Last weekend I was in Oporto, where I visited the quite extraordinarily opulent church of St Francis. It is a rococo creation of such self-indulgent extravagance – 500 kilograms of gold are said to have been used in the gilding, and the whole interior is a vast, wriggling omelette of gold leaf – that on its completion, the Bishop of Oporto forbad its use for public services, and a second, more restrained, church had to be built next door. It is hard to imagine that St Francis would have been vastly sympathetic to the décor, but it is certainly magnificent in that superbly vulgar idiom that delighted eighteenth century Catholic religiosity.
In the church’s treasury I came across a small sculpture of ‘the Five Martyrs of Morocco,’ in heaven-ward motion on a cloud, which interested me. This little quintet had hitherto passed me by. In the church itself is an altar dedicated to the same martyrs, their images spread across the golden retable, one of the friars, rather gruesomely, in the actual moment of decapitation. Above, almost as an afterthought, are a larger numbers of Franciscan martyrs crucified in Japan. The whole thing is a celebration of persecution sought out, and death willingly, even enthusiastically, suffered for God.
These five (or six – St Vitalis didn’t actually make it to Morocco, falling ill in Spain, as one so easily can) Franciscans were the order’s proto-martyrs, the first Friars Minor killed for their faith, and hugely revered. Saints Berard of Carbio, Peter, Otho, Accursius and Adjutus set off to preach the faith in Muslim Spain, sailing to Seville – or al-Ishbil as it was still known in those more civilised times before its fall to Spanish crusaders in 1248. Reflecting for a moment, what we see is not five gentle advocates of the faith setting out to engage with the superior culture that Islamic Andalusia still represented, but a little group of dyed-in-the-wool knuckle-heads who set off to denounce Islam and preach the true faith. In what language? Well, only Berard spoke any Arabic, so the others must have done their denouncing and advocating in Latin to an uncomprehending public. No doubt they assumed that the truth would somehow shine through, despite the fact that nobody understood a word they were saying. This was a little naïve, and they got the bum’s rush at al-Ishbil, not violently but firmly, as one Catholic website describes.
Following a long and dangerous journey through the Mediterranean, the five friars arrived in Seville, preaching publicly, despite the prohibition. There they were greeted by incredulity, with the population considering them insane and dangerous. They were arrested before achieving any conversion among the people. To avoid lengthy imprisonment, the five requested that the governor of Seville send them to Marrakech, Morocco for audience with the Sultan.
The authorities at al-Ishbil were no doubt delighted to pass the problem on to a higher authority, and the friars travelled south. At the court of Youssef II al-Mustansir, they were well received, though the Sultan was only sixteen, and his position, after the defeat of the Almohad army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1213, was shaky. The young Sultan indulged himself while leaving the government of the empire to his court. Famine stalked Morocco, and the Almohad kingdom was under military pressure from the east. In the circumstances, he was magnanimous, at least formally – but the decision was probably not his, as he had quite other preoccupations – Youssef II was killed in 1224, still aged only about twenty, gored by one of his pet cows.
The Sultan received the five, granting them permission to preach. With his permission, the five preached in the marketplace with little success. However, many of the people were greatly upset by their presence, and requested their arrest. To avoid arresting the friars, the Sultan arranged for them to live with a Christian friend and prince, Dom Pedro Fernandez. This they did, but continued travelling into the city to preach. Eventually, they were again arrested, beaten, and bribed in attempts to get them to desist in their preaching and return home. When offered power, riches, and position, they replied, “We despise all those things for the sake of Christ.”
In other words, the Almohad Sultan made every effort to accommodate these prickly and offensive visitors, who wouldn’t shut up, wouldn’t go away and persisted in upsetting everyone at whom they could shout in Latin, by insulting the Muslim faith. Eventually the Sultan lost patience, and the Franciscans were executed – the very outcome which they had sought. It was not a pretty end, the slightly gloating catholic sources recording death by being “scourged till their ribs appeared bare, having burning oil and vinegar poured into the wounds, body rolled on sharp stones and potsherds, then [their] heads split by a sword.” Or, as the Roman Martyrology puts it more soberly, noting their feast-day on January 16th, “In Morocco, in Africa, the martyrdom of the five Protomartyrs of the Order of Friars Minor, Berard, Peter, and Otho, priests, and Accursius and Adjutus, lay brothers; who, for preaching the Catholic Faith and for their condemnation of the Mohammedan Law, after various torments and mockeries by the Saracen king, and with their heads opened by the scimitar, were executed.”
But wait a moment. One of the interesting aspects of this is that there is actually no contemporary account of their deaths. The details were supplied, with spiralling elaboration in subsequent decades, in what looks suspiciously like embroidery, or even simply inventive hagiography, until they were canonised in 1481, two and a half centuries later. The five became a firm foundation for the Franciscan order, and no grisly detail escaped the imaginative pens of later Catholic writers. But the whole scenario seems a little unlikely. Why – the most obvious question – would the young Sultan, scarcely more than a boy, having once welcomed the friars and gone to some lengths to keep them out of trouble, have then gone on to chop off their heads with his own hands? They may well have been behaving entirely abominably, abusing the Sultan’s hospitality and his religion in the face of his (or his viziers’) laudable patience; and they may have gone too far and had their exasperating heads chopped off. But the Sultan’s swinging the sword with the gusto portrayed in paintings of the scene seems unlikely to the point of absurdity. However, as Tertullian says, “Blood is the seed of the Christians,” so a liberal sploshing of it is highly desirable, whether or not it actually happened. And to have the job done in propria persona by the Miramamolin himself (well, that’s what Southey calls him, anyway, in what we must assume is a garbled mangling of Amir al-Mu’minin) makes a very satisfying and richly symbolic tableau.
Robert Southey, Lake Poet and laureate, wrote a truly awful ballad about the martyrdom, called Queen Orraca and the Five Martyrs of Morocco, and tempting as it is to quote it at length, I limit myself to his florid account of their deaths:
What news, O King Affonso,
What news of the Friars five?
Have they preached to the Miramamolin?
And are they still alive?”
They have fought the fight, O queen!
They have run the race;
In robes of white they hold the palm
Before the Throne of Grace.
All naked in the sun and air
Their mangled bodies lie;
What Christian dared to bury them,
By the bloody Moors would die.”
What news, O King Affonso
Of the Martyrs five what news?
Doth the bloody Miramamolin
Their burial still refuse?
That on a dunghill they should rot,
The bloody Moor decreed;
That their dishonored bodies should
The dogs and vultures feed.
And that, as far as I can tell, is the story – apart from the eight centuries of reverence that have followed, the canonisation, the transfer of their relics to Coimbra by the much-tried Pedro Fernandez, who somehow made it home with the five bodies, despite the Sultan’s allegedly violent intransigence on the subject.
But it raises a few interesting questions, not least in making us think a little about martyrdom, and the determination to die in the cause of one’s faith which has become the scourge of our own day. These saints went off to Saracen country determined to die in the cause of Christ. If they weren’t after the 72 virgins that are the more modern currency in such transactions, they certainly wanted the martyr’s palm. As Southey puts it:
In Morocco we must martyr’d be
Christ hath vouchsafed it thus
We shall shed our blood for him
Who shed his blood for us
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We have been accustomed to regard Christian martyrdom as, broadly speaking, admirable even if we don’t revere the saints. But it is a dangerous admiration, and we need perhaps to think carefully about the cultural foundations on which we rest. Deliberately sought-out martyrdom is a two-edged sword, and we are seeing a great deal too much of the other edge in Europe today.
As for those who, like me, have spent lives abroad in intercultural relations, the Franciscan website has a final word of advice – “Preaching the gospel is often dangerous work. Leaving one’s homeland and adjusting to new cultures, governments and languages is difficult enough; but martyrdom caps all the other sacrifices.” Well, yes, I imagine it would.