by Tristan Gray Hulse
ST ALFONSO Maria de’ Liguori (1696-1787) was one of the most well-educated and urbane men of his time (who vastly enjoyed going to the theatre in his native Naples), who was also one of his century’s most important theologians (and who thus always removed his spectacles when the curtain went up, so as not to see too clearly the more ‘stimulating’ episodes of the performance!). His principal, most influential work was the Theologia Moralis, but his most enduringly popular book has been Le Glorie di Maria (The Glories of Mary), first published in 1750. Le Glorie is in some ways a curious work for a major theologian to have composed: an about-equal mix of theological erudition and speculation; exuberant baroque piety; and exempla illustrating the all-powerful nature of Mary’s intercession. Most of these would be happily at home in any large medieval collection of exempla, such as that of Caesarius of Heisterbach; but one in particular (cap. 8, §2) strains the credulity far beyond anything expected of the reader by that charming and entertaining author.
‘Father Eusebius Nieremberg says, that in a city of Aragon there was a beautiful young lady of noble birth named Alexandra, who was courted by two young men. Out of jealousy, they one day fought and both were killed. Their enraged relatives, considering the young lady as the cause of this sad event, murdered her, cut off her head, and threw it into a well. Some days afterwards, St Dominic passing by the spot, and inspired by God, went to the well, and cried out, “Alexandra, come forth!” In an instant the head of the murdered woman came up, and remained on the edge of the well, and entreated the saint to hear her confession. The saint did so, and in the presence of an immense concourse of people, drawn there by the wonderful event, gave her Communion. He then commanded her to say for what reason she had received so great a grace. Alexandra replied that when her head was cut off she was in mortal sin; but that, on account of the Rosary she was in the habit of saying in her honour, the most Blessed Virgin had kept her alive. The animated head remained for two days on the edge of the well, so as to be seen by all, and after that the soul went to purgatory. A fortnight afterwards Alexandra appeared, beautiful and shining like a star, to St Dominic, and said, that the Rosary recited for the souls in purgatory is one of the greatest reliefs that they meet with in their torments; and that, as soon as ever they get to heaven, they pray earnestly for those who have performed this devotion for them. Hardly had she said this, when St Dominic saw her happy soul ascend with the greatest joy to the kingdom of the blessed.’
Wisely, perhaps, Alfonso makes no attempt personally to guarantee the authenticity of this anecdote, but instead quotes The Trophies of Mary (1, 4, cap. 29) of the Spanish Jesuit Juan Eusebio Nieremberg y Otin (1595-1658) as his authority. That ‘lack of a true critical faculty [which] often detracts from the learning’ which Goyena noted in Nieremberg (Goyena 1911) was certainly well to the fore here, yet Nieremberg was no more responsible for the story of Alexandra and her well than was St Alfonso.
In fact, he could have found it in any one of ‘scores’ of treatises on the Rosary published in the late-fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. All of these depend ultimately on a single source, in which the Alexandra story makes what appears to be its very first appearance. This is the Exempla of Blessed Alanus de Rupe (c. 1428-75), which was printed with the same author’s Compendium, in the Quodlibet of Michael Francisci in 1485. Francisci was a disciple of de Rupe, and the whole work was intended to further promote devotion to the Rosary, to which Alanus had devoted most of his life. The exempla were a major element of Alanus’ propaganda, and abundantly illustrate his modus operandi. It is almost unnecessary to point out that the Alexandra tale does not feature in the authentic records of St Dominic Guzman; and it is on a par with Alanus’ claim that the Rosary was originated by St Dominic. Alanus was a visionary; and though he claimed that his stories about Dominic were to be found in the chronicles of Thomas de Templo and John de Monte (no trace of either of whom has ever been discovered), it seems evident that his stories proceeded principally from his own imagination, even if not consciously so (for all of this, cf. Thurston 1901, pp. 287-97).
Yet the story is a powerful one, quite unlike the pious generalities of much visionary literature; and it is obvious to ask whether or not the story had any point of origin outside the subconscious of Alanus de Rupe. Blessed Alanus was a Breton, and must have been familiar with the legends of numbers of Breton saints and their holy wells: for example, St Aude, who was beheaded by her brother at a well while doing the washing, subsequently carrying her head home; or St Melor, whose severed head told his thirsty murderer to create a spring by pushing his staff into the earth. However, the Alexandra of the exemplum has never been venerated as a saint, either in Brittany or elsewhere; and I know of no exact parallel to Alanus’ story in either hagiological or secular sources.
If any reader recognises earlier possible sources or parallels, or has any explanation to offer to account for the apparently abrupt emergence of this motif only in 1485, I will be delighted to hear from you – this tale has puzzled me for years!
Goyena, A.P, in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol.11. London: Caxton, 1911. Page 72.
Liguori, St Alphonsus de. The Glories of Mary (Ed. Eugene Grimm). Vol.1. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1887.
Thurston, Herbert. ‘The Rosary. X.-The Rise and Growth of the Dominican Tradition’. The Month 97 (March 1901). Pages 286-304.
Text © Tristan Gray Hulse (1998)