Winner of the 2016 La corónica International Book Award
Laura Ackerman Smoller
Laura Ackerman Smoller, Professor of History, University of Rochester, studies the areas of intersection between magic, science, and religion in medieval and Renaissance Europe, centering around two major themes: astrology and apocalyptic prophecy, and saints and miracles. Her first book, History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre d’Ailly, 1350-1420 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994), explores a French cardinal’s use of astrology to investigate the time of the world’s End. She argues that d’Ailly, worried about intractable papal Schism and hoping that a church council could bring the crisis to an end, turned to astrology as a way to silence the numerous forces that saw the Great Schism as a preamble to Antichrist’s reign and thus, by implication, incapable of resolution by human efforts.
In her second monograph, The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby: The Cult of Vincent Ferrer in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2014), she examines the canonization and cult of the Valencian friar Vincent Ferrer, a fiery apocalyptic preacher of the Schism years who died in 1419 and was canonized in 1455. Ranging from the saint’s tomb in Brittany to cult centers in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and Latin America, the book traces the long and sometimes contentious process of establishing a stable image of a new saint. Starting with the rich material of the canonization process, Smoller mines stories about the holy friar as a means of exploring the religious lives of medieval and early modern Christians. In a nuanced reading of canonization inquests, hagiography, liturgical sources, art, and devotional materials, people’s tales of the holy turn out reveal as much about their narrators—and their assertions of political, social, and spiritual status—as they do about Vincent Ferrer. A central focus of the book is a bizarre tale, in which a mother kills, chops up, and cooks her own baby, only to have the child restored to life by the saint’s intercession. This miracle becomes a key symbol of the official portrayal of the saint promoted by the papal court and the Dominican order through the Life of Vincent composed by Pietro Ranzano, in which Vincent appears as healer of the Great Schism (1378-1414) that had rent the Catholic church for nearly forty years. But analysis of artistic portrayals and other Lives of the saint composed in a variety of contexts from the time of Vincent’s 1455 canonization through the eve of the Enlightenment shows artists and authors utilizing this potent religious symbol for their own purposes, ends sometimes at odds with the official image of the saint promoted by Rome. Even though Ranzano’s official line eventually came to dominate hagiography, his was only one voice in a long, raucous discussion ranging over many centuries. The Saint and the Chopped-Up Baby restores the voices of that conversation in all its complexity.
More recently, Smoller has returned to the interrelationships between astrology and prophecy in a new book project tentatively titled “Astrology and the Sibyls,” an investigation of ways of knowing the future ranging from around 1100 to around 1600.
For more information about the La corónica International Book Award, including past winners, please visit our Book Award page.