Constellation of Gemini overhead February 10th

Photo  of consteltion of gemini with connecting lines to show it better
Till Credner – Own work, from wikipedia

Gemini should be almost overhead in the Northern Hemisphere, and can be picked out by its two brightest starts, Castor and Pollux. Gemini can be seen from September to May. But between September to November it is only visible in the morning before sunrise. It is best viewed from January to March. For evening viewing it is possible from December to May In February it should best visible at 9.00pm.

I will follow this post up with another one about the Twins on July 15th but here are the basic details from that post:

The Divine Twins, the Dioscuri, were horsemen, patrons of calvary, athletes, and sailors. Pollux is the son of Zeus and Leda (raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan). His twin brother has a different and mortal father, the King of Sparta and the same mother, Leda. So they are examples of heteropaternal superfecundation.

One is therefore immortal and the other isn’t. They had many adventures including sailing with Jason as Arganauts.

According to some version of the story, Castor was mortally wounded, and Zeus gave his twin brother the option of letting Castor die while Pollux spends eternity on Mount Olympus, or sharing his immortality with his brother. He agreed to the latter, and the twins spend half their year as the Constellation of Gemini and the rest, immortal, on Mount Olympus. Thus, they are the epitome of brotherly love.

Their sisters were, no less than Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. But more about them in July.

Diagram of H. A. Rey‘s alternative way to connect the stars of the constellation Gemini. Twins are shown holding hands. Wikipedia AugPi CC BY-SA 3.0

See Also Almanac of the Past on Gemini.

Chinese New Year February 10th

Handy Chinese Year Calculator

The Chinese New Year is a lunar festival that falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. However, not always. The need to keep the lunar and the solar years in some sort of sync means they add in intercalary months from time to time, in which case the Chinese New year will fall on the third new moon after the winter solstice.

If you look at the chart you will see this is the year of the dragon, the wood dragon, representing both wood and earth, which are, to some extent, in conflict. To find out more and for predictions of the year, look here:

First written in January 2023 and revised in February 2024.

St Apollonia’s Day. A Day to Cure the Toothache February 9th

Saint Apollonia. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. She is shown with forceps and extracted tooth and the martyr’s palm.

The 9th of February is St Apollonia’s Day. She was martyred at Alexandria in 249 AD during the persecution of Emperor Decius. She was attacked during an anti-Christian riot and struck around the face knocking her teeth out. Then, she was taken to a bonfire and told they would throw her in if she did not renounce her faith. So, without waiting, she spoke a prayer and walked into the fire. This information is recorded in a near-contemporary letter from St Dionysius of Alexandria and so is a rare well documented martyrdom. Because her teeth were knocked out she is, therefore, Saint of Toothache.

I can remember my Grandmother prescribing cloves for me when I had toothache. And this was, and is, a common remedy. In my case, we would keep a clove or two in the mouth close to the site of the pain. According to Natural Ways to Sooth an Toothache cloves contain

‘Eugenol, a natural form of anaesthetic and antiseptic that helps get rid of germs. Eugenol is still used in dental materials today’

Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, tended to use a pill to soothe sore gums, but also a oil from a wood called ‘Ol. Lig. Heraclei’ which may be oil from the Bay Tree. (‘John Hall and his Patients’ by Joan Lane). Most of his tooth cases seem to be sore gums, which suggests to me Dr John Hall did not generally do dental work.

To get a tooth drawn you could go to a Barber Surgeon, a Blacksmiths or specialist Tooth Drawer. This would be terrifyingly painful and probably only done when the pain was unbearable, but just think what a premium could be demanded by a really competent drawer. The drawers would probably not have any formal training, but the skills would be passed on by the drawer to his apprentice or assistant. So, they were a very important part of the health care system.

A bill of mortality for London 1665, showing 11 deaths caused by 'teeth' (as opposed to 353 for 'feaver'
List of causes of death, London during the plague of 1665. Teeth killed 11 people

‘Teeth’ was a common cause of death – most likely being from infection or an abscess. It is interesting that someone as erudite and educated as the 17th Century writer, John Aubrey tells us in a chapter on Magick of less formal ways of tooth care. He tells us, in places, that the person who told him the story is worthy of belief. So he seems to give some credence to the efficacy of these magickal ‘cures’. But, judge for yourself; this is what he wrote:

To Cure the Tooth-ach.

Take a new Nail, and make the Gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an Oak. This did Cure William Neal, Sir William Neal’s Son, a very stout Gentleman, when he was almost Mad with the Pain, and had a mind to have Pistoll’d himself.

To Cure the Tooth-ach, out of Mr. Ashmole’s Manuscript Writ with his own Hand.

Mars, hur, abursa, aburse.
Iesu Christ for Marys sake,
Take away this Tooth-ach.

Write the words, Three times; and as you say the Words, let the Party burn one Paper, then another, and then the last.

He says, he saw it experimented, and the Party immediately Cured

John Aubrey’s Miscellanies 1695

May, Williams and Bishop at the Old Bailey accused of murder in pursuit of bodysnatching

In 1832, in London Bishop, Williams and May were accused of bodysnatching. After killing the Italian Boy ( wonderful book by Sarah Wise ‘The Italian Boy‘) they jemmied out the teeth and took them to a South London Dentist. They ‘cheapened’ (I cheap, you cheap, we are cheapening: meaning to barter) with the Dentist to get a decent price for the teeth. The dentist wanted to use them for false teeth for his patients. If I remember correctly, he paid £1 for them.

The teeth were evidence in the trial of the murderers, and once two of them had been hanged (the third turned King’s Evidence), the dentist asked for the teeth back! They were released back to the Dentist who promptly put them in the window of his surgery as an advert for his professional skills!

Earlier, one of the Borough Boys Resurrectionist gang (based in Southwark, London) toured the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars and came back with hundreds of teeth extracted from dead soldiers to sell to dentists as false teeth – they became known as Waterloo Teeth.

When I first wrote this in I added ‘How things have changed!’, but recent news that people in parts of Britain, without effective access to Dental care, have begun resorted to doing their own dental work. This often means extracting their own rotten teeth. Effectively, it seems this Conservative Government is allowing dentistry to slip out of the NHS just like it did with eye health. For a study in what has happened to Dentistry in the UK in recent years, please look at this report here.

First writen February 2023, revised February 2024.

Fat & Lardy Thursday February 8th

plate of doughnuts called pączki for  tłusty czwartek (Fat Thursday)
A plate of Polish pączki for tłusty czwartek (Fat Thursday)

Today is El Jueves Lardero in Spain, Giovedì grasso in Italy, Weiberfastnach in the Rhineland, Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) in Poland and Tsiknopempti in Greece. It is the first day in the Carnival season, which reaches a climax on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when the 40 days of fasting before Lent begins. Last year it was on February 16th.

In Poland, the tradition is to eat pączki which we call doughnuts and the Germans call Berliners. (remember when Kennedy made that famous speech in Berlin and said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, well what he was saying was ‘I’m a doughnut’). The doughnuts traditionally should be made with red jam, but now people can use cream, or almost any sort of sugary addition.

Spain is more savoury, where tortilla are eaten but also eat sausages, bacon, and pork on that day. In Catalonia, they eat tortilla with butifarra.(which are sausages in the Roman tradition). Here is a recipe for butifarra.

In Italy giovedì grasso is when “the fooling and the mumming, the dancing, shrieking, and screaming would be at its height.” according to the English writer Marie Corelli in her book Vendetta (1886). For more on Fat Thursday and El Jueves Lardero.

Butter Week & Lardy Cake

There are some indications that the week before Shrove Tuesday in the Anglo Saxon period was one of merriment and eating the things that were not allowed in Lent. So in Old English this week is Cheese Week or Butter Week, and there was a Cheesefare Sunday. (‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker).

But I cannot find any references to traditions of a fat Thursday or a Lardy Thursday in the UK. But we do have the fabulous Lardy Cake, it is a cake that drips with sugar and pig fat, and is one of my very favourite cakes. The main ingredients are rendered lard, flour, sugar, spices, currants and raisins. I was brought up on Chelsea Buns, Spotted Dick, Lardy Cake and Sticky Willies (iced buns). I am surprised I wasn’t an overweight child!

It is by no means a countrywide cake. My own theory is that it was a delicacy of the West Saxons. And I fondly imagine King Alfred tending to the Lardy Cake when musing about defeating the Vikings. I have bought it in Woking and Guildford in Surrey, in Winchester (Alfred’s Capital), Reading, and the best were sold in Cornmarket in Oxford, in the since closed Woolworths. These are all in areas controlled by Wessex in the 9th Century.

When lecturing at Worcester I found a variant of it which is called Worcester Dripping Cake and Worcester is in the Kingdom of Mercia. Wikipedia says Lardy Cake is from: ‘southern counties of England, including Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire.’ But I have never found it myself around Stonehenge, or in Dorchester, nor in the Cotswolds. So I would say Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire are the lardy cake heartlands. It is said to have been originally for special occasions, so maybe there once was a Lardy Thursday tradition. It feels like there should be one!

A slice of lardy cake from The Indulgent Baker at 32d Church Street, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, England, UK.Photo Wikipedia.SmuconlawCC BY-SA 4.0

And here, courtesy of the BBC and the handsome (but possibly a little ‘lardy’) Paul Hollywood of Bake-off fame, is a recipe for Lardy Cake. Please make it and feel that wonderful English Pudding feeling of a lead weight in your stomach.

The recipe says ‘This recipe has a generous amount of dried fruit in a rich dough that’s lighter and less sweet than most shop-bought lardy cakes’. So, it’s not going to be entirely authentic!

Following posting this page on Facebook Heike Herbert posted this response concerning ‘Women’s Fast Night on February 8th in Cologne or Koln:

Screenshot of Facebook post about Women's Fast night in Cologne on 8th February.

Aristotelis Psitos emailed me to say that the Greek Orthodox ‘Fat Thursday is not until 16th February.

Winter’s End February 7th

Photo of the cover of Winter's in the World by Eleanor Parker
Winter’s in the World by Eleanor Parker

I have long had an interest in Almanacs and Calendars in different cultures, whether it be Egyptian, Greek, Julian or Gregorian, Roman, Christian, Celtic, Jewish, Chinese, French Revolutionary, or Legal, Mayoral, Academic, Theatrical, etc. But, for some reason, I never got very far into the Anglo-Saxon year, only delving a little into Norse legends but not with any confidence.

So, when I saw the front cover above appear on an Anglo-Saxon Facebook page, I bought the book immediately. When it arrived a couple of days ago, I was initially disappointed as I had hopes of a day by day almanac-type presentation which I could mine, conveniently, for this, my Almanac of the Past.

However, reading it properly, I think it is an excellent book. What I like it is that it has a poetry about it, and, for a non-Old- English speaker, it really gives some understanding of the language.

Anyway, the point of this post is that, for the Anglo-Saxons, winter was over on the 7th February, and we are now in the season of ‘lencten’ which probably comes from ‘lenghtening days’ and which is Spring as we call it. The word eventually got absorbed into the Christian calendar, giving us the name of the fasting season which is ‘Lent’.

So Winter began on 7th October and ended on the 7th February. January was ‘Gēola‘ the month of Yule and February ‘Sol-mōnaþ‘ Mud month which Bede calls the ‘month of cakes’ which they offered to their gods in that month’.

The Venerable Bede says that before conversion to Christianity the Anglo-Saxons had two seasons of Winter and Summer. Winter began on the first full moon of October which they called Winterfylleth. The summer was called ‘sumor’ or ‘gear’ (which developed into our word ‘year’.

manuscript drawing possibly of the Venerable Bede
Thought to be the Venerable Bede, the first historian of the English

There is some sense in this as by February 7th, lambs are being born and many buds and shoot are appearing on branches and poking up from the cold earth. So, their winter is essentially, the time when nothing is growing, while ours is more aligned to the coldest period. Similarly, the Celtic year begins on Halloween, and the spring begins with Imbolc on the 1st February.

Marcus Terentius Varro wrote about the Roman year, dividing it into 8 phrases and his spring began also on 7th February. This is when the west winds began to blow warmer weather and so farmers ‘purged’ the fields, readying them for planting. They would be cleared of old growth and debris, blessed, weeded, pruned with particular attention given to preparing the grain fields, the vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees.

In the section on Winter Eleanor Parker gives a poetic description of winter. What seems particularly interesting about it is that the harshness of winter is often paired with what seems to be descriptions of the ruins of Roman Civilisation. So, the despair of winter, the barren soil, the fight for survival is made more melancholic by the comparison to failed civilisation and nature battering away at the useless ruins, and the destruction of people’s dreams.

Here, is a flavour of the juxtaposition of the bleakness of winter and the sadness of lost society, from ‘The Wanderer’ an alliterative poem from the Exeter Book, dating from the late 10th century. I have presumed to change a couple of words to make it a little more accessible.

Who’s wise must see how ghostly it has been
when the world and its things stand wasted —
like you find, here and there, in this middle space now —
there walls totter, wailed around by winds,
gnashed by frost, the buildings snow-lapt.
The winehalls molder, their Lord lies
washed clean of joys, his people all perished,
proud by the wall. War ravaged a bunch
ferried along the forth-way, others a raptor ravished
over lofty seas, this one the hoary wolf
broke in its banes, the last a brother
graveled in the ground, tears as war-mask.

“That’s the way it goes—
the Shaper mills middle-earth to waste
until they stand empty, the giants’ work and ancient,
drained of the dreams and joys of its dwellers.”

Translation Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter.

As I read this I wonder if it is a tradition that began in the cold of Scandinavia as England, at least Southern England, is more often mild than ferocious?

However, there is also an idea about the circularity of life and the interconnectedness of everything. There are 4 Seasons, 4 Ages of Man, and the cycle was from childhood to old age, from Spring to Winter. We start young, and become vigorous, and then we decline and eventually die. And so does the world of the Anglo-Saxons. The world of Adam was young, restored to vigour by the coming of Jesus, and was now in its old age awaiting the Apocalypse, before the Day of Judgement. So Winter was connected with Old Age and Death.

Parker recounts a beautiful image of Bede’s. The King of Northumberland is thinking of taking his wife’s religion, and has invited the Christian, Paulinus to his court. Inclined to convert, he asks the opinion of one of his pagan advisers, who answers to the effect.

‘We are in the Great Hall, gathered warm with friends and family around the roaring fire, with Winter raging outside. A sparrow comes in from a hole in the end wall, flies through the warm of the Hall, and flies out through the other side. Such is life. The Hall is this world, we are the Sparrow, and as pagans we have no idea what happens before we enter the Hall, nor what happens after we leave. How much better it is to embrace a religion that can give us certainty as to what happens when we leave the hall.’

We have also seen that the Kalendar of Shepherds also takes this idea of the year mirroring life. The Kalendar takes the span of Man to be 72 years, divided into 12 ages of 6 years. January represents unproductive childhood from years 0 – 6. February represents the time when children begin to learn and become able to be productive, 6 -12. And so on.

First published in February 2023, republished on 7th February 2024

Day of the Moon Goddess Selene February 7th

Full Moon Photos by Natalie Tobert – you can find out more about her work here:

The Goddess Book of Days’ has the the 7th as the Day of Selene and other Moon Goddesses. (February 6th as the Festival of Aphrodite)

Selene is one of the most beguiling of Goddesses as she is the epitome of the Moon (Romans knew her as Luna). She, who gives that silvery, ethereal light to dark days, who appears and disappears to a routine few of us really understand. She is therefore beautiful, beguiling, unknowable. She is the Goddess of Intuition. She brings the tides and the monthly periods, and so is a Goddess of power as well as fertility, pregnancy and so love, and mothers, and babies.

To my mind, far more powerful than Aphrodite, Selene seems much more independent. On the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum she is shown with her brother Helios, the Sun God; with Hercules – the epitome of male strength, Demeter and Persephone, representing the earth and underworld (or life and death), Athene and her father, Zeus; Iris, the messenger Goddess; Hestia, the Goddess of the home, and Dione with her daughter ,Aphrodite, representing love. At one end, Helios brings up the sun with his Chariot and Horse and at the other, Selene’s horse sinks exhausted in Oceanus after a glorious night of moon shine. It’s a wonderful arrangement, which suggests the scheme was to show a balanced cosmos between female and male forces, framed by the Sun and the Moon.

cartoon of Elgin Marble, showing Selene's Horse at the right hand end
Cartoon of Elgin Marble, showing Selene’s Horse at the right hand end

I did a longer piece on this pediment of the Parthenon Marbles here

Photograph of the Moon against a black background byMike Petrucci -unsplash
Selene – Moon Goddess by Mike Petrucci -unsplash

I have used several of Natalie Tobert’s photos in my post which I pluck from Natalie’s face facebook feed which is a veritable visual feast. She worked, as an archaeologist at the Museum of London at the same time as me. She is an excellent potter, photographer and artist. Natalie was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of Society of Designer Craftsmen. You can see more of her pictures here.

First published in 2022, and revised February 2024.

St Agatha and Motor Cycling in Inferno

Procession of female saints leaving Classis (bottom left) behind the Three Kings heading to the Virgin Mary (bottom right between four angels). Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (pic. Wikipedia)

Today, I have revised February 5th’s entry on Saint Agatha (link below), whose Feast Day it was. My entry seemed quite comprehensive enough, but I decided to get an early image of Agatha because she is a martyr whose cult spread early on, and therefore, likely to be genuine.

As I started to track down her image I was led, with some joy, to one of the most amazing Churches in the wonderful town of Ravenna, a place I visited with some wonderment when working as an archaeologist at Ferrara, in Emilia-Romagna. As I found the picture of the wall upon which St Agatha appeared, I had to find out which one of the 22 female Saints was St. Agatha. I discovered a pretty comprehensive description and as I looked at it, I found the record was made by, or involved, Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins who was the Director of the site my friends and I worked on in Ferrara!

Medieval Excavation in Ferrara. The author is in the centre of the photo,

I’m guessing Bryan suggested we visit Ravenna on one of our trips to the beach at Rimini. Ravenna was just awesome because the City became the capital of the Roman Empire in the west for a while after Rome fell, then part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, then of the Byzantine Empire. And so, it was provided with some of the great glories of 5th and 6th Century Architecture. — the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neronian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and spanned the period when the Arian heresy was in full flow. Its hard to overestimate the impact on a young British archaeologist of seeing 5th Century buildings with roofs and astonishingly detailed mosaics still intact. Please visit!

Detail showing the first four female saints behind the Three Kings. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo wikipedia

Bryan Ward-Perkins description says All the saints are haloed, bear crowns and are dressed in elaborate court dress. Unlike the men …., all have essentially the same youthful features. The only saint with a distinguishing attribute is Agnes, who is accompanied by a lamb ‘ St Agatha, the list says, is the Saint next to Agnes with her lamb; the third in precedent.

St Agatha
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo wikipedia

Enough of the sublime! Now for the ridiculous. Whether on this visit or another, we decided to have a day at the beach at Rimini. After the day on the beach a collective decision to stay over was made so we could go to one of the big clubs (did we call them discos?) probably to dance to ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’.

Archaeologists, Italian and English, on the beach at Rimini

However, the hotels were all full up and so I decided, late at night to go back to Ferrara, on my own on my 175 cc Yamaha motor bike.

My Yamaha 175cc bike looked something like this but was red. A thing of underpowered beauty.

Thing was, I had started the day in Ferrara in the blazing Italian summer heat and hopped onto my bike dressed in shorts and t-shirt. Ferrara was 77 miles away (says google). One hour into the trip back I was getting pretty cold, and really not enjoying driving through the lonely countryside. So I decided to pull off the main road to see if I could find a rural hostelry to stay the rest of the night.

Now, I remember this very vividly – the only likely road I could find was signposted to ‘Inferno’. I shrugged my shoulders, wondering what that was about, and drove towards it on a very deserted road. Eventually, I came to a sign which told me I was about to enter ‘Inferno’.

There was something very surreal about the situation and my state of frozen mind and my courage failed me! I was not going to stay in a ‘motel’ in a place called ‘inferno’! I had seen too many horror films. So, I turned round and continued my cold journey to Ferrara.

Whenever I tell this story, I have some doubt about whether I really saw a place called ‘Inferno’ But I have, for the first time, checked Google which tells me that the road off the Rimini to Ferrara road on the way to Bologna goes through somewhere called: Vicolo Inferno, 40026 Imola BO, Italy. I have not heard of any serial killers based there.

Below is the updated page about St Agatha of Sicily who has a most interesting story.

Written in 2023 and updated in 2024

St Agatha’s Day February 5th

Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán FROM wikipedia
Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán – she is carrying her severed breasts

She is a Sicilian Saint, who refused to sleep with a powerful Roman in the third Century AD, and was imprisoned, tortured, had her breasts pincered off, still refused to sleep with him and died in prison. She is remembered by cakes shaped as breasts eaten on her feast day of February 5th (I kid you not).

She was martyred in the last year of reign of Emperor Decius (c. 201 AD – June 251 AD) and is thus an early martyr whose cult was established in antiquity, although details of her life and death are, as usual, much later traditions.

breast shaped cakes called Minne di Sant'Agata, a typical Sicilian sweet
Minne di Sant’Agata, Sicilian (Wikipedia)

‘She is also the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.’

St Agatha's Church, Kingston on Thames
black and white illustration
St Agatha’s Church, Kingston on Thames

It is suggested that illustrations of her severed breasts led the bell founders and bakers to mistakenly adopt her as patron saint as they thought the platter shown in illustrations of the Saint held bells or loaves not breasts! If you seach Google images, you will find most look clearly like breasts, but I guess you could mistake one or two for cakes, but I’ve never seen a bell that shape.

Results of a search for images of St Agatha in Google

February – ‘the enemy to pleasure and the time of patience’

February Title page from Kalendar of Shepherds.
February Title page from Kalendar of Shepherds.

The 15th Century French, illustration shows February as a time to cut firewood, dress warmly and stay by the fire. Food on the table is a nutritious pie and the fish are there to remind us it is the month of Pisces. In the other roundel is the other February star sign the Water Carrier, Aquarius.

pisces from the zodiac from kalendar of shepherds
Pisces From the zodiac from kalendar of shepherds

The poem above is a reference to Candlemas’s celebration of the presentation of the child Jesus at the Temple, and the paragraph below gives a summary of February. It ends with the idea that runs through the Kalendar – there are twelve apostles, twelve days of Christmas, twelve months in the year, and twelve blocks of six years in a person’s allotted 72 years of life. So February is linked to the second block of 6 years in a person’s life, ages 6 to 12. In January, the Kalendar suggests the essential uselessness of 0-6 year old children, while here, for February, it allows that from 6-12 years old children are beginning to ‘serve and learn’.

Below, is the text for February which gives a rural view of life in winter and ends with the line that February ‘is the poor man’s pick-purse, the miser’s cut-throat, the enemy to pleasure and the time of patience.’

About the Kalendar of Shepherds.

The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.

St Blaise’s Day & The Tadpole Revels February 3rd

19th Century illustration of St Blaise’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey

The Blessing of St Blaise helps protect the throat. The way it is done is that blessed candles are made into a cross, and then these are touched against the throat of the afflicted one. Why? Because a story was told that Blaise, on his way to martyrdom, cured a boy who had a fish bone stuck in his throat. So, he is the patron Saint of sores throats.

Blaise is thought to have been an Armenian Bishop of Sebaste, martyred (316AD) in the persecution of the Emperor Licinius.

Sage Advice for Sore Throats:

In the spirit of St Blaise, here is advice for care of your throats.

Sage Tea is excellent for many things including dental hygiene and alleviating sore throats. The Kalendar of Shepherds tells us how to treat our throats:

Good for the throat honey, sugar, butter with a little salt, liquorice, to sup soft eggs, hyssop, a mean manner of eating and drinking and sugar candy. Evil for the throat: mustard, much lying on the breast, pepper, anger, things roasted, lechery, much working, too much rest, much drink, smoke of incense, old cheese and all sour things are naughty for the throat.

The Kalendar of Shepherds 1604

The Martyrdom of St Blaise

So far, an uplifting, healing story, but the Medieval Church’s propensity for the gruesome, and its peculiar need to allocate a unique method of martyrdom to each early saint leads us to Blaise being pulled apart by wool-combers irons, before being beheaded.

Hence, he is also the patron saint of wool-combers, and by extension, sheep.

Wool combs black and white illustration
Internet Archive book illustrations collection on Flickr. (from wovember see below)

Wikipedia tells me that Combing was a regular form of torture.

Combing, sometimes known as carding (despite carding being a completely different process) is a sometimes-fatal form of torture in which iron combs designed to prepare wool and other fibres for woollen spinning are used to scrape, tear, and flay the victim’s flesh.

I am horrified by the goriness of these martyrdoms, and it needs some explanation. If we believe in Richard Dawkins idea of the meme we can find an explanation. Allocating a different and gory death to each and every saint has advantages for the survival of the cult. It brings a uniqueness to the story of the Saint, particular details of death suggests authenticity; the extreme death creates an example of stoicism in the face of challenge to faith, and provokes empathy and piety. There is, also, we have to accept, a very human attraction in the bloodthirstiness of stories.

But, there is, I suspect, a financial interest too. In order for these cults to survive, they need adherents, worshippers, donors, patrons. They need income streams that can help support the expensive clergy and the fabric of the Church. One source is from the wealthy, but in the medieval town, urban wealth was held within the booming guild structure. If your martyred Saint, could attract a particular Guild then you (the sponsoring Priests, or Church) were quids in.

Wool was one of the mainstays of industry in the medieval period, particularly in Britain. A martyr like St Blaise would prosper wherever there were people working with wool, cloth or sheep. So, is it too cynical to suggest some one with an eye for the main chance added the detail of the wool combing death to attract donations from rich wool merchants? As a successful meme it spread throughout Europe.

Also, there were any number of endemic diseases and occupational hazards for which there was no clear cure. So if your Saint can become the Saint of ‘popular’, preferably incurably, illnesses, you can attract all those who suffer from that or similar diseases.

Of course, it may not always be a cynical drive for more income because, in exchange, the Church offered the sufferer comfort of a quality that would have maximised the placebo effect. This has been scientifically measured and was likely to be as effective a cure as the available, often bizarre, medieval remedies.

Blaise’s hagiography suggests he was a physician so he was able to grow into being not only the Saint for Sore Throats and Sheep but one of the go-to saints for diseases in both humans and animals.

Blaise in Britain

His cult came to Britain when King Richard I was ship wrecked on Crusade. Richard was helped by Bishop Bernard of Ragusa where Richard was washed up. When the Bishop was deposed he sought sanctuary in Britain and was made Bishop of Carlisle where he promoted the cult of Blaise. Several churches in the UK founded churches named for him.

St Blazey in Cornwall is named after his Church and celebrates him by a procession of a ram and a wicker effigy of the Saint. Milton, in Berkshire, dedicated its Church to St Blaise, probably because the village’s wealth depended on sheep. The village held a feast on the third Sunday after Trinity, and the day after held the Tadpole Revels at Milton Hall. Tadpole is thought to be a corruption from the word ‘Tod’ which means cleaned wool.

Blaise in London

Westminster Abbey has a chapel dedicated to Blaise (see image at top of page). In the Bishop’s Palace at Bromley is St Blaise’s Well. It is thought to have begun as a spring when the Palace ‘was granted to Bishop Eardwulf by King Ethelbert II of Kent around 750 AD.’ A well near the spring became a place of pilgrimage and an Oratory to St Blaise was set up. In the 18th Century the chalybeate waters of the well were considered to be useful for health. It still exists to day.

On February 3rd St Etheldreda’s Church in London holds the Blessing of the Throats ceremony. It was a Catholic Church in the medieval period, then, in Reformation was used for various purposes until returned to the Catholic Church in 1876. It has memorials for Catholic Martyrs killed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Elisa Rolle – Own work
CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikipedia St Etheldreda’s Church

One of London’s oldest guilds is the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, first mentioned in 1180, when fined, for operating without a license, by Richard 1’s dad, Henry II.

Sources: The Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly, Woolly Saints, Britannica, Wovember, wikipedia