Recently I have been re-visiting some of my MA work on blindness in order to prepare for the upcoming Be Curious outreach event at the University of Leeds. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Be Curious Festival (19th March 2016) will be a free interactive event, designed to get both children and adults thinking about the theme of ‘health and wellbeing’. My stall at the event will be focussing on the treatment of eye impairments in the Middle Ages – although I’ll blog more about the festival and my contributions nearer the time! For now, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about St. Foy and the treatment of blindness in some of her healing miracles.
In his book, Medieval Civilisation, Jacques Le Goff suggested that ‘the medieval west was […] full of blind people with sunken eyes and empty pupils’. Although his claim appears to be an exaggeration of the truth, Le Goff was not wrong in pointing out that eye complaints were one of the most common ailments of the period. Brought about by nutritional deficiencies, occupational hazards, leisure pursuits and the nature of warfare, ocular impairments were a very real concern throughout the Middle Ages. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that in a survey conducted by John Theilmann, blindness healing miracles were discovered to be the second most popular healing miracle (topped only by paralysis), with saintly healing being responsible for 11% of blindness cures.
However, the treatment of blindness in the miracle collection of St. Foy (an early Christian martyr whose relics were stolen by the monks of Conques, c. 866, in an attempt to boost the popularity of their monastery) exceeds Theilmann’s average, making her miracles an exceptional case study. Out of 42 healings recorded in her miracle collection, 15 are specifically about blindness. Despite the fact that her miracle collection seems to favour women more generally (for example, a widow’s daughter; Countess Arsinde who promised Foy gold in exchange for a child; wives acting on behalf of their husbands; a peasant lady who found an expensive broach and gave it to Foy, and a number of mothers who requested help for their sickly children) this pattern is not mirrored in the miracles related to sight. Instead, Foy can be seen helping widows, farmers, children, and warriors to name but a few, demonstrating that blindness was a problem faced by people of diverse ages and social backgrounds.
So why was it so important to have healthy eyesight in the Middle Ages? Not only was the ability to see well crucial for manual and close-up work in a period pre-dating glasses; but the power of sight also had an additional importance at this time. The things that a person saw could directly affect their humoural complexion, thereby governing the balance of bodily temperature, moisture, and fluids.
For example, ‘gazing upon the colour red […] had a heating and drying effect on the body’, whereas looking at ‘disturbing images could corrupt the body, and, in extremis, threaten life itself’. The eyes were believed to emit and admit ‘visual spirit’ which helped to regulate the bodily humours; consequently, if a person was blind, they could not regulate their humours in this way, resulting in an internal blockage and illness.
Similarly, the ability to meditate upon the image of Christ or the sight of the Host during communion was believed to have a profound and positive impact upon a person’s soul. However, the blind were cut off from the uplifting visual aspects of this ritual and were consequently forced away from the grace of God. Therefore, by blinding someone a saint not only affected a person’s humoural complexion, but also negatively affected a person’s spiritual wellbeing. Because of this, blindness was feared, and could be implemented by saints as both as a form of chastisement and as a tool for encouraging good Christian behaviour.
St. Foy made particular use of blindness as a form of punishment, which can be best seen in the first miracle with which she was credited – ‘How Guibert’s Eyes Were Restored’. Taking place in approximately 983, this miracle was directly related to blindness, and helped to both establish Foy’s power and to encourage a generous amount of donations to her shrine. The miracle tells of a man named Guibert, who had his eyes torn out by his Godfather in an act of jealousy. A year later, Foy visited Guibert in his sleep and ordered him to light a candle at her alter the following day. Guibert did as he was instructed and consequently found that his eyes (and eyesight) had been restored. After this he became arrogant and rich, and in retaliation, Foy partially blinded him. Guibert repented and regained his sight, but shortly after he returned to his sinful ways, and was once again punished by blindness. He continued to fall in and out of blindness in accordance with his sin for the rest of his life. The success of this miracle (followed by the continual cycle of retraction and receipt), attracted considerable attention, thereby contributing to the later popularity of Conques as a pilgrimage destination.
However, the popularity of St. Foy and her shrine at Conques was not to last. In eleventh century France, four hospices for the blind were founded by William the Conqueror in Cherbourg, Rouen, Bayeux, and Caen. It is interesting to note that the foundation of these institutions coincided with a decline in Foy’s blindness healing miracles. It seems that, if people were able to receive free care at a hospice, they were probably less likely to make the pilgrimage to Conques in order to ask Foy for assistance. As a result, Foy’s healing miracles might have appeared to have dried up, leading to a cyclical process of less requests, less miracles, and a subsequent reduction in Foy’s popularity throughout the eleventh and twelfth century.
Hopefully this short case study of St. Foy and her blindness miracles helps to explain why, in a society where religious devotion was increasingly focused on sight, blindness came to be very closely related to the saints. Acting as divine intercessors, saints could both harm and heal people, thereby encouraging good Christian behaviour and shaping an individual’s relationship with God.
If you’re keen to know some more about the treatment of blindness in the Middle Ages, keep an eye out (no pun intended) for future updates on my stall at Leeds University’s Be Curious Festival.
 Le Goff, Jacques, Medieval Civilisation 400-1500, trans. by Julia Barrow (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 240
 Theilmann, John, ‘English Peasants and Medieval Miracle Lists’, The Historian, 2 (1990), 286-303 (pp. 291-92)
 Hawkins, Joy, ‘Sights for Sore Eyes: Vision and Health in Medieval England’, in On Light, ed. by Kenneth Clarke and Sarah Baccianti (Oxford: The Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2013), pp. 138-155 (pp. 138-42)
 Sheringorn, Pamela (trans.), The Book of Sainte Foy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p. 16; 43-50