Þæt wæs god blog!
Two months ago I began what was to be a series of posts on the group I call the Medieval Avengers, a.k.a. the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Life cast a few obstacles in the way and I am finally returning this project.
As promised I’ll begin with the Wonderwomen of the group, described by The Litany of the Fourteen Holy Helpers as:
St Margaret, valiant champion of the Faith,
St Catherine, victorious defender of the Faith and of purity,
St Barbara, mighty patroness of the dying.
These three virgin martyrs are supposedly at the heart of the fourteen, although they are the last three listed in the litany and are relegated to the side panel in the above altarpiece. In any case, they are pretty badass.
Let’s start with Margaret, a.k.a. Marina the Great Martyr, a.k.a. Sankt Margaretha mit dem Wurm. One of the most popular saints of the late Middle Ages, Margaret is one of my personal favourites because she is always depicted with a dragon, and although this dragon is supposed to be terrifying, sculptors always make it so cute!
Margaret, who lived in Antioch (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, was the daughter of a pagan priest but embraced Christianity at a young age. Margaret, ‘meokest alre milde’ (meekest of the mild), spends her days tending her foster mother’s sheep, so she is often portrayed with a sheep, but I prefer it when she’s depicted with her dragon.(1) (Granted, the dragon isn’t necessarily any scarier than a sheep. I’ve seen fiercer sheep in Scotland.)
Margaret was swallowed by Satan in dragon form. Here is a wonderful description of the devil/dragon from the Katherine Group Seinte Margarete, written in Middle English and translated by Bella Millett:
His lockes ant his longe berd blikeden al of golde, ant his grisliche teð semden of swart irn. His twa ehnen steareden steappre ϸen ϸe steoren ant ten ȝimstanes, brade ase bascins in his ihurnde heaued on eiðer half on his heh hokede nease. Of his speatewile muð sperclede fur ut, ant of his nease-ϸurles ϸreste smorðrinde smoke, smeche forcuðest; ant semde as ϸah a scharp sweord of his muð scheate, ϸe glistnede ase gleam deð ant leitede al o leie; ant al warð ϸet stude ful of strong ant of stearc stench, ant of ϸes schucke schadewe schimmede ant schan al.
His hair and his long beard shone with gold, and his grisly teeth were like dark iron. His eyes gleamed brighter than stars or jewels, broad as basins in his horned head on either side of his great hooked nose. Flames were flickering from his hideous mouth, and from his nostrils there streamed dense smoke, the foulest of vapours; and he thrust out his tongue, so long he could swing it around his neck; and it looked as if a sharp sword was coming from his mouth, flashing like lightning and sparkling with fire; and the place was filled with an overpowering stench, and shimmered in the demon’s reflected glare.(2)
But Margaret escapes alive. According to different versions of the story, she holds a cross or crucifix in her hand or makes the sign of the cross. This causes the dragon have an upset stomach and split in two.
For ϸe rode-taken redliche arudde hire ϸet ha wes wið iwepnet, ant warð his bone sone, swa ϸet his bodi tobearst omidhepes otwa; ant ϸet eadi meiden allunge unmerret, wiðuten eauereuch wem, wende ut of his wombe, heriende on heh hire Healent in heouene.
For the sign of the cross that she was armed with swiftly set her free, and brought him sudden death, as his body burst in two in the middle; and the blessed maiden, completely unharmed, without a mark on her, walked out of his belly, praising aloud her Saviour in heaven.(3)
A different demon then appears, and after torturing it with prayers Margaret proceeds to kick some devil ass:
Þet milde meiden Margarete grap ϸet grisliche ϸing, ϸet hire ne agras nawiht, ant heteueste toc him bi ϸet eateliche top ant hef him up ant duste him dunriht to ϸer eorðe, ant sette hire riht fot on his ruhe swire…
The gentle (!) maiden Margaret seized that frightful creature, who frightened her not at all, and grasped him firmly by his hideous hair and swung him upwards and threw him down again straight to the ground, and set her right foot on his rough neck…(4)
Because of the dragon story, Margaret is invoked against devils and prayed to for safe childbirth. (You know, woman coming out of dragon, baby coming out of woman…there are similarities. Kind of.)
Catherine of Alexandria reminds me a bit of the Greek goddess Athena because she’s super clever, educated, and would make a great addition to any debate team. Catherine, the daughter of a governor from 4th-century Alexandria (Egypt), devoted herself to study from a young age and conquered her adversaries (pagan philosophers) with her eloquence.
Catherine is most often depicted with the “Catherine Wheel” (not the fireworks). The emperor ordered her to be put to death on a spiked wheel, but since it shattered at her touch, he had to behead her with a sword.
Her cult dates from the 9th century, when it was believed that angels brought her body to Mount Sinai. She is invoked against sudden death and migraines.
Barbara, the Virgin in the Tower, is a wonderwoman of the 3rd century, from either Nicomedia (present-day Turkey) or Heliopolis of Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon).
Barbara is the daughter of a rich pagan who locks her away in a tower to preserve her from the outside world. (Of course, that strategy didn’t pan out very well since he eventually killed her, performing the execution himself.)
It’s likely Barbara is completely legendary as she doesn’t appear in any early martyr lists. She has been venerated and depicted since the 7th century and was especially popular in German lands. Her superheroine emblem is the three-windowed tower (three for the Holy Trinity) where she was imprisoned. She is invoked against fever, sudden death, and lightning. (That last one might seem a bit random, but while angels were carrying Barbara’s soul to heaven, a flash of lightning struck and killed her wicked pagan father. This woman knew how to make an exit.)
That’s it for the Wonderwomen. Stay tuned for the rest of the Holy Fourteen.
(1) Seinte Margarete, in Medieval English Prose for Women: From the Katherine Group and ‘Ancrene Wisse’, ed. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 44-85 (pp. 46-47). Translation by B. Millett.
(2) Ibid, pp. 58-59.
(3) Ibid., pp. 60-61.
(4) Ibid., pp. 62-64.