Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

St. John: Sins and miraculous forgiveness

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About the scene and clip:
The solo performer tells—and acts out—the second part of the remarkable legend about the hermit St. John Chrysostom: his great sins and his miraculous forgiveness by God.

About the work:
This legend, recounted in medieval Croatian Church Slavonic, tells the story of a friar named John who leaves his monastery because he deplores the low morality of his brethren. He goes to the desert where he lives as a hermit and writes prayers in honor of the Virgin Mary. The devil steals his inkpot, so John uses his saliva as ink—which miraculously turns into gold, hence his name “Chrysostom,” or “golden mouth.” John prays to be delivered from great sins, thinking that he can defend himself from small sins, such as drunkenness. But his belief in his own moral strength is an error, an angel tells him—and prophesies that John will commit both murder and rape in a drunken state.

A new storyline opens at this point: A princess gets lost in a bad storm during a hunt and finds refuge in John’s humble hut. She offers him wine, and—as the angel had predicted—after the third glass he gets drunk, rapes her, and then kills her; he hides her body. Horrified by his transgression, he vows to crawl on all fours like an animal until God has forgiven him. Time passes, and the king, the princess’s father, organises another hunt to celebrate the birth of a son and heir. In the desert the huntsmen come across a strange creature and bring it to the court. It is John—and the king’s baby son shouts out that John is now forgiven. John praises the Lord, and tells his whole story to the king and courtiers. They go to find the grave of the princess—but discover her alive and well. Everyone is happy and praises the greatness of “John’s God”.

The Croatian Legend of St. John Chrysostom (Hermit) survives in the so-called Zgombic Miscellany, now in the Archive of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb. Although compiled in the early 16th c., this miscellany (a collection of a wide variety of texts) is part of an older medieval tradition. The Croatian tale draws on several European sources, but only this version has John’s lengthy monologue.

About the genre:
Stories about the saintly wisdom, heroism, or miracles of remarkable men and women exist in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Such stories are termed “hagiography.” In medieval Europe, the saint’s life or legend was an extremely popular type of work. A great many stories (and plays) about male and female Christian saints exist in Latin and in all the vernacular languages. These works may focus on the saint’s dramatic death by martyrdom, or recount the remarkable miracles performed by the saint, or may relate the entire life of the holy man or woman. Among the most important collections of saints’ lives and legends is The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine. Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a tale of martyrdom. Miracle and pious tales about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, constitute a special, and highly important, category of saintly legends.

This story also belongs to the tale tradition. The tale, like the epic, is an ancient genre and one found everywhere in the world. Many tales are firmly rooted in oral tradition and are recited or told by amateur and professional storytellers and performers. Other tales are the work of literarily sophisticated authors and are often intended to be read aloud or silently from written texts. Some tales circulate separately, while others are part of collections, which may be set in complex frames (as in the case of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). There are many sub-groups of tales with specific characteristics; see for example the “lai” and the “fabliau.”

About the edition/translation:
English translation by Marija-ana Dürrigl. Original text: critical edition in Stjepan Ivsic, “Iz hrvatske glagolske knjizevnosti: Legenda o Ivanu Zlatoustom,” Prilozi za knjizevnost, jezik, istoriju i folklor 11 (1931): 59-83, 1931. We express here our particular gratitude to Dr. Dürrigl for bringing this remarkable text to our attention, and for providing an English translation of it.

About the performer/ensemble:
Nick Spangler is a Drama student in the CAP21 Studio at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2005).

About the production:
This performance was created for a group independent study with Prof. Timmie (E.B.) Vitz in fall 2005. It took place on December 15, 2005, as part of an event titled “Making It Real: Performing the Middle Ages,” at an Off-off-Broadway venue in New York City—The American Place Theatre, 266 West 37th St (22nd floor). The performance was also sponsored by “Storytelling in Performance,” a workshop funded by the Humanities Council of New York University and co-directed by Profs. Timmie Vitz, Nancy Regalado and Martha Hodes. Gina Guadagnino was the videographer.