Posts Tagged ‘martyrs’

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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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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This past Monday, California became an even better place than it already was, because gays and lesbians started getting married legally. So, in honor of that fact, this week we’re talking about Saints Sergius and Bacchus, officially the patron saints of Christian nomads, and unofficially the patron saints of gay marriage and military gays.

I, for one, am super-excited this week because my usually shoddy research methods are a bit better than usual. That’s right: I found a really old translation of the Greek “Passion of Sergius and Bacchus.” It’s public domain, bitches! Yeah!

Sergius and Bacchus were high-ranking Roman soldiers, probably upperclass, during the reign of Maximian and Diocletian (there were two emperors for this period until Constantine took over, so some sources talk about Diolcletian, some about Maximian. Don’t get confused, it’s all cool). They were buddies with Maximian, and also secretly Christian, knowing the official policy about being Christian at that time. (Hint: there are a shitload of martyrs from around 300 CE.)

These two were really close, which is of course why people speculate about whether or not they were lovers. They were apparently fond of saying, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” which is maybe a little gay. In any case, someone else, possibly jealous of their status, found out about their secret. The Christianity, not the possible homosexuality.

This leads to one of my favorite quotes in the Passion. Apparently the guy who reported them to Maximian said, “…they worship Christ, whom those called Jews executed, crucifying him as a criminal…” Way to anachronize, later Roman Catholic Church!

The standard test for Christianness at this point was, “Will they sacrifice?” so it was diligently applied to Sergius and Bacchus. They were asked to accompany Maximian to a temple, and when they avoided going inside, they were dragged in by other soldiers and told to offer something to Jupiter or pay the price. Guess which one they chose.

First, they were bound with heavy chains, dressed in women’s clothing, and made to parade through town. It didn’t work. The next day they reported to another officer, who ordered that Bacchus be severely beaten with chains and whips, while Sergius be chained in solitary confinement for the day. Bacchus died from his wounds–the Passion offers the delightful detail that his stomach and liver were ruptured.

That night, he appeared in angelic form to Sergius, still in solitary, saying don’t give up, bro! The next morning, the prison guards gave Sergius some new shoes, with nails pointing upwards through the soles. Then he got to run eighteen miles in them, and I wondered if that was in any way related to the original Little Mermaid story.

At that point the Romans got bored, and decided to just execute him already. He was beheaded and his body thrown to the wild animals, though a flock of birds kept watch until nightfall, when a conveniently close colony of desert monks could come bury the body. This was in Rasafa, Syria, and in the late 400’s–long after the entire empire was officially Christian–a church to Sergius and Bacchus was built on the site of Sergius’ grave.

Though as always my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, I don’t think it’s all that likely that they were actually lovers. Early Christians, broadly speaking, were really into brotherhood and the family of Christ being your new family and all that. Plus, they were also in the Roman army, which was another extremely fraternal organization, and one that frowned pretty strongly on its soldiers committing homosexual acts. And, to top it all off, most societies had different ideas about what was appropriate in friendship than ours do now.

I would love to do a bit more wild speculating, but that’s all I’ve got. I found this tantalizing nugget saying that maybe they actually lived under Julian, since he was more into humiliation, but you have to subscribe to get the rest of the article, and we all know my position on doing real research.

But, in conclusion, it is still way cool that gays and lesbians can get married in CA now. If you’re in the state, vote against the constitutional amendment in November, give money to equal marriage organizations if you feel like it, and plan your big gay wedding on Oct. 7.

The Passion of Saints Sergius and Bacchu


Catholic Encyclopedia

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Patron saint of procrastinators, and one who generally hurries things along.

The story of Expeditus is extraordinarily confused, and ends with the Catholic church basically admitting that this guy never lived. He starts showing up in martyrologies–big lists of martyrs–in the eighteenth century in Italy, well before 1781. Unfortunately what the martyrology said was that he was a martyr who died in Turkey a Long Time Ago.  He’s represented in pictures as a young Roman soldier, though.

Add to that, his entry in the martyr list was probably some sort of scribal mistake. It’s been suggested that he was confused with St. Elpidius.

Then, in 1781 as the story goes, a group of nuns in Paris received a big box with the word “Spedito”–“Expeditus” in Latin–with the statue and relics of a saint in it. In a hilarious misunderstanding, the nuns thought that “Expeditus” was the name of the martyr within (rather than a shipping instruction), and started praying to him.

Since their prayers were answered super quickly and efficiently, he was made the patron saint of Getting Shit Done; this is more or less the Scientific Method of the Catholic church. Perhaps next week’s saint will be an example of the research process in the Catholic church. Hint: it involves visions, but no footnotes.

In any case, the cult of St. Expeditus survives until today. Wired claims him as the patron saint of hackers. He’s particularly revered in New Orleans, where a slightly different version of the same story was told: same idea, but with the relics and state being shipped to a church in New Orleans amongst a batch of other Church paraphenalia; since the state wasn’t labeled they decided “Expedite,” written on the outside, was his name.

Even better, he’s the patron saint of the Replubic of Molossia, a micronation in Nevadan desert (with a “colony” in the Mojave, near Twentynine Palms. Having been there, I am not at all surprised).

Finally, on the French island of Réunion (near Madagascar), there are red shrines devoted to the saint all over the place, as well as beheaded statues of the guy. This is what happens when you don’t answer prayers fast enough, Mister Speedy!

In the picture up top, he’s holding a cross with the word “hodie” (Latin for “today”) and stepping on a crow saying “cras” (tomorrow). Maybe this should go above my desk.

His feast day is April 19th, but you can wait until the 20th.

Catholic Online


Something else useful

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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. Genesius of Rome lived in the late third century, mostly under the reign of the emperor Diocletian. He was an actor by trade, which probably means that he was lowborn and not a Roman citizen–the Romans thought about actors differently than we do. Since acting was essentially lying, the Roman logic goes, actors were people who lied for a living, making them among the dregs of Roman society. Therefore, most actors were of foreign extraction, and acting tended to be a hereditary job. There’s also some evidence that acting and prostitution happened in close quarters with each other. Two careers!

When the emperor Diocletian visited the city of Rome in 303 CE, Genesius’ company decided to put on a farce mocking Christians, knowing that Diocletian had been forcing them to convert or die since about 299 CE. According to some sources (by which I mean “webpages”), Genesius wrote and directed as well as acted in the play. I’m a little skeptical about this claim, since I wonder how many actors were literate. On the other hand, by this point most plays were mimes or farces which basically involved a whole lot of bawdy humor and not a lot of craft.

In the play, Genesius was supposed to be mock baptised on stage, and according to his Acts (written in the 7th century), he supposedly infiltrated the Christian community to do “research,” becoming particularly interested in the act of baptism. This is probably not true because it doesn’t make any sense–why would someone risk death and go to all the hard work of becoming part of a very secretive, wary community just to know how to pour water correctly for a play that probably featured farts prominently?

However, when the other actor poured water over his head in the mock baptism, it took for real. Genesius dropped the script and started proclaiming the Heavenly Father and the Light, Truth and the Way and all the other stuff you read about in pamphlets on the street. It didn’t take the emperor long to arrest the whole company and torture Genesius in an attempt to make him recant and sacrifice to the Roman gods.

Genesius’ martyrdom happened in 303, a mere ten years before the Edict of Milan made Christianity legal. Though he was never formally baptized, as the intent of the actor pouring water on him on stage was not to baptize (Catholics do love their intent), since he was martyred he’s considered to be “baptized by blood,” something I don’t recommend you try at home.

Genesius’ special day is August 25, and he’s the patron saint of actors, comedians, the cinema, epileptics and lawyers.

Life of St. Genesius

St. Genesius on Catholic Online

Genesius of Rome on Wikipedia

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I love me some apocryphal historical confusion, I really do. Around 30 CE, Abgar V, King of Osroene (part of modern Turkey, on the upper Euphrates) suffered from some incurable disease. Historians differ (as they do) on what disease it was, but most say either leprosy or gout. He heard about Jesus’ healing miracles, and so wrote to him via his messenger Hannan, asking for Jesus to heal him. Jesus sent back some sort of reply saying that he was “about to join his father,” (heretic translation: would die) but that one of his disciples, imbued with his power, would be sent out afterward.

Later storytellers added some things here: first, that Jesus actually wrote a letter and sent it back to Abgar (via his messenger Hannan), and second, that Hannan painted a portrait of Jesus “from life” and also took it back to the East with him. Eventually, this portrait was purported to be “not made by hands” (acheiropoieta in Greek if you’re fancy) which was all kinds of important to the iconoclasm debates but not so much here.

Anyway, Jesus died, the Apostle Thomas was put in charge of converting the East, and he sent Addai–also called Addal, and sometimes Thaddeus–one of the 72 disciples, to heal King Abgar. Abgar got healed, and Addai stuck around to do some converting, supposedly write the Doctrine of Addai, and get martyred. Weirdly, I can’t find anything about the supposed martyring besides something that says he died naturally. Usually the gruesome death is everyone’s favorite part.

We know about this because Eusebeus the church historian of the 4th century wrote about it; he claims to have seen the actual documents written by Jesus as well as the picture of Jesus. Most historians think that a fake document was planted somewhere, possibly in the archives of Edessa, Abgar’s capital city, so Eusebeus could “find” them. The Doctrine of Addai was almost certainly not written by Addai himself; some of its main concerns are with the search for the true cross (something that became a fad for a while after Constantine’s mother Helena did it in the early 4th century), and what scriptures proper Christians had been reading, also very hot in the early 4th century.

Some of the internet claims that Addai converted all Abgar’s people, but I’m pretty sure that part of the internet is wrong. More impartial sites point out that that part of the world became officially Christian in the early 3rd century, and someone alive at the same time as Jesus would not live another hundred and fifty years.

He’s also mentioned in two previously unknown Apocalypses by James the Just, found in Nag Hammadi in 1945 with the rest of the stuff The Da Vinci Code is (oh so loosely) based on.

You can pour one out for Addai/Addal/Addeus/Thaddeus every August 5th.

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