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

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