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Introduction The Rule of Exceptional Salvations

  • Frank Grady
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

The best-known story of the salvation of a righteous heathen, both in the Middle Ages and in writing about the Middle Ages, is that of the Roman emperor Trajan, supposedly released from the pains of hell several centuries after his death through the prayers of Pope Gregory the Great. Jacobus de Voragine, in his thirteenth-century Golden Legend, tells the story this way:

Once when the Roman emperor Trajan was hurrying off to war with all possible speed, a widow ran up to him in tears and said: “Be good enough, I beg you, to avenge the blood of my son, who was put to death though he was innocent!” Trajan answered that if he came back from the war safe and sound, he would take care of her case. “And if you die in battle,” the widow objected, “who then will see that justice is done?”“Whoever rules after me,” Trajan replied.“And what good will it do you,” the widow argued, “if someone else rights my loss?”“None at all!” the emperor retorted. “Then wouldn’t it be better for you,” the woman persisted, “to do me justice yourself and receive the reward, than to pass it on to someone else?”Trajan, moved with compassion, got down from his horse and saw to it that the blood of the innocent was avenged…

One day many years after that emperor’s death, as Gregory was crossing through Trajan’s forum, the emperor’s kindness came to his mind, and he went to Saint Peter’s basilica and lamented the ruler’s errors with bitter tears. The voice of God responded from above, “I have granted your petition and spared Trajan eternal punishment; but from now on be extremely careful not to pray for a damned soul!” Furthermore, John of Damascus, in one of his sermons, relates that as Gregory was pouring forth prayers for Trajan, he heard a divine voice coming to him, which said:“I have heard your voice and I grant pardon to Trajan.” Of this (as John says in the same sermon) both East and West are witness.

On this subject some have said that Trajan was restored to life, and in this life obtained grace and merited pardon: thus he attained glory and was not finally committed to hell nor definitively sentenced to eternal punishment. There are others who have said that Trajan’s soul was not simply freed from being sentenced to eternal punishment, but that his sentence was suspended for a time, namely, until the day of the Last Judgment. Others have held that Trajan’s punishment was assessed to him sub conditione as to place and mode of torment, the condition being that sooner or later Gregory would pray that through the grace of Christ there would be some change in place or mode. Still others, among them John the Deacon who compiled this legend, say that Gregory did not pray, but wept, and often the Lord in his mercy grants what a man, however desirous he might be, would not presume to ask for, and that Trajan’s soul was not delivered from hell and given a place in heaven, but was simply freed from the tortures of hell. A soul (he says) can be in hell and yet, through God’s mercy, not feel its pains. Then there are those who explain that eternal punishment is twofold, consisting first in the pain of sense and second in the pain of loss, i.e., being deprived of the vision of God. Thus Trajan’s punishment would have been remitted as to the first pain but retained as to the second.1

Keywords

Roman Emperor Medieval Literature Medieval Study Mystical Vision Authoritative Account 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), I. 178–79. For the Latin text, see the edition ofGoogle Scholar
  2. Theodor Graesse, Legenda Aurea Vulgo Historia Lombardica Dicta, 2nd edn. (Leipzig: Librariae Arnoldianae, 1850), pp. 196–97.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Gordon Whatley, “The Uses of Hagiography: The Legend of Pope Gregory and the Emperor Trajan in the Middle Ages,” Viator 15 (1984): 25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 6.
    This conclusion to the story is ruled as well by a logic of substitution: not only is Gregory’s original emotional anguish (“bitter tears”) replaced by physical pain, but Trajan’s now-remediated suffering (however imagined) is also transferred to Gregory, albeit in earthly form. Of course, Jacobus’s attempt to domesticate the Trajan story is at the same time embarrassed by this substitution; Gregory’s suffering leads us away from Trajan’s on the level of narrative, but it also points back to it, and to the question of justice sub con-ditione. Gregory’s own salvation is of course implied by the mention of time spent in purgatory, but how are we to measure that against time spent in hell? Quoting from Gregory’s letters may have been Jacobus’s own idea; while the link between the intervention and Gregory’s well-known infirmities is established very early in the tradition, none of the earlier accounts that I have seen use the letters to reinforce the connection. See Whatley, “Uses,” p.36n.39. The letters survive in almost a hundred manuscripts; they have recently been newly translated by John R.C. Martyn (The Letters of Gregory the Great, 3 vols., Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004]). The letters quoted in the Golden Legend are 9.232 and 10.14 in Martyn’s edition.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Quoted in Theresa Coletti, Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 8, fromGoogle Scholar
  6. Walter E. Stephens,“Ec[h]o in Fabula,” Diacritics 13 (1983): 51–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 9.
    On Uhtred de Boldon, see Mildred Elizabeth Marcett, Uhtred de Boldon, Friar William Jordan, and Piers Plowman (New York: privately printed, 1938)Google Scholar
  8. M.D. Knowles, “The Censured Opinions of Uthred of Boldon,” PBA 37 (1951): 305–42Google Scholar
  9. G.H. Russell, “The Salvation of the Heathen: The Exploration of a Theme in Piers Plowman,” JWCI 29 (1966): 101–116.Google Scholar
  10. Nicholas Watson discusses the idea of universal salvation in Middle English texts in “Visions of Inclusion: Universal Salvation and Vernacular Theology in Pre-Reformation England,” JMEMS 27 (1997): 145–87.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, suppl., q.71 a. 5, obj. 5 and resp. ob. 5, in Opera Omnia, 25 vols. (Parma: Petri Fiaccadori, 1852–73; repr. NY: Musurgia Publishers, 1948), 4: 588–89. I present here the Dominican translation: Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 22 vols. (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, Ltd., 1921–24), 20: 53–4. For a survey of scholastic theologians? treatment of Trajan and stories of his salvation, including Bonaventure, William of Auxerre, and Alexander of Hales, see Whatley’s “Uses,” especially pp. 35–39; Louis Capéran, Le problème du salut des infidèles: essai historique, 2nd edn. (Toulouse: Grand Seminaire, 1934), pp. 186–218Google Scholar
  12. Marcia L. Colish,“The Virtuous Pagan: Dante and the Christian Tradition,” in The Unbounded Community: Papers in Christian Ecumenism in Honor of Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. William Caferro and Duncan G. Fisher (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 43–92; and the account in Cindy L. Vitto, “The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 79 (1989), chap. 3.Google Scholar
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    Useful surveys of this topic include Capéran’s magisterial Le problème du salut des infidèles; Colish, “The Virtuous Pagan”;Vitto, “The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature”; Gordon Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957)Google Scholar
  14. Heiko Obermann, “Facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam: Robert Holcot, O.P., and the Beginning of Luther’s Theology,” Harvard Theological Review 55 (1962): 317–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Alastair Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982).Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    The Gregory—Trajan legend may have originated in England; the story first appears in the earliest life of Gregory, written by an anonymous monk of Whitby sometime in the eighth century. See The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1968). For the coinage “vernacular theology,” see Nicholas Watson, “Censorship and Cultural Change in Late-Medieval England: Vernacular Theology, the Oxford Translation Debate, and Arundel’s Constitutions of 1409,” Speculum 70 (1995): 822–64, esp. pp. 823–24 and 823n.4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a vigorous and polemical defense of “reading for form,” see Ellen Rooney,“Form and Contentment,” Modern Language Quarterly 61 (2000): 17–40; she writes, “When the text-to-be-read (whatever its genre) is engaged only to confirm the prior insights of a theoretical problematic, reading is reduced to reiteration and becomes quite literally beside the point. One might say that we overlook most of the work of any text if the only formal feature we can discern in it is a reflected theme, the mirror image of a theory that is, by comparison to the belated and all-too-predictable text, seen as all-knowing and, just as important, as complete” (29–30). In exploring the change wrought on theological topics when they are absorbed into specifically literary vernacular discourse, my project is analogous to the recent work ofCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Jim Rhodes, Poetry Does Theology: Chaucer, Grosseteste, and the Pearl-Poet (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2001). Rhodes’s study is broader in scope than mine, but we are both interested in “What happens…when poetry deals explicitly with a serious theological issue” (2) and in “reading the poems as fictions and not as an armature for theology” (10); he approvingly quotes John Burrow on Piers Plowman’s Christ, who “becomes, for the purposes of the poem, subject to the laws of fiction and the exigencies of art” (5), an admirably succinct expression of the concept.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 2.Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    Jill Mann, “Chaucer and Atheism,” SAC 17 (1995): 5–19, here p. 5. Mann goes on to argue that “dialogue” is the key to addressing the question of difference or rupture, and that it offers a potential escape from a “falsifying his-toricism” on the one hand and a contemporary solipsistic subjectivism on the other,“because it acknowledges that the participants in the dialogue are from the outset in a situation with respect to each other and that this situation will condition both the form that utterance takes and the way it is understood” (8). She concludes, then, with what we might call the weak or pragmatic version of antifoundationalism associated with Rorty and Fish. Dialogue, of course, is exactly what Middle English writers struck on too; rather than simply relating recuperative narratives of virtuous pagans, they produced narrativized dialogues in which pagan folk apparently spoke for themselves, in what medieval readers were encouraged to take as the semblance of their “real” voices. What modern criticism does with medieval texts and textuality is clearly analogous, and while there are limits to the insights that thinking by analogy can produce, there are certain things that it can reveal quite sharply.Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    The phrase is Foucault?s, from the 1969 essay “What is an author?”; I quote from the translation by Josué V. Harart, reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Robertcon Davis and Ronald Schleifer, 4th edn. (New York: Longman, 1998), p. 372.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    For provocative remarks about the role of desire in modern medieval studies see L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pp. 239–52, and the earlier version of this chapter in “’ so that we may speak of them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages,” New Literary History 28 (1997): 205–30.Google Scholar
  23. 28.
    On medieval studies as a clerisy, see Lee Patterson, “On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies,” Speculum 65 (1990): 87–108, and “Introduction,” in Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Patterson, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), p. 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 29.
    Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 1.Google Scholar
  25. 31.
    For a relatively early example of such a critique see Joel Fineman, “The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 49–76.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    Watson, “Desire for the Past,” p. 87. The unpredictability of such empathy, and the emotional power of its claims, are once again nicely captured in the Golden Legend, where “one day” (L: quadam vice ) Gregory is reminded of Trajan’s story and it moves him to tears. Watson writes that “the past will always push through in this emotion-laden way in our accounts of it—isn’t this in fact the very point made over and over again in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?—a story that passes itself on into the future whether or not it is the story we want to be telling” (“Desire,”p. 72). The distance from the Golden Legend to Morrison’s Beloved is not so great as it seems; Watson uses the example in the course of rebutting Kathleen Biddick’s critique (in The Shock of Medievalism) of Caroline Walker Bynum’s “empathetic approach to the past” (p. 60) in Holy Feast and Holy Fast. His essay stresses “the need to think clearly about the way all such study has emotional designs on its object” (p. 61), and he acknowledges Fradenburg’s psychoanalytic work on this topic (see n.27 above) while describing his own efforts as “mystical” (that is, concerned with affect and empathy as experienced and described by medieval mystics). For a more broadly historicist approach to the affective dimension of medieval studies we can turn to Stephanie Trigg’s Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), which takes up “the discourses of affinity…by which Chaucer’s readers write themselves into relationships of intimacy with the poet and his various reading communities” (pp. 4–5). See especially her remarks on the role of “voice,” which implies “the possibility of hearing Chaucer speak across the centuries and across different cultures” and “becomes a inclusive and enabling trope that allows us to contain and restrict difference…” (p. 22). Chaucer has been singled out since the sixteenth century by successive generations of readers and critics as a voice that must be recovered despite difference, distance, and changes in “forme of speche”; he is modern literary criticism’s virtuous pagan, a Trajan figure whose commemoration continually requires us (that is, all us medievalists) to adopt Gregory’s role.Google Scholar
  27. 33.
    On the difference between “reading for form” and an aestheticizing formalism, see Susan J. Wolfson, “Reading for Form,” Modern Language Quarterly 61 (2000): 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. 34.
    Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 210–22.Google Scholar
  29. 35.
    On the sometimes constrained nature of these interfaith dialogues—specif-ically fictionalized Jewish/Christian exchanges—see Steven F. Kruger, “The Spectral Jew,” NML 2 (1998): 20–28. He writes that “Presenting Jewish voices and figures in such works involves a certain embodying of the Jew: Jewish presences are conjured up ‘to speak for themselves.’ But of course, they speak as their Christian authors determine, and their embodiment usually remains sketchy and their voices weak” (p. 21). The voices of virtuous pagans are of course equally the invention of Christian authors; my argument throughout the book, though, is that they are anything but weak.Google Scholar

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© Frank Grady 2005

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  • Frank Grady

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