Tales from the Estoria (vi) — Preaching without a tongue

The Estoria de Espanna takes us far and wide in its tour through history. While this chronicle is entitled the ‘History of Spain’, many of its narratives recount events from far beyond the Iberian Peninsula. The manuscript deals with important events that took place in northern and central Europe, the Maghreb and the Middle East. I happened to stumble across an account of a miraculous event that took place on the continent of Africa during the sixth century… Prepare for another curious tale involving mutilation and Divine intervention!

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During the fifth and sixth centuries, a Germanic people known as the Vandals rose to power in the Mediterranean. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Vandals campaigned through France, Spain and Italy, sacking the great city of Rome. They established a major presence in Tunisia, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics. At this time, the invading German peoples adhered to a different Christian doctrine from that of the Church of Rome. Their branch of Christianity was called Arianism: it rejected the notion of the Trinity, and held that Jesus was entirely separate from God. Catholics treated them as heretics – the medieval chroniclers of the Estoria treat Arianism as an “evil sect”.

The Vandals punished many of the Catholics they found in the Roman provinces that they conquered. The Estoria recounts a story of such persecution. In an unnamed province in North Africa, a Catholic bishop was seized by Vandal authorities. They had no patience for the bishop’s preaching of Catholicism, as it went against their Arian beliefs. To punish him they tried to silence him in the most gruesome way: by cutting out his tongue! We are told that with the help of God, the bishop went on preaching – in fact he spoke even more clearly and audibly than before! The Lord was on the side of the Catholic bishop for the remainder of his life, helping him with other miracles to spread the Word, in the face of persecution by the Arians.

Once again we find another outlandish story occupying just a few lines, hidden away in the enormous manuscripts of the Estoria. In reality, the tale is perfectly understandable in the Medieval context. Societies of the Middle Ages were deeply religious. People were threatened at every turn, from plagues, drought and famine, not to mention raiding, pillaging and all-out warfare. In the Late Medieval Period people wondered if they were approaching the End of Days. People needed to know that God was on their side. As such, stories of miracles and divine intervention were essential: people had to know that God was with them and that their particular belief was “correct”. Miracles had to be included in chronicle histories, to help make sense of the Divine Plan. The miracles of the North African bishop wer a reminder to Medieval readers that God was with the Catholics at their time of need.

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