The study of local saints in England and Wales has come to be regarded as a somewhat recondite enterprise. As a result this field of study has tended to be marginalised, sometimes given much less than its academic due, and as such has been unable to make a proper contribution to our understanding of medieval religious culture.
Of course the principal reason for this reputation is that our knowledge of local saints' cults is limited and problematic. The surviving evidence is often fragmentary in the extreme, sometimes little more than a single phrase in a medieval document. (The written sources recording medieval local veneration of the saints are surveyed briefly in another of my web pages, Towards a database and atlas of saints' cults. Navigate via the table of internal links.)
The extent of what has been lost becomes clear by comparison with many living cults on the Continent. Even an enigmatic cult such as that of Magí of Brufaganya, a supposed third- or fourth-century martyr in Catalunya, even now exhibits most of the elements which characterised the full-blown European cult of the Middle Ages. Before looking briefly at Magí, as an example of what has been lost in these islands, it is instructive to list those constituent elements.
Generally speaking, a fully-formed cult may be expected to have inter alia: a body; a tomb; reported miracles; corporeal and secondary relics; recognition of sanctity by acclamation or episcopal/pontifical endorsement (canonisation); a feast day or days included in kalendars; liturgical commemoration (including entries in litanies, hymns, collects, lections, sermons); pilgrimage; processions; a Life story with motifs; songs and perhaps dances; iconography (including the saint's attributes); efficacy for particular conditions, intentions, and patronage; ex-voto offerings; association with landscape features and other aspects of the natural world (particularly wells); dedications of churches, altars and other devotional foci; baptismal naming patterns; communal festivities and customs; folklore; pseudo-history. A cult grows out of particular social and cultural humus, reflects particular concerns, and exhibits characteristics of growth and diffusion in non-random modes and patterns.
Regardless of the conundrums surrounding Magí - so typical of local cults throughout Christendom - what is certain is that a place of burial became associated with a person known by that name since at least the beginning of the twelfth century. Whether it was really Magí's body which was laid in that grave was never an issue. What is significant is that the sepulchre became a shrine, a centre of devotion, one whose importance was emphasised by its incorporation into the high altar of a medieval church. Indeed, since this altar was located at the west end of the church rather than the east, the juxtaposition of sepulchre and altar was perhaps intended to imitate the occidented focus of devotion and worship in 'Old' St Peter's at Rome. Further, the grave was located in a semi-subterranean crypt, one end of which was underneath the high altar, the other ending in a 'little window' in the presbytery (or chancel) steps which led up to the altar.
Mass in the chapel of St Magi at Cevera in the Segarra region of the Lleida diocese.
Miracles were reported from the shrine, which was hung with ex-votos after rebuilding of the church separated it from the high altar and left it in grand isolation at the end of the nave but still close to the presbytery. A register of miracles began to be kept, and more than three hundred were included in a book of miracles compiled at the beginning of the seventeeth century.
The centre of the cult, then, was the saint's supposed body, the primary relic, from which a bone was taken by a visiting priest in the late sixteenth century, incurring episcopal wrath and a prohibition of further furta sacra. Secondary relics too were obtained by the faithful. They touched the saint's effigy with their rosaries, which thus became sacralised, took scrapings from a statue of the saint at his well-house chapel, a statue now eroded beyond recognition, and felt imbued by power from kissing or otherwise touching the saints' images or his tomb.
No pope formally canonised Magí, though it was a papal secretary, himself from a town near Brufaganya, who first noted his name in a list of saints at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The recognition of Magí's sanctity must have been by acclamation, therefore, and one frequent 'proof' of sanctity is the incorrupt body, evidenced by a sweet smell. Magí's sepulchre exuded the odour of sanctity from at least the sixteenth century. Workmen who disturbed the crypt in 1735 caused a 'fragrance' to fill the church for three days. Historians are inclined to explain such odours as emanating from the ingredients of embalment. Anthropologists prefer to record it in terms of the experience of the faithful, interpreting the perceived odour as a means of distinguishing 'holy' bodies from the general stink of decaying corpses. Corruption was put out of sight, buried, shunned. If the bodies of the holy were to be given special treatment and taken into places of social gathering, vocabularies of acceptance were required, both lexical and experiential.
The annual procession on the saint's feast day through Cevera to the chapel of St Magi, photographed in August 1998. The Associacio Amics de Sant Magi of Cevera have their own web site with pictures and information about the saint's festival.
Pilgrimage to Magí's shrine must have been underway by the fourteenth century, judging by bequests to the shrine by devout testators and other donors. By the end of the sixteenth century, people of Santa Coloma de Queralt, about ten miles away, were walking to the shrine to implore Magí for help in bringing rain. The bishop of Tarragona walked the fifty miles from the coast in fulfilment of a vow made to Magí on the occasion of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps he had a relative among the ships' crews or their military passengers.
Pilgrims increased the number of ex-votos displayed at the shrine - in the shape of limbs and heads and dolls, banners and votive pictures showing the saint appearing to the sick and others in danger. In the saint's chapel in Tarragona the predominant ex-votos are model ships, for Magí is the protector of the city's fishermen. As well as ex-votos, wax candles lighten darkness and exemplify prayer and hopefulness.
From earlier in the sixteenth century comes the first surviving reference to a Life of the saint. How ancient this might be is debatable. It includes conventional topoi, such as a tale of Magí escaping from prison with the aid of an angel, like Peter in The Acts of the Apostles. Like other vitae, it seeks to protect the relic by telling how 'those who would see the saint's body were struck blind until they prayed and were restored to health'. It also features an explanation of the saint's name: 'I am no magician,' Magí tells the Roman procurator, 'but a true Christian.' Such elements of saints' Lives are as old as the genre and prove little. Even the probable Latin original of the saint's name, Maximus, is problematic, since a similar name, Mager, was current in Catalunya in the tenth century.
The sanctuary church of St Magi at Brufaganya, with one of the hermitage caves in the cliff-face above and to the left
Liturgical commemoration of the saint is evidenced by a Breviari de Sant Magí, printed at Barcelona in 1536. The book's text included descriptions of the shrine and its location, emphasising the significance of the juxtaposition of sepulchre and altar. The choice of readings, hymns and prayers in such abbreviated service books can give important clues to the perceived history of the saint and their cult. As well as his ecclesiastical honours, Magí was celebrated in songs of the devout. The goig (pronounced 'goytch') or 'gaudy' as we should say in English, is typical of Catalunya and the south of France. Every parish has its goigs in honour of the patron saint, giving details of the saint's career and accomplishments - particularly identifying the ills against which the saint was deemed to be efficacious. In Magí's case these included sexually-transmitted diseases and perils of childbirth. Such goigs are still being composed, though as variations on a theme rather than new creations, and can thus reveal useful indications about the people's understanding of their supernatural protectors and their own sense of identity and need.
St Magi as depicted on a roadside votive pillar near Brufaganaya
Imagery runs concurrent with text. In Magí's case, his iconography has been consistent over the last five centuries and perhaps earlier: a male figure with a long and full white beard, robed in the brown garb of the pilgrim together with a friar's apron, a long pilgrim's crook-ed staff in his right hand with which he is striking a rock. From the rock a spring gushes, feeding (in the earliest surviving image, a painting of c. 1560) a pool in which devout pilgrims bathe their pustulated legs. (In the same painting, bloody rags lie discarded outside the pilgrims' tent.) Some images of Magí show him with a Moorish sword, thus linking his supposed martyrdom under a Roman emperor with an allusion to Christian Spain's opposition to Moorish Spain and Islam generally. On the saint's right is seen a church on a hill, representing the monastic church, or sanctuary, housing his shrine. Thus the iconography fulfils the purposes usual in representations of Christian saints: it provides contexts of sainthood. These include the saint's attributes or identifiers, in this case the staff of a pilgrim and the sword, instrument of martyrdom; the landscape associated with his Life and miracles; and companion saints - in the case of a retable rescued from a chapel near the sanctuary and now under restoration in the diocesan museum in Tarragona, Magí is shown opposite the proto-monk and hermit Antony of Egypt. Donor figures in the 1560 painting complete the ensemble as they often do in medieval Christian devotional art.
A sixteenth-century retable rescued from the chapel of La Salut, previously Our Lady of the Rosary, serving the Brufaganya cliff-cave hermitage
Landscape features associated with Magí at Brufaganya included the spring from which healing was obtained, hence miraculous, and so a 'holy' well, or as the Catalans describe it, a font. Two further springs, claimed to be miraculous, were added in the seventeenth century, perhaps to cope with demand. The earliest reference to the saint at Brufaganya is a mention in 1204 of a Rock of Sant Magí in a list of estate boundary marks. Gradually thereafter a sacred landscape unfolds in the record. The church with the saint's tomb, and a monastery or 'sanctuary' which grew up around it, sits on a hillside terrace above the valley in which lies his font. Above the sanctuary in a cliff below the crest of the ridge, reached by a narrow, perilous flight of steps, hermitage caves have been hollowed out. Two survive but there may have been others. Further along the cliff is a chapel, which once had adjoining rooms for habitation and study. The pool shown in the painting of 1560 was replaced a little later by a well-house, to which was subsequently added a hospital. This was eventually transferred to the sanctuary, where a hostel was also built. Wayside crosses, chapels and markers helped the pilgrims find their way from the district's main roads. Last but not least there were the roses of Brufaganya. According to the accounts of Magí from at least the sixteenth century, roses sprang up along the route by which the saint's body was taken after his execution, wherever drops of his blood had fallen to the ground. The wild rosa gallica grew here and is now being revived. Adjoining the cliff-side chapel (significantly perhaps dedicated in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary, but more recently in the name of Our Lady of La Salut), lay a large garden with massively-buttressed walls. Perhaps Magí's roses were cultivated by the hermits for medicinal or cosmetic use and profit.
The catchment-area of devotion to Magí is defined, as with any other cult, by the location of the churches and chapels where he is titular, and other places where his cult was observed - for example by parish feasts. Again in common with the overwhelming majority of cults, this one developed a non-random distribution. The spatial pattern is interesting, for it forms a corridor stretching north from Tarragona to the Pyrenees. A route can be traced along this corridor from which an association might be made between devotion to Magí and transhumance, the seasonal herding of flocks to upland summer pastures. Again as with medieval cults generally, it is important to note the local appropriation of the saint at those places where he is venerated. His shrine may be at Brufaganya, but he is also St Magí 'of Tarragona', 'of Cervera', and so on. 'In the water of Sant Magí lies the hope of Barcelona,' wrote an eighteenth-century diarist.
The font, or well-house, below the sanctuary at Brufaganya
The annual fetching of Magí's miraculous water from Brufaganya to Barcelona, Tarragona, Igualada, Vilafranca, Cervera, Manresa and Tarrega is the foremost of the popular customs by which this cult is distinguished. However, it does not exhaust the list of places where the saint's day is the occasion for either the major annual feast or a supplementary festivity. In a sense the water ritual is a regional phenomenon, linking a number of important urban centres of southern and central Catalunya - each of which has its confrarie, the equivalent of an English gild, with which should be also be equated the germandat or brotherhood of St Magí founded at Brufaganya in 1524. The various festes represent expressions of locality. A highly-localised ritual of Magí returns us to Brufaganya, where a small wayside chapel half-way between the font and the sanctuary, now vanished, was known as Sant Magí de Barretet, 'the little hat'. This may once have been a cap, but appears later to have been a dish, into which passers-by attempted to throw coins through an opening in the chapel door. When a coin landed in the barretet, it meant luck - marriage, perhaps, or a good harvest.
Finally should be mentioned the naming of offspring in honour of the saint. This has long happened in the case of Magí and particularly in the catchment-area of his cult. Since the incidences of Mager in the tenth century refer to women, it is worth considering the strategies for applying male saints' names to daughters, and those of female saints to sons.
Thus we have seen in a single, living instance something of the full range of expressions of devotion to be expected from a Christian cult. It demonstrates also the extent of what was lost through successive changes of attitude and religious affiliation in these islands. The clues to be picked up, the dedication of an altar here, the survival of a custom there, are all that are left with which the existence of such cults in Britain can be reconstructed. Nevertheless, where the clues can be stitched together, as can happen in the systematic collection of evidence for a database and atlas, the work of interpretation can begin. The cult of Magí of Brufaganya demonstrates secondly what sort of picture such interpretation is likely to reveal and the questions that need to be asked in the process. Icons of local and regional identity, mirrors of mentality, conduits of healing and well-being, soul-mates of shepherds and fishermen: saints are all this and more.
The annual grand sopar in the town square of Cevera, celebrating the feast of St Magi
My thanks to my friends and colleagues in Catalunya who have made me welcome over the past three years and have allowed me to share in the study of their rich cultural heritage: among them, Senyor Josep-Maria Sans i Trave, Director of the Catalan National Archive; Professora Josefina Roma i Riu of the Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of History and Geography at the University of Barcelona; Mn. Francesc Gallart Magarolas, Secretary of the Diocese of Tarragona; Mn. Ramon Salvador, Curator of the Tarragona diocesan archives; Dr Eulalia Albareda i Lliro of the Comarcal Archive in Montblanc and her family; and others too numerous to mention. My thanks too to Professor William Christian Jnr of Yale University, whose inspirational writings and generous advice have helped these first tentative steps in Catalan historical studies. Molts gracies!
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