Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Taming Rasputin? Braulio and St Aemilian

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Taming Rasputin? Braulio and St Aemilian

Article excerpt

The first reaction of many readers after finishing Braulio of Zaragoza's Life of St Aemilian, an eremitic saint active in the sixth century in the Bierzo, a lowland area of northern Spain sandwiched between the Cordillera Cantábrica and the Montes de León, is likely to be one of disappointrrftnt.1 Although there grew up an important cult of the saint who gave his name to one of the peninsula's most famous monastic foundations, San Millán de la Cogolla,2 Braulio's account gives us the merest bare bones of hagiography. There is no account of the saint's youth, which, we must assume, did not offer signs of the sanctity which was to come, as had, for example, that of St Fructuosus of Braga or St Martin of Tours, and of the saint's adult life we are informed that he became a hermit who lived for forty years in isolation, was then forced to become a priest, a task he performed so badly that he was deposed from his job, and thereafter returned to the wilderness where he ended his days. Unlike Fructuosus or Martin, Aemilian appears to have made no attempt to found any religious centres, being content with a life of solitude. There is no evidence to support the assertion that he 'evangelized' Cantabria or acted as a 'spearhead' of Christianity there.3 Added to this Spartan account of the saint's adult life is a list of the miracles that he performed while living and a shorter one of those that had occurred at his tomb since his death.

Braulio's somewhat brusque account of his subject was ostensibly dictated by the circumstances of its composition. We are told that the Life was a piece commissioned by Braulio's colleague Fronimian to be read at the mass held on the saint's feast day and that Braulio therefore produced only a short piece for fear of taxing the congregation's patience.4 There are, however, reasons to ask whether the bishop had other reasons for this laconic approach to his subject. The Life certainly enjoyed a much wider circulation, probably intentionally, than its ostensible commission would suggest, and its style, which avoids some popular preaching techniques available to the author, ought to arouse suspicion as to its purpose.

Braulio indulges in a variety of topoi frequently found in hagiography, such as self-deprecation; however, two of these - praise of a simple style, the sermo humilis, and insistence on the virtues of concision, brevitas - seem more than mere rhetorical clichés in the Life. We are told that the work will be written in a plain and accessible ('planus et apertus') style, producing a 'clear-cut' ('non ambigua") account of its subject.5 'It is better', our author remarks, 'to tell the trudi in a simple fashion than eloquent fictions', citing Scripture as his model.6 The same approach, which lays stress on both simplicity and truth, is to be found in many other hagiographies and falls into a tradition stemming from the Bible itself.

Nevertheless this endorsement of a simple literary style coming from bookish Braulio should immediately alert our suspicions, and indeed the bishop does not always live up to his statement: one might wonder whether the congregation of Vergegio would have agreed with Braulio's assurances on hearing phrases such as 'Nor do I think that if the springs of Tully were to pour out the tale and come forth in copious streams of eloquence and a host of ideas create a lush supply of words ... '7 The bishop in fact goes out of his way to say he does not disparage learning, but, to point out that polished eloquence is not essential in all cases; a statement which artfully combines the topos of protesting artlessness with an insistence on the importance of learning per se.

As well as stressing his use of sermo humilis, Braulio, as has been seen, is also eager to emphasize the brevitas of his work. Insistence on concision, like clarity, had a long pedigree in antique letters and had been particularly insisted on by his teacher and mentor, Isidore of Seville. Here Braulio certainly lives up to his promise. …

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