saints


saints
   The importance of saints in medieval England has left many traces in folklore. Dates were commonly expressed by reference to saints' feasts, the more important of which (nationally or locally) were holidays. Church *ales, *fairs, and many *calendar customs were originally set on such holidays; well into the 20th century, the date of village *wakes often recalled the saint to whom their church was dedicated, allowing for the eleven-day calendar shift of 1752. Saints' days were the usual markers mentioned in weather lore, and in farmers' rules for the timing of seasonal tasks; rents and hiring agreements were fixed by them, hence the legal importance of Lady Day and *Michaelmas. In popular belief, the eves of certain feasts were appropriate times for divination.
   Places as well as times were dedicated to a particular saint - churches, obviously, but also colleges, hospitals, towns, streets, *wells, hills, woods, wayside crosses, and much else - and these names often survive. Saints were also adopted as patrons of social groupings, especially trade and craft guilds; after the Reformation, official celebrations were secularized, but at folk level the links of certain crafts to saints were remembered (see *St Catherine, *St Clement, *St Crispin).
   Saints protected those who honoured them, both spiritually and against material misfortunes; many were regarded as defenders against one particular disease or danger. Such specializations were not peculiar to England; throughout the Catholic world people thought of St Christopher as the protector of travellers, St Clare as the healer of eye troubles, St Margaret as a helper in childbirth, etc. There was a vast international corpus of legendary biographies, the most famous being the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) in the 13th century; an English version printed in 1483 was extremely popular. The stories there standardized were known to everyone, literate or not, for generations; they were taught through sermons and through visual representation in church murals, windows, etc. Most saints also had an identifying symbol which was equally standardized - St Peter carrying keys, St John the Evangelist with an eagle, St Luke with an ox, St Mark with a lion, etc.
   Most saints revered in England were those known throughout Europe; others were native to this country. Cornwall remains an area notable for numerous Celtic saints unknown elsewhere, dating from the first period of Christianity (i.e. Romano-British, not Saxon). The Anglo-Saxons venerated some Celtic saints, plus many missionaries and martyrs from their own Conversion period, monks, nuns, bishops, and kings; some were deleted from the calendar after the Conquest, but others remained or were reinstated, e.g. Alban, Chad, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Oswald, Edmund of East Anglia, and Edward the Confessor. The medieval period saw the canonization of Thomas a Becket, who rapidly became England's most famous saint, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, Bishop William FitzHerbert of York, and Bishop Thomas Cantilupe of Hereford. Others were locally revered, but canonization was a slow process and the Reformation intervened before they were officially declared saints; they include the healer and exorcist John Schorne of North Marston (Buckinghamshire), and Henry VI.
   The Roman Catholic Church continues to adopt new saints. The Forty English Martyrs, i.e. Catholics executed between 1535 and 1679, had received popular veneration from the time of their deaths, and are now officially classed as saints; Thomas More and John Fisher were canonized in 1935 and the others in 1970.
   See also the entries for individual saints and their feasts; also *pilgrimages and *wells.
   ■ Farmer, 1978, describes all English saints and all international saints who are or once were venerated in England; the Introduction outlines the history of the cult of saints here. An influential earlier compilation is Alban Butler's The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints (4 vols., 1756-9; rev. edn., 1953-4). See also David Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England (1989); Finucane, 1977; Ben Nilson, Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England (1998).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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