19 May 2011

19 May - Saint Dunstan

Weather: St. Dunstan brings a cold blast

Feast of Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, known more for his legendary exploits (of which more anon) than his very real service to the Church in England.

Dunstan was born of a high family in Glastonbury, a very intelligent lad, with a thirst for knowledge.  He studied theology, philosophy, poetry, history, geometry and astronomy; was skilled in the fine arts - music, painting, and sculpture, and the working of  fine gold and silver; and didn't disdain the more humble work of a blacksmith.  One thing he wasn't, though, was a churchman.  No indeed.  Dunstan was quite the socialite in his younger days, and very likely a little arrogant about his superlative intelligence.  In any case, his popularity at court earned him a few enemies, who managed first to have him banished from the court, and then, as he rode away, caught up with him, beat him up, and tossed him in a stagnant pond.

After this episode, he was persuaded by his relative, the Bishop of Winchester, to enter monastic life - he became a Benedictine, and enthusiastically embarked upon a period of building and reform, not excluding his royal patrons from his reformations. In his later years, he was the most powerful churchman in the land, and again earned a few enemies; exile from England (or running for his life) was not unknown to him.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a detailed account of Saint Dunstan's life; even shorn of the legends, it is almost legendary.

The above weather superstition supposedly comes from an old tradition that Saint Dunstan, who was a great brewer of beer, sold himself to the Devil on the condition that the Evil One would blight the apple trees, thereby putting a stop to the production of cider (the rival beverage).  That Dunstan was either a brewer, or would put himself in the power of Satan (especially in light of the following legends) seems ludicrous.  However, about this time in the month, there is a cold snap; perhaps the following story from Devon explains it:

"A certain brewer in Bristol, being much disturbed by cider making... decided that if the apple crop might be blighted, it would be the better for the brewers of beer!  So he appealed to the Evil One, who promised that if this brewer would sell his soul to him he would spoil the apple crop, by sending three or more frosts from the 18th to the 23rd May in each year, and the bargain was made." William G. W. Watson, Calendar of Customs...connected with the County of Somerset, p. 181.

Well, I hope (uncharitably) that the brewer is roasting, for his unholy pact has put my own tender plants at risk more than once!

The story of Saint Dunstan pinching the Devil's nose with a pair of hot iron tongs can be found in the medieval Golden Legend:
The legend says the devil was in the shape of a fair woman, but this is more effective.
And on a time as he sat at his work his heart was on Jesu Christ, his mouth occupied with holy prayers, and his hands busy on his work. But the devil, which ever had great envy at him, came to him in an eventide in the likeness of a woman, as he was busy to make a chalice, and with smiling said that she had great things to tell him, and then he bade her say what she would, and then she began to tell him many nice trifles, and no manner virtue therein, and then he supposed that she was a wicked spirit, and anon caught her by the nose with a pair of tongs of iron, burning hot, and then the devil began to roar and cry, and fast drew away, but S. Dunstan held fast till it was far within the night, and then let her go, and the fiend departed with a horrible noise and cry, and said, that all the people might hear: Alas! what shame hath this carle done to me, how may I best quit him again?  But never after the devil had lust to tempt him in that craft.

As Robert Chambers adds: "So, at least, he is reported to have told his neighbors in the morning, when they inquired what those horrible cries were which startled them from their sleep." Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1863. page 654

A tale, I know, has gone about
That Dunstan twinged him by the snout
With pincers hotly glowing;
Levying, by fieri facias tweak,
A diabolic screech and squeak,
No tender mercy showing.

But antiquarians the most curious
Reject that vulgar tale as spurious;
His reverence, say they
Instead of giving nose a pull,
Resolved on vengeance just and full
Upon some future day.

This legend of Saint Dunstan, written by Edward G. Flight and illustrated by George Cruikshank, tells - in verse - why the horseshoe became a protection against evil forces.  I have copied some of the relevant verses, but you can (and should) read the whole poem here at Project Gutenberg.

IN days of yore, when saints were plenty
(For each one now, you'd then find twenty,)
In Glaston's fruitful vale,
Saint Dunstan had his dwelling snug
Warm as that inmate of a rug
Named in no polished tale.

The holy man, when not employed
At prayers or meals, to work enjoyed
With anvil, forge, and sledge.
These he provided in his cell
With saintly furniture as well;
So chroniclers allege.

A cheerful saint too, oft would he
Mellow old Time with minstrelsy,—
But such as gave no scandal;
Than his was never harp more famed;
For Dunstan was the blacksmith named
Harmonious by Handel.

Ah, but into this scene now comes the devil...
Now 'tis well known mankind's great foe
Oft lurks and wanders to and fro
In bailiwicks and shires;
Scattering broad-cast his mischief-seeds,
Planting the germs of wicked deeds,
Choking fair shoots with poisonous weeds,
Till goodness nigh expires.

And so he came upon Dunstan's forge and heard the singing; being a big ol' meanie, he decided to ruin the musical interlude:

Thought Nick, I'll make his harp a fool;
I'll push him from his music-stool;
Then, skulking near the saint
The vilest jars Nick loudly sounded
Of brayings, neighings, screams compounded;
How the musician's ears were wounded
Not Hogarth e'en could paint.

This, of course, makes Dunstan very angry, which delights the Devil even more, and, with a few more jibes, he goes away laughing and promising to return for another singing bout.  Meanwhile, Dunstan remembers an old saying about iron's power over the Fiend and sets about creating a horseshoe for his returning guest.  And when Old Scratch returns:

Oh! 'twas worth coin to see him seize
That ugly leg, and 'twixt his knees
Firmly the pastern grasp.
The shoe he tried on, burning hot
His tools all handy he had got
Hammer, and nails, and rasp.

This startled the Devil no end (as well it might), but it wasn't until the first horseshoe nail was hammered in that he understood what was going on and screeched for mercy.  Mercy was not forthcoming from Dunstan - he continued hammering away until the horseshoe was firmly affixed to the cloven hoof.  Nor would he let the Evil One flee until he had signed a contract:

To all good folk in Christendom to whom this instrument shall come the Devil sendeth greeting: Know ye that for himself and heirs said Devil covenants and declares, that never at morn or evening prayers, at chapel, church, or meeting; never where concords of sweet sound sacred or social flow around or harmony is woo'd; nor where the Horse-Shoe meets his sight, on land or sea, by day or night, on lowly sill or lofty pinnacle, on bowsprit, helm, mast, boom, or binnacle - said Devil will intrude.

The Devil signs the paper, and so...

Now, since the wicked fiend's at large
Skippers, and housekeepers, I charge
You all to heed my warning:
Over your threshold, on your mast
Be sure the horse-shoe's well nailed fast
Protecting and adorning.