"The rest of this story, curious traveler / is a very long tale - travel on." don Diego de Mendoza (†1575)
Miraculous bureaucracy: a letter from heaven
April 24, 2018
"This is a transcript of a letter that fell from heaven to earth in which God wrote from his heart, and must be believed by all, which was found in Saint Mary the New which is seven leagues from Ávila, and goes like this..."
So begins a letter that fell from the sky in Ávila sometime in the early modern era. We need not ask about its author, for in case anyone doubted the letter's Heavenly provenance, the Author insisted that He had sat upon "my precious throne" and had written this letter himself "by the hand of my Jesus Christ."
Besides, doubting the letter was unwise. This was a dangerous choice for anyone who pointed out the document's unusual contents, as the following clause made clear: "he who would say or not believe that I wrote it with My right hand be cursed and banished from Me and excommunicated and banished from My just ones and condemned to the punishment of the Hells."
This was not the Old Testament God, however - or if He was, he had transformed Himself into a bureaucrat. The document has a distinctly early modern juridical flavor - fitting for a sixteenth-century Supreme Judge. Hellfire awaited anyone who did not publish the letter publicly in every church. They also had to obey its precepts, lest "my angels and archangels...confiscate all of their goods." Also, if anyone attempted to change the content of the letter in the process of spreading its word "I will send upon you hot stones engraved with blood to kill you and your sons and [all] inhabitants with bad deaths." I half expected a plague of lawyers next.
These were not the letter's only legalistic clauses. The Lord was particularly fed up with vassals who provided false testimony in court, and those who did not pay proper Church tithes. The letter also issued the clear order to fast on specific days and times, "in honor of God" and "Holy Mary his Mother our procurator." A procurator was a legal agent who helped vassals navigate litigation, petition for grace, or suggest new royal decrees - a Heavenly Court indeed, with Mary as attorney.
An anonymous scholar collected a copy of this document from "an old book from Cuenca which was lent to me by Father Higuera" - a Jesuit, on February 20, 1591. We can be quite sure that by the time this copy (of a copy) entered into the nameless antiquarian's collection that Ávila's subjects had sorted out their wicked ways. After all, God did not send any more divine reprimands in the celestial mail. The two morals of this story: first, when the Lord sends a letter, do what it says, and second, if he does, hire Mary as your agent.
This view of the Virgin as a procurator was not entirely unique; several years ago I stumbled upon a painting from 1762 in Seville's Church of Saint Nicholas of Bari in which a pope, the Spanish royal family, and the poor submit their written petitions to her in the form of the Virgin of Patronage (Virgen del Patrocinio):
A before-and-after of the restoration of the 1762 painting of the Virgin of Patronage in Seville.
What do these cases teach us about early modern society? If there is anything I can extrapolate from this case it's that if God is a judge, and Mary is a legal agent...then Heaven in early modern Spain...was a courthouse.