Friday, December 18, 2009

Fighting Saints-- We're Not Talking Sports

A modern saying is there are no atheists in foxholes. I would assume that's true. But it is interesting to look at the confluence of warfare and religion in medieval times, a very different situation than we have today.

In medieval times, there was, I believe, a much deeper and more widespread trust in saintly and heavenly intercession. The Battle of Lepanto, for instance, which marked the end of the Crusades, is associated in many minds, with the Rosary. On the morning of October 7, 1571, Don John, son of Emperor Charles V, sailed his fleet into battle, despite all military and weather factors being against him. On his ship, he carried an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe-- an event which had happened only 40 years before this. And as Don John prepared for battle, Pope Pius V, with many others, was praying the Rosary for him, back at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Don John's 65,000 men, themselves, recited the Rosary for three hours prior to attacking. The end of the story is that the wind suddenly changed-- inexplicably and mysteriously, according to witnesses-- and Don John went on to an incredible victory, which he credited entirely to the intercession of Mary.

I was recently given the book "By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare" by Sean McGlynn. (It was my birthday present. Men, please make note of this. Your wives and girlfriends will love this book! Seriously.) Mr. McGlynn makes a brief note of the belief in heavenly and saintly intervention. He notes a number of heavenly interventions:


  • A defendant in the 1170's credits his victory in trial by battle to having asked the aid of St. Thomas Becket the Martyr.
  • William Crak, hung for multiple homicides in 1291, asked the help of Thomas Cantiloupe, bishop (Bishop Cantiloupe--that's pretty funny!  Get it?  A bishop can't elope!) of Hereford until 1252, who appears, according to reports, to have brought him back to life. Thomas Cantiloupe seems to have been a favorite intercessor for those going to the gallows. (If he had any sense of humor, he'd be interceding for those considering marriage. There are those pundits, of course, who would equate the two.)
  • Saints Benedict, Ethelreda, and Sexburga are credited with the successful jailbreak of one Bricstan, wrongly imprisoned.


Mr. McGlynn mentions several others, and in contexts which the modern reader might find amusing. However, the point is, saints were much more routinely invoked and credited with intercession in medieval days than they are now.

Some of the interesting stories I've come across, pertaining specifically to the times and people of the Blue Bells Trilogy, are the story of St. Bee's, a parish in England, which comes up in The Minstrel Boy (Book 2 of the Trilogy), and the story of Robert the Bruce carrying relics with him into the battle of Bannockburn.

St. Bee's is a beautiful, twelfth-century abbey in York, England. The story behind the name is that one St. Bega, an Irish princess, fled Ireland to escape marriage to a Viking prince. Meeting Lord Egremont, she requested land to found a nunnery. He granted her a cruel promise that Midsummer's Day: he would give her all the land covered by snow on the following morning. The last laugh was on Lord Egremont, as the next morning-- a day in late June-- three miles of his land was covered by snow. Interestingly, St. Bee, or St. Bega, whichever you prefer, is associated with another miracle also involving snow.

Robert the Bruce is reputed to have been a devout Catholic. He carried the relics of two different saints into battle, and invoked the names of several others. The BBC page on the Battle of Bannockburn recounts how Bruce brought the Monymusk Reliquary, or the Breccbennach, which contained the relics of St. Columba, into battle. On the morning of the battle, the entire Scots army, some five to six thousand, knelt before the barefoot and blind Abbot Maurice of Inchaffrey for Mass and final absolution before facing death. Bruce himself invoked the aid of St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, St. Thomas Beckett, and John the Baptist, on whose feast day the battle of Bannockburn occurred.

By far the most interesting story, however, is the story of St. Fillan, a follower of St. Columba, and Robert Bruce. The priest who had charge of the relics, afraid for the safety of one of Scotland's treasures, was hesitant to bring them to a battle against the reputed 'largest army the world had ever seen' of Edward II. So he brought only the silver case that usually carried the arm bone. (As an aside, St. Fillan had one of the more interesting left arms in the history of mankind. I will cover that in a later post.)

On the evening before battle, Bruce stayed in his tent in prayer to God, and imploring St. Fillan, too, for his intercessory prayers before God. As he prayed, there came a great crack of sound and flash of light from the reliquary, and the silver case flew open, showing the arm bone of St. Fillan. The priest in charge of the relics rushed in, and, seeing them, proclaimed a miracle, confessing to the Bruce that he had left the armbone itself behind in safety.

There may or may not be atheists in modern foxholes, but I think it's a safe bet there were definitely none in medieval foxholes.

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