Under the Feet of a Woman

07 20 saint margaretToday, I have not one, but two female saints to tell you about. There is absolutely no evidence that either of them existed, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good story.

Firstly, I want to tell you about Saint Margaret of Antioch, who was supposedly martyred in the year 304. Margaret was an extremely popular saint in medieval England. This was because, before she died, she promised that she would forgive any sin, and assist anyone in times of trouble, but particularly women in childbirth. This was providing that they read, or had read to them, the details of her life. So there are quite a lot of copies of her legend. Some are written on long strips of parchment, which were fastened around the bellies of women in labour.

She is often pictured, as above, in the act of hitting a devil on the head with a hammer. But she is also the only female dragon slaying saint that I have come across. Margaret was the beautiful daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch. When she became a Christian, she was denounced by her father and adopted by a nurse. Whilst tending sheep for her stepmother, she was spotted by a Roman governor called Olybrius. He wanted her for his wife, if she was a free woman, or his concubine if she was a slave. He also wanted her to renounce her faith. Obviously, she refused, and he had her arrested and thrown in prison. Then, he had her body beaten with rods and her flesh torn with metal combs. When she still refused, she was returned to prison.

There, she was visited by two devils. The first, in the form of a dragon, swallowed Margaret whole. But the cross she was carrying irritated its insides so much that it exploded, and the saint was free. The second devil appeared in the form of a man. Margaret grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground and then stood on his neck saying:

“Lie still, thou fiend, under the feet of a woman”

The devil was pretty embarrassed about it and, eventually, the earth swallowed him up. I can’t tell you about Margaret, without showing you this fantastic image of her riding the dragon. The picture below belongs to the Wellcome Collection, who have been extremely useful to me it the last year as they have generously uploaded some fantastic images to Wikimedia Commons. It’s a brilliant dragon, covered in flowers and with at least three pendulous breasts. Honestly, Wellcome aren’t paying me, but I wanted to return the favour by telling you that they have a brilliant cafe, an amazing shop and some really fascinating exhibitions. Check them out if you’re visiting London, they’re just near Euston Square tube station.

V0032585 Saint Margaret. Engraving by P. Galle after J. Stradanus.
image credit: wellcome images licensed under creative commons

But, back to Margaret. The next day, she was tortured again. She was burned, and then thrown into a pot of water. But God intervened and lifted her out of the water. The man whose job it was to finally chop off her head refused to do it. Margaret told her he must and also that she forgave all her torturers, giving the speech that I mentioned at the top of this article. He beheaded her and then fell down dead. As is often the case with early martyrdom tales, many witnesses were instantly converted. Five thousand people became Christian and were immediately beheaded as well. Even by the tenth century, there were people who were quite sceptical about her existence, particularly the dragon part.

If you look at the picture at the top, with Margaret and the devil, you might notice that she has a bit of a five o’clock shadow around the chin. But that’s nothing compared with our second saint. Today is also the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis, who is known in Britain as Saint Uncumber. Her saint’s day, along with Margaret’s, was dropped from the calendar in 1969 on the grounds that she never existed. Their stories start in a remarkably similar way. Saint Uncumber was born in Portugal and was the daughter of a nobleman. She was promised in marriage to a pagan king. As she was a Christian who had taken a vow of chastity, she prayed to God for help. She prayed that she could be made repulsive so that her prospective husband wouldn’t want to marry her. Her prayers were answered when she sprouted an enormous beard. Her father was so angry that he had her crucified.

saint_wilgefortis_graz_20121006
image credit: gugganij licensed under creative commons

She is often pictured with one shoe off and a fiddler at her feet. This is also rather odd. It illustrates a story connected with one of her statues. It seems that a poor fiddler came to play a tune to her image. The Statue was so pleased by this that she let one of her golden shoes fall to the ground as a gift to the musician. The fiddler was immediately accused of theft and was sentenced to death. He begged to be asked to play in front of the statue again. This time, in front of an audience, the statue kicked off her other shoe.

It is thought that her totally fictitious life story came about because of a mistake. In the east, representations of the crucifixion tend to show Jesus in a full length tunic. In the west, people looked at the long dress and immediately saw a woman. They just made up a story that fitted with what they thought they were looking at.

Saint Uncumber is the patron saint of women who want to be freed (disencumbered) from abusive husbands. Both are wonderful stories about independently minded women, so I think, even if they are made up, they’re worth hanging on to.

Why Does it Always Rain on Me?

07 15 st swithinToday is Saint Swithin’s Day. According to English tradition, if it rains today, it will continue to rain for the next forty days. If it is dry, the weather will stay fine.

Details of the life of Saint Swithin are a bit sparse. He was tutor to Æthelwulf, who later became King of Wessex, and possibly to his son Alfred, who grew up to be Alfred the Great. Æthelwulf made Swithin bishop of Winchester in the year 853. He oversaw the building and repair of a lot of churches and possibly the building of the first stone bridge there. Aside from that, we don’t know a great deal. There are a couple of, once well-known, miracles attached to the saint. The first, the Winchester egg woman, is less interesting than it sounds. A woman was crossing the bridge with a basket of eggs. She was jostled, dropped the eggs and they broke. Swithin took pity on her and made them whole again.

The second is supposed to have taken place in the year 1050, quite some considerable time after Swithin died. It is the story of ‘Queen Emma’s Ordeal’. Queen Emma’s family life was terrifically complicated, but I’ll just tell you that she was married to both King Æthelred the Unready and, later, his sworn enemy Cnut, so there were plenty of people about who didn’t like her. Long after both her husbands were dead, she was accused of being overly intimate with the Bishop of Winchester. A man named Ælfwine. To prove her innocence, and his, she was made to walk in bare feet over nine red hot plough shares that were laid out on the floor of the cathedral. She prayed before the shrine of Saint Swithin and he appeared to tell her that she would not be hurt. When she was guided over the plough shares, she didn’t feel a thing. There are a couple of things wrong with this story. In 1050, Emma was sixty-five, a grand old age in the eleventh century. So if she was intimately involved with a bishop, fair play to her. But secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Bishop Ælfwine had died in 1047.

But back to Saint Swithin. He died around 862 and was a humble man. On his deathbed he requested that his body be buried not inside the church, as one would expect for a bishop, but outside the north wall. He wanted his grave to be where it would be walked over by ordinary people and where the rain from the eaves of the church might drip down onto it. He was buried according to his wishes but, a little over a hundred years later, his body was dug up and moved inside the church by Bishop Dunstan. His saint’s day is not the day of his death, but the day of his translation, the day his body was moved to its new resting place, July 15th 971. According to the story, when they started to move him, it began to rain and continued raining for the next forty days. This was taken as a sign of his displeasure and, ever afterwards, the weather on that day has been thought by many to determine the weather for the next forty days.

It isn’t true of course. It has been disproved over and over. Also there is no real historical evidence that it did rain on that day. It seems to have been a splendid celebration, enjoyed by all. What is more likely, is that the saint’s day has been linked to some pagan belief about changing weather patterns in early summer. There are many saints dotted throughout northern Europe with a similar legend attached to them. I mentioned another weather story in connection with the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus last month. There is a saint in France called Medard, who was once kept dry during a storm by an eagle that flapped around his head. In Germany, they have a pair of saints looking after their weather, Gervase and Protase. In Belgium, there is a saint called Godelieve, she was strangled then drowned on the orders of her incredibly unpleasant husband, yet she too has a feast day which is said to predict the weather. All these saints are commemorated in either June or July. I think if this proves anything, it is that the weather in Northern Europe is unsettled and unpredictable and it always has been. But we have always wished we had some way of knowing whether the summer was going to be nice or not.

Eye Popping

06 22 saint alban portraitToday is the feast day on Saint Alban, who was the first recorded Christian martyr in Britain. The actual year this happened is not clear, but it is placed somewhere between 209 and 304 AD, during the time that the Romans still occupied Britain. In fact, we cant be certain that he existed at all. There is a vague mention of an unnamed somebody who sounds a bit like him, dating from the end of the fourth century, but we mainly know about him from a visiting bishop called Germanus.

Germanus had travelled from France, in about 429 AD, to sort out a problem that we really don’t need to go into here, but during his visit, he went to pray at the grave of Saint Alban. The legend claims that, at that time, no one knew anything about Saint Alban, not even his name. But the Saint came to Germanus in a dream. He told the Bishop his name and the circumstances of his martyrdom, which are these:

Alban, who was then a Pagan, sheltered a Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution. He was so impressed by his new friend’s devotion to his god that he began to pray with him. When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the holy man’s clothes and presented himself in his stead. Even though it was perfectly clear that this was not the man they wanted, he was sentenced to death anyway because of his beliefs.

The spot chosen for his execution was a little way off, over a river and on top of a hill. We are told that it was a very beautiful place with lots of flowers. When he was marched off, under guard, so many people had turned out to witness the spectacle that they found their way across the bridge blocked by the throng. It is a feature of early Christian martyrs that they really wanted to die, so they could get to heaven as quickly as possible. Alban was no exception. Impatient for his martyrdom, he caused the river to dry up so they could hurry across the riverbed unhindered. His executioner was so impressed that he immediately converted to Christianity. Once at the top of the hill Alban found he was thirsty and a spring of water appeared from the ground at his feet.

His newly converted executioner now refused to perform the task. He asked if he could be martyred instead of Alban, but both were beheaded by a second executioner. At the moment that Alban’s head was struck off, and rolled away down the hill, the second executioner’s eyes popped out of his head and fell on the ground. So he was unable to rejoice at the saint’s death.

06 22 saint alban

There is another episode in the Germanus’s visit to Britain that I will mention briefly. At some point on his journey, he suffered an injury and was bedridden for a time. A fire broke out in a nearby house, which spread quickly. Everyone tried very hard to get the bishop to move to safety, but he wouldn’t. Although everything else was burned, the house where Germanus lay remained untouched.

Evidence for the existence of Saint Alban is tenuous to say the least, since he has only ever appeared in a dream. But it is enough for many to see him as a viable contender for National Saint, in place of Saint George, who never even set foot here. What I found most intriguing about this story though, are its mentions of flowers, of blindness, of something rolling down a hill and of things protected from fire. They are all themes which will come up again tomorrow, when I talk about Saint John’s Eve. I feel there is something in the legend of Saint Alban, and in the celebrations connected with Saint John’s Eve that hint at something much older that Christianity.

Leafy Pants and Angel Bread

06 12 onuphriusToday is the feast day of Saint Onuphrius, a desert dwelling hermit saint of the fourth or fifth century. The only evidence we have that he ever existed at all, comes from another saint called Paphnutius, who claimed to have met him.

I mentioned desert dwelling saints back in January when I wrote about Saint Anthony. In the third, fourth and fifth century there were a remarkable amount of hermits living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

When the Romans stopped persecuting Christians and made their religion legal, martyrdom was less of an option. So devout followers needed a new way to give up their lives to God. Many chose a life of austerity and solitude. They were all terribly fond of John the Baptist, who had lived in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, before he baptised his famous cousin. They thought, all that dwelling in the wilderness had made him very holy and they wanted to emulate him.

So, Saint Paphnutius had gone to the desert to see if the life of a hermit would be for him. He wandered for seventeen days and, during that time, he came across a man who he tried to shake by the hand, but then realised he’d been dead for ages when his arm came off. Next he met someone who claimed that an angel had come, taken out his liver, healed it, and put it back. Then, he came across a wild man on all fours. He had a long beard and his body was covered with fur. He was wearing a loincloth of leaves and he was shouting a lot. Unsurprisingly, Paphnutius tried to run away and hide, but the man called him back, telling him he was a man of God. Paphnutius returned and the wild man introduced himself as Onuphrius, a hermit and former monk. The two went to the hermit’s cell where they spent the evening together. Onuphrius told Paphnutius that he had been living in the desert for sixty years, enduring extreme thirst, hunger and discomforts. An angel had brought him to this place and given him a date palm and a magic spring (the water kind). The angel also brought him bread every Sunday. They talked a long time and, at sunset, some bread appeared for them, which they ate and then spent all night praying.

The next day Paphnutius discovered that Onuphrius was dying. Paphnutius thought it might be a sign that he was to stay in the desert and move into Onuphrius’s cell. Onuphrius said no, he must return to civilisation and tell everyone all about their meeting. The old hermit then blessed him and died. Paphnutius tried to bury his body but it was hard in a rocky desert. According to one account, he stuffed the saint’s body in a crack in the rocks and covered it with his cloak. In another, some lions helped to bury his body.

So maybe Saint Onuphrius was a real person. Or maybe he is just the sort of thing that the mind conjures up, in someone who has been wandering about in the desert for seventeen days. I’m pretty sure that such a harsh environment, with its extremes of heat and cold, combined with a lack of food and water would be bound to produce some kind of mystical experience sooner or later.

06 12 wild manFor reasons I can’t really fathom, the saint who was clad only in leaves and his own hair has become a patron saint of weavers. Oddly, hairy saints were once quite popular, Saint Onuphrius is not the only example. They fit in quite well with medieval European legends of wild men who live in the forest. Sometimes they possess a secret wisdom and if you get them drunk and tie them up, they might exchange that wisdom for their freedom. This sounds similar to the story of Silenus who is a character from Greek myth. He wasn’t at all like Onuphrius, but wild men in general seem to dwell just beyond our world. In the deserts, in the forests, in a country far away that a friend of a friend once visited. Or they live on the edges of our imagination, in myths and legends. Hairy saints probably belong with all the other wild men, giants with one eye and people who have a dog’s head instead of a human one. People like Saint Christopher, who I wrote about in my third ever post on this site last July.

Saint Erasmus and his Helpful Angel

06 02 bishop erasmusToday it’s time for another horrific story of an early Christian martyr. I always feel a little uncomfortable about describing the awful ways in which people were apparently tortured in days gone by, but as Christians found something to celebrate in it, and as their stories have obviously been considerably embellished, I think it’s probably okay. So, June 2nd is the feast day of Saint Erasmus of Formia who was martyred around the year 303. He is the patron saint of sailors, intestinal ailments, women in labour and cattle. Erasmus was bishop of Formia at a very difficult time. Christians were then a religious minority who were being persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian. Things were so awful that he ran away and hid on a mountain in Lebanon where he was fed by a raven After he had been hiding for seven years, an angel appeared and told him he had to go back.

On his way home though, Diocletian had him arrested and thrown into prison for his beliefs. But luckily, the angel helped him escape and his journey continued. While passing through Turkey, he raised a boy from the dead which caused an enormous fuss and, as a result, 40,000 people were baptised as Christians. So it wasn’t long before Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian heard about it. Maximian was even less fond of Christians and forced Erasmus to bow down to a huge copper statue of Zeus. But as soon as Erasmus looked at it, it crumbled into dust. Then, the temple caught fire, fell down and crushed loads of Pagans. A further 30,000 were baptised, which was really the opposite of what Maximian wanted and he was pretty mad. He put Erasmus in a barrel full of spikes and rolled him down a hill, but he didn’t die, his angel healed him..

Next, the Emperor tried having Erasmus’s teeth pulled out, his skin carded, his body roasted and his eyes poked out. He tied the bishop’s arms and legs to horses, he covered his body with pitch and set light to it but still the angel kept healing him and Erasmus couldn’t die. Eventually he was thrown in jail to starve but, thanks to the angel, he escaped once again.

There are two versions of the end of this story. In one, Erasmus returns to Formia where he dies of exhaustion, which would hardly be surprising after all that. In the other, he is arrested for preaching once again and is tortured by having his belly cut open and his intestines pulled out on a windlass, which is a sort of winch. So it’s easy to see why he’s the patron saint of intestinal problems and also possibly women in labour for the same reason. How he became patron saint of sailors and cattle is less clear.

06 02 erasmus

A windlass is certainly a useful piece of equipment for sailors, for raising and lowering heavy objects like anchors and the saint is often pictured carrying one. But Erasmus is also known by another name. It is Saint Elmo. You might have heard of Saint Elmo’s Fire which is a meteorological phenomenon.06 02 saint elmo's fire During an electrical storm a blue or violet light can sometimes appear, particularly at the top of tall pointy objects such as masts. It must be a pretty weird thing to see, especially if you don’t know where it comes from. Many sailors chose to see it as a sign that Saint Elmo was looking after them. It seems odd that sailors should view this eerie light as a sign of benevolence, perhaps it is because it tends to appear towards the end of a storm, when the worst is over.

Saint Elmo’s Fire is not restricted to ships at sea, it can also appear on land. At the top of church spires, masts, chimneys and even on blades of grass or the horns of cattle. So maybe that is why he is their patron saint too.

Fantastic Voyage

05 16 saint brendanToday is the feast day of Saint Brendon, patron saint of sailors, divers and also whales. He’s a pretty popular saint in his native Ireland, probably second only to Saint Patrick. Though frankly, why people go for Patrick in such a big way when they have a saint like Brendon, I find hard to understand.

Early Irish monks were adventurous souls who loved to set off across the sea in tiny boats, believing that God would take them where they needed to go. Brendan had already travelled quite widely when he met an Abbot named Barrid told him an intriguing tale of how he had ventured west across the sea and visited Paradise.

Brendan built a boat with a hull made from leather stretched over a wooden frame. He gathered together a company of either 14, 16 or 17 other monks and, somewhere between 512 and 530 AD, set off on a voyage of his own. The story of his seven year adventure is pretty amazing. They encountered an island inhabited only by a dog and an Ethiopian devil, an island populated with giant sheep and an island of birds who sang psalms in praise of God. On Easter Day they landed on the back of a whale which they mistook for an island. When they lit a fire it sank beneath the waves. The whale, who was named Jasconius, didn’t bare them any ill will though. The monks celebrated Easter on his back every year for seven years. They met with many fish, birds and sea monsters including one with the head of a cat and horns in it’s mouth. They sailed past a crystal pillar and an island of blacksmiths, who threw fiery rocks at them. They came upon a coagulated sea and fertile islands with giant fruit. On a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, they saw Judas. We are told that this was where he went when he was allowed out of Hell on Sundays. They seem to have revisited some of the islands regularly, so they must have been sailing around in circles. But they did reach the land that the Abbot had spoken of, which became known as Saint Brendan’s Island, and eventually returned home.

The Voyage of Saint Brendon was such a popular tale, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, that Saint Brendon’s Island appeared on many maps. Its location tended to change a fair bit though. When Columbus first set sail for America, he fully expected to find the island on his way. Its existence wasn’t fully discounted until the nineteenth century. More recently, people have started to believe that it could be a partially true account of an early voyage to America. There are certainly some quite big sheep on the Faroe Islands. The crystal pillar could be an iceberg. The blacksmiths throwing fiery stones could be an interpretation of an active volcano. The sea monster with horns in its mouth could easily be a walrus.

It is widely accepted now that the Vikings sailed to North America. The Vikings have tales of a settlement they call Vinland, which could be in America and they refer to the land to the south of it as ‘Irland it Mikla’ – ‘Greater Ireland’.

In 1976 a man named Tim Severin built a replica of Saint Brendan’s boat. He managed to sail it, with a small crew, from Ireland, via the Faroes, Iceland and past Greenland all the way to America. So such a journey would have been possible. When the leather hull was torn by a lump of ice they managed to stitch on a patch. Such a repair would have been impossible with a wooden or metal ship. They were particularly surprised to find that they were visited on their journey by many whales. It’s quite likely that they thought the big leather boat was some new, odd sort of whale that needed investigating.

That Time God Was A Bit Weird

05 11 saint gangulphusToday is the feast day of Saint Gangulphus who died in 760. At first sight, he seemed rather dull. Gangulphus is one of those saints whose legend it has been difficult to track down. But he was certainly worth a bit of digging. Part of the problem is that he has a lot of different names He is also: Gengulphus, Gingulfus, Gongolphus, Gandolfus, Gengoux and possibly Jingo. Another difficulty is that, although Gangulphus was a very holy man, other people in his story were not; and the nature of their punishments have not lent themselves readily to art. He is the patron saint of tanners, shoemakers and horses. He is also the patron saint of husbands and is invoked against marital difficulties and adultery. Here’s why…

Gangulphus was, as I said, a very virtuous man. His wife however, not so much…

There are two miracles associated with the life of the saint. The first concerns a miraculous spring of water. Gangulphus purchased the spring in Champagne from a peasant. As a spring is not generally something you can wrap up and take away with you, the peasant thought he had a pretty good deal. He also thought Gangulphus was extremely stupid. So did his wife, when he got home and told her about it. But when the saint plunged his staff into the ground on his own land, beautiful, clear water poured out and the peasant’s spring dried up.

Whilst Gangulphus was away, buying magic fountains or preaching or something, his wife was having a bit of a fling with a clerk. When she protested her innocence, her husband wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt and decided God could judge her. This is where the second miracle comes in. He told her to put her hand into the miraculous spring water and she was scalded by it.

Neither the wife nor the clerk were in the least contrite and the clerk tried to cut off the saint’s head. He missed though, wounding Gangulphus in the thigh. He later died from his wounds. He must have been canonised pretty quickly because he had certainly achieved something of a cult status by 801 AD. There were reports of miracles occurring at his tomb not long after his death. Wikipedia tells us that his wife and the priest ran away and then died. I felt there was more to the story than that and after a bit of searching, I found out that God punished them in a really weird way…

The wife and the priest were so happy they danced for joy. After that for some reason the priest took himself off to the toilet and his bowels fell out. He then plunged, unrepentant, into Hell. The wife faired only a little better. When she was told that miracles were being performed by her dead husband she said ‘…if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb then I can work great wonders with my arse.’ These were the last words she ever said because from that day forth, whenever she opened her mouth to speak, all she could do was fart. Either that, or the farting thing only happened on Fridays. Which ever it was she didn’t have many friends any more.

05 11 head in wellIn England, his story was once best known from a collection of poems by Reverend Richard Harris Barnham called ‘The Ingoldsby Legends’. He rather expanded the saints murder and played down the punishments, but it’s still pretty good. In his poem, the wife and the clerk murdered Gangulphus and then cut up his body with sugar snippers. In case you’re picturing sugar tongs here, sugar snippers are are far less benign and very sharp indeed. You can see a pair at the bottom of this post. They cut off his long beard and stuffed it in a cushion and then hid his body parts around the estate. They dropped his head down a well. Then, a prince bishop, who was having a banquet, sent out a maid to draw water from the well. She drew up the saints head. She then ran back in to tell everyone and the head followed her, bounced onto the dinner table and demanded it’s legs. Suddenly, his legs were kicking at the window. They were followed by his other body parts which then reassembled themselves on the table. The saint’s body then performed appropriate miracles, according to which bit of his body you touched. Touch his toe, and you wound be cured of gout. Reach for the wound on his neck, and your sore throat would be gone. The only part of Saint Gangulphus that was not restored to him was his beard.

When his wife heard about the miracles, she didn’t believe it. She declared that her husbands body could no more perform miracles than the chair she was sitting on. But she was sitting on the cushion that was stuffed with the saint’s beard. The hairs of his beard immediately stood on end and poked out through the cushion like porcupine quills. They fastened the cushion to her bottom and it was stuck there for the rest of her life.

05 11 sugar snippers