Saturday, July 31, 2010

Miracle of the Herrings

Not being Catholic, I found it strange that the church would bother making such a ridiculous claim. Why not just celebrate Thomas Aquinas for what he did? What is the point of making up some pathetic story and labeling it a miracle? I was curious if this was just made up for television so I tried to find (i.e., searched for a few minutes online, not a serious scholarly effort) an official document from the church on why Thomas Aquinas was declared a saint. I didn't have much luck finding what I was looking for on the website. Many results came up for Thomas Aquinas, but not what I was looking for.

The best reference I was able to find was The Sanctity and Miracles of St. Thomas Aquinas, but I have no idea about the veracity of the source. It does partially corroborate the story about the herrings:

Asked about miracles - whether he knew of any worked through the merits of Thomas either before or after death - the witness said that when Thomas died his body was buried at first before the high altar, but then the monks, fearing it might be taken from them, transferred it secretly to St. Stephen's Chapel in the same abbey-church. But about seven months later Thomas appeared in a dream to a brother James, who was prior at the time, and said:'Take me back where I was at first.' So they took him back, with due solemnity. (This dream was and still is commonly talked about in the monastery.) And when the tomb was opened a delicious fragrance came out, filling all the chapel and cloister: whereupon the community sang the Mass Os justi meditabitur sapientiam, etc., in honour of Thomas as of a saint; they thought the Mass Pro defunctis hardly suitable for such a man.

All this the witness knew because he was there and saw it for himself; it happened about seven months after Thomas's death; but he could not be sure of the month or the day. Asked who were present, he said 'the whole community'.... Asked who had called him to the place where the fragrance was smelt, he said he himself smelled it; it drew him to where the tomb was.

IX. Asked if he knew of other miracles attributed to brother Thomas, the witness said that he had heard of many; and in particular that when Thomas lay sick in the castle of Maenza and was urged to eat something, he answered, 'I would eat fresh herrings, if I had some.' Now it happened that a pedlar called just then with salted fish. He was asked to open his baskets, and one was found full of fresh herrings, though it had contained only salted fish. But when the herrings were brought to Thomas, he would not eat them.

The witness spoke too of a Master Reginald, a cripple, who was cured at the tomb of brother Thomas.

Asked how he knew of these two miracles, he replied that that about the fish he had from brother William of Tocco, prior of the Friar Preachers at Benevento, who himself had it from several people at Maenza, where the event occurred. The other story he had from brother Octavian (mentioned above) who averred that he had seen it happen. And in the monastery these miracles were common knowledge.
In this story it explicitly states that Thomas Aquinas did not eat the fish as Stephen Fry stated in the video. However, the book Saint Thomas Aquinas: the person and his work (by Jean-Pierre Torrell, the chapter "The Last Months and Death" on page 291 in the version scanned by Google) suggests he may have eaten some of it:
It was there that he fell ill and totally lost his appetite; the doctor called to take care of him—John of Guido, from Piperno—asked what he would like to eat and received a disconcerting response: some fresh herring, which he once enjoyed when he was in the Ile de France. Miraculously, some were found. But according to Tocco, it was the others who ate them, since the patient no longer wanted them. An eyewitness assures us, however, that he ate some of it: de quibus etiam arengis comedit dictus frater Thomas.
History is messy. But it doesn't really make a difference whether or not he ate some of the fish in terms of the miracle. A NY Times book review When the Lights Went Out in Europe gives a similar story about the herrings:
When St. Thomas Aquinas lay dying, in 1274, it was said that he asked for herrings, which were unknown thereabouts. Yet sure enough they soon obligingly turned up at the local fishmongers. Even in the early 14th century, when Thomas's candidacy for sainthood was under investigation, and at least two miracles were required for admission, this unlikely tale did not wash -- not least because it emerged that the witnesses had no way of telling whether what they had seen were herrings or not.
Though I would prefer an official document from the Catholic church, from what I can tell the miracle of the herrings is a real claim made to support the canonization of Thomas Aquinas. It would be nice if the Catholic church had an easily searchable database of all the saints and the records for how they qualified for sainthood. However, if all of the "miracles" are this pathetic, then it is probably better for public relations not to make the information more accessible.

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