Today, January 1, marks the start of the New Year, but for medieval Christians it also marked The Feast of the Circumcision.* Modern Catholics more or less stopped celebrating the day that Jesus got his willy nicked in 1960, and more’s the pity. I wonder, in the 1950’s did they sing that on the Eighth Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight holy foreskins?
The Twelve Days of Christmas come to a close on January 6, Epiphany, which marks the day that the Three Magi arrived to give gifts to the infant Christ. Medieval traditions name the three as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, and should my wife and I ever have triplets, those will be one set of three names I’ll suggest–and she’ll reject–daily. Especially if they’re girls.
With all those Christmastime feasts behind them, the fourteenth-century medieval calendar I’m using rests for all of a week, until January 14** brings around the Feast of St. Hilary (of Poitiers) not to be confused with Pope St. Hilarious (who we’ll get to next month). Hilary’s nickname, “Malleus Arianorum” or “Hammer of the Arians” celebrates his role in opposing the Arian heresy, and his penchant for philosophical disputation places him amongst a handfull of other saints who’re all said to be the patron saint of lawyers. In England, his claim to this dubious distinction is a bit stronger, as English courts still begin their post-Christmas term on his day.***
January 15 is a bit of a problem. Yes, it marks the date of the Feast of St. Maurus, but which one? The original St. Maurus was the first disciple of St. Benedict–he of the Benedictine rule, the founder of Christian monasticism–and is the patron saint of cripples, coppersmiths, charcoal burners, and cobblers.
But about three hundred years after Maurus died, a certain Benedictine abbot, Odo of Glanfeuil, miraculously “discovered” a thitherto unknown life of Maurus which contained the likewise thitherto unprecedented claim that St. Maurus had founded Odo’s monastery, the Abbaye de Saint-Maur-sur-Loire. This was an awfully useful find for Odo, who happened at the time to be disputing his claim to possession of his monastery with some intractable Normans.
Odo (or a close associate) forged his Life of St. Maurus in the 860’s, and it only took until 1969 for the Catholic Church to officially declare that Odo’s Maurus was not the same Maurus who was Benedict’s first lay pupil, but what’s a thousand years between coreligionists? For the record, the Normans destroyed Odo’s monastery anyway. It was rebuilt only to be destroyed again during the French Revolution, two hundred years–give or take a decade–before the Maurus hoax was settled.
On January 17, the Feast of St. Anthony (Abbot) is celebrated, and with Maurus on a few days earlier, his feast makes the middle of January awful monkish. Anthony is known as the Father of All Monks, because he was the first famous ascetic to eschew civilization in favor of life as a holy hermit in the wilderness. Anthony’s Vita is a really trippy read, because it makes antisocialism into a heroic struggle, with poor Anthony bravely trying to escape other people and events conspiring to bring him back. His main adversary is, of course, the Devil, who takes Anthony’s fervor as a personal insult and plagues him first with boredom, then with lethargy, and finally with hallucinations of beautiful women.**** As you might expect, the latter was a favorite subject for Renaissance artists, Anthony and the tempting phantom women who he so heroically resisted. When none of the crafty stuff works, the Devil just gives up and beats Anthony until he’s near dead, which does force him (albeit briefly) back to civilization. That Devil, always doing things the hard way. If it’s in your power to beat the crap out of people, why not just start there?
And there you have it, the saints you ought to be raising a glass to in the first half of January. Come back in two weeks for your next set of hagiographic marching orders!
*If you want to look cool at a Middle English scholar’s cocktail party, casually mention how important you think it is that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is set on said feast. Particularly sloppy Middle English scholars tend to get really excited about this, but come on, it’s not like it’s called The Feast of the Castration.
**Modern Catholics celebrate Hilary a day earlier, for some arcane reason I’m not yet privy to.
***And on an unrelated note, in 2009 Hillary Clinton spent her namesake’s day testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of her confirmation hearings.
****You’ve got to hand it to the early Catholics. A man goes into the desert alone, doesn’t eat very much, and subsequently experiences boredom, lethargy, and hallucinations, and they take it as a special mark of his holiness. If you go in the desert and don’t eat, what do you expect’s going to happen?