The saints vs. the locusts

12 08 2010

Or: What the Doctors of the Church are really for

The doctors of the Church were considered to have special power over insects and other agricultural pests. In Socuéllamos (Ciudad Real) a lottery was held among the doctors of the Church to choose the saint for a vow against locusts and vine worms. In other towns St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas were used. Perhaps the theologian saints can be explained by the custom of ritual excommunication of grasshoppers and insect pests. In ecclesiastical trial what lawyer could present a more convincing case than a doctor of the Church?

-William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain

To clarify, what is being spoken of consistently here is not some favoring of “local religion” as the manifestation of the pure faith of the noble savage. That does not tell the whole story, nor is it fair to either the “experts” or the “plebs”. To the experts, since it is from them that much of what is “exotic” in “folk religion” originates. Often “popular religion” is really just the remnant of philosophical beliefs left behind by cultural elites in favor of a newer, more enlightened religion. Arguably, this is the case regarding such things as the evil eye in much of the Catholic world and the “dragging of the tongue” in Italy that was initially introduced to the populace by missionary friars. On the other hand, such a patronizing attitude excludes the cultural agency of the populace. The laity understood many complex theological concepts better than many would give them credit, and often better than those who sought to educate them regarding these doctrines. In some ways, they could grasp things more intuitively than many educated, ideologically driven pedagogues.

It is the existence of this “intuitive Catholicism” that seems to throw many of my readers off. I should repeat here that it is not some sort of straightfoward exchange. What we really have is a continual struggle over symbols and what they mean; ideas and how we interpret them. For the Spanish town dweller around the time of the Counter-Reformation, the office of Doctor of the Church was not primarily one of the teacher of abstract doctrines. While such duties were important to some, the average Catholic there sought to incorporate the saint into the basic cosmovision of survival and patronage. In this case, the best way to get rid of locusts and other pests was to try them in an ecclesiastical court, and invoke the “smartest” saints to be the prosecution.

It is that sense of “organic” religiosity, the very ground of belief, that I seek to study. In doing this, I hope to avoid all ideological posturing. In the trials of the locusts by the saints, we have a perfect harmony between the “high” and “low” religiosities often contrasted on this blog. In the end, they need each other, though in my estimation it is best if they remain distinct.

above: Miguel Jacinto Melendez’s St. Augustine conjuring a plague of locusts