The Cantigas de Santa Maria is arguably one of the most important collections of medieval songs, and certainly one of the largest. Composed between 1257 and 1283 by the Iberian King Alfonso X and his courtiers, they are largely versifications in song of the miracle stories of the Virgin Mary circulating in 13th century Europe. After exploring the impact of the troubadours on the Catholic Church’s cult of the Virgin in the first article, and the profound influence of the troubadours and the church on Alfonso’s Cantigas in the second article, this third article examines the character of the Virgin as represented in the manuscripts’ miracle stories and praise songs. Via Fatal Attraction, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, characters in Batman, George Orwell’s 1984, bestiaries, psychotherapy and the Symbionese Liberation Army, we discover that the chief characteristics of the Virgin are jealousy, vengeance and the demand for obeisance. How does such a problematic role model affect the kingship of Alfonso? And how does this influence the content of the songs?
We begin with a video of Cantiga 173: The blessings of Maria ~ or ~ The kidney stone Cantiga, sung in English with medieval harp and fiddle.
The promotion of Mother Mary
Compared to the New Testament, the role of Mary in the Cantigas is hugely increased and elevated. This is an outworking of the Catholic Church’s response to the troubadour tradition (as outlined in the first and second articles in this series). In the Bible, Mary is simply the obedient mother of Jesus who accepts Gabriel’s message of divine pregnancy at the annunciation, celebrates her pregnancy in the magnificat, and is then rarely mentioned until she is a grieving mother at his crucifixion. At no point in the Gospels does anyone, including Jesus, suggest that Mary is to be worshipped or have any special place other than a supporting role in the Gospel drama; neither do any other New Testament writers suggest this. In the New Testament account of the activities of the early church, Mary is not even mentioned beyond the first Pentecost.
In the Cantigas, Mary has been promoted to the central star. CSM 15 makes clear there is a hierarchy in heaven, with Mary above all the saints: “All the saints in heaven take great delight in serving the Holy Virgin, mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord. That they gladly do her bidding is the just and righteous way … they are appointed by her, and she is light and life to all. Therefore they are always ready to do whatever pleases her.” Since the Virgin gave birth to Jesus, who is God incarnate, her Son is also her Father (CSM 104 and 172), and it “is very fitting that she who bore God in her womb and then often in her arms and who fled with him to Egypt … should have great influence over him” (CSM 14). In a theological role-reversal, in the Cantigas it is the Son/Father who has the occasional bit-part, Mary taking over many of his divine functions. She “holds the world in her command” (CSM 173 – the song in the video above); in many Cantigas it is through Mary, not Jesus, that believers receive God’s forgiveness since she is the believers’ advocate, and it is because of her, not God or Jesus, that rulers are on their thrones (CSM 409). In CSM 414 the Trinity is not just Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there is a “Trinity of Holy Mary”, wherein God “did not hold himself above her in greatness nor worth”. The Virgin has the kind of miraculous powers and authority over devils given Jesus in the New Testament, while Jesus in the Cantigas is remarkable for his small walk-on parts. Mary’s dominance of the religious stage is virtually complete. When Jesus or God is mentioned, Mary is not the subservient mother of the Bible: when God/Jesus and Mary disagree – which, perhaps surprisingly, they do – the Virgin always overrules him.
The meaning of miracles
The Cantigas de Santa Maria is, first and foremost, a compilation of the miracle stories of the Virgin Mary that were circulating in 13th century Europe, collected and versified in song by Alfonso X and his nameless artistic assistants. Today these miracles seem fanciful, incredible, unbelievable, and it may be tempting to look for rational explanations, but doing so takes us a step away from the medieval mind. Truth claims were not based, as they are in today’s scientific age, on the testing of evidence for its veracity and credibility, but on authority: if the king says it, if God says it, if the Virgin says it, then by definition it is true. And the truth of an event in the world was multi-layered: God was always sending messages to humanity through the features of the world and through events. We see this clearly in the peculiarly English phenomenon of the bestiary, a compendium of creatures, mostly real, some mythical but taken as real. Almost every entry for an animal in the bestiary has a physical description; then the animal’s moral message intended by God; and lastly the religious meaning of the creature. The entry for the hedgehog in the 13th century bestiary MS Bodley 764, for example, describes the hedgehog curling up for defence; then how it “is a sinner full of vices like spines, skilled in wicked cunning, and in deceits and robberies”; and lastly that the hedgehog is “like the man bristling with sins, who fears the judgement to come, and takes very secure refuge in the rock of Christ.” Similarly, the healing miracles of the Cantigas have a physical description of the ailment or injury; the moral message intended by God, which is that sinners should submit to the Virgin, confessing their sins in repentance; and the religious meaning that disease, disability and death are the result of sin.
A classification of miracles
The miracle stories can be roughly classified in five categories, as follows.
Medical miracles, such as the Virgin enabling pregnancy in an infertile woman (CSM 21); the restoration of a foot that had been amputated (CSM 37); the restoration of Pope Leo’s hand, which he had cut off because a beautiful woman kissed it and “he was tempted by love for a woman” (CSM 206); the cure of a deaf-mute man (CSM 69) and a deaf-mute boy (CSM 234); a chaplain of nuns being saved from death after swallowing a poisonous spider which had fallen into a chalice (CSM 222 and a variant in CSM 225); the removal of a kidney stone (CSM 173, the song in the video above); and Mary’s “mercy to dumb beasts” in curing a mule that was about to be skinned because it was crippled in all four feet (CSM 228).
Resurrection miracles include the raising to life of dead boys (CSM 21, 43, 167, 168) and dead girls (CSM 133, 224), with the running theme of resurrection after three days, echoing Jesus’ resurrection.
Nature miracles include the Virgin reviving dying or dead silkworms and causing them to weave two veils (CSM 18); the removal of a man from sea to land to save him from drowning (CSM 33); and the miraculous relighting of a candle in a church (CSM 116).
The mundane miracles hardly seem like miracles at all but are attributed to Mary to show her great power: the return of or finding of a lost goshawk (CSM 44 and 232); the removal of an indelible red wine stain from a chasuble, the ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by Catholic priests (CSM 73); an accusation is revealed to be false (CSM 97); beehive thieves are caught (CSM 326); a sick horse belonging to a scribe of the king gets better (CSM 375); and a lost ring is found (CSM 376).
Partisan miracles are performed by the Virgin for ‘her own’ and against those who are not ‘her own’: she moves a spring of water onto monastery grounds so that her monks do not have to buy water from a knight (CSM 48); she causes a knight to appear on the battlefield while also being at mass, literally in two places at once (CSM 63); and supernaturally prevents a knight from being killed by his enemies (CSM 121). Oftentimes she frees Christians from self-inflicted wrongs, simply because they worship her. For example, in CSM 216 a “rich and upstanding knight” is financially ruined and plans to become the devil’s servant in order to regain his wealth. In order to secure this Satanic bargain, the devil tells the knight he must bring his wife to meet him. The bargain is not sealed because Mary intervenes: she meets the devil in the likeness of the knight’s wife, reprimands Satan and orders the knight to repent. Some partisan miracles are mini-biographies of King Alfonso, often on the theme of the Virgin’s role in his recovery from many serious and life-threatening illnesses. Another subcategory of partisan miracles is Mary’s role in punishing Jews and Moors on behalf of God, of Alfonso, of individual Christians and herself, a subject significant and important enough to warrant a separate article: “Infidels”, “traitors” and “that ugly bearded crew”: fear and loathing in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, available here.
These five broad categories of miracles are fluid and overlapping: medical, resurrection, nature and mundane miracles are all partisan, since they are all performed for those who worship Mary, but the partisan category includes acts not in the other four, such as supernatural protection from death and the punishment of non-Christians for being non-Christian; while the act of resurrection is a medical miracle, not all medical miracles are resurrections; and so on. One theme that runs through them all is the relationship of the Virgin’s character to the miracles. To take some of the examples just mentioned: the miraculously enabled pregnancy (CSM 21) and restoration of the amputated foot (CSM 37) were granted because these believers had faith in the Virgin, worshipped her and prayed at her altar; Pope Leo’s hand was restored because he could no longer perform mass and regretted not being able to serve Mary (CSM 206); the miraculous removal of a kidney stone (CSM 173) and the resurrection of a dead child (CSM 21) happened because the sufferers went on pilgrimage specifically to pray to Mary; the cured mule, in gratitude, went to church and bent its knees at Mary’s altar (CSM 228); the silkworms miraculously weaved a veil to worship Mary (CSM 18); the chaplain who swallowed the poisonous spider was saved because he worshipped Mary (CSM 222 and CSM 225); and so on and so on. Mary is no disinterested miracle worker: she grants cures and impossible life-saving events specifically and exclusively to those who affirm her superiority and as a reward for doing so. As we will see, those who do not do so are automatically her enemies and pay a terrible price: one of the phrases that recurs regularly in the Cantigas is “the Virgin’s vengeance”.
“Did you value her attributes more than mine?”: the jealous Virgin
In the Cantigas, no one is allowed to have a place in anyone’s heart or life above Mary. There are many songs illustrating the implications for intimate relationships.
In CSM 16, a handsome knight is “losing his senses” over love for a woman who spurns him. He goes to “a hermitage of the Mother of the Saviour” and Mary appears to him, telling him to choose between her and the woman who spurned him. He responds: “let me be one of your beloved servants, and I will renounce the other lady”. After a year of fervent prayer, he dies: “She took him to be with her.”
In CSM 241, a young man is at a feast to celebrate betrothal to his beloved. The devil pushes him down a cliff and he dies. His mother prays to the Virgin and he revives. However, the betrothed couple do not then marry, but both take celibate orders in honour of the Virgin.
In CSM 285, a nun and the abbess’ nephew fall in love, so they run away and marry, despite all the Virgin’s efforts to stop them by animating a statue of herself in a church and having it move and talk. The couple live happily and God blesses their union, “grant[ing] them many sons and daughters, healthy and beautiful”. One may think, since God has blessed them, that this would be the story’s happy ending. However, the Virgin is “dismayed” at these events and overrules God. The Virgin appears to the former nun in a dream, telling her she is ungrateful, foolish, headstrong, scornful and shameful. The woman is so alarmed and terrified that she returns to the cloister and her husband takes holy orders in an abbey.
In CSM 42, a young man places his ring on the finger of a statue of Mary for safekeeping while he plays a ball game with friends. As he places the ring on her finger, he swears that the figure of Mary is the most beautiful he has ever seen, that his ring is a pledge to her, and that his betrothed now means nothing to him. Having retrieved his ring he forgets his pledge and marries. On his wedding night, he falls asleep and Mary appears to him in a dream, shouting “Oh, my faithless liar!” He awakes and falls asleep again, now seeing Mary lying in the marriage bed, separating him and his new bride, angrily asking him why he left her. He is so terrified that he leaves, wanders homeless for more than a month, enters a hermitage and serves Mary, who then arranges for him to die so he can be with her forever.
A similar story is told in CSM 132. The threatening words of the first verse neatly summarise this type of story: “He who leaves the Glorious One for an insignificant woman, although she may be very beautiful, rich and well-endowed, gentle and amorous, will be guilty of the greatest madness conceivable.” A priest receives his parental inheritance of vineyards and orchards, and his family urge him to marry. He goes into a church and falls asleep. In his dream, the Virgin says to him, “Are you not the one who used to say you loved me above all else and constantly prayed to me with all your heart? Why are you going to take another love and spurn me, who loved you? … You have done me great wrong. Tell me, why did you lie to me? Did you value her attributes more than mine?” On his wedding night he embraces his bride but is so troubled he is unable to consummate the marriage. Instead, he departs his wedding bed to resume his religious life in extreme poverty, leaving his wealth and his wife behind.
The message of this story and many others like it is that any woman is “an insignificant woman” compared to Mary, who demands complete and total attention to the exclusion of all other women. The repeated point is that a vow to Mary trumps all: she has the hold of heaven and hell over believers, and demands chaste allegiance that precludes any relationship with a human wife or husband. Her demand for celibate faithfulness and devotion is the prohibition of fleshly desire, blotting out earthly desires and expressions of love.
The Virgin’s demand for exclusive admiration, her envy of others and her lack of empathy for supposed rivals is apparent in other spheres of life besides love.
In CSM 32, a priest is denounced before the bishop for knowing only the one form of the mass which is in honour of Mary. He is expelled for the narrowness of his skills and knowledge. The Virgin, though, considers that exclusive worship of her is all that is needed. That night she appears to the bishop and threatens him with torture in hell if the priest is not reinstated.
In CSM 327, a priest takes a fine cloth, donated by a woman to spread over the altar, and turns it into undergarments for himself. He puts them on and tries to sleep, but cries out in pain as he feels the Virgin’s heels pressing into his loins.
CSM 293 is unusual in that Jesus is the holy actor. A minstrel mimics a statue of Mary holding Jesus in her arms, so Jesus causes the minstrel’s mouth and chin to twist up behind his ear and his neck and arm to writhe violently (which hardly complies with Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount to “turn the other cheek” when offended). When the minstrel repents, worshippers pray to Mary that she will heal him, which she does.
“He who praises Holy Mary will show himself wise”: power over health, life and death
Such is the Virgin’s demand for exclusive and all-encompassing loyalty and admiration that life and limb are under threat. The Virgin regularly imposes threats, terror and suffering to restore her power over others. Thus the role of health as reward and death as punishment is important in understanding the Cantigas’ Mariology.
In the 13th century, Saturday was the Christian Sabbath, just as it has always been the Jewish Sabbath. The word sábado in Galician could mean either Saturday or Sabbath. Sunday, commemorating the resurrection, was the Lord’s Day, domingo. The word domingo does not appear in the Cantigas, whereas sábado, the Holy Virgin’s day from the 8th century, appears several times. In CSM 277, sixteen Christians hunt a deer on a sábado. Once the deer is roasted, half of their number eat it, but half refrain from meat and eat only bread in honour of the Virgin. They continue on their horses towards Algarve and come across some Moors, with whom they are at war. The angry Virgin arranges that Christians who ate the deer are pierced with the Moors’ lances, “great chunks of the deer they had eaten” coming out through their wounds, while the Christians who honoured the Virgin are unscathed and are able to kill the Moors. The message is that Moors, who do not worship Mary, are worthy of death, but Christians are not automatically safe, either: Mary will protect those who honour her, but those she feels affronted by she will put in mortal danger.
This may extend to killing an individual if the Virgin feels sufficiently wronged. In CSM 347, a woman is unable to become pregnant, so she goes on pilgrimage to Tudía and prays to the Virgin for a child. When she has given birth to a boy, her husband also goes on pilgrimage to Tudía but she doesn’t go with him (which seems perfectly reasonable, now that she has a child to care for). Feeling slighted, the Virgin murders the child whose birth she had enabled, resurrecting him only when the grieving woman has suffered sufficiently, repented, made the pilgrimage, and placed his dead body on her altar at Tudía.
Death, ill health and physical pain are punishments for sin. Sinfulness is directly attributed as the cause for (among many examples) kidney stones (CSM 173), blindness (e.g. CSM 314, 316 and 362), crippled limbs (e.g. CSM 117 and 166), the death of a sinful mother’s child (CSM 347) and what, from the description, appears to be some kind of seizure (CSM 293). In these examples, the way to repair such sinfulness is to travel to a pilgrimage site to pray to Mary; to beg the Virgin for mercy, affirming her superiority; to perform an act of repentance and verify to the Virgin that the punishment of ill health was deserved; to affirm one’s powerlessness emotionally, with submissive weeping; and/or to offer the Virgin a physical gift, such as wax, used to make candles and votive images for worship. This is neatly summarised by the refrain of CSM 314, “He who praises Holy Mary will show himself wise.” This is not wisdom in the now conventional sense of having insight, perception and good judgement based on knowledge and experience: this wisdom is that acquired by those unable to escape the Virgin, knowing the obeisance and subservience they must perform in order to survive without punishment.
Punishment, including death, is exactly what the enemies of the Virgin should expect; and death for the unsaved in medieval theology means an eternity of torment in hell. In CSM 192, for example, a Moorish slave is forced by his Christian master to lie in a secluded cave, where the devil torments him. Mary appears “to show him the way so that he might not burn in hell’s stinking fire”. She scares the devil way and chastises the captive for being a Moor. The Moor confesses his error to his master, is baptised, and thereafter leads a good life, worshipping the Virgin. In the Cantigas, there is (with minor exceptions) only this strict dichotomy: one either sides with the Virgin, worshipping her and living life exclusively in relation to her wishes, rewarded in death with eternal heaven, or one sides with the devil, working to thwart the will of the Virgin, rewarded in death with eternal hell. This, in essence, is a holy protection racket: ‘Give me my due, your prayers, your worship, your love, your absolute and exclusive service, and I will make sure no harm comes to you.’
Death, then, is a punishment for the sins of Mary’s enemies. One may become Mary’s enemy for nothing more than not paying her sufficient attention or having the ‘wrong’ faith. For the Virgin’s own, though, death is “a beautiful miracle” (CSM 251) because the physical end of life means spending eternity with her. Therefore death for her own is preferable to life, an idea consistently repeated in the Cantigas. In CSM 353, a boy whose siblings have all died is sent by his father to be looked after in a monastery. The boy is so fond of a beautiful statue of Mary and child that he brings more food from his ration for the statue of infant Jesus than he eats himself. After doing this for 15 days, Jesus tells him, “I shall not eat again unless you will go to dine with me and my Father tomorrow.” The boy tells the abbot, who makes a request to join the boy and Jesus, and that night both the abbot and boy fall ill and die. CSM 103 expresses what this heavenly eternity may be like. A monk asks Mary to show him the manner of bliss in Paradise. She causes him to sit by a fountain and he hears “a little bird begin to sing in such beautiful tones that he became completely entranced” for 300 years without any sense of time. When he returns to the cloister he finds a large gate he does not recognise and an abbot and brothers he does not know, who think he and his story are insane until they recognise Mary’s miracle of heavenly timelessness.
The consequences of the Cantigas‘ Mariology
The overall effect of this view of sin, life and death has consequences which look bizarre, distasteful and immoral to the modern mind.
In CSM 96, a man is set upon by bandits who cut off his head. It is four days later that two friars happen upon the decapitated head, terrified when the head cries out, “Give us confession, for the love of God and for his faith, so that we may not suffer punishment nor torment.” They see the head and body rejoin, which is the work of the Virgin to stop devils carrying off his unconfessed soul. His confession made, the head and body part again. Alfonso’s versification describes this as a “rare and beautiful miracle”. Presumably, with confession made and the head again dismembered, he finally died after four days of torment. If the Virgin Mary can make his decapitated head speak, why would she not let him live? And why does she not punish the gang who killed him, about whom nothing more is mentioned? His sinful soul, the afterlife, his obedience to God and the Virgin, is all that matters.
In CSM 124, a man is accused, arrested and sentenced to death. While he is being stoned, he calls to Mary not to let him die without confession. Those stoning him wonder why he won’t die no matter how many stones they throw, so they strike him with a javelin and cut his throat. Still he doesn’t die, since he has not confessed. At his request, they bring a priest, who hears his confession, then he dies. “Holy Mary, the Lady who keeps us and will keep us evermore, did this in her great mercy.” Her mercy is great enough to keep him alive sufficient time to give his confession, but not great enough to save his mortal life, which is evidently of less importance.
In CSM 237 a woman is “brutally dragged off the road by the hair”, gang raped, stripped and robbed, while she calls out that she has not made confession of her sins and so will die unprepared. One of the gang then cuts her throat. The Virgin, who heard her prayer, only then appears and leads her back to the road. A passing knight sees her and recognises that she is an animated corpse: “Holy Virgin Queen! Who was it who killed you in this fashion?” The knight fetches clergy to hear her confession, then “the mother of the true son of God took her soul”. The heavenly priorities of the Virgin are such that she requires attention through subservient pleading for mercy, without which she will not be assist. Thus Mary would not save the woman from being raped or from having her throat cut because, though she called on the Virgin for assistance, “she did not confess”. Though this woman had been gang raped, stripped, robbed and murdered, the Virgin animates her corpse long enough for her to confess her own sins, without which she would have been damned in hell. Nothing is mentioned of the consequences for the bandits, whose sins go unpunished.
“the Holy Virgin, who crushes the devil and his deeds”
The devil is a regular presence in the Cantigas, adversary of the Virgin and believers alike.
The character and physicality of the devil are illustrated – literally – in CSM 74, an image from which begins this article. The artist “always painted the devil uglier than anything else.” The devil objects, creating a wind that knocks the artist off his platform but, of course, Mary saves him since the artist is praising her with his painting.
CSM 47 shows Satan to be a shape-shifter, attempting to scare a drunk monk in the form of an attacking bull, “a tall, thin man, all shaggy and black as pitch”, and “in the shape of a fierce lion”. The Virgin hits the devil with a stick and he disappears.
Often when a Christian’s life is in danger, the devil suddenly appears opportunistically to try and make sure that danger becomes death, but the Virgin prevents it (as long as she is called on by name in almost all cases). For example, in CSM 267, a merchant is at sea “with many people on board”. As “the sea rose that day with a great storm … a heavy, powerful wave came and struck [the merchant] in the chest, and he was thrown into the sea.” As the ship moved away from the merchant, “the devil, who always works against us, tried to drown him there.” The merchant called out to “the Holy Virgin, who crushes the devil and his deeds … she drew him out of the waves”, calmed the sea and took him to solid ground. In many songs, the devil turns up at the point of death to carry off a soul. In CSM 11, for example, a monk goes to a prostitute every night. One night, on the way there, he falls into a river and drowns. The devil takes away his soul, but the Virgin bids angels to retrieve it. The devil flees and an angel puts his soul back into his body and revives him.
CSM 199 states the principle that “God allows the devil to cause us suffering and sorrows, travails and cares, because of our sins, he then wills that because of his mother all be pardoned through faith, fasting, prayers and worship.” CSM 201 serves as an extreme example. The devil, “always the enemy of virginity”, tempts a woman who vowed “to keep her body free from corruption” to take her godfather as a “lover and live in sin with him.” She has three children by him, all of which she kills in infancy “on advice of the devil”. She is so tormented that she attempts to commit suicide with a knife and then by swallowing a poisonous spider, but neither work. She swallows a second spider and then, near death, she confesses her sins. The Virgin appears and, because the woman has prayed and repented, she is cured and forgiven.
Sometimes, rather than working against heaven, the devil does the bidding of Mary and her son to punish sinners. CSM 197 states that “the devil has a certain power to kill men for the sins they commit, and God suffers it”. CSM 238 is an example in which a “miserable minstrel” insulted Jesus and his mother, played dice, cursed all present, said all the stories of the Virgin were lies and all her worshippers stupid. The chaplain became angry and asked God to “take vengeance” on Mary’s behalf. As a result, “the devil came and seized the minstrel … and squeezed him so tightly that he completely twisted him. Thus did God take vengeance for himself and for his mother. You may be sure that this fellow never spoke another word … the devil kept him in his grip until he snatched his soul from his body and plunged it into hell. There should go likewise anyone who insults the Virgin and her son”.
Most Christians find the devil’s temptations irresistible but, between the rock of totalitarian divine judgement and the hard place of the devil’s snares, there is sometimes a supernatural loophole: the devil made me do it. This escape-clause is a gross inconsistency, as it contradicts the message of stories in which Christians are culpable for giving in to devilish temptations but, when used, it enables Christians in the Cantigas to avoid responsibility for their sins.
In CSM 17, a widowed Christian woman has sex with her son, becomes pregnant and then, in her distress, murders her child. Because she had “succumbed to temptation by the devil” and was not therefore personally responsible, the Virgin exonerates her and hides the facts from the emperor judging the case.
In CSM 55, a nun who “loved Holy Mary above all else” was tempted by “the devil, who cares not a whit for virginity”, causing her to “run away with an abbot … who kept her as his paramour for a long time”. The abbot abandons her once she is pregnant, so she returns to the convent, where she has not been missed due to the Virgin’s intervention. In this case, the nun and the nun’s son are cared for by the Virgin rather than punished. Mary “applied the remedy for the woman’s affliction”, hands the child over to an angel and then the Virgin brings up the child herself. Years later, the grown child appears at the convent, “a very handsome youth” who joins the choir and sings in “a fine, clear voice”.
The Holy Virgin and Stockholm syndrome
The totality of what is required is summed up in CSM 296: “For the one who does not love her cannot serve her well, nor can he bestow much love who does not honour her … “If you would serve me well, first you shall love me gladly and honour me also and, in addition, you shall praise me””. Complete love for and devotion to Mary is demanded, and any deviation from it puts health, life, limb and eternal soul in jeopardy. The believer’s love for Mary is maintained by threats, terror and suffering to restore her power over others. The believer must be devoted to Mary despite all the signs that might show devotion to be undeserved: gang rape, robbery and murder are less important than confessing one’s own personal sins to Mary; any woman besides Mary is deemed “an insignificant woman”; any deviation from Mary’s will is perceived as disloyally siding with Satan; complete allegiance to Mary must be re-proven with demands for displays of prostrate humiliation. Obeisance to the Virgin’s diktats must be total, not just with one’s actions, but with one’s submissive, subservient heart. This demands cognitive dissonance, the subconscious recognition that mutually exclusive ideas are in conflict and are logically irresolvable: Mary, who angrily threatens and punishes me, is the one I must love with all my heart. The psychological/emotional conflict needs to be defended against with ‘cover stories’ and leaps of logic that fall apart when examined, so examination must be defended against.
This overall picture puts me in mind of two complementary psychological phenomena. The first is Stockholm syndrome.
Stockholm syndrome is a disputed and controversial category of experience (as this radio programme explains), named after an incident in Stockholm in August 1973. Two bank robbers with machine guns held three women and a man hostage for 5 days and 11 hours, keeping them captive in a bank vault, their bodies strapped with dynamite. One mechanism for psychologically surviving such trauma is to appear to side with the abuser, to do just as they say, and to look to them for protection, as no other options are available. The hostages in Stockholm were threatened and put in mortal danger by their captors, but the police handled the situation badly, putting the captors in an impossible dilemma. The logical/emotional conflict is between the urge to preserve life on the one hand, and the terror of the imminent danger of harm or death with the perceived impossibility of escape on the other. In extreme circumstances, this can result in the denial that characterises cognitive dissonance: the abuse by the captor is reframed so he is a good person, and outsiders who do not understand the ‘goodness’ of the abusers are the enemy. Upon being released, one woman set up a legal defence fund for her captors, and another woman started a relationship with and became engaged to one of the criminals who had endangered her life. In the case of a battered woman (or, less commonly, a battered man) who stays with and makes excuses for her violent partner, she may bail him from jail and attack family members or police officers who try to extricate her from the situation. She will often say words like, ‘You don’t understand him like I do. He has his good side, too, and he doesn’t mean to hit me. I need to be more careful with what I say so as not to upset him.’ A child may say and force himself to believe that he has the best mother/father in the world, though they neglect and/or abuse him, since the connection with the parent represents their only chance of survival. Cult members, family members and partners may appear to welcome their mistreatment because it reinforces how important their cause is and the necessary sacrifices they are making for it.
The 1954 film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is Stockholm syndrome set to song and dance. Based on the story by Plutarch (46–120 CE) of the Romans’ kidnapping of the Sabine women, Seven Brides is about recently married Adam who convinces his six brothers that the way for them to gain wives is to kidnap women, as in Plutarch’s tale. He tells them through a song, Sobbin’ Women, with such lines as “They acted angry and annoyed – but secretly they was overjoyed”. (If this seems unbelievable, you can see and hear the song here.) They kidnap their would-be brides, causing an avalanche behind them so that the captive women are trapped there for the winter. At first, the women are angry and fight back, but before long they have fallen in love with their captors with such completeness that they collectively lie about being the mother of a single baby to engineer a mass wedding to their captors.
We’ll return to the Virgin and the Cantigas in the light of one further example. Disturbingly, the character of Dr. Harleen Quinzel in the Batman stories is a culturally current example of Stockholm syndrome. She was the Joker’s psychologist at Arkham Asylum. At her first consultation with the Joker, she tells him her name and says he can call her Harley Quinn. The Joker asks if she is flirting, she moves closer, he strangles her, she looks at him lovingly, and their affair begins, helping the Joker escape Arkham many times before she is caught and her medical license revoked. In one story, Joker’s plan for the death of Batman is enabled by Harley Quinn. Batman now held captive for the killing, Quinn calls Joker over to have her goodness, i.e. her submissive compliance, affirmed. The Joker isn’t satisfied, slaps her and throws her out of a window, seriously injuring her. Still she goes back for more, again and again, and the cycle of abuse and cognitive dissonance continues.
The perception of inescapable conditions are similar in the cases of the Stockholm hostages, Patty Hearst, battered partners who stay, the seven brides, Harley Quinn, and medieval Christians worshipping a heavenly Virgin who demands complete allegiance and love under the threat of eternal punishment. All these examples share the conditions of Stockholm syndrome: a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat, seen in Mary visiting illness or eternal hell upon those who worship her insufficiently; small kindnesses from the abuser to the victim perceived as the abuser’s goodness, with positive feelings towards the abuser, seen in the songs thanking Mary for the smallest of miracles, such as finding a ring, even though she also intimidates with physical threats; isolation from perspectives other than that of the abuser, and identification with the abuser’s viewpoint, shown in the complete dichotomy between the absolutely good Mary and the absolutely evil alternatives, the devil and his accomplices, the Moors and the Jews; supportive behaviour towards the abuser, shown in praise songs to her and constant reinforcement of her unqualified perfection; the victim’s negative feelings towards anyone trying to release them, shown in repeated intolerance of other faiths or “heretical” views; the perceived inability to escape the situation, and an inability to engage in behaviour that may assist their release, shown in the invariable support of the view that the Virgin “holds the world in her command” and can easily vent her “vengeance”.
Mary, the Holy Narcissist
This overall picture in the Cantigas leads me to the second psychological phenomena which complements medieval Christianity’s institutionalised Stockholm syndrome: the Virgin Mary’s behaviour fits the profile for narcissism.
The term narcissism has been used since the inception of psychotherapy and psychological counselling in the late 19th century. It can mean different things in different contexts, and for the purpose of this article it denotes a personality characterised by exactly the traits shown by Holy Mary in the Cantigas: grandiosity; entitlement; self-absorption; reliance on external validation from others, with no interest in others except in what they can do for her; objectifying and manipulating others; tantrums and violence when she does not get her own way; denigrating others for failing to live up to her impossible standards. For a narcissist, there are no mutual relationships, as she cannot empathise with others: association is always about power, prestige and manipulation, and works only when the narcissist’s self-proclaimed superiority is acknowledged. The Virgin Mary of the Cantigas is narcissism writ large.
In CSM 126, an arrow enters the face of a man, piercing his skull. He “endured extreme pain” and those with him could do nothing to remove the arrow. All-seeing Holy Mary did nothing to help him until he went to her altar and “repented of his sins and wept bitterly and made his confession and called on Holy Mary.” This fits the pattern that Mary will not help until the believer’s sinful inferiority has been expressed, their sins confessed, and Mary’s superiority acknowledged.
In CSM 271, a ship is stranded in the mouth of a river for three months, and the crew think they will die there. The Virgin does not appear or offer any assistance until the captain calls the crew together to give their possessions towards paying for a chalice to honour Mary. They then pray, raise the sails and, Mary having received her entitlement, the wind pushes the ship out of the river.
In CSM 173 (the song in the video for this article), the kidney stone of the Aragonese man is only removed by Mary because he goes on pilgrimage to Salas to pray at her shrine there. This is a continuous theme: the Virgin will not help because help is needed, but only as a result of effort by the believer to worship her and confirm their unequal power relationship and the Virgin’s superiority over the helpless, subservient, worshipping supplicant.
In CSM 363 (in the video for the second article of this series), the chained and imprisoned troubadour, soon to be killed, is only saved by Mary after he has “called on [her] to help him and swore to her as he lay there that as long as he lived he would sing for love of her”. Similarly, in CSM 307, “a very large mountain” in which “a very great fire began to burn … and all the earth trembled … lasted forty days and forty nights and never ceased until Holy Mary appeared in great splendour to a good man.” However, as in all cases, Mary had a narcissistic condition for stopping the activity that put “all those of the land in great terror”: “If you wish this affliction to be taken away, let them compose a song for me, fitting and well made, in my praise.” The Virgin always requires something of the believer in return for a miracle: she needs her worshippers again and again to provide her with unqualified and grandiose validation.
This means that an act of robbery and violence on a believer – such as that described above in CSM 96, a man decapitated by bandits, and in CSM 237, a woman gang raped, robbed, and murdered – is of no importance except in the confession of the victims’ sins before death, the continued expression of the Virgin’s superiority and reliance on worshippers’ validation. In CSM 302, money in a pilgrim’s alms purse is intended to relieve the poor. When another pilgrim steals it, Mary miraculously prevents the thief from leaving the church until he has repented and returned the stolen money. However, the theft is not described in the song as happening ‘to a man’ or ‘to a pilgrim’ or as ‘money stolen from the poor’: it was “a robbery that was committed in her church”. Humans in the story are secondary, of little consequence: the act was “committed in her house … she would not permit that unseemly acts nor petty greed be permitted in her house”.
Indeed, the narcissist has no sense of morality, since she has no interest in others except in what they can do for her, in how they can bolster her power and prestige. Thus, what is appropriate, right and holy for the Virgin Mary is whatever affirms her superiority.
In CSM 255, a woman paid men to murder her son in law. The magistrate ordered her to be burned. When the condemned woman was led through the streets on the way to her execution, she stopped at a statue of Mary and “wept piteously”. Her execution involved being tied up inside an old house, which was to be burned around her. When the wood was piled on and set on fire, “the mother of God protected her”. Though the house turned to charcoal, she was not harmed. The house was burned again (how this is the possible, the song doesn’t say), but still she was unharmed. She was led away with a rejoicing crowd, and the priests praised the Virgin for her “marvellous and merciful miracles”. The feelings of the guilty woman’s daughter, her husband murdered by her mother, or the husband’s grieving family, their son or brother dead, are not even considered. They are of no consequence, since they did not stop at a statue of Mary and give her the attention she craves.
In CSM 301, a squire is in chains for an unspecified capital offence: “he had committed a crime for which he must die”. The Virgin frees him because he always fasts on her day, Saturday, and because he confesses his sins and begs her to let him live. All else, including his crime, is of no consequence. Mary arrives from heaven with angels and frees him from the irons, mysteriously transporting him elsewhere.
If Mary doesn’t receive her entitlement she resorts to tantrums and violence to force her own way, an act known by psychotherapists as narcissistic rage. In CSM 217, a count took ten knights with him to church, but the Virgin prevented him from entering because he had not confessed his sins. His knights tried to push him in by force and could not move him, then they “pushed him so hard that they made the blood gush from his mouth and nostrils”, after which he repented, confessed his sins and was able to enter the church, which he did “weeping and calling out: “My gracious lady, who deigned to pardon me, I give you praise.”” One of the worst cases of narcissistic rage takes place in CSM 34 described above, in which Mary is so enraged at a woman who doesn’t join her husband on pilgrimage, because she now has the baby to look after that Mary has miraculously provided, that the Virgin murders the child until the woman has learned her lesson, relearned her subservience and fallen into line, at which point Mary resurrects the child.
In CSM 117, God takes vengeance on Mary’s behalf: “a woman who had vowed that she would not do any work on a Saturday” is tempted by the devil to cut and sew on the holy day to increase her reputation as a seamstress. As a result, “so that Jews and Christians alike might see the revenge that God took on her for his mother’s sake, he caused her hands to be twisted up against her arms. She fell stretched out on the ground and lay mute for a long time.” Only when she weeps, repentant before the altar, is she cured: “those who had seen her with crippled hands and heard her cry for aid gave thanks to the Virgin”. This act of vengeful crippling, humiliation and subjugation is described as a “beautiful miracle”. In CSM 163, a gambler lost everything, renounced the Virgin “and refused to fear her”. As a result, he was crippled and made mute by God. He was cured when he “wept copiously”, gazing at a statue of Mary, “and from then on [he] always zealously praised her”. I can only imagine he “zealously praised her” in a similar fashion to the way Winston praised Big Brother in the final paragraph of George Orwell’s 1984. Having fought totalitarian government surveillance and control of information, Winston is caught and taken to the infamous Room 101 to be tortured. Having been terrorised, Winston “gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it has taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden under the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented years trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
CSM 37 and 134 are rare examples of pure kindness by the Virgin in answer to an ill man’s prayers, without requiring his admission of Mary’s superiority and his own sinfulness. We would be hard pushed to find any other examples among the 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria, and this fits the pattern for narcissism: seeking the better side of a narcissist, appealing to her feelings of empathy, is to search for something that is not there. For her, all relationships are about power, being praised, proving that she is better than everyone else, beyond anyone’s rules, beyond reproach.
I cannot stress enough that this picture of narcissism is a working construct, not a complete reflection of any actual living person. A mixture of the acute traits of narcissism described above exist in living people within a range, from mild to severe. The origin of narcissism is typically an upbringing in which neglectful parents show little interest in their child, or are actively abusive, or give the child unrealistic demands s/he cannot possibly live up to, including being idealised as the favourite. This is the breeding ground for issues of self-esteem, a fragile sense of self which constantly needs boosting. The psychological adjustment or defence is to create a ‘false self’, to wear a public and private mask, as the emotional needs of the vulnerable ‘true self’ are too painful to admit, and the prospect of having them met honestly seems impossible. Thus there is grandiose over-compensation, expressed as demanding entitlement, tall stories told as fact, and the belief that people cannot be trusted, so they must be manipulated. When this doesn’t work and demands are not met, the narcissistic rage that ensues reflects the emotional violence of an infant who was never supported emotionally or accepted as less than perfect and still loveable. Underneath the superior mask is the excruciating polarity of the grandiose exterior and the deepest feelings of utter worthlessness, the fear of being ridiculed and exposed as a fraud. The greater the vulnerability, the greater the psychological armour. If the Virgin Mary of the Cantigas de Santa Maria were to see a therapist, she would be assessed as being on the extreme end of the narcissist spectrum.
But the Virgin Mary of the Cantigas is a fictional character, her personality a human construct, thus she is a reflection of those who created her and retold her stories. The miracle tales of the Cantigas are largely those collected by Alfonso from international sources, versified in song by him and his artistic assistants. Stylistically and thematically they form a unitary whole. Only a minority of the stories are from Alfonso’s own life, but these songs are particularly telling for understanding his motivation and, as a man of his time, the ways in which he took advantage of Marian beliefs for his own purpose.
“She crushed and removed from power the one who sought to malign us”: the Virgin as Alfonso’s mirror
Ideas of democracy and equality, cultural acceptance of the freedom to question and critique authority, to test their truth claims, are the modern ideas of liberal democracy. In contrast, the medieval Christian milieu was based on authority. Alfonso’s medieval Christendom was predicated on theocracy, or perhaps in the Cantigas we could say Mariocracy. The medieval class system worked because the divinely-chosen monarch granted money, sources of revenue, and gifts of land in return for loyalty and allegiance. This meant that modern notions of equality were not only impossible, but unthinkable: the inequality of kings ruling over subjects, men ruling over women, Christians over Moors and Jews, was the perceived natural order, ordained by God. As CSM 409 says, “Kings and emperors should one and all … joyfully render her praise, for because of her they are lords of all the people”, and in CSM 401 Alfonso states that Mary’s “son … made me king”. The king’s authority was divine authority: the monarch was God’s representative on Earth, deriving his position from heaven, not accountable to anyone, including his own people.
The final words of CSM 155 are “may God punish him who will not praise her.” The repeated themes of Alfonso’s songbook and the contents of his biographical Cantigas reveal his implicit subtext: ‘may God punish him who will not praise me.’ CSM 386 is particularly revealing. The king “summoned a great council … when he returned home from the invasion of the plain of Granada, subjecting it and all the lands about … he convened his council … there was no one who failed to come there for fear of incurring his disfavour … all heartily approved, saying “Woe to him who goes against your bidding, for never did men earn themselves such great advantage as we do in obeying your commands … henceforth we shall not fear inquests concerning treason, which threaten us all.”” It is easy, then, to see why Alfonso is attracted to the figure of Mary: like her, he rules by force; like her, he desires ego-affirming praise; like her, he demands complete obedience; and, like her, he threatens those who do not obey. CSM 386 goes on to tell the stewards’ complaint that those invited to dine with the king cannot be provided with fish to eat, as no seller in Seville has any. When the king commands them to inspect his canals, they find “four boats loaded with fish” and this, of course, is Mary’s doing, supplying Alfonso with what he needs.
In CSM 345 Alfonso “fought the Queen of Heaven’s cause against Moors and bad Christians and, in addition, composed songs about her great miracles, as he is skilled in doing.” The favour is returned in CSM 380, in which the Virgin is a blatantly political and military figure: “She crushed and removed from power the one who sought to malign us”. Similarly, in CSM 181, a banner of her image has the power to defeat the opposing army: “they were so alarmed by it that, although it was a powerful army, all were soon defeated”. In CSM 299, the identities of the Queen of Heaven and the King of Castile and León are as one: Alfonso has founded Orden Santa Maria de España, a military order in the Virgin’s name. The verses tell the story of a “friar of those of the Star”, a reference to the eight-pointed star of the emblem of the order with Virgin and Child in the centre. The friar wore this emblem “around his neck … made of ivory of this lady who guides us, holding her son in her arms”. The song tells how the Virgin appears in a vision to the friar, ordering him to give the ivory emblem to the king. When he does not do so, the Virgin appears to him three more times: “How could you be so bold not to give that which I commanded you to give to the king … Now give it to him; if not, you shall suffer for it.” In other words, Alfonso uses a story about the Virgin Mary to justify taking what he wants, imagining Mary threatening the friar for it. In the next song, CSM 300, Alfonso again equates his will with the Virgin’s and is again vengeful: “We should speak well of [Mary] … I beg her to pay no heed to what evil folk say, for I am on her side … May she give them the rewards they deserve, because they so little appreciate my songs and melodies and verses and poetic dialogues that I compose for her, for they reveal base hearts to me in this.”
Conclusion: singing the songs
The Virgin Mary’s identity is completely allied with Alfonso’s religious and political ambitions. She is essentially an extension of his identity, used by the king to advance his socio-political purpose; to validate his wars; to enforce his will on his subjects; to influence personal and collective behaviour; and to justify his already culturally-approved autocracy. Worship of the Virgin under Alfonso was, to all intents and purposes, politically identical to worship of the king. While it is true that most of the stories of the Cantigas did not originate with Alfonso, his remoulding of them in song was the perfect vehicle for his purpose and, combined with those stories original to the king, they give a unitary message. Mary and Alfonso share the traits of narcissism; and both benefit from the psychological resolution in their worshippers and subjects to welcome their subjection, now known as Stockholm syndrome.
Comic book artist William Sienkiewicz was commissioned to create the artwork for Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s 1996 album, The Charity of Night. From the themes of the album – spirituality, loss, desperation, love, travel, friendship, war, politics, violence – the artist created a stunning front cover: stars around a white orb, within which a winged angel wearing a breastplate holds a submachine gun aloft. Inside the booklet, the lyrics are printed on top of more artwork, including a double page spread with a familiar icon of Mary and infant Jesus on the right and, on the left, the same image reversed and modified so that Jesus is replaced by a huge vertically-held submachine gun. Bruce Cockburn’s album makes no reference to the Cantigas, of course, but these images do sum up Alfonso’s Mary: the Virgin meting out heavenly violence; judge, jury and executioner; a holy assassin with power over life and death; answering to no one.
This makes preparing to perform the Cantigas both fascinating and potentially complex. A song such as Cantiga 173, which begins this article, has a charming and unusual (by modern standards) story and a beautiful melody. The significance of the line which states that the man’s suffering with a large kidney stone is due to his sinfulness may, sung in isolation, pass unnoticed, as may the condition of his healing, that he admits his sinful inferiority and travels on pilgrimage to give Mary his attention and praise.
In planning a programme of Cantigas de Santa Maria, the cumulative content will build up running themes, so decisions need to be made about how to present the material. A performance of CSM 42, for example, in which the young man who placed his ring on the finger of a statue of Mary for safekeeping and is then sent running in terror from his wedding bed by Mary in a narcissistic fury, may possibly be performed as an entertaining suspense story, like a musical version of Tales of the Unexpected, or an Alfred Hitchcock tale, or Fatal Attraction. When Mary’s narcissism becomes a repeated feature then explanations become necessary. Some songs in themselves may be unsingable. Would one perform a song like CSM 237, in which a woman is gang raped and murdered, and all the Virgin cares for is that the woman confesses her own sins so as not to be damned? The rationale for singing it and its intended impact on the audience surely needs to be thought through.
These songs and their illustrations are fascinating and illuminating for understanding the medieval mind and conditions of life, but we are not medieval singers performing to a medieval audience: we now recognise that brutalising and murdering a woman is not an insignificant detail in the cosmic scheme of things, that theocracy is religious totalitarianism, and that critiques are intellectually invigorating and are intended to promote understanding, rather than dangerous heresies worthy of punishment. There is much to entertain in the Cantigas, and much to understand. Understanding will help us make more informed choices about material, its implications and meaning, what to sing and what to leave on the page. It is my contention that musicians have a duty to their audience and so, while striving to understand the Cantiga‘s lyrics, music and performance practice, we should not excuse or give tacit consent to the worst of medieval morality by what we say or fail to say. The fact of presenting the material as a modern person will necessarily have an impact on which songs we choose and how we frame them to a modern audience.
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More issues of performance are explored in three articles:
- Performing medieval music. Part 1: Instrumentation
- Performing medieval music. Part 2: Turning monophony into polyphony
- Performing medieval music. Part 3: The medieval style
The next Cantigas article is about the role of pilgrimage in the lives of medieval believers and in the Cantigas, complete with a pilgrimage song about a miraculous pork chop.
The translations of the Cantigas de Santa Maria are by Kathleen Kulp-Hill – see bibliography. Since the syntax of different languages makes it impossible to create a meaningful line by line literal translation in English that rhymes in all the same places, Kathleen Kulp-Hill’s translation is presented in her book in verses without retaining verse layout. This is replicated in the above article.
My role in creating English verses in the videos that accompany these articles was to recreate, as far as possible, the original syllable count and rhyme scheme. The versification in English of CSM 173 is © Ian Pittaway, the musical arrangement © Ian Pittaway and Kathryn Wheeler.
Barber, Richard (1999) Bestiary – MS Bodley 764. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
Carver, Joseph M. (2014) Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser. [Online – click here to go to website.]
Cooke, Rachel (2017) American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin – review. [Online – click here to go to website.]
Desir, Brianna (2016) Are Harley Quinn And Joker Really Relationship Goals? [Online – click here to go to website.]
Gerli, E. Michael (editor) (2003) Medieval Iberia: An Encyclopedia. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
Hanigan, Ian (2004) The day Patty Hearst stopped by Mel’s Sporting Goods. [Online – click here to go to website.]
Jacobs, Michael (2012) The Presenting Past. The core of psychodynamic counselling and therapy. 4th edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Johnson, Stephen M. (1994) Character Styles. New York & London: W. W. Norton.
Kim, Eun Kyung (2017) Patty Hearst saga: How an American heiress went from kidnap victim to outlaw. [Online – click here to go to website.]
Kulp-Hill, Kathleen (2000) Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, The Wise. A translation of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Orwell, George (1949) 1984. London: Penguin.
Portell, Melissa, et al (2017) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) [Online – click here to go to website.]
Syed, Matthew (2021) Sideways: Siding with the Enemy. [Online – click here to go to radio programme.]
Vaknin, Sam (2013) Malignant Self-Love – Narcissism Revisited. Skopje: Narcissus Publishing.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.