The Breton "An Buhez Sante Barba - The Life of Saint Barbara" and its Contemporaries: a Comparative Study

The Breton saint’s play "An buhez sante Barba – The life of saint Barbara" has come down to us in three print versions, one of which has survived in two redactions. The oldest version is dated to 1557, followed by two redactions dated to 1608 and a third version dated to 1647. All versio...

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Main Author: Schnabel, Sonja
Contributors: Poppe, Erich (Prof.) (Thesis advisor)
Format: Doctoral Thesis
Published: Philipps-Universität Marburg 2018
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Summary:The Breton saint’s play "An buhez sante Barba – The life of saint Barbara" has come down to us in three print versions, one of which has survived in two redactions. The oldest version is dated to 1557, followed by two redactions dated to 1608 and a third version dated to 1647. All versions are virtually identical with regard to contents (Ricarda Scherschel. ‘On the relationship of the 1608 impression of Buhez Sante Barba to the impressions of 1557 and 1647’. In: Hor Yezh 278 (2014)). My thesis is based on the oldest version of 1557, which is associated with a printer by the name of Bernard de Leau(e). He was active both in Brittany and Paris (L. Le Guennec. ‘Un libraire morlaisien au XVIe siècle’. In: Bulletin de la Société Archéologique de Finistère 53 (1927), pp. 11–32; Malcolm Walsby. The printed Book in Brittany. 1484-1600. Leiden, Boston, 2011, 146-149), which attests to a certain exchange with regard to literature and culture between France and Brittany. The fact that a play about one of the most popular saints in Europe in the late Middle Ages has come down to us in both French and Breton adds to this impression, as well. In order to shed some light on possible origins of the Breton play, I have compared An Buhez with four contemporaneous sources about Saint Barbara. The two French plays were an obvious choice, because they correspond to the Breton play with regard to genre as well as with regard to the subject matter. The older French play, Le Mystère de sainte Barbe en cinq jourées, is dated to the second half of the fifteenth century and has survived in one manuscript version. Parts of it were edited by Jun-Han Kim in 1998 (Jun-Han Kim. Le Mystère de sainte Barbe en cinq journées. Edition critiques des deux premières journées d’après le manuscrit BNF fr. 976. Universite de Paris IV – Sorbonne, 1998), and Mario Longtin is currently working on a new edition of the entire play with his colleagues Laurent Brun and Jacques Lemaire. He has very kindly permitted me to use his work in progress (Mario Longtin, Laurent Brun and Jacques Lemaire ed. ‘Le Mystère de sainte Barbe en cinq journées, BN fr. 976’. forthcoming; PDF provided by the editor). The younger French play, Le Mystère de sainte Barbe en deux journées, survives in several print versions, the oldest of which is dated to between 1511 and 1517. This play was edited by Longtin, as well, and by Paul Seefeldt before him (Heinrich Wilhelm Paul Seefeldt. Studien über die verschiedenen mittelalterlichen Fassungen der Barbara-Legende nebst Neudruck des ältesten Mystère français de sainte Barbe en deux journées. Greifswald: Buchdruckerei Hans Adler, 1908). In addition to the two French plays, I have also looked at two Latin prose legends of Saint Barbara. The most popular collection of saints’ lives of the Middle Ages, the Legenda Aurea, includes a life of Saint Barbara, as well (Johann Georg Theodor Graesse, ed. Jacobi a Voragine: Legenda aurea. Vulgo historia lombardica dicta. Reproductio phototypica editionis tertiae, [ Breslau ] 1890. Osnabrück: Zeller, 1965). However, Barbara was not part of the original version of the collection (Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Readings on the Saints. Trans. by William Granger Ryan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) and her legend was added probably after the fourteenth century (Kirsten Wolf. The Old Norse-Icelandic Legend of Saint Barbara. Toronto: Pontifical Inst. of Medieval Studies, 2000, 22). Another Latin version of Saint Barbara’s legend was assembled by a Belgian monk, John of Wakkerzeel (John of Wakkerzeel. Legenda beatissimiae virginis Barbarae. Köln: Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, 1495). He was an admirer of saint Barbara’s and compiled a grand encomium based on diverse sources at the end of the fourteenth century. This version was very popular in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (Baudouin de Gaiffier. ‘La légende de sainte Barbe par Jean de Wackerzeele’. In: Analecta Bollandiana 77 (1959), pp. 5–41, Albert Derolez. ‘A devotee of Saint Barbara in a Belgian beguinage (Marston MS 287)*’. In: Beinecke Studies in early manuscripts. The Yale University Library Gazette 66 (1991). Ed. by Stephen Parks, pp. 197–218). Although there are some differences with regard to contents, the basic plot is similar in all the legends of Saint Barbara. A pagan lord or king by the name of Dioscorus has a lovely and beautiful daughter called Barbara. He does not wish to see her married and confines her to a secluded tower instead in order to hide her from the eyes of men. Depending on the version he has a tower and/or a bathhouse built exclusively for Barbara’s use. The respective building is to have exactly two windows. Barbara has an intuitive knowledge of the Christian faith and secretly converts to Christianity. At some point she meets another Christian who introduces her to the basics of the faith. She is then baptised either by this other Christian figure or by a vision of John the Baptist. After her conversion, she makes the builders of the tower/bathhouse add a third window to the original plans, against the explicit wishes of her father. When Dioscorus discovers the addition, he is furious and attempts to kill her. She can flee through a stone or wall and is miraculously transported to the mountains. There, she is seen by two shepherds. When Dioscorus comes looking for her, one of the shepherds betrays her whereabouts to him. Thus, Dioscorus recaptures her and brings Barbara to trial. Even though she is tortured extensively for her religion, she neither renounces her new found faith nor dies. The judge therefore returns Barbara to her father eventually and the king decides to kill her in the mountains. There, he beheads her with his sword and creates Saint Barbara, the martyr. As a result, Dioscorus suffers death by lighting or divine fire and is burnt to ashes on the spot. Barbara’s historical existence is in dispute, but her veneration endures nonetheless. Saint Barbara’s feast day is the fourth of December and although it was no longer part of the Roman calendar after the second Vatican Council in 1969 (Wolf, The Old Norse-Icelandic Legend of Saint Barbara, 22), folk beliefs and customs still abound, for example the cutting of Barbara-twigs on her feast day, which will then blossom on Christmas day. The oldest testimonies of the veneration of Saint Barbara can be found in northern Africa and in the Middle East. The oldest testimony in Europe is a fresco of the saint in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome (E. Wimmer. ‘Barbara’. In: Lexikon des Mittelalters. Vol. 1. München und Zürich: Artemis, 1980, pp. 1432– 1433, 1432f). During the later Middle Ages veneration of Saint Barbara grew into a cult, which was particularly strong in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands (Wolf, The Old Norse- Icelandic Legend of Saint Barbara, 34-37). The fact that her legend was put on stage sixteen times between 1450 and 1550 in France alone testifies to the great popularity of the saint. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell which Barbara-play was put on stage and it is most likely that more plays about the saint existed but have not survived. Of the two French versions that do survive, the younger one was particularly popular. It has come down to us in seven print-editions all of which were published within a time span of a hundred years. Thus, Saint Barbara’s popularity was and still is well attested in Europe. While saints’ plays or mystery plays in French abound, only four plays in Breton have come down to us. In addition to the life of Saint Barbara, one passion play (An Passion, Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué. Le Grand Mystère de Jésus: passion et ressurection. Paris: Didier, 1866; Yves Le Berre, ed. La passion et la résurrection bretonnes de 1530 suivies de Tremenuan an ytron guerches Maria, Pemzec leuenez Maria, Buhez mab den. Brest: CRBC, 2011) and two mystery plays about local saints of Brittany (An Buhez santez Nonn, Emile Ernault. ‘La Vie de sainte Nonne’. In: Revue Celtique 8 (1887), pp. 230–301, 405–491; Yves Le Berre, ed. Buez santez Nonn. Mystère breton. Brest, 1999 and An Buhez sant Gwenole, Emile Ernault. ‘L’ancien Mystère de saint Gwénolé, avec traduction et notes’. In: Annales de Bretagne 40 (1932-1933), pp. 4–35, 41, 104–141, 318–379; Paul Widmer, ed. An Buhez sant Gwenôlé = Das Leben des heiligen Gwenole. Text, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen. Wien: Praesens-Verlag, 2011) have survived. Similarly to the life of Saint Barbara, the Breton passion play was printed in Paris and is based on European material that may have served as a model. The other two plays have been preserved as manuscripts and their protagonists are the Breton local Saints Nonn and Gwenole, respectively. In addition to contents, the structure of the Breton and the French Medieval plays corresponds, as well. The plays are subdivided into “days” (French: “journées”) rather than into “acts” and “scenes”. A “day” reflects the amount of text that could be spoken within one performance session. The term originates in the practice of performing the plays on several consecutive Sundays and/or feast days, for example in front of the church or at some other suitable space outdoors. Short plays took only a few days to perform, but lengthy productions could last up to 35 days (Graham A. Runnalls. Études sur les mystères. Un recueil de 22 ètudes sur les mystères français, suivi d’un répertoire de théâtre religieux français du Moyen Age et d’une bibliographie. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 1998, 35-49, 61-82, 98f; Graham A. Runnalls. ‘Time and the Mystères or: How long did French Mystery Plays last? ’ In: New approaches to European Theater of the Middle Ages. An Ontology. New York, 2004, pp. 3–13, 7). Both French Barbara-plays indicate clearly when a day begins and/or ends. The older play has five days, the younger play has two. The Breton play is considerably less clear with regard to the number and duration of its days. The only hint given by the play is in the introduction, which provides a summary of the plot and names a certain point at which the action of the first day is supposed to be over. However, this is not reflected at that point in the play. Nevertheless, based on the assumption that the first day did indeed end at the point indicated in the introduction, the play would consist of at least two days. Based on comparisons with French mystery plays and the works of Graham Runnalls on the length of Medieval theatrical “days” (Graham A. Runnalls. ‘Langage de parole ou langage du geste? Le mystère de saint Laurent’. In: Langues, Codes et Conventions de l’ancien théâtre. Actes de la troisième rencontre sur l’ancien théâtre européen. Paris, 2002, pp. 121–134; Runnalls, ‘Time and the Mystères or: How long did French Mystery Plays last?’), I agree with Ernault’s suggestion (Emile Ernault. Le mystère de sainte Barbe. Tragédie bretonne, texte de 1557. Publié avec traduction française, introduction et dictionnaire étymologique du breton moyen. Paris: Thorin, 1888, vi) that the play was in fact subdivided into three parts. The last two may well have been performed in one single day, namely a morning- and an afternoonsession, but it is also possible that the performance took place on three consecutive (Sun)days. With regard to this asymmetric structure, i.e. a short first day and a considerably longer second part, the Breton play corresponds to the younger French play. Medieval plays were customarily written in verse form, usually in pair rhymes. This convention holds true for both French plays, as well. The Breton version employs a considerably more complex rhyme scheme, namely aabccb bbdeed and so on. In addition to the end rhymes, Breton makes use of internal rhymes as well, which means that two syllables within a verse need to rhyme, too. The internal rhyme is usually determined by the penultimate syllable of a verse. This leads to another significant difference between Breton and French, because like other Celtic languages, Breton has a metric system based on a syllable count rather than on poetic feet. An Buhez sante Barba employs eight-syllabic verses for the most part, but verses of ten syllables are also common, particularly when characters of a higher social standing speak or are addressed. Furthermore, five-syllabic verses are used in the introduction. The fact that the author of the Breton play maintained such a complicated rhyme scheme throughout the play and still constructed a coherent plot demonstrates artistry and considerable skill. In order to be able to compare the five versions of the legend of Saint Barbara, I have determined different motifs that appear in at least one other version apart from the Breton play. The following motifs are analysed in this thesis: the devils, the tower, Barbara’s education and her meeting with a pilgrim/hermit, her baptism, marrying Barbara, the windows, the fountain, the shepherds and the end, which also involves the character “Consciancc”. The order in which the motifs are treated in this thesis corresponds to the order of events in the Breton play. Due to the fact that the Breton play and the younger French play are very similar with regard to formality – both have been preserved in more than one print version, the oldest of which is dated to the sixteenth century, both consist of (at least) two days and are similar in length – it was expected that further similarities could be determined. However, apart from a few details, this is not the case. The younger French play has several episodes that do not appear anywhere else, such as the visit of a prostitute Barbara receives during her incarceration and whom she promptly converts. Yet, the younger French play does not include other episodes that are very common, such as Barbara’s exchange of letters with Origen of Alexandria (cf. Mario Longtin. Édition du Mystère de sainte Barbe en deux journées BN Yf 1652 et 1651. Montréal, Québec: Université McGill, 1996). The Breton version turned out to be much more similar to the older French play, which in turn is based largely on John of Wakkerzel’s grand encomium of Saint Barbara (Kim, Le Mystère de sainte Barbe en cinq journées, 375-377). However, the Breton play and the older French play display some important differences, for example with regard to Barbara’s baptism. In those cases, the Breton play often corresponds to the Legenda Aurea, instead. Furthermore, there are some motifs that were adapted, probably in order to fit the local situation better. An example for this is the episode around the dried-up fountain which is revived by Barbara in the Breton version. The other versions have corresponding episodes, but Barbara visits a bathhouse instead and makes the water gush forth, there. It is possible that a fountain was preferable because it reflects an actual fountain or spring in the place where the play was performed. Other aspects are unique to the Breton version, such as the appearance of a character named “Consciancc” (“conscience”) shortly before Dioscorus beheads his daughter. The character attempts to convince the king that his plan is evil and will lead to his damnation, while Beezlebub, one of the devils, attempts to convince him to go through with his plan for the sake of his heathen gods. The episode mirrors another Medieval theatrical genre, namely that of the morality plays, in which good and evil allegorical characters vy for the soul of a human protagonist. Such a character or episode does not appear in the other versions of the legend. The detailed analysis and comparison of those motifs and episodes form the nucleus of my thesis. The results of those comparisons lead to the assumption that it is impossible to determine a single ancestor of the Breton play, which in turn rules out the idea that the Breton play might merely be a translation of a French model. While there are episodes that correspond largely to one or more of the other texts, it is not always the same text to which a striking correspondence can be found. Some episodes and motifs are unique to one or another version of the legend. Thus, it is very likely that there was a common European pool of motifs, or floating traditions, around the figure of Saint Barbara from which the respective authors worked and created individual pieces of art.
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