Popular Medieval Saints


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.


Filed under Fourteenth Century, The Medieval Church

48 responses to “Popular Medieval Saints

  1. Shaunn Munn

    Katherine was an important saint to John of Gaunt and his third wife and former mistress,Katherine Swynford, nee’ De Roet. In Gaunt’s record of expenditures are several references of donations to the Church in the saint’s memory.

    Because Lincoln Cathedral was important to the Lancastrians, it received many of those benefices. Dutchess Katherine and her only daughter by Gaunt, Joan, Countess of Neville, were buried near the high altar. St. Katherine’s Day observances were held there for years before the Reformation.

    What intrigues me are the many references to virgins who gave up their lives for their faith. By De Pisan’s day the chances of most medieval European women having to endure torture for their faith, against heathens, were remote.

    Why choose such women as role models? Perhaps because there was nothing in these saints’ stories that would disturb the minds of medieval
    men. Because these women showed fortitude against heathens, they could be given a pass for defying men! That they ended up dead, but with miracles attached to their legacies, lent credibility and approval to that defiance.

    These saints provided relatively helpless women with a sympathetic ear for prayer. They offered strength for women to deal with the harsh world that was medievalism.

    Thank you for rounding out the stories of Sts. Lucy & Margaret. Would St. Lucy be the Santa Lucia of the popular Italian song and the Saint Lucia Christmas festivities for Scandanavia? I know there were so many saints in those days that there were often several of the same name.

    Liked by 2 people

    • To deal with the last thing first, St Lucy isn’t Santa Lucia. I found a Catholic website which mentions both of them separately.

      De Pizan’s book is full of women defying men, so she’s really not bothered whether the men involved are heathen or not. She’s just making the point that women, contrary to what was thought and written at the time, were as brave, clever, generous and faithful as men. These particular saints remained faithful despite torture and death.

      I probably should have explained that all of de Pizan’s examples are women. She’s fighting back against the misogynistic view of women that prevailed at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shaunn Munn

        That is intriguing! I have long wondered what was in the book De Pisan presented to the French queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, in a beautifully colored picture I saw. Wonder if it was this book? Isabeau had need of good role models in her court!

        Thank you for the clarification! De Pisan was remarkable & brave!

        I notice we spell her name differently. I suppose there are more spellings than even these. Viva la difference!

        Liked by 1 person

        • There was nothing in the notes about a dedicatee, so I’m afraid I don’t know.

          I spell her name as it appears on the front of the translation I read. Spelling wasn’t terribly consistent in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Shaunn Munn

    I apologize, I forget to mention that Joan Neville was countess of Westmoreland.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had a small book of saints given to me when I was eleven and about to be confirmed. The Book was to help me pick a confirmation name. I remember being horrified by Catherine’s story. Margaret was in the book too.
    I picked Clare in the end!
    There was no Lucy mentioned or I might have taken that name…..!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always thought saints had to be real people who’d done something cool or miraculous and were canonised by the pope 100 yrs after their death. Like Mother Theresa. Maybe that came later?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It came quite late. As with many things, the church couldn’t always control who was venerated as a saint and who wasn’t. 900 years after the pope declared she didn’t exist, St Margaret was still a very popular saint.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shaunn Munn

        I had a huge volume with thousands of saints that was published in the late 1800’s. Some had long entries, other a line or two. Learned years after I lost the book that Vatican II or some other conclave severely rooted out most of the so-so’s & possibly mythical ones. Would like to compare lists today!

        Today, the documentation for sainthood is much stricter, with real proofs needed for canonization. Even my state of Indiana (USA) recently had a woman canonized: Mother Theodore Guerin. So as some saints are eliminated, others are created. Mother Theodore was also a very brave woman who came to the raw, untouched, Indiana frontier, and with her fellow sisters, brought ease to original Americans and settlers alike.

        I think De Pisan would have admired Mother Theodore!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at a Catherine wheel with the same joy ever again! Fascinating post as ever, April.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s horrendous what happened to some of these lady saints. There’s a village here named after Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off. She is now the patron saint of breast cancer.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What is the deal with virginity? I really want to understand why the fact that a woman hasn’t had sex is some mark of “purity.” I’ve accepted the idea that “virgin=pure” but now I’m beginning to think that’s a really messed up idea of the world. In the stories you share here, it’s clear these women could not have been legendary without this detail–or that’s how I read it anyway. Are there any saints that aren’t virgins? And is there an “apology” somewhere in the lore for this lack of “purity?”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Your posts are always so informative. I always some away from your blog feeling just a little bit more knowledgeable. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I did not know the story behind the Catherine wheel! Another fascinating and enlightening read 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Interesting that when all else failed, these women were beheaded. There was obviously way too much going on in those heads.

    I wonder when Catherine wheels were first invented? They were one of my favourite fireworks as a kid, partly because there was a certain amount of skill involved in setting them up, partly because they were so pretty, and partly because of the story associated with them. But it’s just struck me how odd it is that they should appear at so “Protestant” a festival as Guy Fawkes.

    Mary Magdalene has had a lively press, to put it mildly. It’s always interested me that she should have been reinvented in the middle ages (Western tradition), and portrayed in Western Art long after, as the Adulterous-but-Repentant Mary, as opposed to the Virgin Mary.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I tried to find out about Catherine wheels, but there’s not much. I admit that I didn’t try that hard. I do remember that they were very exciting when I was a child because of the chance they would come loose from the side of the shed where my dad pinned them. In retrospect, there was no chance at all. He knew what he was doing.

      The beheading bit interested me as well. It did seem to be the last word in all instances.

      Mary Magdalene is really interesting and I need to do some more reading. The local lazar house was named after her and I don’t know if that’s specific or generic.

      Liked by 2 people

    • One of our local progressive Protestant (not mainline) churches has an annual concert and worship service celebrating Mary Magdalene. I was in the chorus for it one year and really enjoyed it. The chorus was all women, but our music director was a guy. 😉 The church has an amazing, huge, multi-media painting/quilt/canvas of her that towers over the Sanctuary. Good stuff. ❤

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Although I haven’t read _City of Ladies_ yet, except in excerpts, I bet de Pisan/Pizan doesn’t include the 10th C. Viking/Rus’/Slav St. Ol’ga of Kiev, who was made a saint in the 1500’s in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, notwithstanding the Four Bloodthirsty Revenges she took on the killers of her husband, Prince Igor of Kiev. Princess Ol’ga not only avenged his death in sly and bloody ways, she traveled from Kiev to Constantinople to meet Constantine VII. On that trip she was baptized. Although she was unsuccessful in converting her son, who was then ruling the Rus’ Principalities, she did convert her grandson Oleg who, when he became Prince, mandated the mass conversion of the Slav/Rus’ peoples to Christianity. For this they were both made saints, although only Ol’ga was given the additional honor in the Orthodox Church of being named “Equal to the Apostles.” She was also known as the Savior of Kiev for her astute regency while her son was an infant and her defense of Kiev from a siege by the nomadic Pechenegs, which siege ultimately resulted in her weakening and illness and death. She was amazing in many ways. I have several blog posts devoted to her, because I’ve taught several classes about her in the SCA. My article about her was also published in an SCA publication. If you like, please see, again, my post https://timitownsend51.me/2017/12/25/my-article-on-princess-olga-is-published/

    Liked by 3 people

    • Shaunn Munn

      Would NOT want to get on Ol’ga’s bad side! If those she killed were not Christians, in those days, it was laudable (to qualify for sainthood) to dispatch evil heathens any way that was permanent. If they WERE Christians, her methods might have endured tighter scrutiny. Yet, considering she was avenging her husband, she would still probably get a pass. Marital loyalty by wives was expected and admired, even if it could get a bit gruesome. Her royalty didn’t hurt either.

      Well, gonna give your post a read! Thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for reading and liking my post about Princess Ol’ga! 🙂 And you have contributed some quite valuable perspectives here, which I will add to my next class on Women in the Viking Age that includes Ol’ga in early May. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • Shaunn Munn, where can I find your blog? I’d like to find out more about you! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Shaunn Munn

          Hi Ms. Townsend!

          I don’t have a blog. I happened (happily!) upon April Munday’s works when Googling a subject in her area of expertise. Since then, she’s opened a world I thought only a few folks had interest. I’ve only been responding to Ms. Munday & Susan Abernethy a few months & really haven’t given any thought to a blog. Don’t have a lot of access to research materials & go on what I’ve gleaned through a BA in history & English, and whatever books I can find.

          People like you fill in the cracks of my brain! I thirst for more info on medieval times, and you ladies deliver! ESPECIALLY the histories of WOMEN! Oh, how wonderful! Finally, OUR stories, written without the depreciating cattiness found in so much written by men (Oh! Those monastic chroniclers!). I soak up everything & try to help what little I can with what I’ve learned. If it helps you ladies, it is small thanks from me for the education you are giving me!

          Bless you for thinking I might have a blog! I’m flattered! No, just a disabled Hoosier housewife who loves to learn! Thank you!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Dear Ms. Munn,
            You flatter me to put me in the same category with April Munday. April is much more knowledgeable and authoritative about Medieval life than I can ever hope to be. 🙂
            And as to your being “just” a housewife: some of the most skilled, albeit unpaid, workers I have known have been housewives, whose skills in so many diverse areas are legion and extraordinary. I think that it has always been so, and necessarily so, for our society and indeed all of civilization to function, much less flourish. So kudos to you! And you are college-educated, to boot, in two fields–no small feat!
            Like you, I am disabled, in several ways. Although sometimes I do feel like it is almost too much of a challenge and I’d rather just lie in bed all day, hey, life is for LIVING! So I get up and live to the best of my abilities, however limited they might be on a given day. I’m sure that you do the same. ❤
            Re: blogging. Many of my favorite blogs are simply the recountings of "ordinary" (but who is ordinary? I haven't met an ordinary person yet, in 66 years) people going about their :ordinary" daily lives. I hope that you will someday join the ranks of us bloggers. It's fun, and it's free. Although I do know some people actually make money at it! 😛
            Take care, and I hope to hear from you soon!
            –(please call me just) Timi

            Liked by 3 people

            • Shaunn Munn

              Thank you, Timi!

              How does one set up a blog? Can it be done in “A Writer’s Perspective”?
              I am very new & naive to such things, & quite fearful of hackers & such.
              People like Kim Komando have me dreadfully confused & fearing graft at every turn. I know this site is secured, which is why I am on it, but Kim warns about even sites like these being infiltrated.

              I’d love to share more, but what is the next step? This site validates my interests. I’m a bit of an anomaly in my little Hoosier enclave! I would appreciate being directed toward the proper path! Again, THANK YOU!

              Who knows, maybe there’s others like me!

              Liked by 1 person

              • Well, I’m right next door to you in Ohio (or Snohio, as we call it in the winter LOL). You can set up a WordPress blog for free from the WordPress site. There are tutorials showing you how to do it. First you pick a format (which I don’t think is the actual word for it, but you will see them; there are free ones and ones that cost money, mine is free). They have different features and look different, too. It’s fun to browse through them, although it can also get a little overwhelming because of the great variety of options. But you can always change from the one you first select to a different one. One of the main things to think about in choosing yours is whether you want to focus on writing or photos or both. Mine supports both easily. Also, be aware that the free blogs will run ads on your site, but they aren’t too intrusive. I now pay for my blog, but it’s not much, so I don’t have ads and I also have a lot more storage capacity for posts and media.
                Instead of continuing this thread on April’s blog, why don’t you come over to mine and we can talk about it further? Here’s the link to my latest post, from earlier today: https://timitownsend51.me/2018/03/12/a-day-of-do-overs/
                See you soon!


    • Hi Timi, it’s unlikely that de Pizan was aware of Ol’ga. The book is dated 1403, before Ol’ga was canonised. She might have used her if she’d known about her.

      Liked by 3 people

    • priscillaking

      If she sought vengeance in sly and bloody ways before baptism, she would’ve qualified for a free pass since baptism washed all sins away.

      She sounds a bit like Nunnehi/Nancy Ward, who became famous first as a war chief for killing enemies blamed for having killed her first husband, later as a peace chief for promoting peace with her second husband’s people (English immigrants).

      Why do people expect male combat veterans to be able to choose nonviolence/peace afterward, but seem surprised that females can make the same choice?

      Liked by 3 people

      • One must remember that Medieval men believed women were sensual and impulsive creatures. No Victorian ideals of morality! Men believed women must always be under male control or the confines of the cloister. Women could not be trusted to be rational. Education was a woman’s worst enemy!
        She could have the learning, but no way to use it properly. They believed she simply couldn’t. Thus, educating a woman was seen as risky.

        By education I am referring to the ancient classics and anything to do with cognitive thinking. A woman could learn to read a missal or morality book, and learn a little bit of math, but God forbid she THINK about morality or the world at large. Her job was to obey!

        A woman avenging her husband would be seen as always vengeful because her husband’s restraining hand was gone. She would be unable to be mollified or reasonable. She had to be constrained. But who could constrain an avenging queen? The Church of course!

        This attitude was not helped by women-hating monks, scribbling away in journals and morality guides, warning men to keep their womenfolk in check or face earthly & heavenly disasters.

        And in a day when nothing but physical resemblance was available to link a man with his offspring, keeping guard on women, especially fertile ones, was critical. Women past fertility were seen as tools of Satan. Even marriage was no protection if a woman became mesmerized by the Old Deluder. That’s why elderly women were the prime scapegoats for unexplained disasters, illnesses & deaths.

        There were the occasional enlightened men, who gave their women educations and some freedom, but they were by & large themselves well educated. Illiterate and heavily subdued women did not make the best mistresses of demenses & mothers of nobles. Merchant wives & daughters needed some idea of casting sums & keeping accounts. They had to learn maintain the business in case the husband became incapacitated. They were expected to yield everything to a son, once he reached majority. Many elite men learned that educated women could be interesting – – as long as they remembered their places.

        But the lowly masses of women often paid harshly for the misconceptions of the times; the “curse of Eve” meant that they required constant reining in. As if it wasn’t bad enough that female life spans suffered greatly from childbearing issues! Our grandmothers’ life expectancies were generally shorter than our grandfathers’!

        It was very much a man’s world. Let’s hope Fortune’s Wheel avoids a return there!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Fascinating, intriguing and gruesome. I was familiar with the Catherine tale in a general kind of way, but all of these stories – legends, really – have contributed in some way to our history. Wonderful stuff, April.


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