St Margaret’s word-centred miracle

Opening of the Gospel of Luke, St Margaret’s Gospel Book

Turgot of St Andrew’s, in his Life of Saint Margaret, expresses little interest in miracles. He writes:

I leave it to others to admire the tokens of miracles which they see elsewhere, I admire much more the works of mercy which I perceived in Margaret; for signs are common to the good and the bad, whereas works of piety and true charity belong to the good only. The former sometimes are the proof of holiness, the latter are that which constitutes it. (III.32, pp. 65-6, trans. Forbes-Leith)

This is not really the attitude we associate with the Middle Ages. We imagine the mediaeval man or woman being enthusiastic and obsessed with miracles, telling and retelling these wondrous tales, even making them up as in the case of Pope St Sylvester healing Constantine’s leprosy. We also imagine that the mediaeval mindset saw the miraculous as the primary evidence for sanctity.

But for Turgot, it is Queen Margaret’s … well … sanctity that is the primary evidence. I’m not sure which approach is truly the more common in the Middle Ages, the caricature or Turgot’s. But it’s important to have our stereotypes about historical epochs challenged. Each person who lived through the Middle Ages was an individual with his or her own beliefs and emphases. Just like you.

Turgot does, however, go on to tell one miracle story. St Margaret had a favourite Gospel Book, today in the Bodleian Library — and available online in this public domain facsimile from the 1800s! Once, one of St Margaret’s servants dropped the Gospel Book in a river unawares while he was crossing. When it was discovered missing, it was sought high and low, until found on the riverbed. Turgot writes:

Its leaves had been kept in constant motion by the action of the water, and the little coverings of silk which protected the letters of gold from becoming injured by contact with the opposite page, were carried off by the force of the current. Who would fancy that the book could afterwards be of any value? Who would believe that even a single letter would have been visible? Yet of a truth, it was taken up out of the middle of the river so perfect, so uninjured, so free from damage, that it did not seem to have even been touched by the water. The whiteness of the leaves and the form of the letters throughout the volume remained exactly as they had been before it had fallen into the river, except that in part of the end leaves the least possible mark of damp might be detected. The book was conveyed to the queen, and the miracle was at the same time related to her; and she, having thanked Christ, valued it much more highly than she had done before. Whatever others may think, I for my part believe that this wonder was worked by our Lord out of His love for the venerable queen. (III.33, pp. 67-8, trans. Forbes-Leith)

I like this miracle because it also challenges our ideas of mediaeval piety. Quite often we approach the piety of the Middle Ages through a lens that they were all relic-obsessed Mariolaters who barely gave Christ a thought and read saints’ lives instead of Scripture. Some likely were. I’ve a feeling most were not.

This miracle, along with the bulk of what Turgot says about St Margaret of Scotland, serves to remind us of the word-centred nature of Queen Margaret’s holiness. Her sanctity was founded upon the reading and reading of the Bible, especially of the Gospels. At the heart of her prayers was the Psalter — not only when she recited it in toto but also because it is the heart of the daily office which she prayed.

I think this miracle of St Margaret’s Gospel Book is as much, if not more, about the holiness of the Scriptures as about the holiness of Queen Margaret. And that’s what good hagiography (the writing of saints’ lives) should do — point us from the saint to Christ, the Trinity, and the Scriptures.

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