Thursday, January 18, 2018

St Margaret of Hungary and Hagiographical Skepticism

On the calendar of the Dominican Order in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, today is the feast of St Margaret of Hungary, who died on this day in the year 1270 at the age of 28. In earlier versions of the Dominican liturgical books, she is found on other days. When she was equivalently beatified with an approbatio cultus in 1789, her death day was occupied by the feast of St Peter’s Chair in Rome; she was therefore assigned to January 26th. In 1943, she was formally canonized by Pope Pius XII, and her feast moved to the 19th, and finally, with the suppression of St Peter’s Chair, to the 18th.
Ss Elizabeth, Margaret and Henry of Hungary, depicted by Simone Martini in a fresco in the lower basilica of St Francis at Assisi, 1318. (public domain image from Wikipedia.)
St Margaret was the daughter of Bela IV, a king of the Arpad dynasty, which ruled Hungary for almost exactly three centuries, from 1000-1301; six members of this family have been canonized by the Catholic Church, three men and three woman, and one by the Orthodox Church. At the time of her birth, the Dominican Order was still very young, but rapidly expanding, and Margaret spent her earliest years in a convent of Dominican nuns in the city of Veszprém. When she was twelve, her parents established a convent for her on an island in the Danube where it passes through Budapest; this island, now a public park, is fairly large, over a mile and a half long, although only 550 yards across at the widest. Before the Ottoman invasion of Hungary and the concomitant destruction of all the religious foundations, it was also the home of Premonstratensian, Franciscan and Augustinian communities, the ruins of which can still be seen there, but it is still to this day called after her “Margaret Island.”

Seven years after her death, a cause for her canonization was begun. Of course, most of the sisters who had known her personally were still alive, and they gave extremely detailed and thorough depositions about her life, as did many others. The entire bulk of this material is preserved, a very unusual case among pre-Congregation Saints; it attests with sobriety, and great consistency among the many witnesses, to a significant number of miracles. While still at Veszprém, Margaret once repeated the miracle which is practically the only thing known about the life of St Benedict’s sister Scholastica, forcing two Dominican friars to prolong their visit to the convent by praying for a heavy downpour that prevented their departure. As the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints puts it, “there are so many such incidents vouched for by the sisters in their evidence on oath that it is difficult to stretch coincidence so far as to explain them all.” One of the persons interviewed was a servant girl at the convent named Agnes, who on an extremely dark night fell into a well and nearly drowned, but was saved by Margaret’s prayers. (This took place while the latter was still alive.) This is also attested by almost all of the other persons deposed.

St Margaret shares her current feast day with a Roman martyr named Prisca, whose cultus is very ancient, but of whom nothing is known at all for certain, not even her dates. Her entry in the revised Butler’s states that “…. it is unquestionable that the so-called ‘acts’, dating at earliest from the tenth century, are historically worthless, for they simply reproduce, with slight changes, the legendary Passion of St Tatiana.” When reading this today, I was struck by this thought: but for the historical accident that the depositions given for St Margaret’s cause survive, would it not say something similar about her? A heavy miraculous element is frequently treated by hagiographical scholars as a telltale sign that the life of the Saint is unreliable, as is the repetition of miracles for which other Saints are famous. And yet, these miracles are attested with by numerous eyewitnesses, people who sincerely believed that they were true, and that they would be committing a very grave, indeed, a damnable sin, were they to lie under oath. I had occasion to read a fair amount of this material with one of my Latin teachers many years ago, and it would take the stone heart of a Voltaire to think that they were involved in some weird conspiracy of lying.

As I have written on other occasions, there are many cases of Saints whose lives as we have received them are difficult or impossible for a reasonable person to accept as accurate. Perhaps the case of St Margaret should serve as a cautionary tale, that there may perhaps not be as many such cases as the modern hagiographical skeptics would have us believe.

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