Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Cathar subtext for the play

I apologize for the length of the history lesson of the previous section  But I think we can recognize certain elements of the Romeo and Juliet story. We know the warring families, or at least their political, and some of the larger issues that would have been involved. Shakespeare already tells us that the Prince is a Scala. Mastino or Alberto della Scala is most likely; Bartolomeo is a bit late, the feuds had died down by then. The Lord himself would have tried to be neutral, although his relatives, such as Mercutio in the play, would have obviously been friends of the Montecchi faction.

Then there is the marriage, for the sake of peace. We have already seen some examples of that type. In addition, Prescott (1972) tells us that at the same time as Ezzelino III married the daughter of the head of the Sanbonifacio family, Ezzelino's sister Cunizza was married to the Sanbonifacios' son.  Two others I have already mentioned: the marriage initiated by the Dominican monk, between Ezzelino's daughter and the d'Estes' son, and  the one in Florence, between Farinata's daughter and his Guelph friend’s son, for four in all. An important difference between these four and the one in the play is that the nonfictional marriages were all public and approved by both families. Yet their memory would have given a sense of history to da Porto's version. I like to imagine that when Romeo says, "It is the east, and Juliet is the sun," (I.ii.1-2) Shakespeare is punning on the name Este, "Este" being Italian for east. In Shakespeare's day the d’Estes, although shut out of Verona, were much in evidence elsewhere; having landed on the winning side, they dominated north-central Italy during the Renaissance, .
For our purposes, the religious factor is the most interesting. One side, the Montecchi, who were in power, aided Catharism, while the Cappelletti, the various families on the other side allied with the Pope, fought against it. Yet youth has its own way. We might imagine, then,  young people from both sides secretly becoming credentes, followers of Catharism. Like Romeo, they may have been seen returning near dawn from secret meetings, while others they had been meeting secret lovers or just out wandering from melancholy.
The house traditionally identified with Romeo is on the Ghibelline side of medieval Verona, across the street from the della Scalas, where in the play Mercutio would have lived. (See map, Fig.  14; the “Casa di Romeo,” which we saw in Fig.  7a, is number 9 on the map.)  A block further are the della Scala Tombs, no. 18 on the map, one of which we also saw a photo of in the previous section. No records still exist for the 13th century, but by the early 14th century the house was owned by the wealthy Nogarola family, friends of the della Scalas (Pesci, 1999). It may have had the same owners earlier. Or it could conceivably have been the house of the Montecchi family, from which the political party had been named. 

Similarly, the house popularly associated with Juliet is on the Guelph side of town, south of the tombs (see map, Fig.  14; the “Casa di Giulietta” is number 19). The two sides were separated by a piazza. I thought it was the Piazza del Herbe (number 17 on the map), but  on the map it is to the east of both houses. Perhaps it was what is now called the Piazza Independenza,  “Piazza del Signori,” number 18, is a later addition. With its famous balcony (built in the 19th century to satisfy popular demand, but there may have been one earlier), this house (Fig.  14a) is now the most visited site in Verona. With a few adjoining buildings removed, one can still imagine an orchard.

14th century, records show that the house was owned then by the Cappello family (Pesci 1999). Even today the street it is on is called Via Cappello. According to Pesci the Cappellos were loyal members of the "Count," the party initially led by the Sanbonifacios and later part of the Guelphs (Pesci, 1999). Perhaps this party at some point called itself Cappelletti, the Guelph party that Dante's son reported as originating in Cremona. Or perhaps Dante himself took the Cappelletti as named for the Cappello family of Verona. In any case, we can easily imagine Romeo as a Cathar credente, perhaps of the Nogarolas or the Monticolas before them, winning Juliet, of the Cappellos, to his faith and to his heart.

I am not only suggesting romances of the fleshly variety. There were also marriages not just of the flesh but of the spirit, between members of good Guelph families and the Cathars’ god. Skimming through a lengthy account of the Inquisition, I found a real-life example, taken from the Inquisitors' record.  In Verona "a lady in waiting of the Marchesa d'Este, named Spera, was burned in 1270, and about the same time there were two Catharan bishops there..." (Lea, 1877, Vol. II, 239). A few commentators hold that she was a servant, not a lady-in-waiting, and so not of the Marchesa's own family or social class; but her attitude suggests a defiant dignity which an inquisitor would likely not have associated with a servant. I was able to locate the Inquisition’s actual words, from 1284, recorded in Latin. It is in a statement from "the Mistress of Philosophy in Verona" ("Domina Philosophia de Verona"). Drawing on her memory of 15 years earlier, she recalls Spera's words:
"Heu quam parum stati in ista penitentia. Nam fueram facta bona christiana ab illo benedicto Armano, qui tune temporis dicebatur esse sanctus apud Ferrariam, et dicebatur facere miracula cum esset mortuus." Et tandem dicta Spera permisit se comburi propter crimen hereseos. (Zanella 1986, 57)

"Oh, how low is my state in this prison. For it is now that I am indeed a good Christian [i.e. Cathar] from that blessed Armano, who at that time was said to be a holy one from Ferrara, and was said to have performed a miracle at the time of his death." And finally Spera called out to let herself be burned with the charge of heresy. [Comment in brackets by MH, who is grateful to Steven Marshall for his translation of this passage.]
"Spera," appropriately, is Italian for Hope. From her reaction to prison as an indignity ("low state") and her demand to be burnt rather than languish, we may infer a delicacy and an assertiveness found more often in aristocrats than in their servants. Spera is then at least of the family or social circle of the leading anti-Cathar family in Verona, very much corresponding to Juliet's social position.

Lambert (1998) infers that Spera is saying she had been given the consolomentum, the Cathar initiation rite. This rite, which changes a credente to a perfectus, Cathars considered necessary to attain the blessed state after death, as opposed to another incarnation. In this way the rite bears a resemblance to the Gospel of Philip's "rite of the bridal chamber," or spiritual marriage with one's angelic counterpart. Such, we have seen, is the subtext of our play, as revealed by the imagery. Spera is real-life prototype for Juliet if we take the drama to a spiritual level.

Spera names the one who administered the consolomentum to her as "the blessed Armano." Scholars identify him as Armano Pungilupo, whom everyone had thought was a devout Catholic, including his confessors. When he died, miracles were reported at his tomb, and people asked that he be recognized as a saint (Lambert 1998). Cathars are supposed to have joked, "The Catholics aren't so bad; they even want to make one of us a saint." But the inquisitors had the evidence of numerous informers; his bones were dug up and burned, his tomb destroyed.

Along these lines, we might imagine Friar Lawrence as secretly a Cathar priest--for Catholic priests disillusioned with their Church did, at great risk, turn secretly to Catharism. He then corresponds to "the blessed Armano," the secret administrator of the marriage of the spirit. Alternatively, he could administer marriages of the fleshly variety, performed in a Cathar ceremony, hence unrecognized by the state and Juliet's family. Yet to Cathar credentes this marriage would be as real as a Catholic one, the only difference being its secret nature

This latter supposition would explain one mystery in the play--at least it is one to me. Why, after the marriage is consummated, when discussing Juliet's father's demand that she marry Paris, is neither Juliet nor the nurse bothered by the issue of bigamy? (This is at III.v.205-242; there is no comparable episode in earlier versions of the tale). The nurse is perfectly happy to have Juliet marry a second time. The father's match "excels the first; or if it did not/Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were/As living here and of no use to you" (III.v.222-225). Juliet is understandably revolted by the nurse's pragmatism. But something is missing.

As a Catholic, the Nurse should logically be urging Juliet to stay with the husband she is bound to unto death, by Catholic doctrine, especially since the marriage has been consummated; "as good as dead" was not enough, with him obviously waiting in Mantua. They should have been discussing how to tell her father the news, so that as Catholics they can all respect the existing marriage.

Well, the nurse is a kind of practical person, not bothered much by abstract rules. We already know that. So it is in keeping with her character. But there is another way of seeing her nonchalance.  To the Nurse, the marriage is not a real one because it was performed in a Cathar ceremony. It is thus technically not marriage, for her or for Juliet's father. For him it would merely be a shameful incident. He might seek an annulment for her, to be on the safe side and attract a better class of suitor. The Inquisition relates that an annulment was indeed granted a Cathar lord in Bosnia who converted to Catholicism, when his low-born wife would not do so (Lea 1887, Vol III.) Yet for Cathars, as we are imagining Friar Lawrence and the lovers to be, the marriage would be like any other contracted between two persons, even if unrecognized by Catholics. (In Shakespeare’s England, a similar situation would have held for the marriages that began at Lammastide, the ones valid for “a year and a day.” These of course would not have been recognized by the Church or civil authority.)

Someone might argue, against my theory, that Cathars would not have had a marriage ceremony at all, because they condemned procreation: it brought, they held, pure souls from the upper world down to evil matter, as well as tying the married pair ever more tightly to material concerns. But the Cathars also believed in reincarnation, to give unredeemed souls another chance; for that, new births are required. There is evidence that at least some Cathars believed that the whole point of souls being on earth was to allow them to freely choose good over evil, through as many lifetimes as it took (Lea 1887, Vol. I). (This view was also held by the Neoplatonist Plotinus, originally from Alexandria, a major point of origin for Gnosticism; see Sinnige 1998. It was also held by the followers of Basilides, according to Clement of Alexandria in his Stromeita, and by the Christian theologian Origin, also of Alexandria. It could easily have been a view of other Gnostics, unreported because nobody disagreed.) In fact, the Inquisition did record reports of marriages performed by Cathar perfecti (Lea, Vol. III, 1887). Moreover, at least one troubadour wrote of divorce by mutual consent followed by remarriage (cited in Burgwinkle 1990). Since neither was permitted by Catholicism; the second marriage could well have been one recognized by the Cathars.
 Marriage between Cathar credentes, such as we are imagining Romeo and Juliet's to be, could then both be valued in itself and as a fitting image for a Cathar rite of the bridal chamber, perhaps one in addition to the consolomentum. There is some evidence of Cathars' continuing this Gnostic tradition. Bernard in his commentary on the Song of Songs includes a polemic against the "Toulousians." (The term "Cathar" was not yet in general use.) He actually went to Toulouse himself and debated them. He returned convinced that they should be burned if they did not  repent.

We learn a little about the Cathars from his polemic; in which Bernard argues against their alleged view that "only virgins may marry." What about widows and widowers? he asks. But in what sense is it said that only virgins may marry?  Bernard seems to be forgetting Paul’s reference to virgins and marriage, when Paul wished to present his converts as “a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Cor. 11:2). Surely they were not all literally virgins. The Gnostics made Paul’s wish into a condition for the elevated state--as indeed did Bernard himself, in writing on what is required for the “kiss on the mouth” in the Song of Songs. The Gospel of Philip says: "A bridal chamber is not for the animals, nor is it for the slaves, nor for defiled women; but it is for free men and virgins" (Robinson 1988, 151). “Virgins” here are whose spirit is wiped clean of former attachments, as though a woman regaining her maidenhead. (It was said that Aphrodite became a virgin each morning when she took her ritual bath.) What the Cathars must have had, which the ancient Gnostics had also, was a specific rite that they thought anticipated the bridal chamber in heaven. Bernard's reference to marriage between virgins thus only goes to suggest that the Cathars had something like a rite of the bridal chamber, one that required some form of previous purification, normally through deeds and understanding but perhaps a little less time-consuming in the Cathars’ last days. In this regard, the lovers of our story could reflect the doomed Cathar perfecti of Italy, such as Spera, burned for their marriage to a Cathar Christ.

The view that among credentes only virgins may marry turns up in Inquisition documents. Books about the Cathars frequently repeat it as fact (e.g. Runciman 1947; Lea Vol. 2, 1887). However we must consider the context of the testimony. Lea relates that a young monk wishes to seduce a beautiful girl. She protests that she wishes someday to marry, and only virgins may marry. Since she is more obstinate in her opposition to intercourse than other girls in the parish, he brings in the Inquisition to determine if she is a heretic. Sure enough, she names her instructor, an older woman versed in magic, who escapes by flying out a window. The girl, who apparently has not yet learned to fly, is burnt as a heretic. Clearly in such a context the doctrine is suspect, and such attribution may simply have been a means by which monks intimidated young women into being sexually compliant.
Of course it remains possible that the story of Romeo and Juliet is simply a literary invention, with no relationship to the Cathars. It could be argued that the tale is is merely a variation on Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, the tale comically dramatized by the rustics in Midsummer Nights' Dream, with the simple addition of the sleeping potion, a common literary device. Even if so, the specific imagery in Shakespeare's version of the story remains, which gives it a Gnostic resonance; and these are the same details that occur in the Troubadour alba. It has been the task of this chapter to help make us sensitive to just those details which give a work such as Romeo and Juliet such resonance, as defined by the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library.

Let me review the details common to Cathar beliefs, the Troubadour alba, some texts of Nag Hammadi, and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. So far at least, they include the following: (1) the view that human beings attain the divine state when they join themselves to their angelic counterparts, and also that they may lose this state if separated; (2) A special space made safe by special people is needed for this joining to occur. (3) The sign of divinity is inner light, and of mortality, outer darkness. (4) The day world is ruled by evil and jealous of the light, and will do what it can to keep those who belong with the light separated from it. (5) There are signs that warn one of the return of the evil day-world, even though one may be reluctant to accept them.

These details are absent from Shakespeare's chief source, Brooke's poem, from the other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers of which I am aware, and also, except for the first characteristic, or in an unambiguously secular sense, from the Italian poets from Dante on. But they are present in Gnosticism, Shakespeare, and the troubadours.

Curiously enough, these specific features are present in at least one of the Minnesingers, the German equivalent of the troubadours, namely, Wolfram von Eschenbach. In Eschenbach's case, as with the troubadours, a look at his short poems helps in deepening our understanding of Gnosticism in its Cathar manifestation and especially its mortal struggle with Roman Catholic Christianity during the 13th century. However since it is something of a departure from our focus on the play, I have relegated this topic to an Appendix.

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