Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Today is St. Catherine of Alexandria's Feastday!


15th c. Sarum Use Book of Hours
As G L Harriss noted in the opening page of his biography of Henry Beaufort, this fascination we have with our birthdays is a relatively recent phenomenon (Henry apparently not only knew his own but reportedly celebrated it as well, which is why Harriss brings up the point!). Instead, what people tended to celebrate was the feast day of their patron or namesake saint.

This post is about Katherine Roet's name-saint, Catherine of Alexandria, who was reportedly a noblewoman who converted to Christianity in the early years of the fourth century of the common era,and then made the bad move of converting others, including the Emperor's wife and the good pagan officials who tried to show her the error of her spiritual ways.

Things like this never augur well for the ancient martyrs of the church, some of whom may or may not have even existed. The author of the thesis which can be found at the above title link notes:

...the fictiveness of the legends is indicated by the numerous similarities within the genre. The biographies of numerous saints draw on a limited number of stock characters, standard plots, and conventional incidents. Violent confrontations, miraculous escapes, and inventive ways of inflicting pain and death are major features of the genre... This use of repetition, however, communicated a religious 'truth': that all saints are, indeed, the same in that they all live a life of holiness based on the example of Christ's life.

Indeed, if it's graphic depiction of sadistic violence that you're looking for, you needn't go any further than Jacob de Voragine's Golden Legend aka Lives of the Saints. Of Catherine's martyrdom, de Voragine has this to say, that the Emperor, after Catherine refuses to become his female #2,:

...commanded that she should be despoiled naked and beaten with scorpions, and so beaten to be put in a dark prison, and there was tormented by hunger by the space of twelve days...

When Catherine still won't submit to the Emperor's no doubt considerable personal charms (and this seems to be one of those running themes for female martyrs -- it's always that they won't submit sexually to some heathen), he threatens her with still more bodily harm, to which she reportedly replies:

Tarry not to do what torments thou wilt, for I desire to offer to God my blood and my flesh like as he offered for me; he is my God, my father, my friend and mine only spouse

This really did her in, and the Emperor commands that his chief henchman

make four wheels of iron, environed with sharp razors, cutting so that she might be horribly all detrenched and cut in that torment, so that he might fear the other christian people by ensample of that cruel torment. And then was ordained that two wheels should turn against the other two by great force, so that they should break all that should be between the wheels... then the sergeants brought her out of the city and erased off her paps with tongs of iron, and after smote off her head

Rape, sadistic violence, inventive use of razors and ordinary wheels, and crude mastectomies -- the inventive devices may well change but the rest is pretty standard fare for the stories of the early female martyrs.

14th c. Oxford Cathedral Lawrence OP photostream on Flickr
.Fast forward to medieval England. St. Catherine becomes an increasingly popular saint. By the mid-twelfth century she has a chapel dedicated to her at Bury St. Edmund's, and in the thirteenth century she has a manorial chapel in Whaplode (Lincs.) as well as a chapel in Lincoln Cathedral itself, which also boasted two relics of the saint: a finger kept in a long purse decorated with pearls as well as the curious relic of a section of chain with which Catherine is sometimes said to have bound the devil. (Walsh, Christine. The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007, pp. 123; 134-5).


By Katherine Swynford's time, Catherine of Alexandria, often identified in manuscripts and stained glass depictions by or with her signature symbol of a spiked wheel, had entered a super-pantheon of 14 I believe Catholic saints who were the subject of increasing entreaties by victims of the Black Death, which is said to have decimated Europe's population by at least one-third.


St Mary's Saxon Church, Deerhurst.

Catherine's wheel was further understood to associate with spinners (or, in the case of women, spinsters, as the -ster ending often denoted a female of a profession, whereas the -er ending indicated a male of the profession. From this we get our surnames of Brewer as well as Brewster; Webber as well as Webster, etc.), lace-makers, and wheel-wrights. She furthermore was a favorite saint of unmarried women 25 years of age or older (now we know where we get the term spinster, right?!), one of the few positive examples of an educated woman (medieval women could not attend the new universities that were popping up across medieval Europe), and I believe I've read that both in England as well as at Katherine Roet's sister's hometown of St. Waudru, Mons, St. Catherine's feast day was a day off for students attending school.

By Queen Catherine of Aragon's time (early/mid-16th Century), the Cult of St. Catherine had grown to encompass the making of Cattern Cakes (carroway-spiced things) and choir boys preaching sermons and begging for money.

How this relates to Katherine Swynford -- well, she may well have been born sometime in November of a year we don't have even a clue. Then there's the novelist Seton's portrayal of how Katherine Swynford came by her coat of arms... I'd quote it if I had the book handy, but it's a nice little moving scene in which John of Gaunt, already taken with La Swynford, invents the double canting coat idea of Catherine wheels for a Katherine Swynford -- doubly punning in that Roet = Wheel in Latin, Katherine's name being, well, Catherine, and St. Catherine's symbol being a spiked wheel.

Le Puy Cathedral, Auvergne, France, Sacred Destinations' Photo Stream on Flickr

A few other bits of trivia: the Church apparently liked playing a musical chairs sort of game in assigning the feast day for this particular St. Catherine (why??? I don't know...); also, poor St. Catherine of Alexandria is among those saints who received some sort of demotion in 1969 (but is in good company with the revered St. Christopher, who also got demoted) when her feast day was taken off the Church's calendar. Also, among the voices Jeanne d'Arc heard -- yup, St. Catherine of Alexandria (bonus points to anyone who knows that Henry Beaufort presided over her execution).

Oh, and by the way, there was at least one other St. Catherine -- that of Sienna, who was a contemporary of Katherine Swynford, who left rather alot of writings behind and who, at least to this modern and non-religious eye, had a most bizarre concept of the composition of her wedding ring with the Messiah figure. Or am I getting the two confused again???

2 comments:

Deb said...

I remember John of Gaunt's (fictional) comment when he drew Katherine's arms on a scrap of parchment. "You are too fair and rare a woman to hide behind those Swinford boars' heads. Your name was Roet? That means a wheel. But stay--it must be a Catherine wheel, since it is yours!"

And then, of course, the kissing starts. Man. What a story.

Judy Perry said...

Hi Deb!

The funny thing is that there is some (contested) evidence that Katherine's father bore arms consisting of wheels, thus Seton's story is perhaps fictional (although a nice bit of story).

Katherine herself left to Lincoln Cathedral vestments of both plain (and maybe silver?) wheels on red as well as gold Catherine wheels on red. Perhaps Seton is correct that JoG had arms issued *specifically* to Katherine that used the gold Catherine wheels (but then we've the problem of Thomas Chaucer's daughter using same said arms on her parents' monuments) and that the plain (and maybe silver) wheels better represented her father's arms. Also, when examining the seals in question, of course, (a) we can't see any tinctures, and (b) at a sufficiently small size, we might not see the Catherine wheel torture devices.

I dunno... But thanks for visiting!

Visit well, visit often ;-)

Judy