Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Mark Gregory Pegg's "Beatrice's Last Smile"

Mark Gregory Pegg is Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom and The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Beatrice's Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages, and reported the following:
The mother of Gregory, bishop of Tours, scolded him around the turn of the seventh century for only daydreaming about the “deeds of saints” and not writing (and preaching) of these miraculous exploits in the speech of common people. “Therefore, don’t hesitate and don’t delay doing this,” she told her son, “because you will be faulted if you are silent.” As Christ “chose not orators but fishermen, not philosophers but common men [rustici],” so Gregory, like a new apostle, would spread news of saints and their “splendid deeds of power” in the everyday Latin still spoken throughout much of Merovingian Gaul. And so he wrote his Seven Books of Miracles (Libri septem miraculorum) as a literary and spiritual experiment in rusticitas — ordinary speech for describing the extraordinary. For Gregory, saints as dead holy men (who often had been bishops like him in life) joined heaven and earth at their tombs. Their corpses were like high-energy conduits humming with and radiating the power of God from on high, as well as relaying prayers up to heaven from supplicants. They were at once lifeless in their tombs and brilliantly alive in paradise. Gregory reconfigured every miraculous event throughout Gaul as a manifestation of one of these very special dead persons, so that there was no longer any paganism or superstition, just a lack of awareness of who really caused wonder and redemption in the world.

Gregory of Tours and what is now known as the cult of the saints is what I write about on page ninety-nine in my book, Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages. The title comes from Dante Alighieri’s early fourteenth-century Divine Comedy when Beatrice (whom he loved in his youth before her early death) smiles at him one last time in paradise — a smile that reveals to him the meaning of love and the universe, indeed all existence that ever was and ever will be. Beatrice’s last smile encapsulates the history of the Middle Ages because it evokes the ebb and flow of holiness and humanity in the living of a life that shaped the medieval West. This ebb and flow is described on page ninety-nine for Gregory of Tours and his saints.

In this sense, Ford Madox Ford’s observation about page ninety-nine works quite well for Beatrice’s Last Smile: A New History of the Middle Ages.
Learn more about Beatrice's Last Smile at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue