealth could endure agonies of contrition. Ida of Nivelles gave her community forty pounds from her inheritance, only to be tortured by scrupulosity—despite her friends’ assurance that her alms were not usurious but stemmed from her father’s “fully justified commercial efforts.” The young widow Yvette of Huy stripped her father’s house of furniture to give it piece by piece to the poor. But he retaliated by taking her children away, so to get them back she agreed to invest their patrimony at a profit. That decision led both Yvette and her hagiographer to tie themselves in moral knots: was it simple prudence or shameful avarice? The devil take the hindmost!

My favorite example of saintly reparations comes from the vita of a French nobleman, John of Montmirail. When this prince, once “famed for his great cruelty and power,” experienced an evangelical conversion, he became a Cistercian at Longpont. Sometime after his profession he devised an elaborate ceremony of reparations. En route to his old demesne of Oisy, he made a sort of anti-triumphal procession, including a surreal episode in which three hundred gravediggers in Cambrai “shouted with uproarious laughter as he passed.” Upon reaching the town of Havrincourt, John had arranged for a huge mound of silver to be amassed on a table and summoned his former peasants to attend. Kneeling before them in prayer, he begged both poor and rich to forgive his sins, then distributed the cash to “make restitution to them for the goods he had once seized.” But prayer and restitution were not enough; there had to be ritual theatre too. So the monk made a show of kissing the hands of all the peasants he had oppressed. When a “little old woman, poor and despicable,” refused her hand, he kissed her foot instead. One wonders if the hagiographer really got the saint’s point, for to him this woman still signifies “the very meanest class,” while he praises the prince-monk John as a “refined, elegant man.”

And there’s the rub. To our jaded sensibility, such saintly reparations can look like just another form of self-display or even narcissism. Humility is not always meek; it can be showier than pride. Not only penance, but even charity can have a self-aggrandizing character. Nevertheless, we too need ritual theatre, and some of the most successful social justice movements of our time have profited from it. The shenanigans of ACT UP and Greenpeace in the 1980s, or more recently, the toppling of Confederate monuments, have focused attention on urgent needs and brought many to a change of heart, leading in turn to legal remedies. If the short-lived Occupy Wall Street protest had had a saintly leader at its head, a Rosa Parks or a Cesar Chavez, might real reparations have been possible? We will never know.

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