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Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance
By Josiah Blackmore, Gregory S. Hutcheson
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Mark D. Jordan
Saint Pelagius, Ephebe and Martyr
With time, the martyr Pelagius would become younger, more eloquent, ever more desirable. In 925 or 926, when he was martyred, he was thirteen years old, precociously pious, and a prisoner in Córdoba with other Christians. According to the testimony of his fellow prisoners, his beauty was such that the caliph, 'Abd ar-Rahman III, desired to add him to his household as another sexual attendant. Pelagius refused to succumb to the king's desire, as he refused to renounce Christianity. And so, the witnesses say, he was first tortured and then dismembered.
In reading some medieval variations on this story, I do not mean to be the least bit cynical about whatever was suffered in fact by the boy behind them. Who can be cynical about torture, for whatever reason, or about the savageries of religions? But I do mean to examine what cynicism there is already in medieval tellings of the story of Pelagius. The appalling events, whatever they were, became early on the vehicle for increasingly overbearing lessons, both patriotic and religious. From the first, there is no disentangling the "facts" of Pelagius's suffering from the polemical uses of it. Nor is it possible to disentangle the tellings of the passions of Pelagius from the ambivalent relations of Iberian Christianity to the same-sex love it thought was preached and practiced by Islam.
The dating and the interrelation of the earliest texts about Pelagius are not known, though it seems clear that three different kinds of texts were written within fifty years of his death. The first presents itself as a narrative of his passion based on eyewitness accounts. It was written in Iberia before 967 by an otherwise unknown priest, Raguel. The second text is a metrical life of Pelagius by the Saxon canoness Hrotswitha. It may also belong to the 960s (Dronke 56–57). The third text is a Mozarabic liturgy, an office of Saint Pelagius from León, written perhaps around 967 to mark the arrival of the saint's relics—or perhaps thirty years earlier to memorialize his wonders. I am less interested in the precise dating of the works than in the ways their genres transmute the underlying account and deflect its dangers.
The first genre for the telling of Pelagius's death is a narrative constructed from the testimony of eyewitnesses. The narrative does not pretend to be transcribed testimony. It is a well-crafted story of martyrdom, beginning with an invocation of divine aid and ending with a claim on Pelagius as patron of the local church. In between there are deft quotations of Scripture, moral applications, and classical allusions. The author, Raguel, is identified in one manuscript as the "doctor ... huius Passionis" [teacher of this passion]. Raguel is not without his teacherly pretensions. He begins with self-conscious reflections on textual beginnings. He proceeds often through antitheses, which he uses in series to amplify or punctuate the basic narrative. Questions about the exact extent of Raguel's literary learning will soon become important, but his polished and polemical purposes in telling the story stand forth no matter how one decides them. Raguel is eloquent in order to condemn the religion, the morals, and the savagery of the young saint's Islamic jailers.
Pelagius himself was not captured by them. He was given as a substitute for a clerical relative, the bishop Hermoygius. Hermoygius had been taken prisoner after the rout of Christian forces at Valdejunquera in the summer of 920. He was at risk of death because of the hardships of imprisonment. So he arranged for his ten-year-old cousin to take his place, hoping all the while, our chronicler insists, that other captives would be sent in place of his young surrogate. Once in prison, Pelagius lived an exemplary life under divine guidance. He was able to overcome even those temptations that had troubled him in the world. Principal among his flourishing virtues was chastity. He kept his body whole. He "purified the vessel" to prepare it as a fitting chamber in which to rejoice as the "spouse" (sponsus) of Jesus, to delight in the bloody embrace of martyrdom as marriage.
Jesus, teaching him inwardly, began to transform Pelagius outwardly. Raguel cannot find words enough for the description. The boy's appearance gave praise to the teacher within: "Cui sane intus manebat instructor Christus ei qui foris erat illuminator, quo ipsum celebraret magistrum specie tenus qui mentem, haud dubium, dignus regebat alumnus" (47–49). He was "singularly ornamented" by the signs of his destination in paradise (46–47): "species iam paradisigena prerogatiue decoraret." His face had a "uenustiorem ... pulcritudinem" (63) [lovelier beauty]. Indeed, word of this attractiveness reached the Muslim "king" (rex) who is not here named by Raguel. (The name is given only in a colophon.) The king sends for Pelagius to be brought to him at banquet. Pelagius is dressed in royal robes and led into the hall, the attendants whispering that he is fortunate to have his beauty carry him so far. The king offers him much to renounce Christ and affirm Mohammed: wealth, opulent clothing, precious ornaments, life in the court. There is even the offer of the companionship of any of the court's young men, with whom Pelagius can do what he will: "Sumes preterea tibi qualem ex his tironunculis elegeris, qui tuis ad votum moribus famuletur" (82–83). The king further promises to free from jail a number of other Christians, including Pelagius's relatives.
All of this Pelagius refuses with a string of contrasts between the passing of temporal things and the eternity of Christ. Ignoring the refusal, the king reaches out to touch Pelagius "joculariter." The adverb is odd. It could mean something like "playfully," but that meaning hardly fits here. In Ovid, who may well be on Raguel's mind, the verb joco is used as a metaphor for copulation (Adams 161–62). So tangere joculariter may mean at least "to touch sexually" and perhaps even "to fondle" in the quite sexual sense. How else to explain Pelagius's reaction? He strikes the king and spits out a contemptuous question: "Numquid me similem tuis effeminatum existimas?" [Do you think me like one of yours, an effeminate?].
Raguel's Pelagius may mean "effeminate" in the general sense that connects any form of sexual self-indulgence with womanliness. This would seem to go along with the martyr's choice of Paul as model (39–40). But he may also have in mind the more specific sense thateffeminati has in one passage of the Vulgate. There, in a condemnation of the reign of Roboam, the effeminate are those who commit "omnes abominationes gentilium quas adtrivit Dominus ante faciem filiorum Israhel" (3 Kings 14.24) [all the abominations of the gentiles, which the Lord destroyed before the face of the sons of Israel]. The reference would seem to be both to the destruction of Sodom and to the sexual abominations condemned in Leviticus. So the "effeminate" would seem to be those who "lie with a man as with a woman." Certainly Pelagius's next response emphasizes the sexual character of the king's touch. The martyr rips off the fine gown in which he has been dressed and he stands forth, naked, a muscled athlete of the Greek schools: "Et ilico uestimenta ibi que indutus erat scidit et fortem in palestra se alletam constituit" (93–94).
The king does not immediately command Pelagius's destruction. He thinks rather that the boy might be changed by the "pimping persuasions" of the court's young men. For Raguel, this persistence helps to prove the king's depravity. If we exchange textual frames for a moment, it will seem instead a display of good manners. After all, the king is acting out a role approved by a number of Arabic authors. Islamic rulers, theologians, and poets are frequently depicted as falling in love with socially subordinate boys who then offer resistance. Not a few of the boys are Christian—indeed, they are often Christian prisoners or slaves. A tale heard only a few decades later in Córdoba itself can stand for many. In the Ring of the Dove, Ibn Hazm tells of the love of Ibn al-Asfar for 'Ajib, a servant of the vizier. Ibn alAsfar would haunt the mosque where the boy worshipped. One day, infuriated by the unwanted gazes, the boy struck him. Instead of being outraged, Ibn al-Asfar was delighted. His humiliation placed him in the highest rank of lovers and encouraged him in his gentle approaches. The blow Pelagius strikes against the caliph can be read in both ways. For Raguel, it is evidence of the boy's courageous virtue. In narrative formulas more familiar to the caliph and his courtiers, it would have been a charming invitation to further advances. Indeed, thus far the drama of Pelagius and the caliph could very well be a love story in an Arabic anthology. The "martyrdom" would be the caliph's, since exactly this image is used for the sufferings of those who love haughty or inaccessible boys.
But our text is not a piece in an Arabic anthology. It is a passion for Latin Christians. So when further enticement proves unsuccessful, when the king feels his own desires finally spurned, anger seizes him. He orders Pelagius to be seized with iron tongs and twisted about, until he should either renounce Christ or die. Pelagius does neither. So the king demands at last that the boy be cut to pieces with swords and thrown into the river. Raguel describes the dismemberment graphically. What is more, he likens the frenzy of Pelagius's executioners to the mad rites of the Bacchae: "Tam inmania in eum exerto pugione ludibria debacchati sunt" (Rodríguez Fernández lines 107–08) [they were turned into Bacchae through the mad desires that came from beating him], so much so that one would have thought they were sacrificing the boy rather than executing him. Throughout these torments the voice of Pelagius is heard calling out for God's help. The "athlete's" voice is stilled only after he is called to the martyr's crown by the Lord.
The reference to the Bacchae and the emphasis on the unstilled voice are striking, especially in a passage so rich in the customary images of Christian martyrdom. The verb used, debacchor, is rare. Both the allusion it incorporates and the archaic tone it carries put the reader in mind of poetic learning, of expertise in pagan mythography. The association seems to be confirmed by what happens in Raguel's narration to the saint's speaking body. The martyr who would not be silent is to be cut apart and then drowned. So it happens. His limbs come to rest on one shore, his severed head on another. Any reader of Latin poetry will hear in these events echoes of the death of Orpheus. Orpheus too was cut apart by a tribe of Bacchae, who seized tools from terrified farmers in order to kill him. His voice had charmed animals with singing, but fell silent under the metal blades. Yet once thrown into the river, Orpheus somehow still sang, borne down toward the sea. Only this miracle is lacking in Pelagius to make the likeness complete.
Is the dismemberment of Pelagius meant by Raguel to call to mind the death of Orpheus? Certainly parts of the myth had been allegorized for Christian purposes long before Raguel began to write. The allegory is presented in Boethius's Consolation, for example, and then appropriated by a number of his readers in both vernacular and Latin forms (3 met. 12, lines 76–78). But the part of the myth that matters to the passion of Pelagius is not the already allegorized loss of Eurydice. It is, rather, Orpheus's dismembering because of his refusal to have sexual relations with women after Eurydice's second death. Indeed, Ovid begins his narration of the dismembering by noting that Orpheus taught Thracian men the love of boys (Metamorphoses 11.1–84 and 10.83–84). The connection between Orpheus and same-sex love would be registered by later commentators, as it would pass into the vernacular traditions (Bein 50–52). The Metamorphoses was known in Spain at the time that Raguel was writing. It may be that he means to Christianize this other part of the Orpheus myth by inverting it: Pelagius becomes the Christian Orpheus because he is dismembered, not just for his purity but for his explicit rejection of same-sex desire.
One can hear other mythic resonances. The martyrdom of Pelagius also inverts or reclaims the well-known tale of Zeus and Ganymede. If Zeus kidnapped the Phrygian boy to be his cup-bearer, the Muslim king wants to abduct Pelagius from Christianity for service in his hall, the approved role for beautiful and beloved boys. The change of condition from the hillsides near Troy to Olympus is no greater than the change from the dark prison to the resplendent court. But Pelagius is in fact called for service at the table of a higher king. His beauty is the visible sign of his having been chosen for the service of Christ, to whom he will be both sponsus and famulus, both spouse and household intimate. Christ already intends that he should stand beside the heavenly throne in the chorus of virgins (66–67). He who spurned the "crown" of the Muslim tyrant receives the long-promised crown from the hands of Jesus (120). And his spirit flies upward to heaven—as if carried by eagle's wings: "spiritus migrauit ad Deum; corpus uero proiectum est in fluminis alveum" (121). Of course, and to interrupt the series of echoes, it is always difficult to judge how far these literary associations can be assigned to Raguel.
Much riskier, because more speculative, is the question of how far Raguel might have known Arabic or Hebrew poems describing love for boys. Such poems were certainly being written in Córdoba in the years around the death of Pelagius. Indeed, one of 'Abd ar-Rahman's ministers is known as a patron of Hebrew poets. But if Raguel knew any poems of this kind, he is at pains to invert their tropes and deny their beauties with scathing silence. In any case, I am content to find poetic precedents only in the most specific case. Raguel does mean to call up Ovid's Orpheus, though he may not have any clear notion of how he will manage the Ovidian allusions once they are called to mind.
Even if all poetic precedents are denied, there can be no denying that Raguel suggests complications in the story that he cannot quite control. Recall, for example, Pelagius's familiarity with practices of same-sex desire. However the king wished to touch him, no single touch could communicate all that is contained in Pelagius's contemptuous question, "Do you think me one of yours, an effeminate?" Pelagius already knows that there are "effeminates" and that they serve for certain kinds of sexual uses. He not only recognizes the king's gesture as sexual, he recognizes the sexual script from which it comes. How does he know this? From the clichés of anti-Islamic polemic preached in Christian communities? He does call the king "dog" (canis), one of many animal epithets familiar from anti-Islamic tracts. Or does Pelagius know the king's sexual customs from prison whispers, from the sight of prisoners taken out overnight? Or from the bragging promises of servants? However he knows, Pelagius comes into the presence of the king forewarned that he is a likely object of sexual desire.
So the martyr's next gesture of rejection becomes all the odder. Pelagius strips off the costly robes with which he has been decorated. He thus repudiates "effeminacy." He also exposes that body which is the object of desire. Instead of concealing what the king wants, he presents it more aggressively. Raguel assimilates this to the tradition of Christian martyrology by likening Pelagius to an athlete, naked in the palestra (93–94, 119). In context, the gesture taunts the king. Pelagius the martyr is quite plainly Pelagius the ephebe, the type of young male beauty. He rips off his own clothes, as an eager lover might, just in order to show the king what he cannot have. The sight of that body may be one reason why the king is slow to anger, preferring persuasion instead. Only when persuasion fails does the royal desire, exacerbated by Pelagius's display, turn ferocious. Even then, the king hopes that the pain of the iron "forceps" may bring Pelagius to denounce Christ and so recover his body from pain for pleasure.
Pelagius knows the customs of same-sex desire, and he plays with that desire itself when he strips before the king just in order to spurn him. He spurns as well in what he says. When Pelagius proclaims that he "cherishes Christ," when he chooses to die or to suffer "for Christ," when he invokes no one other than "the Lord Jesus Christ," he is speaking the name of his true love in the face of his rival (89, 95, 105, 113). For the king, the choice facing Pelagius seems to be between pleasure and pain, between his own gracious self and a fictive god. For Pelagius, the choice seems to lie between ephemeral and permanent pleasure, between an earthly and a heavenly king, between an imperfect lover and a perfect one. The story of the martyrdom is, through Pelagius's eyes, the story of a passionate triangle in which all the parties are male. He does not deny same-sex love so much as he redefines it by choosing Christ as his lover.
Excerpted from Queer Iberia by Josiah Blackmore, Gregory S. Hutcheson. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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