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.

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.

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

Dragons and Dungeons

04 23 gustave moreau st george and the dragonToday I should probably tell you about our national patron saint, as it’s Saint George’s Day. Probably everyone who knows anything about Saint George knows about how he killed a dragon and rescued a princess. Even if you don’t know it about Saint George, you’ve probably heard some version of the story involving someone else, because there are loads of them. As well as dragon slaying saints, you will find them in Greek myths, in Norse legend, pretty much everywhere.

The story of Saint George and the Dragon was brought back from the Middle East by twelfth century crusaders. According to the Golden Legend, which is a sort of encyclopaedia of saints that was a medieval bestseller, George killed his dragon in Libya. The dragon, or possibly crocodile, was a plague-bearing creature that had made its nest at a spring that provided water for the city of Silene (possibly Cyrene). The people of the city were trying to placate the dragon by feeding it sheep, but when they ran out of livestock, they began to send it their children. The victims were chosen by lottery, and this seems to have become a problem only when the King’s daughter’s name was picked out. In this version, George only wounded the dragon and then asked the princess for her girdle. He put it around the neck of the dragon, it was immediately tamed and they led it back to the city. Everyone was terrified, but George said he would only kill the beast if they all became Christians. Which, of course, they did. To me, this sounds a bit like George forcing people to change their religion by threatening them with a plague-ridden dragon.

In a later version of the story, George is able to shelter, at intervals, during his battle with the dragon, beneath the branches of an enchanted orange tree. It seems enchanted orange trees are very effective against dragon poison. I’d love to have found a picture to show you of Saint George hiding under an orange tree, but it seems there isn’t one.

What I did find though, was the story of his martyrdom. Christians were horribly persecuted in the early days and many died for their beliefs. This was all supposed to be fine though, as it meant they would go straight to heaven. So they loved a good martyrdom story. What happened to George is a particularly spectacular example.

04 23 matyrdom of saint georgeHe was challenged in his Christian beliefs by a king of Persia named Dacian who thought that Apollo was a better god. I haven’t been able to find any king of Persia named Dacian, probably they mean the Emperor Diocletian, who looms large in a lot of tales of early Christian martyrdoms. First, George was stretched on a rack and torn with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that pulled him apart, beaten and had salt rubbed into his wounds with a hair cloth. Then they pressed him into a box that they had hammered nails into, stuck stakes into him, plunged him into boiling water and crushed his head with a hammer. None of that was enough to kill him though. After that he was thrown in a dungeon where God comforted him and told him that he would die three deaths before entering Paradise. Though quite how this was supposed to be comforting, I’m not sure. Next, Dacian had his magician prepare a poison. George drank two cups of it and was fine. The magician was so impressed that he instantly converted to Christianity and was executed for it.

The next day George was lacerated on a wheel of swords, cut into ten pieces and thrown into a well, that then had a stone rolled over the top. But that was still not the end for poor Saint George. God turned up with the Archangel Michael and resurrected him. This caused the officer in charge of the situation to convert to Christianity along with around 1,100 soldiers and one woman. They were all immediately executed.

Now Dacian was really mad. George was tied up and had molten lead poured in his eyes and mouth, sixty nails driven into his skull, hung upside down over a fire with a stone tied around his neck, and then shut into the revolving belly of a metal ox which was filled with swords and nails. Then he was sawn in two and boiled to bits. But God resurrected him a second time.

After having red hot helmet put on his head, and a bit more tearing and burning, George pretended to give up. The king was so pleased that he invited George to stay in the palace. But sneaky old George used the opportunity to convert Dacian’s wife. So, of course, he had to kill her too. During this diversion, he visited the temple of Apollo, whose statue then walked out admitting its fraudulence. George stamped his foot and the ground opened to swallow the false god. At last, after a martyrdom that, we are told, lasted for seven years, the saint was beheaded for the last time and ascended to Heaven.

Poor George. Luckily, he’s been rewarded with more than just the title of Patron Saint of England. He’s the saint of loads of things. Everything form saddle makers to syphilis. He is also Patron Saint of Syria. There are too many others for me to list here, but you can find out about them from this man.

Wild Foreheads, Scabby Thighs

04 11 saint guthlacToday is the feast day of Saint Guthlac of Crowland. He’s not a very well known saint these days, but he was once important enough to have two very long poems written about him in Anglo Saxon. He also had his life story recorded by a monk named Felix who, unusually, wrote it within living memory of Guthlac’s death. He was born in 673, in the English kingdom of Mercia which covered an area we now describe as the Midlands. As a very young man, he was a soldier who fought in the army of King Aethelred (not the one who was ‘unready’, a different Aethelred). At the age of twenty-four, he became a monk at Repton in Derbyshire.  Two years later he began to seek the solitary life of a hermit.


There were, around the third century, a lot of Christians who chose to live an ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. Guthlac was looking for something similar, but there were no deserts in Mercia, so he chose the boggy fen lands of Lincolnshire. He arrived at a place called Croyland (now Crowland) in the Fens which was, at that time, an island. There, he found an ancient burial mound that had been broken open (most likely by grave robbers hoping for treasure) and inside he found what is described by his biographer as a cistern. This is where he decided to live. He refused to dress in anything but animal skins and survived on a diet of barley bread and muddy water, which he would only take after sunset. He is said to have suffered from ague, which means fever, and marsh fever, which means malaria. Everyone thought he was very holy indeed and he had lots of visitors seeking spiritual guidance. Among his visitors was a man called Aethelbald, who was fleeing from his cousin. Guthlac prophesied that Aethelbald would one day be king. Aethelbald promised, if that were true, he would build and dedicate an abbey to Guthlac.


Unsurprisingly, considering his chosen lifestyle and state of health, he was visited by demons. They were British demons and he was able to speak with them because he understood their language. Here is Felix’s description of them…


They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.


Awful. Luckily, just as the demons were about to drag Guthlac down to Hell with them, Saint Bartholomew (who had died over six hundred years previously) appeared and gave him a scourge to beat them with. This is what you can see happening in the picture above.


When he died on 11th April 714, it is reported that his breath smelled like sweet nectar as his soul departed his body. While this was seen as a sure sign of his holiness, I can’t help thinking that is might have been a symptom of his prolonged fasting. He had foreseen his death and sent for his sister, Pega, to come and bury him. She inherited his psalter and the scourge which she later gave to the abbey that was built in his honour by King Aethelbald. The first abbey was attacked by Danes on Christmas Eve in the year 869. The Abbot and some of the monks were killed. Some escaped. Perhaps they took the abbey’s treasures with them, perhaps they buried it, perhaps it has never been found. The second abbey was accidentally burned down by a plumber in 1091. It caught fire again in 1143 and was eventually destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539, though one of the transepts is still used as a church.