Posts Tagged ‘maidens’

Lidwina was born in Holland in 1380, the daughter of a nobleman and a peasant woman. At an early age she’d already  decided to join a convent and lead a holy life, which like I keep saying on this blog, wasn’t such a terrible choice when your options are a) spend all day praying or b) spend all day feeding some man your parents chose for you while having and raising his children. Medieval marriage: not a picnic.

When she was 15, Lidwina went ice skating with friends, as you do in Holland, but fell on some rough ice and sustained a broken rib and some sort of internal damage. Her wound became gangrenous, and over the course of years the gangrene spread over her entire body.

Things get increasingly disgusting from there. Her entire body putrefied, but she didn’t die. She had fevers, she vomited blood and it poured from all her orifices. She stopped eating gradually, first only eating a bite of apple a day, then a little bit of bread and wine each week, and eventually she was only eating communion brought to her by the priests, some of whom were convinced she was possessed by a demon. Her hagiographies report that parts of her skin fell off, entire bones fell off, and parts of her intestines fell out. Instead of getting rid of those things like normal people, her parents kept her shed body parts in a vase, where they allegedly gave off a “sweet odor,” leading me to wonder if the rest of medieval Holland was even more awful than we thought.

In researching this one, I found way more stories about female saints miraculously nursing others than you would think exist, and Lidwina is one of them. A widow who cared for her since she was bed-bound, Catherine, had a vision of Lidwina’s breasts filling with milk. Shortly thereafter, Lidwina had a vision of the Virgin Mary and a host of other holy women surrounding her bed, opening their tunics and lactating into the sky. As expected, the next time Catherine came over to change her sheets, Lidwina rubbed her breast, it filled with milk, she fed Catherine, and religion is officially weirder than fetish porn.

Another scrap that appears a few times in the literature is the rumor that Lidwina was impregnated by the local priest. Specifically, the sources state that four soldiers “abused” her with this rumor, taunting her that her body was bloated because she’d been impregnated by the priest. This priest was the same priest who refused her communion more than once, and once tried to give her an unblessed wafer, but of course she had saintly superpowers of communion detection and spit it out. Later on in her life she “saw his heart,” rightly accused him of adultery, and of course he repented. Since the priest was kind of a dick (what kind of priest wouldn’t give communion to a clearly devout, clearly sick woman?), I have to wonder whether the adultery thing was really divinely-inspired knowledge, or more first-hand knowledge that the guy was a rapist.

Before she died at age 53, Lidwina slowly became paralyzed, though she never got up from her bed again after the ice skating accident. When she died, the only thing she could move were her left hand and her head, and the descriptions of her illness have led some medical types to speculate that she may have had Multiple Sclerosis. If so, she would be the first recorded person with the disease.

St. Lidwina is officially the patron saint of ice skating, and unofficially the patron saint of MS. Please keep all of your internal organs internal for her saint day, April 14.

St. Lidwina on Wikipedia

St. Lidwina of Schiedam on the Catholic Encyclopedia

Holy Feast and Holy Fast, by Caroline Walker Bynum

The Lives of the Primitive Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints by Alban Butler

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Technically, Columbia of Rieti is not a saint. Technically she gets the title “Blessed,” which is one rung below sainthood on the Catholic Ladder of Holiness. The process of beatification is simultaneously quite thorough and totally haphazard, as best as I can tell, and anyway her technically non-beatified status doesn’t make her any less interesting. Onward!

Columba was born Angelella Guardagnoli in 1467 to parents in Rieti, Italy who were poor but still gave money to the church because how else are they supposed to get those nice hats, hm? When she was baptised a dove flew into the baptismal font, so she was nicknamed Columba. She was educated by the Dominican nuns whose laundry she mended and made, and while still a teenager she had a vision of Christ on a throne, surrounded by angels. When you start having visions of Jesus there’s usually only one way for your life to go if you’re a young lady in Renaissance Italy, and that is straight into the convent. Unfortunately her parents had other plans (have you noticed that the parents of these virgin, female saints ALWAYS have other plans? Was no parent ever like, oh, okay honey, sure you can be a nun! Follow your dream!) and betrothed her to a young man. As was done at the time, and thankfully no more, she cut off her hair and sent it to him which was a clear signal that she had no hair and thus meant to become a nun.

At ninteen she became a Dominican Tertiary, and sometime before that she became anorexic. There’s a long long tradition among the more mystical parts of Catholicism of lots of fasting, or subsisting only on the communion wafer, or eating severely limited diets, and throwing up everything that gets forced down. It goes along with other physical self-punishment in lots of cases. Columba’s fasting, or anorexia, or whatever you want to call it went along with visions in which her spirit toured the holy land, like an early Birthright Israel for non-Jews.

Anyway, Columba was barely eating if she was eating at all, and then one day she wanted to throw her family a feast. She did, and then disappeared, leaving only her vestments behind in her chamber folded in the shape of the cross. There was no way out of her chamber or the city gates, but she left somehow.

It’s after she wanders away–with no real idea where she’s going–that the weird stuff happens. At an inn she’s mistaken for a noble girl who was seduced and then left by a priest, Chiaretta of Naples, whose father had a pretty good reward for her return. The innkeeper says he’s got a wife and daughters, and then shows up with some drinking buddies and demands the reward. Columba explains she’s not the noble runaway, and things get ugly when they try to rape her. However, after they rip her clothes off they’re shocked to discover lashmarks, blisters from a hair shirts, iron bands around her neck, waist and breasts, and that she was incredibly thin. Two men run off and the innkeeper drops to his knees and prays for forgiveness.

She ends up going to Perugia, and on the way her travelling group, all women, keeps being beset by people who want nothing more to rape Columba, whose holiness keeps getting her out of it: once a man who sticks his hand up her skirt feels a “pang in his heart,” once she stops at a roadside chapel and they can’t find her. Take home lesson:  if you don’t want to get raped, be holier! An unspecified amount, naturally, and mind that this is of course all your responsibility since we can’t expect men to stop raping or anything.

Once in Perugia, Columba joins another convent and keeps not eating. Due to this whole “not eating” thing, lots of church higher-ups thought she may be in league with Satan, and no less than Lucrezia Borgia accused her of witchcraft, but Pope Alexander VI (also a Borgia) asked her advice once in a while.

As usual, there are conflicting reports on her death. Some sources say that when the plague struck Perugia, she became ill in place of the townspeople, saving them and dying herself at 34. Other sources say she starved herself to death, and honestly, given a history of self-starvation vs. a miraculous report of plague-gathering, I know which one I’m going to believe.

Her feast day is May 20, though maybe you shouldn’t feast so much as look longingly at some food while thinking about getting closer to God.

Holy Anorexia on Google Books

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Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Painted in 1531 by a German painter, apparently before they discovered perspective, since the tooth and her head are the same size.

Way before a dude named Prince was making Purple Rain, there was a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt, named Apollonia.

Nothing, apparently, is known of her life, besides the fact that she was a Christian virgin who lived in Alexandria. Some sources say she was an older lady, but other sources say that’s a mistranslation, and what the letter it’s from actually says is that she was a deaconess. Either way, she was doing her thing in 248 or 249 CE, right after Rome’s first millenial celebration (it was founded in 753 BCE), and during one of the most intense persecutions.

The Emperor Decius, who ruled for all of two years (which was an admirable stretch at the time), decided that Christians were a big threat to the empire because a) they had weird customs, b) they weren’t worshiping the proper gods, and c) they were more loyal to the Christian god than the Emperor. Seeing an opportunity to unite the rest of the Roman people by joining together to beat up the Christians, they all got rounded up and told to convert or die. That’s the point I tried (and failed) to make last week: this is how most organized religious persecutions go, more or less.

A whole lot converted. You don’t hear about this much, because instead of getting sainthood they got to live out their lives, but it’s true. Here and here are some certificates saying former Christians had sacrificed to the Roman gods. Many went back to the church a little later asking to rejoin, which caused a big fuss, but that’s for another day.

That’s the deal they offered Apollonia. She refused, so they beat her, and either punched her and knocked out her teeth, or extracted her teeth as a torture method. When she wasn’t deterred, the mob (remember, it was a family activity) made a fire and told her to change her mind or she’d be burned alive. By pretending to consider, she got the crowd to unhand her, and then jumped in the fire herself.

You may think that this counts as suicide, which is totally a sin. St. Augustine, early father of the church, says it wasn’t, though. Clearly, as a holy person, she was told by the holy spirit to jump in the fire. Since she was just obeying God, it wasn’t suicide, so she was a martyr and therefore holy. It’s a little circuitous.

Apollonia became a saint, and Decius dealt with a huge smallpox pandemic (5,000 people PER DAY died in the city of Rome) right before being the first Roman Emperor to die in battle with barbarians.

Unsettlingly, Apollonia is the patron saint of dentistry, usually pictured with a tooth and sometimes pliers. She has relics all over the place, but her head is in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is totally near where I lived when I did a semester in Rome, and I went there a couple of times because I was just as crazy then.

Her saint day is February 9, but I recommend the nitrous oxide.

Catholic Encyclopedia


Butler’s Lives of the Saints

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Yeah, I’m late this week. Also I haven’t posted anything since the last Obscure Saint Blog.

St. Etheldreda, nicknamed St. Audrey, is one of a great many Anglo-Saxon saints from long long ago whose real names are completely impossible to think about, let alone pronounce: Æthelthryth. Yeah, you try it.

She was one of the Wuffings of East Anglia, meaning she lived in what’s now England at one of those times when most laypeople have no idea who ruled what or who was speaking what language. Probably Stonehengese, right? Her father was King Anna of East Anglia, and her mother was Saewara, who was apparently a devout Christian. Born in 636 CE, from an early age she was really into Jesus and being a nun.

Everything was peachy until her father Anna wanted her to marry for political reasons in 652. Taking a different approach from previous Obscure Saint Aldegundis, she agreed to the union on the condition that she be permitted to keep her virginity and live the life of a nun. Her new husband, Tondberct, chief of the South Gyrvians, agreed and gave her the Isle of Ely as a wedding present. They must have had a hell of a registry.

As a sidenote, apparently the name “Ely” was originally “Eel-y,” as in, “It’s a patch of dirt in the middle of a giant swamp full of eels.” Sadly it is no longer eel-y, since the swamp was drained in the 1700’s.

Tondberct died after three sexless years, though of causes unrelated to the sexlessness–namely, killed in battle. Maybe with eels. Afterwards she retired to the Isle of Ely for five years, once more living the nun’s life meant for her.

But again in 660, she was convinced to marry Ecgfrith, prince of Northumbria. At the time he was all of fourteen, so she ruled in his stead for ten years. In 670, when he finally ascended the throne, all hell broke loose in a complicated and tribal way that I won’t go into much. Basically, the Scots and Picts tried to take Northumbria, and Ecgfrith kicked their asses instead. After all this, the Dictionary of Saintly Women says he “had arrived at the age of passions,” the best phrase ever for hitting puberty, and of course wanted to have sex with his wife.

Since virginity = Godliness in these stories, obviously she refused. When Ecgfrith insisted, she ran away to her own lands of Ely. When the king chased her, God sent a high tide that lasted for seven days separating them–enough time for Ecgfrith to decide to give up and go home.

Once on Ely, she founded a famous double monastery there, which lasted until the Danes burned it down in 870. Did you even know the Danes invaded Britain? I didn’t. She died on quinsy, which is like tonsilitis but worse, there in 679. St. Audrey’s in London is the only pre-Reformation Catholic church in Britain.

Her saint day is June 23, so marry someone you’re not gonna have sex with.

ETYMOLOGICAL BONUS: The English word “tawdry” comes from a shortening of “St. Audrey,” since there was a yearly fair on Ely where cheap, tacky stuff was sold.

Æthelthryth on Wikipedia

Catholic Encyclopedia

A Dictionary of Saintly Women

Life of Saint Aethelthryth (fair warning: this is in Old English, so it’s not so much useful as just kinda neat)

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Astonishing. Astonishing!

Also known as Christina Mirabilis, which is fancy Latin, she was born in the town of Saint-Trond in 1150 CE, in the diocese of Liege, in Belgium because apparently if a saint is going to appear in the blog on Obscure Saint Friday, they must be Belgian.

She, along with her two sisters, were orphaned when she was 15. All three were quite religious, and some sources say that due to her intense interior life (i.e., she prayed a lot), Christina was extremely frail and prone to illness. It could also be due to the fact that she was an orphan in the Middle Ages. Just sayin’. Anyway, one day she had a seizure and died.

As she was lying in her coffin during the funeral Mass, she suddenly came back to life while the people attending were singing the Agnus Dei. Not only did she come back to life, she levitated into the rafters of the church and stayed there until the Mass was over, because the scent of sin on the people was too strong. She claimed to have died and gone to Hell, where she had seen many people she recognized, and then to Purgatory, where she saw many more. Jesus gave her the option of staying in Heaven then, or going back and helping more people out of Purgatory. She chose the Right Choice (save more people), prompting me to wonder what would have happened if she’d opted to stay in Heaven. Was this a trick question or something?

Having been revived, she proceeded to cause havoc, under the premise of “saving” people. She would jump up into tree branches and stay there for days or weeks at a time; she would curl up into a ball in the snow to pray, she shut herself in ovens, where the townspeople could hear her screaming*, because she was suffering for the people in purgatory. She would jump into the river mid-winter and allow herself to be dragged under the water by the mill wheel, but during all of this, she was never harmed.

The sources differ a little on why she did this: a few it was to suffer for the people currently in purgatory, some say it was because she could smell sin on people, and would do anything to get away from it. A few modern doctors have tentatively diagnosed her with epilepsy.

Christina also had pretty useful breasts. When she was came back from the dead, she lived in the woods for a few months, nourished only by the milk that suddenly sprung from her “virginal” breasts. Another time, she was in a wooden yoke in town, and oil came from her nipples. When it dripped on her wounds, it healed them, and nourished her.

Unsurprisingly, some people thought she was possessed by demons. Her sisters hired someone to catch her and keep her locked up, and he broke he leg with a cudgel when he did. After chaining her to a pillar they put a splint on the leg, but she escaped during the night anyway, showing up later unharmed. She also had ecstatic visions in which she led the dead to purgatory, and those in purgatory to Heaven.

She spent her last few years at St. Catherine’s convent, where she obeyed the prioress completely. She died in 1224 there. July 24 is the day to put yourself in an oven.

*Why, hello nightmares.

St. Christina Mirabilis, Vita (in Latin; the English translation is a copyrighted book & isn’t free)

St. Christina the Astonishing

A scholarly essay about St. Christina (partly about the spiritual / physical divide in the legend)

Butler’s Lives of the Saints


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The Abstinence Clearinghouse-which I guess is like Publisher’s Clearinghouse, but if you win instead of a million bucks you get no sex?-recently launched a blog, which I of course checked out since I love kitsch. Mostly it’s full of irritating news and eye-rolling slogans (“Free love is pretty expensive!”) but one post in particular actually blew my mind:

I recently received the following email. Thought many of you would enjoy it. Read on–

Installing A Husband…Dear Tech Support,

Last year I upgraded from Boyfriend 5.0 to Husband 1.0 and noticed a distinct slow down in overall system performance — particularly in the flower and jewelry applications,which operated flawlessly under Boyfriend 5.0.

In addition, Husband 1.0 uninstalled many other valuable programs, such as Romance 9.5 and Personal Attention 6.5 and then installed undesirable programs such as NFL 5.0, NBA 3 . 0, and Golf Clubs 4.1.

Conversation 8.0 no longer runs, and Housecleaning 2.6 simply crashes the system. I’ve tried running Nagging 5.3 to fix these problems, but to no avail.

What can I do?


Then there’s the joke response, which you can surmise if you’ve ever seen a sitcom: “I Thought You Loved Me.exe,” Beer 6.1, Food 3.0 and Hot Lingerie 7.7 all factor in. You probably had this very email forwarded to you by a “friend” in 1997.

This organization is an entire organization devoted solely to convincing young adults (mainly teenage girls) that they should wait until they’re married to give it up. Therefore, I honestly have no idea why they thought it would be a good idea to post this. It would seem that the assumption here is that, once a dude pops your cherry, he immediately turns into Homer Simpson. And then every other post on the site is dedicated to telling you that this is a good thing.

I get that it’s supposed to be a joke-haha, relationship problems that make actual people miserable every day have numbers behind them, like they’re computer programs!-but I think I’d rather keep it under wraps and join the convent if these are my options.

One star for the baffling marriage software post:

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Dymphna was a young lady in Ireland sometimes during the 7th century CE. Her father was a pagan Irish chieftain Damon, and her mother was his beautiful Christian wife whose name has been lost. When Dymphna was about 14, her mother died. After searching all over Western Europe and not finding a woman as beautiful as his dead wife, her father came back home, where his advisors pointed out that Dymphna looked exactly like her dead mother.

Anyone at all familiar with any sort of narrative knows what happened next: he announced his intention to marry her, so she and her priest, St. Gerebernus, fled the country. They took a ship and landed in Antwerp, Belgium. From there they went to nearby Gheel, where they lived in a hut near the church, where Gerebernus said Mass and Dymphna helped the sick and poor.

Outraged that his daughter had run away, Damon the Irish cheiftain searched for all across Europe. Eventually, in Antwerp, he tried to pay for his lodging with Irish coins (this was before the Euro), and the innkeep refused, saying it was difficult to exchange. Damon realized that the innkeeper would only know this if someone else had recently paid with Irish coins, and that his daughter must be somewhere near.

When the chieftain found them, he ordered Gerebern killed and tried to convince his daughter to come back home with him. When she refused him again, he ordered his men to kill her, but when they all refused as well he beheaded her himself. The bodies of Dymphna and Gerebern were left where they lay, but interred in a cave shortly after by the locals. They were later taken back out and but in the church at Gheel, where they remain.

Surprisingly, the life story of Dymphna is a little suspect. Her hagiography wasn’t written until the 13th century, and was based solely on oral history. Several sources think that the timing is all wrong-she would have had to have lived before 500CE or after 900; it’s charmingly offensive, but this Google book explains why that is.

However, the thing that really grabbed me is how similar this story is to lots of European fairy tales about fathers, usually kings, who want to marry their daughters. There’s a page full of them here, and a long essay about them here. What they say, basically, is that they’re all fables about sexual abuse of children. In the first one, “All Kinds of Fur,” the girl who is presumably abused as a child goes on to marry a different king who abuses her as an adult by throwing boots at her.

My best guess is that Dymphna is a Catholicized version of these tales: instead of working in the kitchen and marrying a prince, she works for the church and is “betrothed” to Jesus.

All the same, Dymphna’s saint day is May 15. Among other things, she’s the patron saint of the insane. Celebrate by getting it on with someone you’re not related to.

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St. Aldegundis, also known as Aldegonde, Aldegund, or Adelgondis, was born in Flanders in 639 CE, in the county of Hainaut, which straddled the borders of modern Belgium and France. Her parents, Walbert and Bertilia, and her sister, Waldetrudis, are also all saints. In fact, her nieces and nephews by Waldetrudis: also all saints. They were all closely related to the Merovingian dynasty, who ruled the Franks until 751 CE.

The story of Aldegundis is, in part, your classic vow-of-chastity story. At a relatively young age she began having visions of Christ, and came to understand that she was to take no other husband but him. Predictably, her parents, saints though they were, had other ideas and wanted her to marry an English prince named Eudon. To solve this problem she ran away from home, but had to stop when she came to the Sambre river.

Showing excellent problem-solving skills, she called on God to help, and he sent two angels who told her to walk across the river on water, which she did, not even wetting the soles of her shoes. On the other side she continued a little way into the forest, then stopped to build a cabin. She received the veil-i.e., was made a nun-by St. Amandius, the bishop of Maastricht.

Her cabin in the woods eventually became a convent, which became the Benedictine monastery Mauberge, which in turn was taken over by canonesses.

She had visions all her life, but near the end she had a vision of Satan as a wolf. Her two hagiographers had different takes on how she handled this: according to one, she got angry and kicked him out. According to the other, she was compassionate and asked why he hates people so much (jealousy), before kicking him out.

In 684 CE she died of breast cancer. Her saint day is January 30, and she’s the patron saint of cancer, wounds, and sudden death.

I realize that I’m late on this bandwagon, but I finally discovered Google Books, and holy shit you guys. There is a ton of stuff there-public domain, some scholarly stuff, some regular books. The best part is that my academic fantasy has come true with Google Books: you can search inside a book instead of using an index or whatever. Wow.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Dreams, Visions, and Spiritual Authority in Merovingians Gaul, by Isabel Moreira

A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic, and Dogmatic by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

A Dictionary of Saintly Women by Agnes Baillie Cunninghame Dunbar

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Whatever else I think about the notion of abstinence until marriage, this picture of the “Abstinence Rose Pin” offends my writerly sensibilities. I saw it on Feministing a while back, and I knew there was something wrong with that simile that I couldn’t exactly name.

I solved that problem the way I solve all my problems, by looking up “simile” on Wikipedia. That actually didn’t help much, so I looked up “metaphor” and found it: it’s an absolute, paralogical or anti-metaphor. This is a metaphor in which the two things compared have no point of discernible similarity. Wikipedia’s example is, “The couch is the autobahn of the living room,” which is so becoming a throw pillow if I ever learn needlepoint.

Now, I did pass high school, so I know the difference between similes and metaphors, but I still say this is an anti-simile. Similes, you will recall from 10th grade English, allow for more precision in the comparison process, allowing the writer to point out exactly how the two things are alike, where metaphors tend to let the reader assume the similarities more. This is where the abstinence rose pin fails: women aren’t really like roses in any immediately apparent way, particularly in a way related to sex, and the card fails to qualify exactly how the two things are alike.

The rest of the card doesn’t help. The comparison gets all confused by dropping the “like” from the second sentence, now saying that the lady is in a fact a rose, a statement we still haven’t seen any evidence for. Furthermore, sex isn’t anything like petals being plucked from a flower (and if it is, you’re doing it wrong). Last but not least, is “bare stem” code for “penis?” Maybe having lots of sex will turn blushing young ladies into dudes. Hey, the abstinence movement just solved the problem of my senior thesis for me.

I give the abstinence rose a mere point. It espouses a philosophy with which I strongly disagree in a grammatically indefensible manner. But, I did get a post out of it.


Therefore, as a special favor to the abstinence-only movement, I’ve tried to come up with a few metaphors that make a little more sense.


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And now for a fun and exciting weekly feature of the Illegiterati: Friday Obscure Saint Blogging. Every Friday, I’ll pick an obscure saint, usually from either Roman Catholicism or some sort of Christian Orthodoxy, and write about them.

Sadly, not Our Lady of the Carnivals

First up is St. Wilgefortis. I can’t tell when she lived, but her cult came about sometime in the 14th century, during the gothic period. Ms. Fortis was a young princess from Portugal, daughter to a pagan king. Her father bethrothed her to another pagan king, possibly the King of Sicily, and arranged for their wedding. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the young Wilgefortis had already taken a vow of chastity, and so to avoid the marriage she prayed that God would make her somehow unappealing to her future husband. Lo and behold, within the day she sprouted a beard and moustache, and her fiance decided he didn’t want her anymore.

Because the patriarchy is awesome, her father flew into a rage and had Wilgefortis crucified. She’s now prayed to by women who wish to be “unencumbered” of abusive husbands.

The very best part is that even the Roman Catholic church admits it’s totally untrue.


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