A man who isn’t simply blind but speechless and possessed (Matt. 12.22-3); a paralytic who’s prostrate by an inaccessible fountain (John 1-15); someone who’s sightless, his eyes spat on and caked with mud (John 9.1-12): all three walk not into a bar but back to their homes, to tell of a healer named Jesus. I spent many childhood Sundays learning stories like these; mostly, I’m glad I did. I respect too many artists for whom Christianity has proved tinder to the imaginative flames—George Herbert, John Milton, Marilynne Robinson—to slough off my wonder at the Bible, and its literary panache, completely, to say nothing of its warm embrace of competing narratives and interpretive inexhaustibility. As I’ve gotten older, focusing on early modernity in graduate school, I’ve also become convinced that a historically- and textually-nuanced expertise in the Reformation is both a professional and political necessity: two can play at the game of Biblical exegesis.
But a more dramatic experience has likewise nuanced my—private and personal—relationship to Christianity: a spinal-cord injury in 2013 that initially paralyzed me below the waist and now has me walking with a cane and brace. As I’ve detailed for Synapsis already, people–in the immediate aftermath of the accident and still to this day–effuse that they’re praying for me, that God has a plan for me, that He doesn’t give us more than we can handle, that by his grace was I able to walk again. Mostly, I think bromidic reassurance of this variety is rubbish, though it can often (but not always) come from a good place.[i]
Even so, I’ve been galled once again by the presumption of these comments while working on the third chapter of my dissertation, “Stand and Wait: Dynamics of Physical Dis/ability in the Greco-Roman Epic Tradition.” Overall, it focuses on how, and why, physical incapacity elicits immense anxiety in the epic literary conscious (but cannot be ignored altogether), and how certain epicists index their relationship to a tradition they at once both admire and yearn to overgo by finding new ways of incorporating bodymind difference into their poems. One of my early, core arguments is that the ability of epic heroes is shored up by disabling others: Odysseus in his interactions with Thersites (the Iliad) and Polyphemus (the Odyssey) is a crucial start. Another is that during the Renaissance—one of the high, possibly last, points of great epic experimentation—we can see this pattern transfigured but never effaced, even in the Biblical heroic poems I’m currently reinterpreting in chapter three: texts that attempt (often inanely) to adapt the subject matter of Christian history to the generic and structural conventions of pagan epic. This proves especially challenging when the material to be reworked is from the pacific New Testament, such as the life of Christ, to which many aspiring epicists were drawn.
Here, I want to focus on the greatest of these not-so-great biblicizing poets: Maro Girolamo Vida (1485-1566),[ii] whose neo-Latin Christiad (1535) proved almost inexplicably popular in the sixteenth century.[iii] Much of the poem is coordinated by a structural and thematic principle that I’m calling the heroics of healing: an emphasis on the miracles that began this essay and a tool by which Vida can mediate between the two (apparently opposed) poles constitutive to his mode of heroic poetry, those of Biblical and epic literature alike.[iv] How exactly he manages to do this has divided critics for quite some time. But I argue that the Christiad’s Jesus is a demigod who can be read as an epic hero precisely by doing what heroes do best: reinforcing his own ability by quashing the disability of others. Only here, in an admittedly brilliant inversion, what we find is not Odysseus disabling Thersites or Polyphemus, or even Aeneas abandoning his disabled—invalidum—countrymen in Virgil’s Aeneid (5.715-18), but Christ eventually eliminating his own disabled body after, along the way, amassing his followers—hyping his reputation or fama—by curing those who come across his path.
Understandably, this claim has significant personal stakes for me too, and reading Vida has clarified why I’m made so uncomfortable by those who frame my “improvements”—from wheelchair to walker to cane—as a gift from God, an extension of Jesus’s New Testament miracles: they articulate a eugenic logic that to be washed clean of disability is inherently good. Let me focus on one episode from the poem to show you what I mean.
Midway through book I (of the six-book epic), Christ arrives at a pool in Bethesda, where “those afflicted with chronic illness” are healed (Gardner 31). Filling in the details from the brief character sketch of a nameless paralytic in John’s gospel (5.1-16), Vida stages an encounter between his Jesus and a man named Jethro, “who suffered ailments in his arms and feet, indeed, in his entire body.” The case, from the very beginning, is framed as a demanding one, the kind fit only for a true healing hero. Indeed, Jethro has gotten himself into trouble precisely by failing to consult such a man: “in order to expel the illness from his young body,” Vida recounts, “he had trusted too much in the lies of quacks,” “undeservingly add[ing] poverty to the illness that had lodged itself in the very marrow of his bones.” The stage is set for a truly titanic intervention, “[f]or nearly forty years he had been afflicted by hunger and illness of every sort.” Jethro’s other problem, however, is that “health was granted not to all,” our poet explains, “but only to the first to jump in as the water stirred”—something the paralytic in question can’t manage because “no one is willing to immerse [him] in the health-restoring waters before others can jump in.” Meanwhile, the younger men all around him plunge ahead, “reclaiming the wonted vigor of their bodies” (Gardner 33).
What happens next is that Vida’s Jesus overturns the competitive economy of the pool: he too will return accustomed vigor to the restored body—but to a body that is completely invalid (invalidis), in an echo of Virgil’s Aeneid (5.716). “The god looked at him kindly”—with the obvious pity so many of us crips know and resent—and says: “Rise up on your own two feet and go your ways, restored to health!” The following turn is indeed miraculous: “the man stood up and, regaining his former strength, he placed his mat on his shoulders and walked steadily and without difficulty.”
I want to key in on a single phrase, from which I’ve derived the title for this essay: ipse suis referens pedes omnes passibus aequat (1.503). In Gardner’s translation: “he placed his mat on his shoulders and walked steadily and without difficulty” (33). Which is to say: Jethro referens—carries back—his pedes—steps—to the human norm of ambulation; what’s more, he aequat—or equalizes, regularizes, steadies—his passus, pace. With remarkable economy, Vida has evoked a standard from which deviation is not only unfavorable but potentially stigmatized; he then underpins Christ’s own claim to heroism by his ability to return this man from disability to ability yet again. More than this, however, he signals that the heroics of healing provides for the return of the epic genre itself to a more standardized poetics: none of the funny business of Pulci or Boiardo or, more recently, Ariosto (the Italian poets who were vitiating the heroic poem, some said, by hybridizing this manliest of genres with the effete characteristics of romance); perhaps there’s a dig at the evangelical rabble-rousers from northern Europe in the offing as well.
I shouldn’t mince words, though: this moment by the Bethesdan pool is not, ostensibly, a violent one, but if we use a disability-theoretical lens through which to reevaluate it, the epic Christ’s apparent benignity increasingly looks less different from his pagan ancestors’ aggression than we might at first imagine. Indeed, there is a forceful, insistent, even incessant purging of any difference here, a dogged get-into-line mentality that recalls how Vida’s poem is composed in relentless dactylic hexameters, certainly without his most important source Virgil’s frequent tonal ambivalences. This mentality recalls, too, the tactics used by many special education teachers today.
Vida, I suggest, wrenches the depictions of healing from the Old and New Testaments into a more violent, heroic—in fact, eugenic—register, but in doing so, also shines a light on the ableist violence latent—and sometimes not so latent—in the original iterations of those narratives too. This is not a call to turn one’s back on the gospels, however. Quite the opposite. It is a demand that we—especially those of us who were raised in the Christian tradition—engage directly with the (distinctly manmade and historically-situated) documents that we’ve built so much of our worldview upon.
Vida’s example was important to the two greatest epicists of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—Torquato Tasso and John Milton—but his can also be important to us, for another reason: as a reminder to revisit Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with the goal of cultivating our own understanding of why bodies acquire impairment and what medical intervention in this process might signify—to learn from these writers, perhaps, without being beholden to them, or to their conventional meanings. To interpret, and supplement, them for ourselves. The Christiad has its own agenda on this front of course—formal, structural, thematic, as I’ve tried to show—but it needn’t be ours.
At its heart, then, this essay is a plea that before you tell another disabled person God’s majesty is radiating from their imperfections, you understand the text—and tradition—you’re invoking, in all its complex nuances, galvanizing and disheartening in turn.
[i] Cf. On this frustration, see Amy Kenny’s fabulous My Body Is Not a Prayer Request (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2022).
[ii] For biographical information, see James Gardner, “Introduction,” Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad, tr. Gardner, I Tatti Renaissance Library (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009), viii-ix, from which all quotes from the Christiad are also drawn. Precious little is known about the man of whom Milton once claimed, “Loud o’re the rest Cremona’s Trump doth sound,” in his abortive poem, “The Passion.” But Marco Girolamo Vida was indeed born in Cremona, a Lombard city, around 1480, and lived for more than 80 years before dying a bishop in Alba in 1566. Early on, he was dispatched to Mantua, to the court of Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, for his education, became a priest, eventually traveled to Rome, and began writing a series of eclogues, hymns, and his De arte poetica, which was published in 1527. A didactic poem that became so famous it would eventually get a shoutout in Pope’s Essay on Criticism. The crowning moment of his career came when Pope Leo X, and later, Clement VII, supported Vida’s efforts to write a neo-Virgilian epic on the life of Christ. Upon the Christiad’s publication in 1535, its author was indeed hailed the Vergilius Christianus. By 1566, the year of Vida’s death, his masterwork would eventually be published in twenty different editions—and twenty more would follow before the start of the seventeenth century.
[iv] Increasingly more is being written about disability in the Bible: see, e.g., Candida Moss and Jay Schipper, eds, Disability Studies and Biblical Literature (New York: Palgrave, 2011); and it’s never good to generalize about the attitudes of a text written over so many years by so many hands. But the Bible is rarely more positive about disability than Paul—whose own “thorn” in the flesh may refer to a physical malady—is in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (KJV 12.10). (Which is not to say that Paul himself cannot be read as an anti-ableist figures, at least at times, and I’d welcome such a reading, though I don’t have the room to explore it here.) It’s true, then, that biblical disability—both physical and mental—is not always a function of personal culpability, nor a stigmatizing feature that excludes one from this reborn community of God coalescing under the auspices of Jesus. But by the same token, it can rarely be understood as a harbinger of resources either, at least in the terms Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discusses in her seminal essay “The Case for Conserving Disability.” On the contrary, whatever epistemological or ethical insights disability affords are useful only insofar as they remind one of their dependence upon the divine, who might then restore the body to wholeness in a reflection of the wholeness of the body of Christ, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians this time (12.27).
Image: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda (1667-1670). Description: surrounded by eager onlookers, Christ stands over a paralyzed individual lying in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. His arm is outstretched to him.