Friday 1 February 2013
Hidden Saints by Mary Hoffman
They are everywhere around us, the hidden saints, if you know where to look. This one is Saint Hilary of Poitiers and I was alerted to him by an article in the Oxford Times. If you have any knowledge of Oxford University, you might be aware that the three academic terms of the year are called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity (as opposed to Cambridge, where they are Michaelmas, Lent and Easter).
St Hilary was the Bishop of Poitiers in about 350 AD - the picture shows his ordination - and he was a great opposer of the doctrine of Arianism (the belief that God had only one form). So, pro-Trinity then, but that's not why he gives his name to the term we are currently in at Oxford and some Inns of Court. His feast day is 13th or 14th January and he's the biggest saint around to grace that month in which Hilary Term begins.
There are not many male Hilaries these days; I can think only of Hilary Benn. As I've written about before, once a name becomes unisex - Evelyn, Vivian, Shirley - it is soon dropped like a hot coal by the boys. Only Julian has gone the other way - perhaps because Gillian became a separate female form.
Michaelmas of course refers to Saint Michael, the Archangel, whose feast day falls on 29th September.
Less gloriously, Marks and Spencer's underwear bore the name St Michael until 2000, when it was dropped. A very hidden saint indeed.
A popular saint, St. Michael, who name is still given to boy children today, like Saints Patrick, George, John, Matthew, Luke, Mark, David, James, Thomas and Andrew. Mary, T(h)eresa, Anne, Cla(i)re and Elizabeth are all still popular girls' names from the company of Saints.
But what about the less well-known ones? My all-time favourite is Sexburga, though it would be cruel to name a girl child after her now. Sexburga died in 699 AD, was married to King Econbert of Kent and had four children, two of whom are also saints, though fairly hidden ones. So she is much more respectable than she sounds.
She founded an abbey, as did her sister Saint Etheldreda - what a pious family! But in my imagination I want to put her together with Saint Frigidian, who sounds as if he needs to learn how to have a good time. In fact this Ulster saint transferred to Italy, where he is known as San Frediano and has this lovely church dedicated to him in Lucca:
this site, I did not know about the Patron Saints of the Internet, Alcoholics or the fear of mice (Isidore, Monica and Gertrude).
Then there are the saints who are well-known on the continent and hardly mentioned in the UK - Rocco or Roche (born in Montpelier and, incidentally the Patron Saint of Plaques - who knew?), Gimignano (born in Modena, but virtually nothing known of his life), Denis (though he must have been better-known here at one time, going by all the Den(n)ises of an earlier generation.
The name derives from Dionysius and Saint Denis was martyred by being beheaded. He did not let a little thing like that stop him from delivering his current sermon, picking up his head and continuing to speak.
Why did Kevin catch on as a boy's name and not Ninian or Nectan? And how many of us know that Saint Kevin was reported to be such an ascetic that he drowned a woman who tried to seduce him?
Santa Fina has a chapel dedicated to her in San Gimignano but her name hasn't made much impression on the baby names lists. She was only fifteen when she died, having suffered a debilitating illness (possibly osteomyelitis) and her flesh having grown into the wooden pallet on which she lay. Nevertheless white violets grew from the wooden board after her death, which is a nicer version than that her flesh was eaten by maggots and rats while she lived.
Who is your favourite little-known saint?