Last night I attended a holiday ghost story party. Here’s the story I told:
Earlier this year, I saw something odd at Dijon’s Museum of Fine Arts. It was a Swiss alterpiece panel, about 500 years old, depicting, as the placard said, “Saint Fridolin accompanied by a dead person” – the French is du mort – “he had resussitated.” Weird: is this fellow with the saint resurrected, or is he dead? Can’t be both: except, yes, because Fridolin’s companion is a walking corpse.
This miracle is the favorite of artists: if you see a Fridolin, chances are you’re in Switzerland, or Western Austria, or maybe Baden-Württemberg, in Germany, and chances there’s a corpse in the picture, either clambering from a grave, or giving Fridolin a Christian side-hug, as he is in one sculpture, or being led gently, as he was in the painting in Dijon, by his hand.
Saint Fridolin was, legendarily, a sixth-century Irish missionary to the Alemmani, whose story we know from a tenth-century life written by the monk Balther – supposedly memorized from another manuscript, because when he read it, he had no spare parchment – which he sent in turn to his mentor, the monk Notkerus Piperis Granum, that is, Notker Peppercorn. for the translation, and this brief story, thank you to David Hiley, “Balther of Säckingen, Bishop of Speyer, Composer of Chants for St Fridolin ca. 970.” Studia Musicologica 56, no. 2/3 (2015): … Continue reading
The miracle of the semi-resurrection he told Notker goes like this I am quoting from the Balther’s version edited in the MGH ss Merov. 3; this is at least virtually identical to the account in the Acta Sanctorum, as it is to one from at least one manuscript … Continue reading
There were once two rich brothers, Urso and Landolph. With the consent of his brother, Urso bequeaths goods in Switzerland’s Linth Valley to the Abbey of Säckingen, which Fridolin had founded. But when Urso dies and Landolph comes into sole possession of their enormous wealth, he refuses to honor his brother’s will. Fridolin tries the courts to get what’s owed him, but to no avail. The judge decrees that the donator himself will have to come to the court as a witness to attest to the will. ‘si finem sue litis habere cuperet, donatorem possessionum illarum iudicio litis presentaret, ut sic veritas testis illius donacionem factam rite ac legitimam comprobaret But how’s that possible? Urso’s dead!
Well: when the court is next in session, Saint Fridolin simply walks over to Glarus – now in Switzerland – where Urso is buried. He opens up his sepulcher, calls out to him, and Urso stands forth, resurrected [suscitavit] and Fridolin takes him by the hand and walks him six miles into the town of Ranckweil, in far Western Austria, where Baldeberch, the Landgrav, presided in court, amid an enormous crowd. Urso confronts his brother: oh brother, why have you bespoiled my soul, and so on. Landolph folds, and promises Fridolin not only his brother’s share, but his as well. Satisfied, Saint Fridolin then leads the dead man — defunctum is the Latin — back to the sepulcher from which he had led him.
Now, nothing in the Latin says anything about the condition of Urso’s body. We’re just told that Fridolin resurrects him, and then returns him. But the paintings, the drawings, the sculptures: in all of these, he’s a corpse that walks and talks.
So, imagine that: you’re dead, and you’re resurrected, and, being a medieval person, you’re probably surprised, but not that surprised. This is something saints do to people sometimes. But your body isn’t restored. That part, that’s probably surprising. You’re brought back, aware, into your own rotten body, and made to walk nearly 10 kilometers, all squooshy, you yell at your crooked brother, and then you’re sent back to your grave to be dead again. Or that’s what we presume.
All the Latin says is “Once this was done, Saint Fridolin returned the defunctum – the dead man — back to the sepulcher, from which he had led him.”Hoc peracto, sanctus Fridolinus defunctum illum ad sepulcrum, unde eum duxerat, reduxit. The Latin syntax lets the main verb, reduxit, wait till the end: maybe you’re expecting to learn there that Urso’s soul leaves his body again. Maybe it did.
But maybe it didn’t. Because what kind of resurrection was this? What kind of consciousness could this have been during that walk? Would you have asked about all this, just making conversation, about why you were awake and rotten and made to have your body turned into an undead witness of your own legal testament?
Horrible.I asked Playground to tell me the story of Fridolin and Urso a couple times. Happily it doesn’t know it. It’s able to produce something like a hagiographical story, but it can’t do … Continue reading
Now! If I were to elevate this into an article, I’d want to focus on some of the following
- the theme of the “Testamentary Dead.” The corpse being made to bear absolute witness to the truth of something. There’s probably some thin link between Urso and, say, the belief that the corpse of a murdered person bled anew in the presence of its murderer. Or one could do a Derridean thing about the creepy afterlife of the word.
- the problem of when Urso is depicted as a corpse. Is he always a corpse? Again, he’s not a walking corpse in the Balther. But his status as resurrected person isn’t all that clear either.
- something about the flickr caption to the photo I link to above. “Elle est un témoin des idées et représentations du monde qui régissent une civilisation. L’histoire de la peinture ne se résume pas aux questions de techniques, aux biographies des peintres et à l’étude des influences stylistiques. Comme l’histoire événementielle, l’histoire de l’art est dominée par des considérations idéologiques et politiques et est très dépendante des croyances dominantes et du politiquement correct à l’époque ou l’historien écrit” and so on in this vein. So fitting that the painting itself is about a walking corpse!
- One would expect that the story would have been in Jean-Claude Schmitt’s Ghosts in the Middle Ages. It’s not (I asked him! I didn’t have the book with me when I saw the painting). My sense is that we both regret that he didn’t write about it.
|↑1||for the translation, and this brief story, thank you to David Hiley, “Balther of Säckingen, Bishop of Speyer, Composer of Chants for St Fridolin ca. 970.” Studia Musicologica 56, no. 2/3 (2015): 147–60, for this detail. For complete information on Fridolin, see Mechthild Pörnbacher and David Hiley, eds., Balther von Säckingen, Bishop von Speyer: Historia sancti Fridolini (ca. 970). Lions Bay: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2016, and Mechthild Pörnbacher, Vita sancti Fridolini. Leben und Wunder des heiligen Fridolin von Säckingen. Beschrieben von Balther von Säckingen, Bischof von Speyer, Sigmaringen 1997. I haven’t been able to consult either, yet|
|↑2||I am quoting from the Balther’s version edited in the MGH ss Merov. 3; this is at least virtually identical to the account in the Acta Sanctorum, as it is to one from at least one manuscript of the Golden Legend, Freiburg, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Ms. L 34, 79r, although Fridolin’s story, to my knowledge, wasn’t generally part of Jacobus de Voragine’s massively popular collection. The Pörnbacher dissertation, cited above, talks about this manuscript at 186.|
|↑3||‘si finem sue litis habere cuperet, donatorem possessionum illarum iudicio litis presentaret, ut sic veritas testis illius donacionem factam rite ac legitimam comprobaret|
|↑4||Hoc peracto, sanctus Fridolinus defunctum illum ad sepulcrum, unde eum duxerat, reduxit.|
|↑5||I asked Playground to tell me the story of Fridolin and Urso a couple times. Happily it doesn’t know it. It’s able to produce something like a hagiographical story, but it can’t do much better than that. Various versions routinely get Fridolin’s birthplace wrong, etc. For example:
tell me the story of Saint Fridolin and Urso
Saint Fridolin and Urso is a medieval legend about two saints, Fridolin of Säckingen and Urso of Augusta [there is no such saint]. It tells the story of two holy men who meet while on a pilgrimage and become great friends.
Fridolin was a monk from the Abbey of Säckingen in Germany, and Urso was a hermit from Augusta in Italy. One day, Fridolin visited Urso in Italy and was astonished to find him living in a cave surrounded by wild animals. When Fridolin asked Urso why he chose to live in such a place, Urso replied that it was his way of living in perfect solitude and in closer union with God.
Fridolin and Urso soon began to share their spiritual experiences, and together they went on many pilgrimages. They also preached to the people, and after some time, their friendship deepened and their mission grew.
Eventually, Fridolin and Urso decided to return to Germany, where they founded a monastery with the help of the local bishop. The monastery became a great success, and the two saints became known for their holiness, kindness, and miracles.
When Fridolin and Urso died, their friendship and ministry was remembered. They were canonized as saints and their feast day is celebrated on May 6th.