Homo Sacer: Power, Life and the Sexual Body in Old French Saints’ Lives
Exemplaria, Vol. 18:2 (2006)
At these words, Urban was almost beside himself
with anger. He tore off the clothes [Christine] had
on and made ten men exhaust themselves by beating
her tender flesh. He thus sought to make her depart
[this life] and die. This said, never had she been so
joyful in her whole life. Cruelty awakened such evil
intent in [Urban’s] heart that he had [Christine]
hung naked by her blond tresses. He then made
his minions take up rods of iron and commanded
that she be beaten without further delay until they
made clear blood stream from every part [of her
body]. But the divine sunshine and divine ray [of
light] that shines in all [God’s] friends at all times
also shone in her heart and thus comforted her so
that nothing that was done to her pained her. Her
father, who was preparing his bed in hell, had her
completely torn apart with his rods of iron.
This passage, taken from Gautier de Coinci’s Vie de Sainte Cristine, paints a vivid and rather disturbing picture of the power struggle between the pagan tyrant and the Christian martyr; a couple who, in this case, also happen to be related to one another as father and daughter. The text’s insistence that Christine is comforted in her agony by divine light undoubtedly offsets something of the violence of this scene, yet the details of the saint’s tortures are nonetheless shockingly and unremittingly cruel.Urban, enraged at his daughter Christine’s disregard for his religious sensibilities, orders that she be stripped and beaten to death, by ten of his men; the naked young girl is then hung by her hair and beaten with iron rods until her body is soaked in her own blood. Although he was reluctant to punish his beloved daughter earlier in the poem, Urban’s cruelty towards Christine in this episode reaches a new level: consumed by the evil that cruelty inspires in him, the pagan father’s commands suggest that he not only wishes Christine dead but that he also wants to see her suffer and bleed. Although the saint is comforted by God in her torments, she is nonetheless almost torn apart by the punishment she is forced to endure.
It might of course be argued that the comfort for this torture that Christine receives by God’s grace draws attention away from the cruelty of her punishments, focusing the attention of the reader elsewhere. Yet, rather than obscuring Christine’s torture, Gautier’s clever use of rhyme in his description of her consolation seems instead to emphasize it. The repetition of raie (“ray, radiate”) in the couplet spanning lines 1495-96 and again at the beginning of line 1497 cumulatively underlines the hyperbolic quality of the saint’s experience of divine grace under torture, suggesting an exposure to heavenly light that is almost overwhelming. At the same time, however, this image of light develops the rather more violent image of streaming blood found in line 1494; raie echoes and elaborates upon the verb raier (“to flow, pour in streams”) placed at the end of the preceding couplet. Streaming blood and shining light are thus implicitly connected: just as the transmission of divine grace is inspired by torture, so light seems to emerge from flowing blood, raie from raier.