Dem Bones

10 21 saint ursulaBack in September, when I was looking at the story of Magellan’s historic circumnavigation, I came across a place he named ‘The Cape of Eleven Thousand Virgins’ at the southern tip of mainland Argentina. It seemed like a really odd name to choose as it looks like a fairly inhospitable place. If you met eleven thousand of anything there it would probably be penguins. Then I found out that it was named for the feast day of Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins, on which it was discovered. Today is that feast day and here is their story…

10 21 martyrdom of saint ursulaSaint Ursula was the daughter of the king of Dumnonia (Devon) who was betrothed to Conan Meriadoc, pagan governor of Amorica (Brittany). She set sail to meet her new husband along with eleven thousand other virgins that her father had sent along as a gesture of good will or something. A huge storm blew up and their ship was blown all the way to a port in Gaul in only a single day. This is all supposed to have taken place some time in the third, fourth, fifth, or even seventh century. So already it’s pretty vague. Firstly, I’d like to point out, that’s quite some ship that is big enough to carry eleven thousand passengers and presumably a crew as well. Secondly, if they were sailing across the Channel, making the journey in one day doesn’t sound that miraculous. However, onwards. Ursula was so overwhelmed by their miraculous journey that she set off with her eleven thousand companions on a pilgrimage around Europe. She also persuaded the Pope and the Bishop of Ravenna to accompany them. When they reached Cologne they ran into a horde of marauding Huns, a tribe from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who were coming the other way. All eleven thousand virgins were beheaded by the Huns, except for Ursula, who was shot with an arrow.

No one really believes this story is true, and why would you? But I love the way legends like this have grown and become more and more spectacular in the telling to make them seem more glorious. And of course they are glorious, but perhaps not in the way that was intended. The number of eleven thousand may have come from a mistranslation in the ninth century. There is an account of the remains of the martyred virgins being found along with the bones of a girl called Ursula, who was eleven years old, in Latin undecimillia, which could have been read as undecimilla, eleven thousand. Or perhaps it was just one girl whose name was Undecimilia, sometimes written as Ximillia. This could easily be misinterpreted as a Roman numeral.

These first relics were discovered in the eighth century and put on display in a church in Cologne, dedicated to the saint. Then in 1155, a mass grave was found near the church. Everyone assumed these must be the remains of the eleven thousand. The church was extended and a massive reliquary was added to house the bones. It is filled with busts containing the skulls of the bodies found there and its walls are covered with bones. They are arranged in patterns; swirls, zigzags even lettering. It is called ‘The Golden Chamber’ and looks like an amazing place. You can see a short video of it here if you have two minutes and five seconds to spare today. Of course the bones probably came from an old graveyard that everyone had forgotten about, but they were quite a bonus for the church. It made the shrine seem even more important than it already was, while at the same time providing an almost endless supply of holy relics which could be sold. When someone pointed out that among the bones were those of men and even tiny babies, they were explained away as the bishop and imaginary pope who accompanied them or as ‘distant relatives’ of the virgins. Though what they were doing there is not made clear. A surgeon from Cologne once got into awful trouble and had to leave town after he pointed out that some of the head reliquaries contained, not the skulls of young virgins, or even humans, but a couple of fully grown mastiffs. Oh dear. Maybe we’ve found some actual dog-headed saints though…10 21 golden chamber

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