“Que lo lean literalmente”: Clerical Ignorance and a Late Medieval Wedding Ceremony
By Scott Ward
eHumanista: Journal of Iberian Studies, Volume 29 (2015)
Introduction: The common conception of a medieval priest is that of a learned man who, in order to be ordained, had to attain an intellectual competence in the theological beliefs of the Church and the ability to perform its liturgy and sacraments. An essential qualification for such was a certain mastery of Latin, the language of liturgy. However, there is ample evidence that in late-medieval Spain a vast number of priests charged with carrying out the Church’s everyday liturgical responsibilities were undereducated and had little or no capacity in that language. Entertaining testimonies of this intellectual deficiency can be found in the literature of the period. For example, in the thirteenth-century tale “El clérigo ignorante” in Milagros de nuestra Señora, by Gonzalo de Berceo, a cleric is reprimanded by his Bishop because he knows how to say only one mass, and “más la sabié por uso que por sabiduría”. In another instance, the narrator of Lazarillo de Tormes (1544) gives a scathingly humorous indictment of much of the general clergy’s illiteracy in Latin affirming that some priests are ordained more by money than for their education. In Chapter five, the narrator, Lázaro, serves a swindling bulero, one who sells indulgences for the remission of sins. Upon arriving to a new town, the bulero ingratiates himself with the local clergy and attempts to discover their proficiency in Latin. Lázaro dryly observes:
Si decían que entendían, no hablaba palabra en latín, por no dar tropezón; mas se aprovechaba de un gentil y bien cortado romance y desenvoltísima lengua. Y si sabía que los dichos clérigos eran de los reverendos (digo, que más con dineros que con letras, y con reverendas se ordenan), se hacía entre ellos un Santo Tomás y hablaba dos horas en latín. A lo menos, que lo parecía, aunque no lo era.
In the following pages we demonstrate that the above passage from Lazarillo hardly represented an anomaly; rather, the tale’s renowned “realism” was closer to the reality of the day than our typical modern vision of the learned medieval Spanish priest.
The point of departure for this essay, the document to which its title refers, Sacramentum matrimonii, is a largely neglected description of a wedding ceremony, bound to a Misal Hispalense, a fifteenth-century manuscript from Seville currently housed at the Lilly Library of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, under the designation of Ricketts 75 (ff. 3r-8r). The prayers and psalms of the ceremony are in Latin, as one would expect, but what interests us most is that the instructions for the priest detailing his responsibilities before the wedding and also for the performance of the ceremony itself are in vernacular. This means that the sections in Latin can be read phonetically without any understanding on the part of the priest (or the public), but anything that must be understood and acted on is in the vernacular. The underlying practical reason for this is that many priests simply did not have the intellectual formation to comprehend Latin and consequently needed instructions in the vernacular in order to carry out the sacraments. This manuscript represents an important chronicle that supports the theory that Berceo and the author of Lazarillo were not writing in a vacuum and is central to our understanding of the priests’ lack of significant training.