I’ve just finished reading Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. Written in the first few years of the fifteenth century, its purpose was to refute various claims about the weaknesses and unreliability of women. De Pizan was the first woman known to make her living from writing and she made her case by telling the stories of remarkable women from the Bible, Greek and Roman myths, and antiquity, as well as from the first centuries of Christianity. The final section of the book concentrates on women martyred for their faith. The notes at the back of the book state that the examples chosen were popular saints in the Middle Ages and I wondered what might make one saint more popular than others.
The most popular saints were men – St Peter, St Paul, the Evangelists and St Stephen. These were men who were either with Jesus or who were important in the early years of Christianity. Since they don’t serve de Pizan’s purpose, she ignores them and chooses women. These women were martyrs, thus she ignores St Mary Magdalene, who was not only with Jesus but was also supposed to have died in France.
Like the majority of the early saints, these women have gruesome stories. De Pizan’s first three are St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch and St Lucy of Rome,
St Catherine was a fourth-century martyr. According to de Pizan she was the daughter of the king of Alexandria and she inherited everything when her father died. Instead of marrying, she preferred to dedicate herself to God and remain a virgin. She was well-educated and, when Emperor Maxentius arrived to carry out an important sacrifice to pagan gods, she went to tell him the error of his ways. He sent for fifty Egyptian wise men, but they thought that convincing a mere woman that she was wrong was a waste of their time. She converted them, however, and the emperor had them killed. A sexual element enters the story now, but the emperor, despite his desire for her, had Catherine tortured and starved. This didn’t work and he had her ground between two wheels studded with sharp blades, which broke. Seeing this, emperor’s wife converted, so the emperor had her killed, which caused many more people to convert. Somewhat bizarrely, the emperor proposed marriage to Catherine. Since Catherine had dedicated her virginity to God, she refused and he had her beheaded. When she was killed milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood.
I’m not sure how the torture of St Catherine of Alexandria on a wheel led to the creation of the Catherine wheel, a popular firework for Guy Fawkes when I was a child, but it did. If you don’t know what a Catherine wheel looks like, here’s a video.
The cult of St Catherine sprang up suddenly in the 9th century and there was no mention of her in earlier stories of martyrs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t exist, just that no early record of her has been found. She was a useful saint to have on your side since she was a bride of Christ, she was clever enough to beat the Egyptian wise men and she was considered to be the protector of the dying. She was the patron saint of young girls, students (including the clergy), nurses and craftsmen. She was popular in England and thirty-six wall paintings of her are still in existence.
St Margaret was another beautiful virgin from a well-off family, this time in Antioch. She caught the eye of Olybrius, the local prefect. She turned down his advances and he imprisoned her. When this didn’t work, he had her tortured and the instruments of torture were miraculously destroyed. This caused those who saw it to convert to Christianity. Olybrius had Margaret beheaded.
St Margaret probably did not exist and a declaration to that effect was made by the church towards the end of the fifth century. She was, however, very popular in England as well as in other parts of Europe. Her popularity arose from her promises that anyone reading her story would receive a crown in heaven; those who called on her name on their death-bed would have divine protection from devils; those who dedicated churches to her would receive anything they pray for that was useful; and pregnant women who asked for her help would be safe when they gave birth.
St Lucy of Rome was also a fourth-century virgin. She was kidnapped by a barbarian king, Aucejas. By preaching to him, she managed to convince him not to rape her. Due to her prayers, he was successful in everything he did for twenty years. God told her to go to Rome where she would be martyred. Aucejas went with her as Lucy’s servant. When she was about to be beheaded, Aucejas declared himself a Christian and died beside her.
St Lucy’s existence is so doubtful that she isn’t even mentioned in my dictionary of saints and all I can find online about her is the same story that de Pizan tells.
Like many of the women mentioned in de Pizan’s book, St Catherine, St Margaret and St Lucy provide examples of steadfastness. Despite torture and the threat of death they never waver from their paths.
The Book of the City of Ladies – Christine de Pizan
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer
April Munday is the author of several books set in the fourteenth century. Find out more here.