Miracles and the Cantigas de Santa Maria

I was recently made thoughtful by a video I watched about non-complementary behavior. Complementarity is a term used in social psychology to describe personal interactions. In essence, social psychologists have found that behavior tends to invite certain responses in others: Dominant behavior from one person leads to a submissive response from that person’s conversational partner; hostility prompts hostility; friendliness invites friendliness; etc. When people fail to respond in the expected way, they are behaving in a non-complementary fashion. The video I watched is about how responding to hostility with friendliness (not the expected reaction) can lead to positive results.

What struck me most about the video is that, when one of the people interviewed described the way his situation changed as “a miracle”, the narrator questioned his assessment. After explaining the idea of non-complementarity, she concluded, “The March in Selma? Nonviolence in India? Offering a man with a gun at your head a glass of French wine? Those aren’t miracles. They’re examples of non-complementary behavior.”

I was confused, indignant, and intrigued – because all of those things seem like miracles to me. Why would the narrator say that something can’t be a miracle if it also happens to be an example of non-complementary behavior?

The problem seems to be one of definitions: What counts as a miracle? Well, a miracle is something that exists or happens because of a supernatural power. But the narrator of the video seems to believe that a miracle must be something that surpasses normal human ability or defies the laws of physics. This is certainly a well-accepted understanding of the miraculous. Many people would not say that, for example, water boiling on the stove is a miracle – even if it did happen to be caused or inspired by a god or other supernatural entity – because it is normal and, we assume, would have happened even without divine intervention.

How different, I thought, from the view of miracles in the Cantigas de Santa Maria!


The Cantigas de Santa Maria

By the end of the 13th century, the art of the troubadours had reached its height. One of its biggest fans was a man named Alfonso, who was the King of Castille. King Alfonso placed a high value on education and knowledge, patronizing scientists and artists of many different backgrounds and encouraging the use of everyday language in the arts. He appreciated that troubadours wrote love poems in their own language, and he decided to do the same by composing a huge collection of Galician-Portuguese love songs to the love of his life, the Virgin Mary.

The collection, called the Cantigas de Santa Maria, has 420 songs, all about the Virgin and the miracles she has performed. Scholars disagree about whether they were all written by Alfonso himself or whether some of them were written by others, but in either case, his influence is present throughout.

Although the intention was to create something like troubadour songs, the collection ended up being much more folksy and visceral. Instead of the remote, idealized love object of troubadour poetry, Mary of the Cantigas is humanized; we see her scold, laugh, haunt people at night, and swing the Devil around the church by his tail. And the stories, while they definitely celebrate the miraculous power of the Virgin, often seem to revel in the nasty symptoms she rescues people from and the grisly horrors that await those who fail to worship her. Poetically, the Cantigas do not even attempt to conform to the meticulous rules that troubadours applied to their work. (To be fair, Alfonso doesn’t claim to be good at poetry; he just really, really loves Mary. See Prologue B to the Cantigas and my singable translation.) In short, the Cantigas are not the carefully crafted artwork that we see in the works of troubadours like Jaufre Rudel or Marcabru, but they are something just as delightful: a lively picture of 13th-century Spain with all of its mud, guts, racism, disease, ambition, glory, and ideals.


Miracles in the Cantigas

In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, all of Mary’s interventions in human life are miracles. These can be literally any action at all.

Of course, many of them are big, impressive, obviously supernatural acts – the kind of acts that, if we accept them to be true, we all agree must be divine.

Miracle Original Tune & Lyrics Singable Translation
A boy who jokingly proposes to a statue of Mary is terrified when the statue responds. #42 A Virgen mui grorïosa Singable Translation
A survivor of horrific domestic abuse is given the power to heal the entire city of a skin disease. #105 Gran pïadad’ e mercee e nobreza Singable Translation
A greedy judge is kidnapped by demons, but Mary intervenes. #119 Como somos per conssello do démo perdudos Singable Translation
Mary reveals the location of a stolen pork chop by having it dance out of its hiding place. #159 Non sofre Santa María Singable Translation
Mary returns life to a boy who has been dead for three days. #167 Quen quér que na Virgen fía Singable Translation
A priest is forced to eat a spider during communion, and it crawls around under his skin. #225 Muito bon miragr’ a Virgen Singable Translation

More common are the miracles that, even if we reject the idea that Mary was involved, we can still believe may have happened in part. Some of the events might have occurred naturally, we might reason, and the supernatural events can be explained by the possible fatigue or social conditioning or mental illness of the witnesses.

Miracle Original Tune & Lyrics Singable Translation
Mary rescues a falling man by causing his paintbrush to stick to the wall. #74 Quen Santa María quisér defender Singable Translation
A monk sees a vision of Heaven and wakes up hundreds of years later. #103 Quena Virgen ben servirá Singable Translation
A stolen sheep reveals its location by “speaking”. #147 A Madre do que a bestia Singable Translation
A man promises to make an offering to Mary if he is cured of his disease, and he recovers. #166 Como póden per sas culpas Singable Translation
Mary breaks a gambling die so that a man can win back the church he gambled away. #214 Como a demais da gente Singable Translation
Mary quiets a volcano after a man composes a hymn at her command. #307 Toller pód’ a Madre de Nóstro Sennor Singable Translation
A man tries to kick down the church door in order to rape a girl hiding inside; as a consequence, he breaks his leg. #317 Mal s’ á end’ achar Singable Translation
A man who steals Mary’s altar cloth to make underpants is punished with intense pain. #327 Porque ben Santa Maria Singable Translation
A sick woman is cured when she visits Mary’s cathedral. #346 Com’a grande enfermidade Singable Translation
A young boy sees a vision of Jesus and, when he dies, goes to Heaven. #353 Quen a omagen da Virgen Singable Translation

But there are also extremely modest miracles, events that we can easily believe might have happened without the intervention of any divine power. The little moments in King Alfonso’s life where something bad might have happened – but it didn’t. These are the most personal, and to me, the most touching.

Miracle Original Tune & Lyrics Singable Translation
Mary allows Alfonso to be born to a royal line, achieve victory in war, and have good health. #200 Santa María loei Singable Translation
Alfonso’s mother does not die in childbirth. #256 Quen na Virgen grorïosa Singable Translation
Alfonso’s pet ferret falls off his horse but is not trampled. #354 Eno pouco e eno muito Singable Translation

These are just a few examples of the many, many miracles in the Cantigas. (I mentioned that there are 420 of these songs, right?) But to me, the most touching thing about these songs is that, to King Alfonso, all of these events are miraculous. His ferret not getting stepped on is just as wonderful and amazing as a dancing pork chop or someone being raised from the dead. All of these things are proof that Someone is looking out for us.


More Information

If you’d like to learn more about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, there is a lot of information available online. I recommend two sites in particular. The Centre for the Study of the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Oxford University has detailed information about the manuscripts, the songs’ topics (you can sort by keyword!), and other works that contain descriptions of the same miracles. Please also look at Cantigas de Santa Maria for Singers which has the tune (in 13th-century and modern notation), original lyrics with IPA pronunciation, and estimated performance times for each song.


Key Facts

  • Date: c 1270-1290
  • Composer: King Alfonso X of Castile (and probably other contributors)
  • Manuscripts:
    • Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Codice Princeps, signature j.b.2 “Códice de los músicos”
    • Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Codice Rico, signature T.j.1
    • National Central Library of Florence, “Florence” codex
    • National Library of Madrid, “Toledo” codex
  • Original Language: Galician-Portguese
  • Genre: cantiga
  • Form: various, but commonly virelai (AbbaA) form
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One thought on “Miracles and the Cantigas de Santa Maria

  1. Pingback: Be.m meraveill co non es envejos (& Overview of Trobar) | De Bel-Accueil énamouré

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