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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Les Saintes Puelles, Part 2: Where by reading books and visiting places we approximate something like research

The Saintes Puelles, Mas-Saintes-Puelles
For the following post to make sense, please first consult Les Saintes Puelles for background, context, etc.

When we last left the Puelles I mentioned that I had discovered a place in Asturias, Spain, named "Puelles" a few kilometers away from another called "San Saturnino"; in Asturianu these are alternately called "Pueyes" and "Sanzornin" (local signs use both appellations). Given their close proximity to the so-called "French Way" of the St. James Way, this is not surprising. Toulouse and the Basilica of San Sernin were an important stop for pilgrims on the way to Compostela; it is probable that as these pilgrims made their way towards the sacred destination, they brought the cult of both Sernin and the Puelles with them.

As it turns out, when I discovered these places I had already rented a house a mere twenty minutes away so I was thus able to visit them, snap some photos and make a few observations. Nothing particularly revelatory, but worth recounting nonetheless.

Before I made it to Spain, however, I stumbled across a reference to a book called Histoire des Saintes Puelles et de leur culte (History of the Saint Puelles and their cult) by the abbé Emile Rous, published in Perpignan in 1876. Fortunately, I was able to find this book in the Bibliotheque d'Etude et du Patrimoine in Toulouse.

So one afternoon I made my way to the reading room and consulted the book. A small and slender volume, the first half is a general examination on the origin of the cult of the saints. The second half deals with the Puelles specifically.

Rous' first objective is to clarify the meaning of the word "puelles". Citing Tertullian and St. Ambroise, he concludes that "puella" means "vierges consacrés à Dieu": virgins dedicated to God.

His next task is to recount the legend of St. Sernin (see previous post) and in this he adds a few details. Apparently, Émile Mabile, in his massive "Histoire générale de Languedoc" concludes that the antagonism which led to the martyrdom of Sernin was a conflict with worshipers of Cybele and I have elsewhere suggested Mithras. Rous disputes both. There is no concrete evidence to suggest either and so we are merely speculating based on the image of the bull. As we will see at the end of this post, one author makes a claim for Mithras with an interesting analysis, but one with which I am unequipped to concur, or refute.

Rous’ great contribution to my own understanding of the Puelles is not in recounting the legend of Sernin's martyrdom, however, but in what happened next. After caring for the body of Sernin, the Puelles were driven out of town, "ornéé" says Rous, " de la double auréole de la virginity et du martyr": "decorated with the double halo of virginity and of the martyr." They found refuge in a place called Recaudum where their faith and example made even the crops and orchards more fruitful:

"Arregant de un riu de flors
Las plantas infructuousas"

This is pretty simple: "arregar" is the Occitan verb for "to plant". My rough translation of this would be "Making a river of flowers from unfruitful plants" or words to that effect. This vegetal motif echoes many images of the Virgin Mary; there are numerous legends in which statues of Mary appear under rosebushes flowering in mid-Winter. Our Lady of Merixtell, patroness of Andorra, is one of these legends. Many other saints venerated in the Languedoc, such as Thérèse de Lisieux and Saint Germaine de Pibrac, are often pictured with flowers tumbling from their aprons. The apparition of La Virgen de Guadalupe, also involves a miracle of winter flowers.

Also worth noting is that Puelles and San Saturnino in Asturias are found in the commune of Villaviciosa, whose name implies a certain vice -- laziness -- on the part of its inhabitants; according to legend this is because the land is so productive the farmers do not need to work hard. The motif of abundant fertility rocking with the best of 'em.

In any event, much like legends of the two Marys who stayed in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer after the Magdalene left (again, see the previous Puelles post), the Puelles led such saintly and virtuous lives that they became an inspiration to those around, winning converts by their example. This is celebrated in a traditional Goig, or Catalan song:

"A l'Espos vos prestareu
Portant Coronas de flors

Como reynas victoriosas"

I'm not sure what the first line means but the rest is easy: "Wearing crowns of flowers like victorious queens". (Any help on the exact translation of the first line would be appreciated).

Upon their deaths, the Puelles were buried outside of the village in a field which was thereafter always covered in flowers. Their tomb is said to have been moved into the village now known as Mas Saintes Puelles as part of a sanctuary dedicated to St. Michael. This sanctuary was destroyed and their relics were then placed in the Parish church.

Outside of Mas Saintes Puelles, abbé Rous examines a few other places where their cult took root. The first of these is in Toulouse. Rous insists that the cult dates back to at least the 10th century, but he never actually offers any proof. His feeling is that given the antiquity of the cult of saints, it must reach back to before the written records. It is in fact a crucial question, but there is no documentary evidence prior to the 16th century.

There is a breviary in the Bibliothéque Nationale which belonged to a church official in Toulouse, dated 1553, containing liturgical rites dedicated to the Puelles. In 1537 we find the Sanctarum Puellarum, a votive mass which offers lessons for their feast day.

There is also evidence of their cult in Saint Sernin basilica dating from roughly the same period in the form of paintings and an enameled medal on Saint Sernin's reliquary.

My instinct here is that these two homages to the Puelles, so close in date, may reflect the cult of the ideal woman flourishing in Toulouse at the time, at the apex of the Tolousain Renaissance. Clémence Isaure, legendary patroness of the Floral Academy, was an invention of this period. The historical Belle Paule (1518-1610) was in the flower of her youth. The idea of Dame Tholose, the first non-religious allegorical sculpture in Toulouse since antiquity, brandishing a floral wreath, first appeared in print in 1534 and ten years later the sculpture itself was raised near the Capitole.

In the diocese of St. Papoul, evidence is even more recent. No documentary evidence exists until another Sanctarum Puellarum found in a missal from St. Papoul, a scant 17 km drive from Mas Saintes Puelles. This mass dates from 1774. Papoul, or Papulus, according to the legend, was assigned to help Sernin by none other than St. Peter himself (impossible, historically). The Benedictine abbey that bears his name dates to the 8th century, which may in fact support abbé Rous' insistence upon the antiquity of the Puelles cult. We have evidence of Romanesque sculptures of Sernin; if his disciple Papulus was honored with an abbey in his name, what then of the Puelles?

According to Rous, the name "Mas Saintes Puelles" dates from 960 CE in the testament of one Hugues de Toulouse. It is from this document learn that the burial field was covered in "white daisies" with never a weed to be found. In 1461 Archbishop of Toulouse Bernard de Rosier wrote of the reliquary of the Puelles (chasse en argent), now destroyed. According to Rous, fragments of this reliquary now rest at a place called Saint Saturnin de Caborriu. I have been unable to find this location; Caborriu is a Catalan place name, but even with the Catalan appellation "Sant Sadurni de Caborriu" I've found nothing. On the other hand, there is still a place near Mas Saintes Puelles which bears the original name of this village; Ricaud, meaning "refuge" or "shelter". Is this a later place named after the original appellation of Mas Saintes Puelles?

Near St. Papoul and Mas Saintes Puelles is the Diocese of Carcassonne; here we find another cult of the Puelles. Saint Hilaire Abbey is another Benedictine abbey founded in the 8th century, originally dedicated to Saint Sernin but changed later to honor Hilaire as the latter's cult developed.

In any event, there is a magnificent sarcophagus of the highest artistry located here, depicting the life of Saint Sernin (along with his companions, including Saint Papoul and Saint Honest, or Honestus, allegedly martyred at Pamplona and as some legends have it, baptizer of Saint Fermin). This tomb includes depictions of the Puelles and dates from c. 970.

There are other manifestations of a Puelles cult in the Diocese of Narbonne, Elne and Urgell from the late 14th and early 15th centuries: a missal from Elne dated 1511; a manuscript dated 1490-1492 of another Sanctarum Puellarum belonging to a painters guild from Narbonne. Scant findings indeed.

After Mas Saintes Puelles, the most concrete and continuous devotion to the Puelles is to be found at Tautavel. This town, whose name may mean "high spring" (as in water) has a long history. Prehistoric remains are abundant and it is home to the famous Tautavel Man. The Castle located here once held chapels dedicated to women; for all you Grail fans, one was dedicated the Mary Magdalene. Another, dedicated to the Holy Cross, prominently features an image of Saint Helen with the cross. Legend has it that the Puelles once stayed here for provisions and there is a mention of a "proedium romain" or Roman property where a sanctuary to them was founded, their cult brought by a Count of Barcelona who had been visiting his holdings in the Lauragais. References to this property are found as early as 1292 where it is called "Sentes Pudseles", but the sanctuary itself isn't referred to until 1392 and 1394, in a pair of wills. The chapel reappears in wills in both the 15th and 16th centuries.

These dioceses are the extent of Rous' discussion of the cult of the Puelles, but there may be references to them elsewhere; there are at least seven municipalities bearing his name in France as Saint Sernin. Given the variations on the name, there may be others. One of these can be found 10 k to the south of Mas Saintes Puelles.

A number of places in Catalonia are named for him as well and it is likely Puelles references are to be found.

One place Rous probably wasn't aware of is the aforementioned places in Villaviciosa. At Puelles, or Pueyes, we had little luck. A church close by was said to incorporate elements from the Church of San Sernin, but it was locked and we couldn't get a hold of anyone with keys.

Puelles, aka Pueyes, Villaviciosa
At San Saturnino, or Sanzornin, we had more luck. There we found a small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The chapel was not very ornate, but tucked away in a niche was a Romanesque sculpture of Saint Sernin, identified by his bishop's crozier. The statue was in fact headless, which may be due to its age, or perhaps a victim of the Spanish Civil War.

Headless statue of St. Sernin; chapel in San Saturnino, Villaviciosa
On a small porch was a sarcophagus (used as a play kitchen by local kids!), which we were informed was found at the village spring during renovation; a much older church was located there where this spring still flows with delicious, sweet water. Nourished by bones, perhaps.

Both these places are within 10 kilometers of the Monasterio de Santa María de Valdediós, founded in 1200 by Benedictines. On this site one can find a very early Romanesque Church of remarkable stature erected as early as 892 (San Salvador de Valdediós). I don't know if there's a connection between the cult of the Puelles and the Benedictines; the monasteries of Saints Papoul and Hilaire, as you'll recall, were also founded by Benedictines. Perhaps its was links between these monasteries which brought the cult here and not, as I said earlier, pilgrims....

Soon after reading abbé Rous I bought MaryAnge Tibot's "Saintes Puelles, ou la destinée deSaturne". It's priced way too high for such a slender volume (58 pages) and I read it in the blink of an eye. She does a good job of summarizing the Sernin legend and disputing some of the assertions made by Rous. She's familiar with all the primary sources (providing me with several leads) and has spoken to a number of academics who've already explored the topic. This is the bittwersweetness of having found this book, the double-edged sword. On one hand it confirmed a lot of my own observations and put me on to a lot of things worth looking into further. On the other hand, I can't help but feel all my further explorations will be made in the shadow of what she has already done in this book.

The book has two halves. The first is a rather straight look at the legend and sources. The second delves into the alchemical and astrological symbolism of the Puelles. Not being qualified to either confirm or dispute her findings and assertions, I find that I will have to educate myself further on the topics. Her arguments seem solid enough and not flying off into completely unfounded speculation, but like I said, I'm too uninformed to say much else. I am completely skeptical of her theory that the Puelles were literally Siamese twins, based on the unusual sculpture at Tautavel (more on this in a minute). This is especially so because she relates that according to some legends, the pair represented a noble daughter of Huesca and her servant.

I had read this but didn't actually mention it in my last post, which is a big oversight within the context of my developing thesis. I have linked their iconography to that of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. According to this legend and again, I neglected this in my last post, Saint Sarah was a servant of one of the Marys, usually Mary Jacobe. Mary Jacobe, or Clopas, was held by some to be the daughter of one of Saint Anne's three husbands, making her the step-sister of the Virgin Mary.

My working theory is basically that the Puelles story and iconography derive from two traditions. The first is that of Mary Magdalene and the three Marys of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, sometime known as the myrrh-bearers because of the myrrh they carried with which to anoint Jesus' body. I believe the Puelles have been cast in the image of these myrrh-bearers and that their iconography (unguent jar, book) derives from Mary Magdalene. The relationship of mistress and servant finds an echo in the Puelles. What I found next, completely by chance, leads me to believe that the conflation of this sort would be entirely in character with Gallo-Roman Christianity, especially with regard to the second tradition: that of the virgin martyr.

St. Anne; Eglise Notre Dame, Bouillac
Mary Magdalene; Eglise Notre Dame, Bouillac
Recently I visited the site where the Abbey of Grandselve once stood. This Abbey was originally Benedictine (them again), established in 1114, but was handed over to the Cistercians in 1144 or 45. Close to the ruin, in Bouillac, some of the abbey's treasures are preserved. Among these are fragments of sculptures, from the waist up, of Saints Magdalene and Anne. They obviously come from the same ensemble and date from the 17th century, much later than our legends but not so far in time from other representations of the Puelles. In these sculptures we see the usual attributes of the Saints: Magdalene is carrying a pot for the funerary oils and Anne is carrying a book. This is rather unremarkable but together, it is a striking similarity of representations of the Puelles (as in Tautavel) and the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) depicting Mary Magdalene and the Egyptian Maria (another conflation which led Magdalene to be considered as a whore).

Also contained in Bouillac are two reliquaries dedicated to Saint Liberate, or Livrade. The daughter of a Spanish King (like one of the Puelles), she was forced to flee to escape an imposed marriage with a pagan noble. With her twin sisters Quitterie and Gemene, she came to Aquitaine, where, like the Puelles and the Saints Mary after their respective flights, had great success Christianizing the land. Livrade, like the Puelles, is revered as a virgin martyr.

These are interesting similarities, but what also strikes me is the legend behind that monastery in Barcelona also bearing the name of the Puelles. These puelles were the nuns themselves, who either fled to this nunnery to escape imposed marriages or as one version has it, disfigured themselves to avoid being taken by Moorish invaders. Resistance to heathen or escape from unwanted marriage; these are themes shared by our female saints, lending credence to the idea that they represent different aspects of the same medieval ideal. What I found out later is that MaryAnge Tibot has also written a book on....Saint Wilgefortis.

Wilgefortis is often conflated with the very same Saint Liberate; the essence of their legend is the same. What I found as I continued looking into these saints is that there are several virgin martyrs from various places which are quite obviously one and the same legend; places and details vary, but some many features overlap it's clear we are looking at the same legend.

My Puello-centric research at a standstill for the moment, I'll next present a brief survey of these virgin martyrs, beginning with Saint Livrade/Liberate and ending with a delightful coincidence: there is a virgin martyr called Saint Saturnina....

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