Cenodoxus

Cenodoxus is one of several mediaeval miracle plays by Jacob Bidermann, an early 17th century German seminarian and prolific playwright. It is based on a legend from the 11th century.

Intended Audience was Seminary Students

Published in 1602 AD at a seminary in Augsburg, and with earlier handwritten drafts undoubtedly available prior to 1600 AD, Cenodoxus found its first performances by the seminary students there, put on principally for the benefit of the many students residing at the institute. The initial performance in July of 1602 was so well received that it was performed a second time the very next day. As is often the case with seminaries in the middle ages, funding activities almost always coincide with theatrical performances, and visiting dignitaries were in the audience of Cenodoxus, drawn in by the reputation the seminary enjoyed, and who, appropriately impressed, must have willingly loosened their purse strings for.

Far from being inaccessible to the typical theatergoer, the performances of Cenodoxus in Latin were so enthusiastically received that the choice of the language had the effect of making the play one of the hottest hits in Europe. Especially noteworthy performances were recorded in Munich and Lucerne in 1609, after the conclusion of which fourteen young men immediately asked to enter the Jesuit order, a result that was amazing for a mere theatrical performance. The play was also performed with comparable results in Pruntrut in 1615, in Ingolstadt in 1617, in Paris in 1636, and both Ypern and Hildesheim in 1654. Considering all these performances, it is no surprise that there are a fair number of copies of Cenodoxus surviving to this day, but the earliest such copies date back to 1610 or 1611, and are, to this day, preserved as such in a convent in Kehlheim. The doting attention given to this work by the wealthy nobility eventually filtered down to the common people, leading to a popular translation by Joachim Meichel in 1635, who finally brought it out in his own version of the German vernacular.

Bidermann’s plays were not printed as a single work until 1666, when they were collected under the title of Ludi Theatrales – still in Latin – some 27 years after his death.

As productions go, the performances involved elaborate costumes because each of the Seven Deadly Sins was personified by a student that was appropriately dressed so he could be recognized as such, and an intricate dance sequence involved the deadly sins approaching the dying body of Cenodoxus. Some of the sins approached singly, others in pairs, and each came to the ear of the sleeping Cenodoxus, to whisper into it, and lead him astray, or stir within him a doubt, or magnify in him whatever flaw they could find to foster. This kind of movement, with up to seven personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins, taking the form of devils or demons, each dancing around on a stage that was mocked up to be a bedroom, naturally required a lot of choreographic preparation and rehearsal.

It was a fairly complex play when seen in that light.

Cenodoxus Was a Good Man

Cenodoxus was a man who had a sterling reputation for healing the sick, helping the poor, speaking kindly, and ministering to all in need. He was equally loved and admired by all.

But His Health Failed

At a ripe old age, he had succeeded in all the things he had set out to do. He was a teacher, a scholar, a doctor, a lawyer, and a philosopher. He excelled at all the things a man could excel at. But he began to lose his health, and this alarmed all of his friends. He grew sick. Friends visited his house to see him, but there was nothing they could do to save him. All they had for him was good words, and wished they could be more like him. People prayed for him day and night. Everybody believed that Cenodoxus was the nicest person they’d ever met.

And He Died

Mortal intervention from all quarters could not help the good Doctor of Paris, who had helped so many other people. The priest came, but was unable to hear him confess any sins that were not already confessed. The priest left, saying he had done all he could do, “But with the Lord’s help, he may yet regain his health.”

Regardless of the prayers offered, Cenodoxus died, bringing sadness to all who had met him.

He Interrupted His Own Last Rites

Now, when the dead body of Cenodoxus was taken to the cathedral and prepared for its last rites – namely, a blessing in the nature of a viaticum – and when it was laid out stiff and still on the cold stone table there, it managed to cry out three times in three days, each time prompted by the priest saying his name, and each time leading to an ever larger crowd of onlookers to witness what was happening.

No sooner had the priest begun to perform his last rites, and started to say “Cenodoxus” than the corpse jolted, opened its mouth, and – moving its dead lips – cried out to interrupt the services. (Jacob Bidermann’s poetic account in Latin verse, following a perfect iambic meter, constitutes a slight departure from the account below.) Each time this happened, the priest figured it was a terribly bad omen, and delayed the man’s last rites by an extra day.

  • On the 1st day, the Priest said, “Cenodoxus was a good man,” and it cried out, “I have been accused.”
  • On the 2nd day, the Priest said, “Cenodoxus was a good man,” and it cried out, “I have been found guilty”
  • On the 3rd day, the Priest said, “Cenodoxus was a good man,” and it cried out, “Oh, My God, My God, My God, I have been damned to Hell Eternal.”

People Were Amazed

The onlookers witnessing this event were absolutely dumbfounded because they could not think of anything Cenodoxus had done warranting eternal damnation. He was not known for swearing, cheating, or coveting. He was not a gambler, but was in fact so generous with everything he had, that he had nothing when he died. This was amazing because he had once been very wealthy. They did not understand why Cenodoxus would have cried out the things that he did.

Bruno’s Dilemma

Bruno was one of Cenodoxus’s many friends, and like all the others there had been in the crowded cathedral when Cenodoxus’s body cried out the things described. Seeing this with his own eyes, Bruno was beside himself with confusion as to why these things had happened, and why Cenodoxus – of all people – should have met with such a stern judgment. Being damned to Hell Eternal was far, far worse than having to go to Purgatory. Could it be that if only Cenodoxus had done things differently, he’d have met with some other fate?

“If that good man Cenodoxus is lost, despite the many good things he has done, how can I be saved, who am so much worse a man, and by far the less deserving?” Bruno wondered, and wondered, unable to come to terms with what he had himself seen. Bruno knew Cenodoxus personally, and could attest to all the good things Cenodoxus had done, and yet none of those things was sufficient to guarantee immunity from God’s wrath. If a truly good man, like Cenodoxus, was doomed, then what chance did he, Bruno, have? or any other man, for that matter?

Bruno’s Decision

Now, Bruno thought for a long time about the things he had seen – there were so many witnesses it could not be denied – the very streets around the cathedral had overflowed with witnesses – and, for all of that, concluded that his friend Cenodoxus could only have died guilty of one sin – the deadliest sin of them all – the Sin of Pride. Pride is something that is hard to detect from merely looking; it is something that only God can detect.

Bruno Built a Monastery

For this reason, Bruno left human society behind to build a monastery in the woods outside of Paris, and he founded an order of monks there, devoutly believing that doing good deeds for others generally tended to magnify pride (or superbia as Bidermann put it) – a kind of haughtiness or vainglory – that is immaterial in the long run, and, as such, being a misplacement of priorities, is a kind of deadly sin that will permanently bar entry into Heaven. The order of monks that St. Bruno founded is called Carthusian.

The Legend dates back to the 11th Century.

This play has significance because it led to the sanctification of St. Bruno of Cologne by the Roman Catholic Church. The monastery he built in the late 11th Century (somewhat after he beheld the miracle of 1082 AD, as legend has it) led to other monasteries being built, most of them Jesuit in nature, though his particular brotherhood was far more ascetic and isolationist.

The order of monks he founded continues to this day, and regards him as their Patron Saint.

Whatever the historical basis to the legend, monasteries tend to die out if new members are not brought in. To this end, the monastery that Bruno founded, must have found it desirable to recruit new members by reciting the Legend of the Doctor of Paris as a rallying cry – ‘no matter how many good deeds you do, or how you improve man’s lot, the real danger lies in corrupting yourself with a heightened sense of self-worth.’ Accordingly, they must have related the tale of the Doctor of Paris to prospective recruits and told them that Cenodoxus was a good man who was unwittingly so immersed in his superbia that he succumbed to the sin of pride. It is more than likely, however, that during the Protestant Reformation, detractors found it convenient to recast the tale, and turn it on its head so that the good doctor was really a self-centered and wicked man, someone so lacking in a sense of conscience that nothing could stop him from taking advantage of those who were around him. Were this not enough, the detractors, in advancing their own agenda, could well have vilefied him – maligning the good doctor by renaming him, and calling him by the very medical staff he chose to carry about him (fustum in Latin means staff – an item that all doctors carried about them, just as Aesculapius was known by his staff – a staff with a snake curling around it. For comparison’s sake, consider how satchels today are so frequently carried by doctors in more modern times). What could make for a more humorous effect than to corrupt the fustum into “Faust” (German for ‘fist’)? An aspersion of this kind must surely have been instrumental in darkening the legend that the Carthusian monks had striven for so long to bring to light. Is there any surprise that Marlowe and Goethe, in fashioning their own faustian doctors, were influenced by widely circulated chapbooks alternately illuminating or darkening the character of Cenodoxus?

Inspiration for Goethe’s Faust

Jacob Bidermann’s treatment of the Legend of the Doctor of Paris is important because it is generally regarded to have been the primary source of inspiration for Goethe’s Faust.

There are some noted differences, however.

While both The Legend of the Doctor of Paris (as described by Bidermann) and Faust (as fashioned by Goethe) are tragedies, the Doctor of Paris employed his talents for the betterment of mankind, and had no selfish motive beyond that; in fact, it was a secret spark of vainglory or superbia found deep in his heart, which caused his downfall. Goethe’s Faust, on the other hand, relied upon numerous instances of divine (or at least infernal) intervention to work out the many details of his personal profits and pleasures, and all of these figured highly in his tragedy, as well as in the corruption or destruction of innocents having no part in God’s wager with Satan, or even of the subsequent deal struck between Faust and Mephistopheles. It is interesting that Cenodoxus should perish for what sin lay within him, and Faust should meet his end on the basis of an old wager, an artifact that lay outside him. -If Cenodoxus had been judged by how many people he had helped, he would certainly have gone to Heaven; conversely, had Faust been judged by how many people he had harmed, there would have been no question as to his Doom.

External link

  • Ludi Theatrales Sacri: Jakob Bidermann’s Ludi Theatrales Sacri (Latin for “Holy Plays for the Theater.”) Five plays, with a copy of his script Cenodoxus among them, available together for downloading from Mannheim University in Germany. 317K

Related Reading

  • Siegfried Wenzel, Fasciculus Morum, a Fourteenth-Century Preacher’s Handbook (in Latin and English), ISBN 0-271-00642-00, published by Pennsylvania State University (1989)
  • Richard Erich Schade, Studies in Early German Comedy, ISBN 0-938100-41-6, published by Camden House and University of Cincinnati (1988)

References

  • Jacob Bidermann, Cenodoxus, ISBN 0-292-71027-5, edited by D.G. Dyer (1974 University of Texas Press, itself a reprint of an earlier entry in the Edinburgh Bilingual Library);
  • Cenodoxus, translated from Latin into 17th century German by Joachim Meichel, and reprinted in 1965 by Ralf Steyer Verlag Muenchen
  • Jean-Claude Schmitt, Les Revenants: les vivants et les morts dans la société médiévale (Gallimard, 1994)

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Cenodoxus“.