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.

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.

I’ll Fly Away

04 08April 8th is the feast day of St Walter of Pontoise. Obviously, this isn’t a picture of him, I’ll explain what it is in a minute or two. Walter was a professor of philosophy and rhetoric who joined a Benedictine monastery, hoping for a life of quiet contemplation. The king, Philip I, had other plans for him though, and asked him to be the first abbot at a new monastery at Pontoise. There, he found discipline to be very bad and priests that were corrupt. Walter hated it. It wasn’t that he was afraid to confront people, he was actually quite good at it and received a lot of praise for his efforts. But this was exactly the sort of thing he’d hoped to leave behind when he took up the monastic life. He ran away to become a monk in another monastery at Cluny, but was discovered and forced to return. Then he ran away to hide on an island in the Loire, but was again led back. Next he escaped to an oratory near Tours where he was recognised by a pilgrim and again, found himself back at Pontoise.

At this point he decided to go to Rome and appeal directly to the pope, Gregory VII. He presented a letter of resignation but the Pope refused to accept it. He told Walter that he must use the talents God had given him and never leave again. So Walter returned to Pontoise, resigned to his fate. There, he campaigned against abuse and corruption among the priesthood. He faced angry opposition and was even beaten, arrested and imprisoned. But he continued his work after his release.

Saint Walter is the patron saint of all those suffering from job related stress.

Today is also International Draw a Bird Day. It is held in memory of a little girl named Dorie Cooper. In 1943 her mother took her to the hospital to visit her uncle. This was during World War II and he had been wounded. He had lost his leg to a landmine and was feeling very low. She asked him to draw her a picture of a bird. Even though he was feeling so terrible, he did as she asked. He looked out of his window and drew a robin. When he gave it to her she laughed and said he wasn’t a very good artist but that she would hang his picture in her room. Both her honesty and her complete acceptance lifted his spirits and also cheered up the other soldiers on the ward. After that, every time she visited, they  drew birds for her too. Within a few months the whole ward was decorated with pictures of birds.

Sadly three years later she was knocked down by a car and killed. Her coffin was filled with drawings of birds from the soldiers, doctors and nurses who had been on her uncles ward. Every year on her birthday, the men and women at the hospital who remembered the little girl, who had cheered up a ward full of wounded soldiers, by drawing a picture of a bird themselves. Now, people all over the world draw a bird on her birthday, and the one above is my contribution. If you want to take part all you have to do is draw a bird and share your picture with anyone you choose so I’m sharing mine with you. The idea behind Draw a Bird Day is to put a side your worries for a while and remember how important it is to find joy in the simple things in life.

One Pope, Four Funerals and the Patron Saint of the Internet

pope_formosusToday I’d like to tell you about Pope Formosus, who died on this day in the year 869. Before he became Pope he had already been excommunicated and reinstated once. As Bishop of Portus, he took off to Bulgaria to persuade a man called Charles the Bald that he really ought to be Holy Roman Emperor. The Bulgarians liked him so much that they wanted to keep him. So he got into trouble for seeming a bit above himself and also for ‘despoiling the cloisters’ in Rome. Whether he did or didn’t do these things isn’t really what I’m interested in today. I want to tell you about what happened to him after he died.

As far I can tell he didn’t really do anything bad. There are plenty of Popes who were far worse. But, twenty-eight years after his death, in 897, the whole Bulgarian thing was a still a problem to one of his successors, Stephen VI. He decided that Formosus should have been excommunicated after all and had his body exhumed. He then had him dressed in papal robes, seated on a throne, tried and found guilty. His papacy was declared null and all of his actions invalidated. If Stephen had thought this through properly, he might have remembered one of Formosus’ actions had been to make Stephen a bishop. But just in case you need further evidence that Pope Stephen wasn’t thinking clearly, here’s what happened next… Formosus’ corpse was stripped of it’s robes and had three of it’s fingers cut off, (the ones Formosus would have used in life for blessing). He was briefly reburied then dug up a second time and thrown in the Tiber. Everyone was pretty angry about that and Stephen was deposed, imprisoned and then strangled. The next Pope had Formosus’ body retrieved and reburied in St Peter’s. He also declared that there would be no more trials against dead people. Sadly that wasn’t the end for poor Formosus. It is possible that he was dug up and tried again during the reign of Pope Sergius III, found guilty again and was beheaded.

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Here’s something a bit more cheerful though. Today is also the feast day of Saint Isadore of Seville. When he was Bishop of Seville he gathered together all the learned texts that survived from classical times and edited them all into one massive work. It was published in the seventh century and was a sort of encyclopaedia that contained everything in the world ever.

His Etymologiae  ran to twenty volumes and covered a massive range of subjects. You could read it and find out all about history, mathematics and grammar, or everything Isadore considered worth knowing about dust. It became the most used text book of the middle ages. Pliny the Elder’s ‘Natural History’ was a major source of his information. So all those medieval bestiaries full of pictures of people with faces in their chests, dog’s heads or one massive foot as well as exotic animals, real or imagined have all come through him from the writings of Pliny which first appeared around 77AD. Pliny, in turn, had them from Heroditus, a Greek writing in the 5th century BC. 

It is because of his comprehensive gathering of all knowledge that he has become known as the patron saint of the internet. Like the internet, his work has good and bad points. Because his books were so popular, it is often the only existing source of some information, because the original documents that he studied have been lost. On the other hand, the reason some of them are lost was that scribes spent so much time copying out Isadore’s book that they didn’t bother to copy the originals any more.  If you’ve searched the internet for the original source for some wild claim, you’ll be familiar with this problem.

04 04 isadoreWhen I was looking for a picture of him, I found that he is often pictured as a bishop holding a pen and surrounded by bees. I thought this was an excellent image for the patron saint of the internet, because trying to focus on writing on a machine that has access to everything in the world ever is pretty much like trying to write with bees buzzing everywhere – distracting. I tried to find you a picture of him with the bees, it took ages, I got horribly side tracked and came up with nothing. So I’ve drawn you one.


Today I am rather torn. I have a saint who I first discovered a year ago, when this blog was no more than a series of text messages sent during the Leicester Comedy Festival. I also have one of a triumvirate of very peculiar Dutch anatomists whose work I have come to enjoy over the last six months or so. I may have to tell you about both.

02 12 saint julian with stagToday is the feast day of Saint Julian the Hospitaller. I’ve no idea when or where he lived, but he is easily the favourite in my category of unlikely saints. When I’m looking at saints, generally what I’m most interested in is how they are depicted in art and what they have been declared ‘patron saint’ of. A quick scroll through the information on Saint Julian revealed that he is sometimes pictured as: ‘man listening to a talking stag’ or: ‘young man killing his parents in bed’. Among other things, he is the patron saint of innkeepers, carnival workers and murders.

The story of Julian is not unlike that of Oedipus but without the ‘sex with his mother’ part. At the age of ten, Julian left his parents home. Perhaps because he had been cursed by witches who foretold that he would one day kill his own parents. There is another story which tells us that he was completely obsessed by hunting and that, while out in the forest, he shot a talking stag which told him that because Julian had shot him, when he wasn’t doing any harm but just having a bit of a rest in the undergrowth, he would one day kill both his parents and that there was nothing he could do to escape his fate.

02 12 saint julian the hospitallerBut Julian did try to escape, he ran away hoping never to see his parents again. He eluded his fate for twenty years. He settled down and got married. But when he was thirty his parents, who were searching for him arrived in the town where he lived. In a freak encounter, they met his wife who immediately invited them back to the house. Julian was, at the time, out hunting and she suggested his parents, who were tired after their journey, had a bit of a lie down while they were waiting. Meanwhile Julian was visited by a shadowy figure, who I presume to be the Devil, but he is referred to as ‘the enemy’. You can see the enemy pictured above, he’s the one in the pink leotard. The enemy told him that his wife was at home in bed with her lover. Julian rushed home, saw two figures sleeping in his bed and immediately killed them both.

Then, his life once more in ruins, he was about to leave town when who should he see but his wife. She told him the story and they both realised what had happened. Of course, they both felt terrible about it and Julian and his wife moved away. They took up ferrying people backwards and forwards across a river and taking in weary travellers as penance. Then one day they ferried a leper over the river in a terrible storm. They warmed him, fed him and even acquiesced when the leper asked to be put to bed with Julian’s wife when he just couldn’t get warm. Luckily, the leper turned out to be an angel in disguise and he forgave them for their sins. All this is in an extremely long and dull account of the Saint’s life from the Golden Legend. Take my advice and give it a miss. But it seems to end with Julian and his wife being murdered in their beds by robbers.

If you want to read something really spectacular about Julian the Hospitaller, there is a story by Gustave Flaubert. In it, Julian is an enormously blood-thirsty child whose trail of slaughter begins with him killing a mouse in church and escalates until he slaughters an entire valley full of deer. That’s when he gets cursed by the stag. At the end, the leper gets into bed with Julian, not his wife. You can find it here. Or, if you don’t like the sound of that, there is a tale in Bocaccio’s Decameron about a devotee of Saint Julian which is relatively easy to find. The Decameron is a long series of one hundred tales that is, in format, a little like the Canterbury Tales. It is an early written source for many of the fairy tales of Perrault. In Bocacchio’s tale, a travelling merchant, who always prays to Julian for a good place to spend the night, is attacked by robbers, abandoned by his servant and left out in the snow in just his shirt. But then he gets taken in by a lady whose lover has deserted her for the evening. They both have a lovely time and it all ends happily.

02 12 jan swammerdamToday is also the birthday of Jan Swammerdam, which is an excellent name. Swammerdam was born on this day in 1637 in Amsterdam. He is probably best remembered for his work on insects. He discovered that insects do not spontaneously spring to life out of the mud, like everyone thought, but come from eggs and larvae. He discovered this using a microscope and once dissected a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici to show him that it already had, inside its body, the beginnings of the wings it would grow when it became a butterfly. He also found, more than a hundred years before Galvani, that when the muscle of a frog’s leg contracts, it does not increase in size. He expected that it would because it was thought that muscles were controlled by animal spirits running through the nerves. If the muscle was full of spirits, it should get bigger. It didn’t. If anything, it shrank a little. Unfortunately, Swammerdam just thought there was something wrong with his experiment and he abandoned it.

Neither of those things are how I first met him though. I came across him because of a huge controversy between himself and fellow student Regnier de Graaf over who had been the first to discover that eggs grew inside human female ovaries. Both men had been students of Johannes van Horne at the university of Leiden in the Netherlands along with a man now known as Steno. Anatomists had dissected female reproductive organs before, they had noticed ovaries, but referred to them as ‘female testes’ and didn’t really know what they were for. Steno theorised that they would probably turn out to contain eggs: “I have no doubt that the testicles of women are analogous to the ovary” was what he said, but he didn’t do anything to prove it. Swammerdam and his tutor van Horne did though. They set about trying to find the eggs in human ovaries. Van Horne managed to publish a brief account of his discoveries in 1668. But then in 1670, he died of plague. Swammerdam continued their work but soon found out that fellow student, de Graaf, was working on the same thing.

What happened next was something between a race to publish and a fight that dragged in the newly formed Royal Society in London. De Graaf published a paper where he theorised that the eggs were fertilised by seminal vapour rising up from the womb. Swammerdam responded by drawing a picture of a dissected human ovary and uterus and sending it to the Royal Society. In March 1672 de Graaf published a book about female generative organs. He had noticed that, in rabbits there were burst follicles in the ovaries after mating and also round objects in the fallopian tubes. He concluded that they were eggs that had come form the burst follicles and that it was as a result of mating.

02 12 miraculum naturaeSwammerdam published his own account two months later. He said the bursting follicles thing was nonsense because he had observed the same thing in the ovaries of virgins. He also stated that he and van Horne had come up with the idea first (there was no way of proving him wrong) and also de Graafs drawings were rubbish. Swammerdam dedicated his book to the Royal Society and also sent them a beautifully preserved female uterus along with twelve other items of genital anatomy, including a dissected penis, a clitoris and a hymen. He asked the Royal Society to adjudicate in their argument over which of them had come up with the idea of women having eggs first. De Graaf came back with a publication entitled: ‘Partium Genitalium Defensio’ (Defence of the genital parts). In it he was very rude about Swammerdam and accused him of being ‘blinded by anger and hatred’, but didn’t really come up with any new evidence that would help with the egg controversy.

I feel rather sorry for the Royal Society. How were they supposed to come up with a suitable answer? They appointed a committee of three and eventually found in favour of… Steno. It didn’t really matter though because de Graaf died a week before they made their final decision. Swammerdam wrote a reply, but we don’t know what he said, because the letter is lost. Steno had, by that time, given up science and become a bishop. So he probably never knew about any of it. The Royal Society had had enough of it all by then and didn’t even publish the report on their findings for another eighty years. They liked Swammerdam’s anatomical specimens though. Their secretary, Henry Oldenberg described them as: “very fascinating and prepared with exceeding ingenuity.” In fact, in later years he got into trouble with the Royal Society for taking them home with him.