‘Winter Mythologies’ contains two collections of very short stories by Pierre Michon: ‘Three Miracles from Ireland’ and ‘Nine passages from the Causse’.
Michon is a fascinating writer and there is so much to admire about these stories. They are far more seductive than something like Nightfall or The Last Kingdom. Perhaps because they are so good, they provoke the question: how to retell medieval stories, or stories set in the middle ages, especially when it comes to dealing with matters of belief.
Yale University Press publishes the English version, translated by Ann Jefferson, as Winter mythologies and Abbots. In the French ‘Edition Verdier’ Mythologies d’hiver the first three stories are called Trois Prodiges En Irlande. While prodige can be translated into English as miracle, it can also mean prodigy, which can apply to a thing or event as much as a person. ‘The fervor of Brigid’, ‘The sadness of Columbkill’ and ‘The levity of Sweeney’ are all prodigious. But none of them is a miracle in the religious sense of that word.
At first glance the stories mimic the brevity of medieval chronicles but on closer rereading, Michon tells them from the viewpoint of a skeptical modern sensibility, within the framework of modern understanding and belief. This is ‘faking the middle ages’.
Medieval miracle stories are commonplace. Read Bede, or Gerald of Wales, read any early medieval chronicle, they are full of stories of the miraculous. So are saint’s lives and the records of their cults and shrines. People went on pilgrimage in the honest belief that the Saint’s relics would cure them.
We know there were fakes and we know there were skeptics even in the early middle ages, but the evidence suggests that the majority believed in miracles; in the ability of saints to intercede on their behalf and the fact that while the world worked to laws that existed but were not well-understood, God had the ability to alter those laws to show His favor, displeasure, or power. It should also be remembered that there are still people who hold these beliefs.
Michon’s three Irish Stories refigure this belief as a prodigious type of desire in search of an object. But this is a desire for something more than the tactile world can provide. It is an innate yearning that can never be satisfied.
Both Brigid and Columbkill want, in both the older and more common usages of the word. Columbkill desires the psalter. Denied his copy he goes to war, wins, takes the book only to discover: ‘The book is not in the book’. In the first three stories only Sweeney is happy with who he is and what he does. Michon doesn’t say whether Sweeney’s acceptance of his life as King or Bird is a kind of sanity bordering on sanctity, or proof positive he’s mad.
But if Michon accepts the existence of this desire, he is not prepared to believe in the existence of its object. When Saint Patrick is introduced in the first story, we are told that to convert the pagan Irish, ‘il suffit de quelques abracabras druidiques’ which sounds even more contemptuous than the English translation’s ‘all it requires is a few druidic spells’. Patrick is a fake who knows he’s a fake: a conjurer who is growing old.
Because they are juxtaposed in the one book, it’s possible to read the story of Saint Enimie, which runs through five of the Nine Passages on the Causse, as an elaboration on what is presented as a form of dishonesty. There is nothing holy about Enimie. Her own self titled story makes this very clear. She becomes a saint centuries after her death to meet the institutional needs of a religious foundation. Her posthumous career is created at the intersection of the shifting needs and literary abilities of the monks. It is based on a lie.
If people can suffer in varying degrees from a prodigious desire for something that is absent, then in this version, religion is what you get when that desire is given an object that can’t be grasped. Inherent in that idea is that manipulation and exploitation are inevitable. Those who desire can be manipulated and exploited by those who can supply and claim to control that object. It’s how advertising and propaganda work. It is hardly an earth-shattering observation until it is applied to religion and medieval faith. Accept the desire; deny the reality of the object of that desire.
And that’s where the modern mind and the medieval one part company.
We know the church as an institution became corrupt. We know its beliefs became easily exploited by the greedy and unscrupulous. There were enough fragments of the true cross in Europe to build a decent house and some of John the Baptist’s many fingers looked a lot like chicken bones.
But that doesn’t mean it was all faked. Bede and his audience expected miracles both from dead saints and living holy men and women. Miracles were the visible, tangible proof of an invisible power or an exceptional grace. When the Pagan priests and the Christian missionaries faced off in post Roman Britain, it wasn’t the equivalent of a conjurors’ Ok Corral. Writing it as though it were is entertaining and comforting to the modern mind, but another conjuror’s trick.