Almost ‘one in three women have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their life.’ says the UN on its page Ending Violence Against Women Day.
In writing my Almanac of the Past, I have been struck by how violent are most of the stories of the Saints of the early Catholic Church. At the bottom of this post, you will find an essay touching upon this thorny subject.
But before you read this, today is St Catherine of Alexandria’s Day, which makes an appropriate Saint for the UN Day. So I have updated this very interesting story and republished it today. Have a read.
Also, buffed up and republished are the following seasonal posts:
Finally, St Margaret is the Saint who suffered probably the most torture in her convoluted route to Martyrdom, and here is a pertinent reflection on the subject, illustrated by a reredos on display at the V&A, in Kensington, London.
Catherine was high-born, beautiful and learned. She disputed with pagan learned men against the worship of idols. She wiped the floor with them, and Emperor Maxentius had 50 of the learned men burnt alive for their failure to answer adequately.
Catherine was imprisoned where many people came to visit her and were converted to Christianity. The most illustrious visitor was the Emperor’s wife, Valeria Maximilla who was, herself, martyred. Then, the Emperor offered to marry Catherine, but she refused to abandon her faith, so he had her tortured. In prison, she was fed by the holy dove and had visions of Christ.
Her gaolers then tried to break her on a wheel, although the wheel broke, killing spectators with the splinters, she stood steadfast. Two hundred soldiers were converted to the faith on the spot. They were then beheaded, followed by Catherine herself. Milk, not blood, flowed from her severed veins.
The persecution in the early 4th Century was real, but it wasn’t driven by Maxentius, who came to power promising religious tolerance. But, following the accession of Constantine the Great, Maxentius’s reputation was blackened. There is no contemporary evidence for the events of Catherine’s life. There is a modern theory that her tale was conflated with the remarkable story of Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415), a pagan and a real learned woman; The first female Mathematician we know any facts about. She was murdered by a rampaging mob of xenophobic Christians.
Catherine is remembered by the firework: the Catherine Wheel and is, of course, the patron of Philosophers, Theologians, and Royal women; young women, students, spinsters, and anyone who lives by a wheel: carters, potters, wheelwrights, spinners, millers. And, I imagine, Formula 1 drivers.
St Catherine in London
There are several Churches in London dedicated to St Catherine or St Katherine, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The one in Coleman Street, rebuilt by Christopher Wren and his team, was demolished in the 1920s. There was a Chapel to St Catherine at Westminster Abbey (c1160), the ruins of which are visible in St Catherine’s Garden. I would guess that St Katherine’s Dock and St Katherine’s Cree Church are also so dedicated, but cannot as yet find a dedication for either.
First published on 25th November 2022. Revised and republished 25th November 2023
I was just finishing my piece on Roodmas and the True Cross, starting to look up the history of the piece of the Cross that was held by the Duke of Buckingham in the 17th Century, when I came across this amazing story in the Shropshire News!
It seems two pieces of the True Cross have been given to Charles by the Pope! They have been put into a cross called the Welsh Cross which will take part in the Coronation Procession and then the King is giving the Cross (I assume with the pieces of the Holy Cross) to the Church in Wales. Let the Shropshire News tell the story:
This is quite extraordinarily medieval, and fits in with the news that we have been asked to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.
It is a clear reminder that we are subjects not citizens and news that we still set store by superstitions. Its a delicate time because many non-natural-Royalists, like me, thought the Queen did a great job as a non-political Head of State. We remain unsure about Charles. We have heard calls to modernise the Royal Family. But this seems to be doing the opposite. Time will tell.
Roodmas is celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th, although the Church of England aligned itself with the Catholic Church’s main celebration on September 14th.
Rood is another word for the Cross. Parish Churches used to have a Rood Screen separating the holy Choir from the more secular Nave. This screen was topped with a statue of the Crucified Jesus.
The two dates of Roodmas reflects that it commemorates two events:
The Discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by Queen Helena, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. Most of the Cross was sent back to the care of Constantine the Great.
The part of the Holy Cross that was left in Jerusalem was taken by Persians but recovered by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 in a peace treaty.
Queen Helena found the Cross with the nails, and the crown of thorns. She authenticated it by placing the Cross in contact with a deathly sick women who was revived by the timber of the Cross.
Over the years the Cross was shivered into ever smaller pieces as Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Counts, Popes, Bishops, Abbots, and Abbesses swapped relics with each other. The fragments were cased in beautiful reliquaries and had enormous power for those of faith and those who could be helped by healing by faith.
The Duke of Buckingham had a piece in his collection in the 17th Century, which I think he must have acquired from the aftermath of the destruction of the Reformation.
But I will be saving more about the Legend of the True Cross on September 14th.
For the story of Stratford-upon-Avon and the Legend of the True Cross click here:
Easter is a Germanic name, and, the only evidence for its derivation comes from the Venerable Bede, who was the first English Historian and a notable scholar. He says the pagan name for April was derived from the Goddess Eostra. The German name for Easter is Ostern probably with a similar derivation. But this is all the evidence there is for the Goddess, despite many claims for the deep history of Easter traditions.
Philip A. Shaw has proposed that the name of Eastry in Kent might derive from a local goddess, called Eostra and that the influence of Canterbury in the early Church in England and Germany led to the adoption of this local cult name for the Holy Week in these two countries. Otherwise, the name for Easter in Europe derives from Pascha which comes from the Hebrew Passover and Latin. In French it’s Pâques’ in Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua; Dutch Pasen, Swedish Påsk; Norwegian Påske and so on.
Eleanor Parker in her lovely book ‘Winter in the World’ gives a lyrical insight into how the dates were chosen because of the belief that God would only choose the perfect time for the Creation and the events of Easter. The Creation began with the birth of the Sun and the Moon, so it was fixed to the Equinox, when the days were of equal length, and the fruits of the earth were stirring into life. But Holy Week also needed to be in harmony with the Moon and so was tied, like Passover, to the first full moon after the Equinox, which is also when the events take place in the Gospels.
The quotations Parker uses from early English religious writing and poetry shows a deep interest in nature and the universe which is very appealing. It seems to me that this is something the Church, to an extent, lost in later times, and replaced with fixation with dogma and ‘worship’ of the Holy Trinity.
At the time fixing the date of Easter was very controversial as the kingdoms in Britain had a different calendar to the Roman Catholic Church and therefore Easter fell on a different day. The King of Northumberland, for example, celebrated Easter on a different day to that of his wife. Oswiu was exiled to Ireland where he was influenced by Celtic Christianity while his wife, Eanflæd, while also being from Northumberland, had been baptised by the Roman Catholic missionary, Paulinus.
Oswiu, became the ‘Bretwalda’ of all Britain, and encouraged a reconciliation, culminating at the Synod of Whitby (664AD), between the two churches where the Celtic Church agreed to follow the Catholic calendar and other controversial customs. After her husband’s death Eanflaed became Abbess of Whitby.
King Alfred’s law code gave labourers the week before and after Easter off work, making it the main holiday of the year. Ælfric of Eynsham gives a powerful commentary on the rituals of the Church over Easter, which was full of drama and participation including Palm leaf processions on Palm Sunday, feet washing and giving offerings to the poor on Maundy Thursday. Then followed three ‘silent days’ with no preaching but rituals and services aiming to encourage empathy for the ordeal of Jesus. Thus the night time service of Tenebrae, when all lights were extinguished in the Church while the choir sang ‘Lord Have Mercy’. The darkness represented the darkness and despair that was said to cover the world after Jesus’ death. Good Friday was the day for the adoration of the Cross in which a Cross would be decorated with treasures and symbolised turning a disaster into a triumph.
It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree Lifted up into the air, wrapped in light, brightest of beams. All that beacon was covered with gold; gems stood beautiful at the surface of the earth,….
The Dream of the Rood quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winter in the World’
The days before Easter Sunday are known as the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ which was a very popular theme in the medieval period (featuring in Piers Plowman for example). Jesus went down to hell to free those, like John the Baptist, who had been trapped because the world had no saviour until the first Easter. The Clerk of Oxford Blog provides more information on the Harrowing of Hell on this page, including that the name ‘Harrowing’ comes from ‘Old English word hergian ‘to harry, pillage, plunder’ which underpins the way the event is depicted as a military raid on Hell.
I have just realised that the Clerk of Oxford Blog is by written by Eleanor Parker, and started ‘in 2008, whilst an undergraduate student at Oxford. The blog won the 2015 Longman-History Today award for Digital History‘.
The above is but a very poor précis of Eleanor Parker’s use of Anglo-saxon poetry and literature to bring Easter to life. So if you are interested to know more or would like to have a different viewpoint on the Anglo-Saxons please get a copy of her book.