London’s summer looks like it will be pretty dreary, with a forecast of 40 days of cloud and drizzle. Melbourne, on the other hand, is going to be unseasonably cold over the same period, while the storm in Boston is likely to last six weeks.
Or so the more superstitious among us will think. This is because July 15 is St Swithin’s day, and has enjoyed significance for weather forecasters for many centuries. The day marks that of the saint’s “translation” in 971 from an outdoor grave to a shrine inside Winchester’s Old Minster. As the Scots rhyme went:
Saint Swithin’s day, gif ye do rain,
For forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithin’s day, an ye be fair,
For forty days ʼtwill rain na mair.
Swithin wasn’t the first saint whose feast day foretold the weather and, in many ways, this ninth-century bishop made for a conventional example of sanctity. But there were other medieval saints who had much more “interesting” powers, raising questions around how far people were willing to suspend their disbelief. Did the devout really venerate a man who cursed people with farts, a lady with a large beard – and even holy dogs?
Saints’ cults – historical or current – are fascinating indicators of wider social concerns. Significant cults almost always stem from a genuinely popular interest rather than an imposition from a religious hierarchy. Devotees seem to be attracted to saints that in some way speak to their needs (such as health problems, weather, the fertility of people, animals and the land) or those who are identified as powerful protectors, intervening in human affairs in very physical ways.
These characters may look deeply challenging to the modern “rational” mind but in times and places which lack the safety net of an organised welfare state, saints and the ideas associated with them play a crucial role in discussion of how to live a worthy life rounded off by a “good death”.
Our first example of an “unusual saint” comes from not long after the time of St Swithin, when the story of an obscure martyr called Gangulf was recorded. This warrior from Burgundy was out one day and decided to buy a natural water source. When he got home, he plunged his staff into the ground and the spring – miraculously displaced – brought forth a white-coloured water. Suspecting that his wife had been sleeping with a priest, Gangulf made her hold her hand in the spring, which burned her skin, indicating guilt.
The priest soon did away with the pesky Gangulf, but he got his revenge from heaven when his murderer expired while emptying his bowels on the lavatory. As for the wife, every word she uttered on a Friday was for ever more accompanied by a “filthy sound” from her rear. The king himself dispatched a special commission to find out if the miracle farting was real.
While many medieval people took this saint seriously – and sometimes the wife’s flatulence was censored – those who wished to find him amusing obviously could. Gangulf’s passion for hunting – “prowling the haunts of wild beasts”, as the text puts it – is a double entendre in the original Latin for hanging around in brothels. And as for the staff he rams into the ground, which spews forth a whitish liquid, one can only feel sorry for the monks at the back trying to keep a straight face. Laughter was alive and well, even in the so-called Dark Ages.
St Wilgefortis is another example of an unlikely saint. The cult of this bearded virginal woman was widespread in late medieval Europe, under a range of names including Liberata and, in England, Uncumber. These formulations relate to her apparent ability to free wives of unwanted husbands – divorce was by no means impossible in the Middle Ages, but it was difficult (and probably expensive) for women in particular to end unhappy marriages.
This saint would “unencumber” you in return for an offering of a peck of oats at an altar or light dedicated to her. The fact that she was a bearded woman who suffered martyrdom by crucifixion seems only to have added to her appeal. She is one of a group of virgin martyrs who are variations on a theme – a Christian princess refuses to marry a heathen prince; she is punished by death for her temerity and acclaimed as a saint. And then there’s the added twist that God sent her a beard in response to her prayers to be made so hideous that the heathen suitor would lose interest.
It is, however, likely that the legend of Wilgefortis is based on a simple misinterpretation of an image of a fully-clothed Christ on the cross. So maybe don’t go praying to her just yet.
It is not even necessary to be human to be seen as a saint. In around 1250, a Dominican inquisitor named Stephen of Bourbon made an intriguing discovery while travelling through eastern France. Hearing of a martyr called St Guinefort who had the power to heal children, he was astonished to discover that this was not some obscure man of local memory, but a dog – a greyhound, in fact.
According to legend, the dog was killed after its owner mistakenly thought it had attacked his baby boy, when it had actually saved the infant from a wolf. Its burial place became the focal point for a ritual whereby mothers would hang their sick babies’ clothes on bushes before throwing the babies nine times between a pair of tree trunks to be caught and returned by an old woman. They then left their babies on a bed of straw with lighted candles close by. Stephen’s report notes that several babies were accidentally burned to death. Horrified, he had the dog disinterred and destroyed, and the wood cut down.
But tradition can be amazingly tenacious. In 1826, an enquiry into local superstitions found mothers going to the same wood to invoke healing from St Guinefort, and a closer look in 1879 found both the cult and the oral legend intact, before it seems to have finally disappeared around the time of World War I. So locals had succeeded in maintaining an unofficial dog cult there for more than six centuries.
Saints can take us to the outer limits of the human imagination, and also respond to very ordinary needs and concerns. Their stories become mangled, and even entirely fabricated (so don’t let the Swithin legend put you off that trip to the beach without checking with the Met office) but they do shed a consistent sideways light on our communal preoccupations.