Sometimes overshadowed, sometimes eccentric, and perhaps a little unbelievable – here are ten medieval saints you should know more about.
In the Later Middle Ages, the cult of St.Wilgefortis became popular in northern Europe. Known as Uncumber in England, Débarras in France, and Kümmernis in German-speaking lands, she was supposedly a teen-aged noblewoman in Portugal.
When her father arranged her to be married to a pagan king, Wilgefortis took a vow of virginity, and prayed that she would be made repulsive. Her prayers were answered when she grew a beard. The marriage was called off, but her angry father had Wilgefortis crucified. Her popularity came to an end in the 16th century when these stories were shown to be just baseless legends.
Gerald of Aurillac
Gerald of Aurillac, who lived from circa 855 to 909, was a French count. Although he was in poor health for most of his life and eventually went blind, he was seen as an example of how pious layman should act. Gerald even wanted to become a monk, but settled for having himself secretly tonsured. He also gave away his possessions, took a personal vow of chastity, and founded an abbey on his lands. The water that Gerald used for washing his hands was said to be able to restore sight to the blind.
St. Roch (14th century) was said to be the son of the Governor of southern French city of Montpellier, but when he was 20 years old he gave away all his goods and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Plague struck Italy at this time, and Roch helped to heal others until he himself got sick. Roch went into the woods, where a dog befriended him – the canine brought him bread and licked his wounds until he was healed. Later Roch returned to Montpellier but did not reveal his true identity, so he was imprisoned on charges of being a spy and until he died a few years later he treated the other sick prisoners.
Bénézet (c.1163 – 1184) was a shepherd boy who saw a vision during an eclipse in 1177. This told him to build a bridge over the Rhône River at Avignon. When he reached Avignon, the local authorities refused to help him, so Bénézet started to build the bridge by himself. To the surprise of onlookers, he carried a huge stone and set in place as the foundation of the bridge. After seeing this, the local community worked together to complete the bridge, and several miracles took place there. After Bénézet died, he was buried inside the bridge for nearly 500 years.
Sunniva (10th century) was said to be an Irish princess, but when a pagan king invaded her lands, she and her followers fled to a cave on the Norwegian island of Selja. The Viking ruler Hakon Jarl Sigurðarson wanted to seize Sunniva and her party, but she prayed to God that they should not fall into the hands of the heathens, upon which rocks fell down blocking the entrance to the cave. Later on, the Christian king Olaf Tryggvason excavated the cave in 996, and the body of Sunniva was found intact.
Notburga of Rattenberg
Notburga of Rattenberg (c.1265 – 1313) lived in Austria, where she worked as a cook for Count Henry of Rattenberg. Although he had ordered her to take any leftover food and feed it to the pigs, she would secretly give it to the poor. One day the Count caught her carrying something, but when he ordered her to show it, instead of food and wine he saw just shavings and vinegar. Later on she worked for a peasant farmer on the on the condition that she be permitted to go to church evenings before Sundays and festivals. One evening her master urged her to continue working in the field. Throwing her sickle into the air she supposedly said: “Let my sickle be judge between me and you,” and the sickle remained suspended in the air.
Rose of Viterbo
Rose of Viterbo (c.1233 – 1251) exhibited her holy powers early in life. When she was three years old she raised to life her aunt, and by the age of seven she was living the life of a recluse. By the time Rose was 10 she was preaching in Viterbo, but failed at her attempt to establish her own monastery at the age of 15. She also had the ability to predict the future, including foreseeing the death of Emperor Frederick II about a week before it occurred. She died at the age of 17 – in 2010 researchers examining her remains concluded that she had died of a heart condition called Cantrell’s syndrome.
Jón Ögmundsson (1052-1121) was the first Bishop of Holar, the northern diocese of Iceland. He tried to eradicate the remnants of paganism, and even changed the names of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (which were named after Norse gods) became Third Day, Midweek Day and Fifth Day. His legacy has been overshadowed by Iceland’s first saint, Thorlak Thorhallsson, but a 13th-century account of his life, known as Jons Saga, still exists.
John the Silent
John the Silent (454 – 558) came from a wealthy Armenian family, but led a very pious life. By the age of 28 he had become the Bishop of Colonia, but after several years he wanted a more simple and quiet existence. Therefore he joined the monastery of St.Sabas, where his true identity was kept a secret and he lived without speaking, except for a few words to those who brought him food. At times he even left the monastery and lived in the wilderness, where he spoke only with God and survived by eating wild roots and herbs. It was said that he lived to 104 years of age.
In the 13th century Stephen de Bourbon explains that the peasants near the French city of Lyons were saying prayers at the grave of a dog named Guinefort and reporting that he was doing miracles, especially for infants.
He inquired with the peasants and learned this story:
There was a certain castle whose lord had a baby son from his wife. But when the lord and lady and the nurse too had left the house, leaving the child alone in his cradle, a very large snake entered the house and made for the child’s cradle. The greyhound, who had remained there, saw this, dashed swiftly under the cradle in pursuit, knocking it over, and attacked the snake with its fangs and answering bite with bite. In the end the dog killed it and threw it far away from the child’s cradle which he left all bloodied as was his mouth and head, with the snake’s blood, and stood there by the cradle all beaten about by the snake.
When the nurse came back and saw this, she thought the child had been killed and eaten by the dog and so gave out an almighty scream. The child’s mother heard this, rushed in, saw and thought the same and she too screamed. Then the knight similarly once he got there believed the same, and drawing his sword killed the dog. Only then did they approach the child and find him unharmed, sleeping sweetly in fact. On further investigation, they discovered the snake torn up by the dog’s bites and dead. Now that they had learned the truth of the matter, they were embarrassed that they had so unjustly killed a dog so useful to them and threw his body into a well in front of the castle gate, and placing over it a very large heap of stones they planted trees nearby as a memorial of the deed.
Want to know more about medieval saints? Check out: