‘Winter Mythologies’ contains two collections of very short stories by Pierre Michon: “Three Miracles from Ireland’ and ‘Nine passages from the Causse’.
Michon is a fascinating writer and there is so much to admire about these stories. But what intrigues me is the way he fakes the middle ages, provoking the question: how to retell medieval stories, or stories set in the middle ages when it comes to dealing with matters of belief.
Yale University Press publishes the English version, translated by Ann Jefferson, as Winter mythologies and Abbots. In the French ‘Edition Verdier’ Mythologies d’hiver the first three stories are called Trois Prodiges En Irlande. While prodige can be translated into English as miracle, it can also mean prodigy, which can apply to a thing or event as much as a person. ‘The fervor of Brigid’, ‘The sadness of Columbkill’ and ‘The levity of Sweeney’ are all prodigious. But none of them is a miracle in the religious sense of that word.
At first glance they mimic the brevity of the medieval chronicles Michon purports to be using. But on closer rereading, it becomes obvious that Michon tells them from the view point of a skeptical modern sensibility, within the framework of modern understanding and belief and this leads to what I will call, for want of a better term, faking the middle ages.
Medieval miracle stories are commonplace. Read Bede, or Gerald of Wales, read any early medieval chronicle, they are full of stories of the miraculous. So are saint’s lives and the records of their cults and shrines. People went on pilgrimage in the honest belief that the Saint’s relics would cure them.
We know there were fakes and we know there were skeptics even in the early middle ages, but the evidence suggests that the majority believed in miracles; in the ability of saints to intercede on their behalf and the fact that while the world worked to laws that existed but were not well-understood, God had the ability to alter those laws to show His favor, displeasure, or power. It should also be remembered that there are still people who hold these beliefs.
Michon’s three Irish Stories refigure belief as a prodigious type of desire in search of an object. But this is a desire for something more than the tactile world can provide. It is an innate yearning that can never be satisfied.
In the first story, Bridgid wants to see God’s face. She is in earnest, so much so that she will kill herself and her sisters for the chance of seeing him. In the second, Columbkill wants a copy of the Psalter he has read. Denied his copy, in what’s sometimes called the first copyright case in Europe, he goes to war in order to own the original.
Both Brigid and Columbkill want, in both the older and more common usage of the word. In Michon’s perfect phrase, Columbkill discovers ‘The book is not in the book’ :‘Le Livre n’est pas dans le livre’. We can’t know if Brigid saw the face of God. Having killed her sisters and committed suicide, her story ends: “They are implacably dead. They are contemplating the face of God’ (P.11). The lack of any grammatical link between the two sentences does not inspire confidence in the idea that one leads to the other or that the first is not a comment on the second.
Columbkill however, got what he wanted only to discover that the thing he gained is not the thing he wanted. ‘He searches the text for something he has read and cannot find, and the picture for something he has seen and which has vanished. He searches long and in vain, yet it was there when it wasn’t his’ (p.16). Learning his lesson, he throws away the book and his warrior’s paraphernalia and, ‘…on the bald island of Iona he sits down, free and stripped of everything, beneath a sky which is sometimes blue’ (p.16).
If a defeated Columbkill learns to become ‘stripped of everything’ and accept the world as it is, then in the first three stories only Sweeney is happy with who he is and what he does. He is happy being a king. When Finbar curses him, he takes to the woods and lives as though he had become a bird. He is happy being a wild animal. Michon doesn’t say whether Sweeney’s acceptance of his life is a kind of sanity bordering on sanctity, or proof positive he’s mad.
While Michon is prepared to believe in the desire for what is not present, his attitude towards medieval faith is that of a modern skeptic. At first sight his pared back prose seems to imitate the style of the medieval chronicles. But on closer inspection the stories are told in three voices. There’s the flat style which sounds like objective reportage. Brigid and her sisters go swimming:
‘All three girls run through the spring dawn. They reach the bottom of the embankment and throw their clothes under the foliage’ (p. 5).
But the reportage is often disturbed by Michon’s adjectives. When Columbkill gives up everything and moves to Iona he crosses the ‘loathsome Irish Sea’ (p. 16). Why is the Irish sea ‘loathsome’? And who thinks it’s loathsome: Brendan or Michon? Brigid, swimming, sees that her flesh is ‘excessive’. Later when Patrick sees the sisters in the water, we are told ‘they are flagrant and excessive’. What is flesh in excess of? The similes that follow, ‘Like a dreaming King’ in the first example, ‘like Grace itself’ in the second, are not helpful. What does ‘Implacably dead’ mean?
If the adjectives disturb the reportage, Michon’s third voice is the voice of the knowing modern skeptic. People in the past believed in Miracles, and gave witness to them. Michon translates that belief into a desire for the non-existent: there are no miracles, only things that can be explained away.
When Saint Patrick is introduced in the first story we are told that to convert the pagan Irish, ‘il suffit de quelques abracabras druidiques’ which sounds even more contemptuous than the English translation’s ‘all it requires is a few druidic spells’. Patrick is a fake who knows he’s a fake: a conjurer who is growing old. ‘He would like a real miracle to occur, just once’ (p. 5). This desire explains his treatment of Brigid as does the sublimated sexuality between them which is hinted at in the story.
Because they are juxtaposed in the one book, it’s possible to read the story of Saint Enimie, which runs through five of the Nine Passages on the Causse, as an elaboration on a form of dishonesty. If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and Medieval faith.
What Michon does not say is that today Saint-Enimie is a place, and that her existence as a historical person is dubious. She doesn’t warrant an entry in the standard dictionary of saints and unless your knowledge of French Kings is very good, it’s easy to miss the fact that centuries pass between each of the episodes in the development of her cult.
The saint is first mentioned in passing at the beginning of the second ‘passage’, ‘Saint Hilere’. ‘He has founded a community of brothers no one knows where on the banks of the River Tarn, doubtless on the spot where Enimie, the saint with Merovech’s blood, will later come’ (p. 28).
Enimie's own brief story: 'Enimie', comes next. It reads like a small fable. She is the daughter of the King. She becomes the abbess of a priory ‘on a river called the Tarn, in a place with an unpronounceable name’ (p. 32). It’s a joke. She never goes there. Her position is merely an administrative convenience. She has sex with the major of the palace. He drops her for someone else. She dies. ‘It is said to be leprosy’ (p. 33).
Three centuries later, the monks of a small community on the Tarn need a saint to substantiate and defend their claim to ownership. The process of creating a posthumous career for Enimie, first writing her vita in Latin, then again much later translating that story into the vernacular, runs over three more stories. The difference between the stories 'Enimie' and 'Sancta Enima' are commentary on the process.
Sancta Enimie is a fake: her posthumous career is created by the shifting needs of the monks and their literary abilities.
If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then religion is what you get when that desire is given an object. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and Medieval faith. Accept the desire; deny the reality of the object of that desire.
And that’s where the modern mind and the medieval one part company.
Christianity has a bad press. Fundamentalists make the headlines. The deviant behavior of some of its clergy is used to damn the whole of the Catholic Church. Modern knowledge, from Biology to Medicine to Meteorology, can supply convincing explanations of many miracle stories. Atheism is trendy.
Whether or not a modern writer believes in saints and miracles, people in the past did. The question is then how to deal with this belief if writing about the past.
Michon translates those beliefs into a narrative underwritten by modern skepticism. We know the church as an institution became corrupt. We know its beliefs became easily exploited by the greedy and unscrupulous. There were enough fragments of the true cross in Europe to build a decent house and some of John the Baptist’s many fingers looked a lot like chicken bones.
But that doesn’t mean it was all faked. Bede and his audience expected miracles both from dead saints and living holy men and women. Miracles were the visible, tangible proof of an invisible power or an exceptional grace. When the Pagan priests and the Christian missionaries faced off in post Roman Britain, it wasn’t the equivalent of a conjurors’ Ok Corral. Writing it as though it were is entertaining and comforting to the modern mind, but another conjuror’s trick.