Lately, I have been closely reading The Golden Legend, William Caxton’s late-fifteenth century English edition of the Legenda aurea, a comprehensive reference work of saint’s legends. While reading the chapter on Saint Swithun, this passage stood out to me:
“And on a time there came a woman over the bridge with her lap full of eggs, and a reckless fellow struggled and wrestled with her, and brake all her eggs. And it happed that this holy bishop came that way the same time, and bade the woman let him see her eggs, and anon he lift up his hand and blessed the eggs, and they were made whole and sound, ever each one, by the merits of this holy bishop, and being then glad she thanked God and this holy man for the miracle that was done to her.”
I find the juxtaposition between the lofty bishop and saint and the mundane woman with her broken eggs to be highly funny. The saint not only makes the time to stop for a woman with some broken eggs, but even uses his divine connection to God to restore them!
Oddly enough, this is not the only medieval account I’ve read in which broken eggs are miraculously restored. In the Life of Margaret of Ypres, by Thomas of Cantimpré (the same hagiographer who wrote the Life of Christina the Astonishing), the willful teenage ascetic is so busy meditating on God that her mother becomes angry with her for neglecting the housework. One day, in order to make it look like she helped out, she dumps out a bowl of what she believes to be broken eggshells into the yard. Of course, the eggs were whole rather than broken, and Margaret’s mother is furious. Margaret, however, prays to God and he deigns to restore them whole.
It just goes to show you–no problem is too small for divine intervention!
A recent research project has me poring through bird entries in medieval bestiaries and encyclopedias. I find the genre fascinating and wish I had more time to study it thoroughly. The entries are a strange mix of actual bird behavior, pseudo-scientific biological explanations, and spiritual moralizations. The funnest bits, of course, describe sexual habits. The partridge entry in Thomas of Cantimpré’s De natura rerum has this to say on the matter:
When the males fight for the females, the victors trample on the vanquished and mate with them, and, as the experimentor says, their lust is so vehement that they forget which sex it is. . . . The hens are said to be so lustful that they conceive merely by smelling the male. For at that time they stick their tongues out from sexual desire. When they mate, they exhale a nasty smell.
That’s one fertile bird!
Recently during a medieval Christianity course I was introduced to saint Christina the Astonishing, a Flemish beguine saint who torments herself in these horrible, awful ways–boiling cauldrons, hanging in gallows, drowning, running through thorns. Christina does all these things without being harmed, although she feels the pain caused by them. Christina’s actions cause strife within her community, who thinks she might be possessed. Throughout, we see Christina struggling to fit in with her community her gifts always marginalize her. I found the juxtaposition of divine deeds and very human struggles fascinating.
For Christmas, Keith bought me a print painted by an artist who imagines Christina as a feminist, rebellious saint. The one I received is here. The painting depicts a scene in which God resurrects Christina to do his work on earth. She awakens during her funeral mass and flies to the rafters, shocking all those in attendance. I love how the artist highlights the feminist, rebellious undertones in the hagiography, portraying Christina in red and focusing on the priest’s attempt to restrict her actions. The artist also has another Christina painting with some of the same themes, but sadly there’s no print available.