Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Blindness as Physical and Moral Disorder in the Works of Gonzalo De Berceo

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Blindness as Physical and Moral Disorder in the Works of Gonzalo De Berceo

Article excerpt

"Me dijo que antes de ese día en que Io volteó el azulejo, él había sido Io que son todos los cristianos: un ciego, un sordo, un abombado, un desmemoriado."

-(Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes, el memorioso")

When Jorge Luis Borges describes his character Funes as blind, deaf, senseless, and memoryless, the twentieth-century Argentine author engages a concept commonplace in medieval hagiographie literature. In both literary contexts, disability is a sign of the Christian condition in this sinful life outside of Paradise. Readers of saints' lives are thoroughly familiar with the long line of blind, leprous, mad, possessed, and otherwise disabled individuals who seek the saints' miraculous healing powers in this widespread medieval literary genre. As the saints heal disease, exorcise demons, and rehabilitate mental incapacity, they reinstate the lost connection between human beings and the divine. In this study I explore Gonzalo de Berceo's representation of the first disorder on Borges's list, that of blindness, in the context of the mester de clereda literary school, whose learned authors wrote to teach Christian lessons from a position of clerical authority. By modeling exemplary conduct while condemning sin in their works, these writers affirmed the privileged imperative of the clerical cast to define what constituted order and disorder and to prescribe remedies.

In his hallmark study of thirteenth-century clerical culture, "La clereciacute;a del mester," Francisco Rico attributes a new power to university-educated clerics primarily through their employment as legal notaries in the service of a cathedral or monastery. Rico cites as an example Gonzalo de Berceo, who served as notary to the Abbot Juan Sánchez of San Millán de la Cogolla, and who wrote La vida de San Millán de la Cogolla in defense of that monastery's legal right to collect donations from local citizens. In my recent work, I have explored the way in which Berceo's writings aspire to an authority that reaches farther than legal defense of a specific monastery. Berceo's goal as didactic clerical author was to define for his audience the very essence of the medieval Christian's relationship to God. My 2004 study, "Ascendant Eloquence," explored how Berceo's representation of language reflected that relationship, and this current study examines the role of blindness and sight in defining the Christian's ability to know the divine.

In his representation of blindness, Gonzalo de Berceo synthesizes the Bible with philosophical, cognitive, and physical attributes of the human eye in order to illustrate one disorder that impedes Christians from knowing God. As an educated thirteenth-century cleric, Berceo was familiar with various contemporary approaches to blindness, and he incorporated this knowledge into his literary representation of blindness versus sight. In the following pages, I develop this argument by first summarizing the history of the construct of blindness that the Christian Middle Ages inherited, including the association between blindness and sin and between the healing of blindness and salvation, and I analyze the representation of these ideas in Berceo's works. I then turn to medieval cognitive theory, in which visual perception constituted the first step in achieving knowledge and understanding, and to certain medical approaches to blindness, which associated lack of sight with spiritual deprivation. In Berceo's works, the ultimate end to human existence is knowledge of God, and blindness clearly impedes characters from achieving that end. Thus, through the literary depiction of the human eye, informed by multiple strains of medieval thought, Gonzalo de Berceo asserts his mester de clerecia authority to define and disseminate the terms of human salvation.

Gonzalo de Berceo's association of impaired vision with sinfulness has its roots in ancient cultures, which, as Moshe Barasch convincingly demonstrates, possessed clearly ambivalent attitudes towards blindness. …

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