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How Ten Miles Can Change a Miracle

St. Brigit’s miracle: she took out her own eye rather than marry (Image: Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia)

A good story, in the telling, should change and morph over time. But a miracle? In theory, a miracle should be so amazing and improbable that the tale of it is immutable.

That’s what early scholars assumed, that medieval scribes were faithfully copying the hagiographies of saints and accounts of their miracles. But more recently it’s become clear that scribes would often take a bit of literary license with their miracle descriptions. “Authors often made amendments to match the miracles to local concerns and the specific interests of their audience,” says Julianne Pigott, a doctoral candidate studying Irish hagiography at the University of Cambridge.

Pigott and her colleagues are working on a project they call Mapping Miracles—a database of miracle accounts dating from the years 600 to 1200 in the U.K. and Ireland. Although miracles have been a key feature of sainthood since the medieval period, there’s never been a scholarly effort to collect and catalogue them, across place and time. It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s not finished yet. But once it’s done, the Mapping Miracles project will be able to show how miracles transform in the telling.

Although their database is still in the works, Pigott and her colleagues can already see how miracles deal with universal themes, such as want and sickness, but adapt them to local circumstances.

“Perhaps the most frequently observed phenomenon in this regard is the changes that happen between the Latin and vernacular edition of a saint’s life,” says Pigott. “The vernacular texts are generally much more explicit with respect to personal and place names, situating events within personal and topographic landscapes that will be familiar to their audience.”

The mystic marriage of Catherine of Siena (Image: Giovanni di Paolo/Wikimedia)

One of Pigott’s favorite tropes, though, is what she calls the “marriage avoidance plot.” In these stories, women of virtue choose God over worldly men and are rewarded for it. The Irish Saint Samthann, forced into marriage, becomes a nun after a fiery vision scares off her husband, who never consummates their marriage. Saint Brigit takes out her own eye rather than marry, and her sight is miraculously restored. Saint Winefred refuses to be a king’s concubine and is beheaded; Saint Beino, to avenge her, melts the king into a pool of water.

The basic idea might be the same—refuse men for God, be rewarded—but the specifics are meant to appeal to locals.

“Saint Brigit gouging out her own eye was a familiar tale for Irish audiences which may not have been understood in Anglo-Saxon England,” says Pigott. “Wholeness was considered a vital part of beauty and power in early Ireland so in removing her eye she effectively made herself unmarriageable. So where Brigit removed her eye, Merovingian saints Bilhildis and Doda cut off their hair and were miraculously rendered unrecognizable to their families.”

And in the later Middle Ages, perhaps because there was a shortage of women, it became less common for saints to be driven to escape marriage. “We get fewer miracles associated with women escaping betrothal and more examples of women’s incredible piety within the domestic setting as a stimulus to miracles,” says Pigott. “So at the two extremes, you get transvestite Saint Eugenia in fourth-century Egypt who lived and performed miracles as a man to avoid being forced into marriage and thirteenth-century Saint Elizabeth of Hungary who marries at 13 and convinces her husband to support her Christian charity using miraculous transformations and revelations.”

Once the database is complete, it will be possible to look for more changes in miracles over time and space. Pigott and her colleagues have finished identifying and cataloguing conversion miracles, and documenting the place and time the miracle was recorded; the gender, age, and class of the saints and those they converted; and the words spoken by the saints. Taken together, these records could reveal what’s at the core of a miracle—and what details are allowed a bit of local color.