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Minorités et régulations sociales en Méditerranée médiévale

 | 
John Tolan
, 
Stéphane Boissellier
, 
François Clément

Première partie. Vivre sa différence, de la marginalité à la minorité

Serfs as a Medieval Minority

Paul Freedman

Texte intégral

I gratefully acknowledge the help given to me by Agnieszka Rec of Yale University for the Polish material on St. Isidore.

1In describing some aspects of how serfdom both did and did not constitute what can be called a “minority” in the medieval Mediterranean, I have divided what follows into two parts. The first offers a fairly broad view of how serfs might be regarded as lowly and justly degraded in ways reminiscent of terms of opprobrium applied to what were considered despised minorities. On the other hand, because unfree peasants were numerous in many parts of Europe and were a necessary part of the medieval economy, there was a constant tension and difficulty in presenting them as marginal or in the same terms as religious outcasts. A second section considers one unusual example of a medieval peasant saint, Isidore the Laborer, whose cult and its permutations reveal ways in which peasants could be seen as pious, but also the difficulties in arriving at a model of obedience to seigneurial authority. What I hope unites these rather different parts is a concern with how to present peasants both to their superiors and to the peasants themselves, how to explain their exploitation, and how to justify the social order in Christian terms.

Serfs as an Ambiguous Minority

  • 2 L’Archivio Capitolare della Cattedral de Mantova, ed. P. Torelli, Verona, A. Mondadori, 1924, p 63

2In Mantua, around the year 1200, a dispute was heard concerning the legal status of a well-offpeasant named Scazetto. The cathedral chapter claimed he was their serf but he asserted he was free.\n\n2 Testimony was sought from witnesses who described, among other things, the physical characteristics of Scazetto’s family. One neighbor recalled that the father, Bazelarius, had been well-formed with nearly white skin and rather tall, taller, the witness reported, than the scribe doing the transcription of the proceedings. According to a second witness, Scazetto’s grandfather, Straboiatus, had been thin and rather short and, contradicting the previous witness, Bazelarius had been small and fat, but he did have white skin and was reasonably good-looking. It is fascinating that in this case appearance was thought relevant to determining free or unfree condition. The implication was that serfs were physically distinctive by reason of their short stature, ugly appearance, and dark skin. These qualities weren’t necessarily racial or inherited as they might have been regarded as resulting from a life of hard labor outdoors, but they nevertheless implied a fundamental division between the outward signs of the privileged free and the wretched serfs.

3In Bologna, not far from Mantua, we find a more egalitarian statement of the presumption of liberty, dependent not on inferences made from differences in physical form but from common humanity despite such differences. The names of serfs freed by the city of Bologna were written down for posterity in 1257 in a text known as the Liber Paradisus. The first list of freed serfs is from the Porta Procola quarter and a prefatory explanation for assembling these names states that the sin of Adam and Eve had brought servitude into the world, diminishing the original freedom of all humanity at Creation. Christ broke the bonds of servitude by His sacrificial death thus restoring primordial liberty:

  • 3 Cf. Gregory I, Registrum epistolarum 6, 12, Corpus Christianorum vol. 140, p. 380: “Cum redemptor (...)

“ut gloria sue dignitatis diruptis vinculis servitutis quibus tenebamur captivi nos restitueret pristine libertati, et idcirco valde utiliter agitur si homines quos ab initio natura liberos protulit et creavit et ius gentium servitutis iugo subposuit, restituantur manumissionis beneficio illi in qua nati fuerant libertati”.\n\n3

  • 4 Liber Paradisus con le riformagioni e gli statuti connessi, ed. F. S. Gatta and G. Plessi, Bologna, (...)

4This formulation was taken from a letter of Pope Gregory the Great granting manumission to two Roman slaves, a text that became enshrined through Gratian’s Decretum (C. 12 q. 2 c. 68) as a basic legal and political representation of human dignity. According to the authors of the Bologna prologue, the city was honoring Christ by lifting the servile yoke from those recorded in the Liber Paradisus. Whether or not legal freedom really had such favorable effects (among other things, it brought in newly taxable residents of the contado), the prologue is a rhetorically significant formulation for the evil of subjugation.\n\n4

5A similar statement comes about 200 years later. The revolt of the Catalan serfs that began in 1462 was preceded in 1448 by an unusual peasant justification for resistance that invoked the fundamental equality of all humanity. The introduction to a record preserved in Girona concerning the formation of peasant syndicates invoked, as at Bologna, a paraphrase of how Gregory I had described Christ’s sacrifice as restoring original liberty that servitude now violated:

“A nomine illius redemptoris nostri Ihesu Christi totius conditoris creature qui ad hoc propiciatus humanum voluit carnem assumere ut diuinitatis sue gratia dirupto quo tenebamur captiui vinculo seruitutis pristine nos restituit libertati. Et huiusmodi gratia homines quos ab initio natura liberos protulit et ius gentium iugo substituit seruitutis sue legis beneficio libertas reddatur in mundo”.

  • 5 Girona, Arxiu Municipal, Sec. XXV diversa, XXV. 2 Llibres manuscrits de tema divers. Lligall núm. (...)

6Whatever their physical characteristics, inherited or acquired, all humans, or at least all Christians, were free and nothing could excuse the enserfment of one Christian by another.\n\n5

  • 6 S. Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of Califo (...)

7As these examples demonstrate, serfs could be presented as a degraded, lowly form of humanity, but they were at the same time emblematic of Christian egalitarianism because they were not, in fact, a minority. The ambiguous placement of serfs in the social imagination is the subject of this essay. Much of the evidence for how servitude was justified or attacked comes from clerical and other literate observers of the comfortable classes, but the attitudes if not the actual words of the peasants have also been elusively preserved. The arguments for liberty memorialized in Bologna and Catalonia can hardly be considered the literal words used by the serfs in discourse among themselves in the defense of liberty, but the peasants’agendas repeatedly asserted the equality of Christians, thereby providing a response to the practice of portraying serfs as legitimately subordinate by nature or for some historical cause.\n\n6

  • 7 P. Freedman, “Catalan Lawyers and the Origins of Serfdom”, Mediaeval Studies, 48 (1986), pp. 288–3 (...)

8The Girona document, having made a general egalitarian statement, goes on to contest a more specific historical justification for servitude: that the unfree were descended from those who had betrayed their religion in failing to aid Charlemagne’s liberation of Catalonia from the Muslims. From the thirteenth century, legal commentators on Catalan customary law argued that the ancestors of the Catalan serfs had failed to rally to the side of the Christian armies, and so they were condemned to hereditary servitude. The unfree population of Catalonia was therefore held in an inferior condition not because they were of a different race or religion but as punishment for an historical act of cowardice and failure to defend Christianity.\n\n7 The peasants attempted to refute this version of distant historical events in 1448. They argued that their ancestors were actually Muslims who were enserfed by the victorious Franks as an inducement to conversion. They were to be freed once they became Christians. The conquered Muslim peasants or their descendants eventually did embrace Christianity, but they were unjustly kept in servitude. In these three records, therefore, two from Italy and one from Catalonia, human equality has been restored or persists at a fundamental level, or is superseded by physical difference or a kind of secular curse.

  • 8 A. Amorós, Introduction to N. Salomon, Lo villano en el teatro del Siglo de Oro, trans. B. Chenot,(...)

9Defending servitude on the basis of physical distinction or historical cause and attacking it by reasoning from human equality would have complex elaborations in succeeding centuries when the issue of slavery was joined. For the medieval Mediterranean there is not an especially rich or consistent discussion about why some people are free and others are not. Rather than arguments on grand principles, the justifications for serfdom and the attacks on it are largely hidden or to be drawn out by inference from literary and other representations. To some extent this is a question of literary genre and fashion. We have considerable evidence from northern Europe for the negative image of peasants in general and serfs in particular. In Germany there was an immense body of poetry, theatre and didactic literature directed against what was seen as the coarse, boorish greed, violence and irrationality of rustics. In Mediterranean Catalonia, by contrast, where serfdom was a burning issue in the late Middle Ages, the poets ignored the peasantry. In Castile the villano became a stock literary character, but only during the sixteenth-century Golden Age. In the plays of Lope de Vega alone, for example, there are over 1,000 characters who are peasants.\n\n8 Before 1450, however, there are few Spanish compositions that consider rustics in either a positive or negative light.

  • 9 See articles on Mediterranean servitude from two conferences collected in Mélanges de l’École Fran (...)

10Some of the inconsistent presentation of serfdom is therefore simply the accident of regional culture, but it also results from the way in which serfs both were and were not a minority. In medieval Europe serfs formed a numerical minority of the peasant population if we define serfs as those who are restricted in their ability to move away from their lord’s jurisdiction, subject to seigneurial tributes symbolically indicative of subordinated status, and whose unfree condition is hereditary. In some Mediterranean regions serfdom was extremely common or nearly universal (Old Catalonia), elsewhere it coexisted with slavery (Croatia). In others it was waning or irrelevant after the twelfth century (Languedoc) or it never amounted to very much (Valencia, a region that had few serfs but many slaves).\n\n9 Regardless of the variation in the presence and density of unfree condition, serfs did not form a minority as conventionally understood by modern observers. This is not merely a question of numbers (that serfs were proportionately more numerous than, for example, lepers) but of “otherness”: that far from being easily regarded as alien by reason of religion (Jews, Muslims), ethnicity (sub-Saharan Africans, Tartars), or defective bodily form (lepers, the imagined “Plinian” or “monstrous” races), serfs were in an exemplary sense part of the Christian majority. They were neither heretics nor infidels nor were they marginal to the social order. Medieval society depended on their labor in an obvious way that had no parallel among any medieval minority according to the sociological notions of the time. We can fit serfs into the category of “minorité de fonction,” but their function was so vital that they can’t be thought of as constituting a standard marginated group.

  • 10 F. Eiximenis, Lo Crèstia, book 12, excerpted in Francesc Eiximenis, la societat catalana al segle (...)
  • 11 P. Meyer, “Dit sur les vilains par Matazone de Calignano”, Romania, 12 (1883), pp. 14–28.
  • 12 L. B. Alberti, I libri della famiglia, ed. R. Romano and A. Tenenti Turin, G. Einaudi, 1969, pp. 2 (...)

11Part of this terminological instability was the tendency on the part of social observers (especially jurists) to assimilate all peasants to a condition of actual or potential servitude in order to apply a language of subordination and degradation to rustics in general. If all peasants were potentially or essentially serfs, then this extended the arbitrary power and jurisdiction of lords over their tenants regardless of the technical niceties of their legal condition. When the Catalan Franciscan moralist Francesc Eiximenis writes that “hòmens servils” are naturally inclined to evil and must be beaten and starved into submission like savage animals, he is specifying serfs.\n\n10 Less clear, however, is what is meant by vilani in a late fourteenth century comic poem by an otherwise unknown Lombard writer Matazone da Colignano. Knights need to punish these vilani by seizing farm items such as capon, prohibiting them from wearing shoes and treating them badly overall. These rustics complain of their mistreatment, but, like animals, they only work when coerced.\n\n11 In a more indulgent vein, Leon Battista Alberti in Della Famiglia is clearly talking about peasant tenants generally, not serfs, when he complains that rustics are inevitably dishonest and try to cheat their masters. They claim to be poor and constantly have excuses for why they can’t pay what they are obligated to. Nevertheless, it is preferable to supply an estate by means of the labor of its tenants than to buy provisions grown by someone else. With close supervision rustics can be made to be productive. Moreover, their tricks are amusing and keep the landlord in good form, making him understand the hazards of depending on the good will of other people.\n\n12

  • 13 H. Hügli, Der deutsche Bauer im Mittelalter dargestellt nach den deutschen literarischen Quellen v (...)

12To the extent that a conventional language of control and repression was addressed to peasants and not just serfs, it was applied not to a conspicuous minority (e. g. Jews), but rather to the immense majority of the European population. Examples from northern Europe demonstrate this in greater depth. The entire German poetic genre of Bauernschwank, scabrous and violent satires against peasants, concerns a population considered as debased regardless of whether individuals are legally servile or not.\n\n13

  • 14 R, Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, 2 vo (...)

13Even though serfs cannot be understood in the same terms as a more clearly marked minority, the terms of opprobrium applied to them were borrowed from or transferred to other despised groups. The medieval iconography of disparagement included kinky hair, red hair, physical deformity or misshapenness, odd clothes (striped, yellow, multi-colored or in harlequin patterns), suspicious diet, odor, filth, and unpleasant sexual proclivities. In medieval art traits of this sort might be used to mark Jews, black Africans, fools, as well as rustics.\n\n14 Such terms constituted a mechanism of social control by identifying and exaggerating difference and so implicitly justifying a deprivation of privilege and even of common humanity. It comes as no surprise that comical and grotesque depiction of despised minorities should form part of the mechanism of containment and repression. If people are lowly or grossly inferior by nature, their ill-treatment can be regarded as applied for their own good or, at the very least, for the good of society. To the extent that peasants, including serfs, presented a particular set of problems because they were in fact not minorities, the language of opprobrium had to be applied to them with particular energy and variety.

  • 15 P. Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999.

14It is variety that I would emphasize here. It was not enough to multiply terms of physical difference because these ultimately could not be sustained against assertions of humanity, equality and especially adherence to the dictates of Christian practice. By reason of their unjust exploitation, peasants were often portrayed as exemplary Christians even when also described in harsh terms of subordination.\n\n15 This has significance both because it ends up demonstrating some of the limitations of the Three Orders model of social hierarchy and because a Christian egalitarian vocabulary would be appropriated by peasants themselves in their late-medieval and early-modern revolts, from England in 1381 to Germany in 1525.

15There were ways of supplementing the images of natural subordination to explain why a productive, Christian majority population might be licitly deprived of freedom, but these justifications had to be more ingenious and complex than the rationales offered for why lepers, Muslims or heretics should be controlled or repressed.

  • 16 Simon de Kéza, Gesta Hungarorum, ed. A. Domanovsky, Budapest, Academia litteraria hungarica, 1937 (...)

16Historical myths of national origins were used in Catalonia to explain and justify servitude, as has been seen, but similar stories also appeared in late-medieval Hungary excusing the enserfment of a population that was not presented as physically, racially or religiously different. As in Catalonia. the Hungarian serfs were supposedly descended from cowards but not Christians. At some primal moment in the past, a portion of the Hun ancestors of the Magyars (a mythical filiation) had failed to answer the military muster of the tribe. The punishment for this was execution, banishment or hereditary servitude. This theory of descent begins to be diffused in the late thirteenth century where it explicitly serves to demonstrate why members of the same nation have such differing fortunes. According to Simon of Kéza, author of a chronicle of the Hungarians, the wicked actions of the ancestors of the Hungarian serfs show how and why those sharing the same parentage are divided into noble and ignoble.\n\n16

  • 17 B. Cursente, “De la queste à la questalité: l’avènement d’un servage institutionnalisé en Gascogne (...)

17The origin of these historical legends lies in French accounts of Charlemagne’s conquests as depicted in the Pseudo-Turpin material where answering the call to extirpate the Moors resulted in hereditary noble status while failure created perpetual servitude. In France itself this was used much less systematically than in Catalonia or Hungary. In the Entre-Deux-Mers region of Gascony, an inquest undertaken by the English King Henry III in 1236 refers to the origins of privileged and unprivileged classes (the later made up of serfs liable to the levy known as the questal) by referring to the different roles undertaken by their ancestors under Charlemagne. The offensive soldiers in the great emperor’s army were the ancestors of the nobility and bourgeoisie while the descendants of the auxiliary, defensive soldiers were liable for the questal.\n\n17 Here the origin of differentiation is not an act of dereliction but simply an earlier form of status variation.

  • 18 D. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princ (...)

18Another way to defend the degraded condition of serfs was by using Biblical rather than notionally historical precedent, in particular the Curse of Noah against his son Ham as recorded in chapter nine of the Book of Genesis. The genealogy of Noah’s sons encompassed all the people of the world. A special place was identified for slaves or other unfree groups based on the drunkenness of Noah and the succeeding list of the peoples descended from his sons. As punishment for observing his father’s nakedness and doing nothing about it (or, as later tradition has it, laughing), Ham was punished through his son Canaan who was henceforth to serve his brethren.\n\n18

19Whatever this Biblical story might have meant originally, it was used to explain privation of freedom. Because Ham’s descendants included the Ethiopians and the inhabitants of Kush, the curse could render more logical the enslavement of black Africans, an argument that would have a long history from the expansion of Islam in the ninth and tenth centuries to the American South in the early nineteenth century. The Curse of Noah had a certain utility in medieval Europe, serving to represent the differing fortunes of nobles and serfs, the latter supposedly descended from Canaan in expiation of the first great post-diluvian sin. As with other markers of contempt and subjugation, the Curse of Ham might be applied to various despised populations: black Africans or the monstrous races as well as European serfs. As a complementary complication, other cursed figures of the Bible, notably Cain, were presented as ancestors of peasants, but also of giants and other strangely formed humanoids.

  • 19 Freedman, Images…, pp. 86–104.

20Attributing European serfdom to the Curse of Noah was pretty much confined to northern Europe and so not strictly relevant to a consideration of Mediterranean minorities and their representations. It was also more a literary topos than an actual legal or political argument in the way that precedents in quasi historical time functioned (Charlemagne, the Huns).\n\n19

21How well any of these accounts worked to explain the origins of servitude is an open question. That such justifications were necessary in the first place acknowledges the limitations of the Three Orders model of mutual functionality and demonstrates a persistent unease on the part of certain members of the governing classes at the bondage imposed on people who were not easily considered “other”. These representations of peasants, or of serfs as a particularly debased category, served as a form of social regulation. By defining serfs as a class deprived of legal freedom and by presenting peasants in general as a degraded, if productive, group, scholars, clerics, nobles and political authorities created an ideological basis for domination and repression.

22Yet the consistency of such a position was difficult to maintain. The same doubts about how to explain the enserfment of a Christian population served to strengthen, if not actually inspire, generations of peasant rebels culminating, but not originating, in the spate of late-medieval large-scale insurrections that produced the abolition of serfdom in Catalonia, its more gradual disappearance from England, and its overall weakening in Western Europe in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.

A Peasant Saint: Isidore the Laborer

23I’d like here to turn to a different aspect of the inconsistency and complexity of representing serfs as lowly or attempting to justify their oppression: the malleable cult of one of the very few peasant saints in the Christian calendar. Isidore the Laborer lived in the vicinity of Madrid, supposedly between 1070 and 1130 (but insofar as there is a real figure behind the legend he lived in the later twelfth century and died in about 1190). Madrid in the late twelfth century was a small town, recently taken from Islamic rule and surrounded by arable land. Isidore is an exceptional saint by reason of his humble condition, the fact that he was and remained married, and his peculiar cultural position on the Christian-Muslim frontier.

  • 20 R. Folz, Les saints rois du Moyen Age en Occident, VI-XIIIe siècles, Brussels, Société des Bolland (...)
  • 21 A. Vauchez, Les laïcs au Moyen Âge: pratiques et expériences religieuses, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, (...)

24The domination of princely and noble families within the ranks of lay saints has been demonstrated by the work of Robert Folz, André Vauchez and Gábor Klaniczay.\n\n20 While the early Christian saints came from diverse social backgrounds, medieval saints were for the most part clerics, monks and hermits. There were a significant number of aristocratic and royal saints, but ordinary laymen, even knights engaged in defending the Holy Land, were ineligible for sainthood until the very end of the Middle Ages.\n\n21

  • 22 G. Picasso, “La spiritualità dei laici” in Sant’Omobono nel suotempo: conversazioni storiche, Crem (...)
  • 23 A. Vauchez, Omobono di Cremona († 1197), laico e santo: profilo storico, Cremona, Nuova Editrice C (...)

25There was some change beginning in the twelfth century when lay saints of relatively modest urban origins began to appear in Italy. These were men (exclusively) venerated locally such as Gualfardo of Verona (died 1127), Ranier of Pisa († 1161) or Saint Raymond Palmerio of Piacenza († 1200).\n\n22 The first to be officially canonized was St. Omobono of Cremona, recognized as a saint just two years after his death by Innocent III in 1199.\n\n23 The reasons for Omobono’s exceptional canonization have to do with the political position of Cremona between papacy and Empire, and the standing of Bishop Sicard of Cremona, the eminent canonist, who forwarded Omobono’s candidacy. The event also represents an important step in the papacy’s attempts to control admission to sainthood and also recognition of the stakes in the struggle for the religious loyalties of the new urban centers of Italy.

26As laymen with families and occupations, the Italian urban saints to some extent resemble Isidore, but the latter was of a different and more modest origin and his cult developed in ways that are not as readily categorized in terms of the rise of a new urban class. Isidore was actually a peasant, a farm laborer, while lay Italian saints of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were townsman usually from reasonably affluent family backgrounds. Unlike well-known saintly laymen (St. Francis, for example) Isidore and Omobono did not renounce or abandon their families when they turned towards a holy life. This loyalty to flesh and blood was not explicitly admitted (let alone celebrated) when their cults were new, let alone celebrated. Omobono was an exemplary pious layman, but in his canonization and early vitae there was no mention at all of marriage or offspring and his commercial activity was only noted as something renounced and left behind when he turned towards sanctity. He was presented (as was the case with other urban Italian saints but unlike Isidore) as one who had abandoned the world to devote himself to charity and penance. Isidore’s earliest vita describes him as married, but the nature of his family life was elaborated only in later centuries.

27The urban Italian saints’ cults show the possibilities for lay piety and recognition of the importance of charity by affluent townsmen, but the Italian lay saints represent a different and somewhat more conventional (or, as Vauchez points out, conservative) constituency than Isidore does. All these exemplars of lay piety, even the officially canonized Omobono, were local saints for most of the medieval period, moving into greater prominence outside their original home only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were early representatives of spiritually admirable laymen of ordinary or even humble social condition, but Isidore remained identified with the peasantry even as Madrid became not merely urbanized but the capital while Omobono became one of a number of urban patrons whose success reflected greater, if still grudging, acceptance of merchants, artisans and commerce by the Church.

  • 24 D. Weinstein and R. Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700, Ch (...)
  • 25 I am grateful to Michel de Waha of the Free University of Brussels for information about the histo (...)

28There was thus a movement to admit laymen, even those of modest condition, to sainthood beginning in the twelfth century, but the representation of the peasantry, the overwhelming majority of the population, was tiny, between 2.3% and 4.7% of those canonized from the beginning of the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth centuries. Only in the fifteenth century would this rise to over 13%.\n\n24 Additionally the definition of “peasant saint” is somewhat unsure. There had always been a few saints whose humility or renunciation of the world involved rural labor so that as “part-time” agriculturalists they might later become patrons of peasants. Saint Wulstan of Norwich (early eleventh century) was of noble origin, but spent some time as a farm-hand and was considered a patron of haymaking. Beginning in the eighteenth century legends of Saint Guido of Anderlecht († 1012) depict him as a farm laborer.\n\n25 It was said that while he prayed, angels took his place guiding the horses at the plough, but there is no medieval basis for this legend which may have been borrowed from the St. Isidore story. Guido, if he existed, was probably a reasonably affluent canon of the church of Anderlecht.

  • 26 Goswin Of Villers, Vita Arnulfi, in Acta Sanctorum, June 7, pp. 558–579. See also B. P. McGuire, “ (...)

29The twelfth-century Cistercian lay brother Arnulf of Villers was actually born to a peasant family and worked as a monastic conversus serving as general farm laborer and cart driver. He practiced self-mortification, prayer and charity and was credited with many posthumous miracles, but as his reputation for holiness grew, he was relieved of most of his secular obligations, so that while a laborer by birth like Isidore, Arnulf became more of a monk and less of a farmer as his spiritual gifts came to be recognized.\n\n26

  • 27 On the cult of Isidore in Spain, its origins and development, see M. Fernández Montes, “Isidro, el (...)

30Isidore was a tenant farmer who performed miracles while alive and posthumously specialized in miracles of healing blindness and finding sources of water.\n\n27 Although he had a local reputation for sanctity and miraculous power, he remained during his entire life content with the subordinate position of an agricultural laborer. In the late Middle Ages and especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth century he would be transformed into the patron of the city of Madrid as it grew from frontier hamlet to great Castilian town and ultimately to the site of the court and the capital of Spain. Ironically, then, a holy peasant of the Middle Ages would become identified with the royal court (Phillip II was especially fond of Isidore and credited him with curing his son Don Carlos in the happier days of their relationship). Isidore became intimately connected with the life of Madrileños as depicted in the plays of Lope de Vega and the paintings of his festival by Goya. Although Isidore was not officially canonized until 1622, for centuries before he had been one of the chief saints of Castile. The effect of his canonization was to export the cult all over Europe and to the New World, especially to Paraguay (following the Jesuits) and Peru.

  • 28 G. Schreiber, “Spanische Motive in der deutschen Volksreligiosität,” Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultu (...)
  • 29 J. Tazbir has written on the social uses of Polish devotion to Isidore, “The Cult of St. Isidore t (...)
  • 30 J. Morawski, “Espagne et Pologne: Coup d’œil sur les relations des deux pays dans le passé et le p (...)
  • 31 A. Gołdonowski, Krótkie zebranie świątobliwego żywota s. Isidora Rolnika z Madryki… (A Short Colle (...)

31Isidore has been studied as a popular saint and ultimately as a literary and artistic figure in Spain. He had a large following in rural Germany and the Tyrol in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is in early-modern Poland and as the patron of serfs that his cult flourished on a truly national level.\n\n28 Within just a few years of papal recognition of his sanctity, Isidore became an emblem of servile deference in Poland, a model of Christian obedience.\n\n29 The Paulist father Andrzej Gołdonowski (1596-1660) wrote the first biography of Isidore immediately after his canonization. At this time there were was an active Polish interest in Spanish religious texts and figures (such as Saint Theresa of Avila, canonized at the same time as Isidore).\n\n30 Gołdonowski’s information about Isidore came from the canonization process and subsequent publicity. What is remarkable is not that a Polish spiritual writer should have had knowledge of a Spanish saint, but the speed with which the cult was successfully transplanted to Poland. Gołdonowski adapted Isidore to Polish circumstances by depicting him as a dutiful serf. In this early-modern incarnation Isidore was the exemplum of the “poor but contented ploughman” who fears, respects and obeys “feudal authority”. According to Gołdonowski, even bad lords must be obeyed, for not only is this the just ordinance of an inscrutable divine purpose, but the serf might find himself with an even worse master if he resists or flees from the present one who seems to oppress him.\n\n31

  • 32 Earlier examples, Tazbir, Arianie i katolicy, p. 217.
  • 33 Ibid., pp. 219–230.

32Preaching obedience even to bad lords was a common theme throughout medieval Europe and so long antedates the arrival of St. Isidore in Poland,\n\n32 but the diffusion of the cult in the seventeenth century offers an almost stereotypically perfect case of religion as the opiate of the masses: the explicit promise of heavenly rewards for earthly acceptance of exploitation. It is not only that God favors the peasant who has suffered piously and uncomplainingly in this life, but that obedience to seigneurial authority is constantly reiterated as a primary duty of the peasant and that St. Isidore is represented as an example of deference to the social hierarchy of the countryside. The possibility that peasants might prove less than tractable is acknowledged, and so in this case Gołdonowski reverts to condemnation of rebellious peasants as animals that become disobedient when not disciplined and he calls for the conventional sorts of harsh measures to make them work well.\n\n33 What is most significant in the adaptation of Isidore’s cult in seventeenth-century Poland is the explicit justification of serfdom and acceptance of lordship not merely as something to be endured but as a positive social good, and the use of a saint as a model of servile obedience.

  • 34 Los milagros de San Isidro (s. XIII), ed. F. Fita, revised Q. Aldea, Madrid, Academia de Arte e His (...)
  • 35 Fernández Montes, “Isidro, el varón de Dios…”, pp. 21–31.

33This was not how Isidore was originally presented in medieval Castile or necessarily why he was admired elsewhere. There is only one medieval account of his life and sanctity, the so-called Códice de Juan Diácono, composed in the last third of the thirteenth century and preserved in the Cathedral of Saint Isidore in Madrid.\n\n34 Elements of this early version of the St. Isidore legend resemble stories of Islamic popular saints. It is possible that the shadowy figure of a farm laborer in the era of the Christian takeover of New Castile was originally a Berber saint in a tradition of simple, uneducated holy men. Some of Isidore’s qualities such as his good nature, helpfulness to his neighbors and a determination to live off the labor of his own hands resemble the attributes of revered Andalusian figures such as Abu Ja’far al-Uryani, Abu-l Hajjaj, Abu-l Abbas Ahmad or Aben Chueco. Like Isidore, the Andalusian and Moroccan saints were often workers or artisans and they tended not to renounce secular life in favor of one of contemplation. They were married and had children whom, contrary to Christian traditions, they didn’t set aside once they started on the path of singular righteousness. It is therefore quite possible that Muslim and Christian stories of sanctity were combined around the time of the transfer of power over Madrid into Christian hands.\n\n35

  • 36 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 70–73 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 104–107).
  • 37 Milagros de San Isidro. pp. 69–70, 73–76 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 103, 107–110).

34Unlike Arnulf of Villers, Isidore never withdrew from farm labor but rather incorporated a life of prayer and unusually scrupulous religious observance into his agricultural routine. To the extent that these were in conflict, prayer tending to take time away from labor, Isidore was a somewhat playful saint. He earned the temporary wrath of his master who was unduly influenced by the jealous complaints of the other dependents who accused Isidore of shirking. In one of his most famous miracles, Isidore took time away from his work to pray at several churches and when his master, alerted by Isidore’s invidious co-workers, came to chastise him for neglecting his obligations, behold, there were Isidore’s oxen ploughing by themselves (the story later amended so that angels provided the guidance).\n\n36 Other early miracles from the Códice de Juan Diácono involve similar commitments to prayer (Isidore refuses to leave the church to protect his animals from a wolf), and the multiplication of food to feed the poor or to provide the material for an anachronistic confraternity banquet. In one miracle Isidore uses some of the grain ground at the mill to feed some hungry birds, again provoking the murmuring of his neighbors and the irritation of his landlord until it is discovered that the sacks seem to contain more than they did before the birds were succored.\n\n37

  • 38 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 70–71 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, p. 104): “Cum enim divine iud (...)

35There is then a certain tension between normal secular obligations and Isidore’s dedication to prayer, but the basis of Isidore’s fame was as a model laborer who expressed his sanctity in the course of a normal secular existence. In the account of Juan Diácono, Isidore is said to have desired no other manner of life than that of gaining his living by the work of his own hands, taking a wife and in general following God’s commands to Adam and Eve.\n\n38 Isidore’s wife would also come to be revered and eventually canonized as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, although unlike her husband, her cult never spread beyond the Iberian Peninsula. She would also repeatedly prove her chastity, according to her legend, in a number of slightly comical ways, showing again the mistrust and jealousy of the peasant community.

36The Castilian Isidore was a humble farm worker, but he was not an exemplar of unthinking obedience to his lord in the manner that he would become in early modern Poland. He appears in the early legends as gentle but assertive, instructing his lord and quietly defying the organization of the estate’s economy. His first miracles are in aid of the poor and of other peasants. In the stories written after 1300, Isidore’s miracles benefit the clergy more than the poor, or they tend to underscore his own sanctity, or are performed for the general good of the population (he becomes especially identified with locating sources of water). As time went on, Isidore the Laborer became more closely associated with the people of Madrid. Isidore thus becomes an urban saint in terms of patronage, but without ceasing to be a peasant in character.

  • 39 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 81–82 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 117–118).
  • 40 Fernández Montes, “San Isidro, de labrador medieval a patrón renacentista…”, pp. 41–95.

37In the Códice he is simply an agricultural tenant, but in later stories he becomes more clearly a serf, yet there was surprisingly little reluctance on the part of nobles or the Spanish monarchs to exalt Isidore and his cult. According to the Códice de Juan Diácono, a tax collector for King Ferdinand of Castile staying at an inn was told about the miracles of the holy peasant. He said that while he could imagine the son of a prince or noble becoming a saint, he did not believe this was possible for a mere rustic (set virum laboricii seu ruricolam non credo ullatenus fore sanctum). After a night of dreadful anxiety and wakefulness, the royal servant publicly confessed his error and was released from his psychological torment.\n\n39 Although a powerful spiritual figure in Castile, Isidore remained a local saint until 1600, but with the efforts of Phillip II and Phillip III to accomplish his canonization, Isidore was ready for export by the time of the long-delayed proclamation of his sainthood (along with Phillip Neri, Francis Xavier, Ignatius Loyola and Theresa of Avila).\n\n40

  • 41 Ibid., pp. 75–79.

38Over the centuries stories about Isidore portrayed him as less defiant of his master, or at least as less paradoxical and ironic in his sanctity. Rather than feeding birds or indulging in off-hours prayer, the late-medieval Isidore is a tireless worker who finds water and augments crop yields. Any vestigial tendencies toward independence are kept in line by his saintly wife. The landlord is now a member of the important noble Vargas family, and he becomes wiser, less the temperamental taskmaster.\n\n41 Nevertheless, even if the late-medieval Saint Isidore was more dutiful and deferential, he never in medieval Spain became the paragon of servile docility he was to symbolize in early-modern Poland.

Conclusion

39There was no widespread medieval figure of peasant saintliness exemplifying submission to the seigneurial regime. There weren’t many even quasi-peasant saints in the first place and the exceptional case of Isidore took root in New Castile, a region in which servitude among Christian peasants was never well-established. In early modern Poland Isidore would play the role of patron of serfs, but the changing interpretation of his life highlights the lack of such a saint in the Middle Ages.

40Given the medieval elaboration of regulation and repression of dissent and difference, this absence of a saint who could serve as a lesson in peasant obedience is surprising. There is certainly a sermon literature addressed to peasants counseling them against resentment, but there is also a rather extensive group of sermons that denounce the lords in quite bitter terms for their oppressive conduct. One would have thought that if serfs were not exactly a minority, or at least not marginal as regards religion, they might have been treated to a more aggressive hagiographic propaganda, but then again no one ever said medieval thought was always completely predictable.

  • 42 Jacques de Vitry, The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the “Sermones vulgaries” of Jacques de (...)

41It may be that the Middle Ages found the idea of saints from the lower social orders generally distasteful. Saints were supposed to come from noble or at least affluent families. Renunciation of privilege was more dramatic than simply continuing a condition of deprivation at birth. It is true that poverty implied relative proximity to God, as in an exemplum of Jacques de Vitry’s in which a peasant, shivering with cold, reminds himself that in heaven he will be able to warm his feet merely by toasting them over the pit of hell below where those who were rich and at ease on earth will be consumed in fire.\n\n42 Nevertheless, voluntary destitution was regarded as more virtuous than being numbered among the masses of the routinely impoverished.

  • 43 J. Matuszewski, Geneza Polskiego Chama (Studium semazjologiczne) (The Origins of the Polish “Cham” (...)

42In the modern period these obstacles to the reverence of peasant or other lower-class saints were overcome. New saints of humble birth were recognized, or saints who had not had anything to do with rural life became retrospectively transformed into peasants (Guido of Anderlecht, for example). Isidore remained a peasant, but in moving from Castile to Poland he became a serf and the exemplar of servile acceptance of the social order. Medieval social and religious commentaries assumed that serfdom was bad and agreed that it flagrantly violated original human equality. The low nature of servile peasants or some Biblical or historical crime had to be deployed to explain why oppression and deprivation of freedom were even licit, let alone useful. Such ideas continued in the early modern period especially with regard to slavery in which Africans or Native Americans were portrayed as inferior or as members of races expiating a Biblical curse. Within Europe, however, inferiority was accompanied by counsels to acceptance of servitude as an appropriate and productive discipline. Poland provides a particularly interesting example because along with the figure of Saint Isidore, in case its counsels of obedience didn’t work, was the ingrained association of Polish peasants with the offspring of Noah’s son Ham.\n\n43 Medieval serfs had no patron saint, but the oscillation between the serf as bestial and as sanctified by his oppression is found across the European world from the twelfth to the eighteenth centuries.

Notes

2 L’Archivio Capitolare della Cattedral de Mantova, ed. P. Torelli, Verona, A. Mondadori, 1924, p 63.

3 Cf. Gregory I, Registrum epistolarum 6, 12, Corpus Christianorum vol. 140, p. 380: “Cum redemptor noster totius conditor creaturae ad hoc propitiatus humanam uoluit carnem assumere ut diuinitatis suae gratia, disrupto quo tenebamur capti uinculo seruitutis, pristinae nos restitueret libertati, salubriter agitur, si homines, quos ab initio natura liberos protulit et ius gentium iugo substituit seruitutis, in ea qua nati fuerant manumittentis beneficio libertate reddantur”.

4 Liber Paradisus con le riformagioni e gli statuti connessi, ed. F. S. Gatta and G. Plessi, Bologna, L. Parma, 1956, p. 5 and also paraphrased for the Porta Piera quarter, ibid., p. 49 but not in the prologue for the release of the serfs of Porta Stiera, ibid., p. 73. On the preamble, see M. Giansante, Retorica e politica nel duecento: i notai bolognesi e l’ideologia comunale (Rome, Istituto storico italiano per il Medioevo, 1998), pp. 71–99; F. Menant, “Pourquoi les chartes de franchises italiennes n’ontelles pas de préambule?” in Pour une anthropologie du prélèvement seigneurial dans les campagnes médiévales (XIe -XIVe siècles): les mots, les temps et les lieux, ed. M. Bourin and P. Martínez Sopena, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2007 (Histoire ancienne et médiévale 91), pp. 253–267.

5 Girona, Arxiu Municipal, Sec. XXV diversa, XXV. 2 Llibres manuscrits de tema divers. Lligall núm. 8, any 1333-1456, fol. 1r, ed. M. M. Homs I Brugarolas, El sindicat remença de l’any 1448, Girona, Ajuntament de Girona, 2005 (Collecció Documents de l’Arxiu Municipal 11), p. 45. Discussed in P. Freedman, The Origins of Catalan Servitude, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 190–192.

6 S. Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1994; G. Marchal, “Die Antwort der Bauern: Elemente und Schichtungen des eidgenössischen Geschichtsbewusstseins am Ausgang des Mittelalters,” in Geschichtsschreibung und Geschichstbewusstsein im Spätnittelalter, ed. H. Patze, Sigmaringen, Jan Thorbecke, 1987 (Vorträge und Forschungen 31), pp. 757–790.

7 P. Freedman, “Catalan Lawyers and the Origins of Serfdom”, Mediaeval Studies, 48 (1986), pp. 288–314.

8 A. Amorós, Introduction to N. Salomon, Lo villano en el teatro del Siglo de Oro, trans. B. Chenot, Madrid, Castalia, 1985, p. 8.

9 See articles on Mediterranean servitude from two conferences collected in Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome, Moyen Âge 112 (2000), pp. 493–1085.

10 F. Eiximenis, Lo Crèstia, book 12, excerpted in Francesc Eiximenis, la societat catalana al segle XIV, ed. J. Webster, Barcelona, Edicions 62, 1967, p. 59: “e del hòmens servills qui jamés no es poden res inclinar, sinó ab força e ab mal. Per tal, diu que aquests no són apellats hòmens mas bèsties. E, per raó d’açó, los deu hom tractar així com à bèsties feres e cruels, que doma hom ab batiments, e ab fam, e ab clausures forts e terribles”.

11 P. Meyer, “Dit sur les vilains par Matazone de Calignano”, Romania, 12 (1883), pp. 14–28.

12 L. B. Alberti, I libri della famiglia, ed. R. Romano and A. Tenenti Turin, G. Einaudi, 1969, pp. 238–239.

13 H. Hügli, Der deutsche Bauer im Mittelalter dargestellt nach den deutschen literarischen Quellen vom 11. -15. Jahrhundert, Bern, Paul Haupt, 1929; F. Martini, Das Bauerntum in deutschen Schriften von den Anfängen bis zum 16. Jahrhundert Halle (Saale), M. Niemeyer, 1944.

14 R, Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, 2 vol. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993; D. Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecutions of Minorities in the Middle Ages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 62–63.

15 P. Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999.

16 Simon de Kéza, Gesta Hungarorum, ed. A. Domanovsky, Budapest, Academia litteraria hungarica, 1937 (Scriptores Rerum Hungaricum 1) c. 7, p. 148: “Vitia itaque et excessus huius unum Hungarum ab alio separavit, alias cum unus pater et unus mater omnes Hungaros procreaverit, quorum unus nobilis, alter innobilis diceretur, nisi victus per tales casus criminis haberetur.”

17 B. Cursente, “De la queste à la questalité: l’avènement d’un servage institutionnalisé en Gascogne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)”, Mélanges de l’École Française de Rome, Moyen Âge, 112 (2000), pp. 948–950.

18 D. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003.

19 Freedman, Images…, pp. 86–104.

20 R. Folz, Les saints rois du Moyen Age en Occident, VI-XIIIe siècles, Brussels, Société des Bollandistes, 1984; idem, Les Saintes reines du Moyen Age en Occident, VIe-XIIIe siècles, Brussels, Société des Bollandistes, 1992; A. Vauchez, La sainteté en occident aux derniers siècles du Moyen Âge, d’après les procès de canonisation et les documents hagiographiques Rome and Paris, École Française de Rome, 1981, pp. 204–215; G. Klaniczay, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princes: Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, trans. É. Pálmai, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

21 A. Vauchez, Les laïcs au Moyen Âge: pratiques et expériences religieuses, Paris, Éditions du Cerf, 1987, pp. 79–82; idem, La sainteté en occident…, pp. 410–427.

22 G. Picasso, “La spiritualità dei laici” in Sant’Omobono nel suotempo: conversazioni storiche, Cremona, Nuova Editrice Cremonese, 1999, pp. 18–20.

23 A. Vauchez, Omobono di Cremona († 1197), laico e santo: profilo storico, Cremona, Nuova Editrice Cremonense, 2001.

24 D. Weinstein and R. Bell, Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000-1700, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 197.

25 I am grateful to Michel de Waha of the Free University of Brussels for information about the history of the cult of Saint Guidon.

26 Goswin Of Villers, Vita Arnulfi, in Acta Sanctorum, June 7, pp. 558–579. See also B. P. McGuire, “Self-Denial and Self-Assertion in Arnulf of Villers”, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, 28 (1993), pp. 241–259.

27 On the cult of Isidore in Spain, its origins and development, see M. Fernández Montes, “Isidro, el varón de Dios, como modelo de sincretismo religioso en la Edad Media”, Revista de Dialectología y tradiciones populares, 54 (1999), pp. 7 –51; idem, “San Isidro, de labrador medieval a patrón renacentista y barroco de la Villa y Corte”, Revista de Dialectología y tradiciones populares, 56 (2001), pp. 41–95.

28 G. Schreiber, “Spanische Motive in der deutschen Volksreligiosität,” Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kulturgeschichte Spaniens 5 (1935), pp. 57–58; H. Hochenegg, “St. Isidor und seine Verehrung in Tirol”, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kulturgeschichte Spaniens 20, (1962), pp. 214–224.

29 J. Tazbir has written on the social uses of Polish devotion to Isidore, “The Cult of St. Isidore the Farmer in Europe”, in Poland at the 14th International Congress of Historical Sciences in San Francisco: Studies in Comparative History, Wrocłow, Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1975, pp. 99–111 and more fully in Arianie i katolicy (Arians and Catholics), Warsaw, Książka i Wiedza, 1971, pp. 205–237. J. Związek, “Życie religijne i społeczne ludu wiejskiego w świetle nauk O. Andrzeja Gołdonowskiego” (Religious and Social Life of the Peasants According to Father Andrzej Gołdonowski), Studia Claromontana, 6 (1985), pp. 194–222 takes a more favorable view than Tazbir of Gołdonowski’s advocacy of the peasants, but his arguments are unconvincing.

30 J. Morawski, “Espagne et Pologne: Coup d’œil sur les relations des deux pays dans le passé et le présent,” Revue de littérature comparée 16 (1936), 225–246.

31 A. Gołdonowski, Krótkie zebranie świątobliwego żywota s. Isidora Rolnika z Madryki… (A Short Collection on the Holy Life of Saint Isidore the Laborer of Madrid), Cracow, Anton Wosinski, 1629 (copy in the Jagiellonian University Library, Cracow).

32 Earlier examples, Tazbir, Arianie i katolicy, p. 217.

33 Ibid., pp. 219–230.

34 Los milagros de San Isidro (s. XIII), ed. F. Fita, revised Q. Aldea, Madrid, Academia de Arte e Historia de San Dámaso, 1993 (the text of Juan Diácono is more accessible in F. Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro por Juan Diácono”, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, 9 [1886], pp. 102–152 although there are many faults in Fita’s transcription.) On the nature and significance of the document, N. Sanz Martínez, “El Códice de Juan Diácono”, in San Isidro Labrador, Patrono de la Villa y Corte. IX Centenario de su nacimiento, Madrid, 1983, pp. 49–69.

35 Fernández Montes, “Isidro, el varón de Dios…”, pp. 21–31.

36 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 70–73 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 104–107).

37 Milagros de San Isidro. pp. 69–70, 73–76 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 103, 107–110).

38 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 70–71 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, p. 104): “Cum enim divine iudicio providencie, iuxta illud quod dictum est primo parenti humani generis, In labore manuum et sudore vultus pane uto vesceris, in semetipso iuste rectificans, non aliter vitam ducere quam de labore manuum suarum victum acquirere preelegit; unde factus obediens in primo parente dominice iussioni, cuius[dam] maieritensis de plebe militis factus est sub mercede annua humilis inquilinus. Igitur cum sub hoc statu, in rure ville proximo positus vitam cum labore duceret uxoratus, reddebat deo que dei erant, et fraterna proximis que debebat.”

39 Milagros de San Isidro, pp. 81–82 (= Fita, “Leyenda de San Isidro…”, pp. 117–118).

40 Fernández Montes, “San Isidro, de labrador medieval a patrón renacentista…”, pp. 41–95.

41 Ibid., pp. 75–79.

42 Jacques de Vitry, The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the “Sermones vulgaries” of Jacques de Vitry, ed. T. F. Crane, London, Folklore Society, 1890, no. 108, p. 50.

43 J. Matuszewski, Geneza Polskiego Chama (Studium semazjologiczne) (The Origins of the Polish “Cham”: A Semiologogical Study), Łodz, University of Łodz, 1982 (Acta Universitatis Lodzensis, Folia Juridica 11).

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