21 October 2011

21 October - Saint Ursula

Chivalry! Intrigue! Betrayal! And more virgins than any Muslim terrorist ever dreamed would be his reward!

The story of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins was a great favorite in the Middle Ages.  Simply put, a young Christian woman and her companions were martyred by barbarians near Cologne, Germany, or as the martyrology says: "At Cologne, the birthday of the Saints Ursula and her companions, who gained the martyr's crown by being massacred by the Huns for the Christian religion and their constancy in keeping their virginity.  Many of their bodies were deposited at Cologne."

But the medieval writers were not interested in history - they wished to edify the faithful, and simple does not edify quite as much as a story embellished with great deeds and great suffering and great opinions. So the legend of these martyred women grew.

The young woman in charge was given a name - Ursula - and parents - daddy was the king - and a country - England in some accounts, Cornwall in others - and a reason for leaving home - a pilgrimage to Rome - and a reason for the pilgrimage - one last trip before her wedding.

Not content with this, the writers added even more. Princess Ursula was "ennobled in the faith of Jesu Christ" and "shone full of marvellous honesty, wisdom, and beauty, and her fame and renown was borne all about".  Even this was not enough, so she became "not only wonderfully beautiful, and gifted with all the external graces of her sex, but accomplished in all the learning of the time. Her mind was a perfect storehouse of wisdom and knowledge; she had read about the stars and the courses of the winds; all that had ever happened in the world from the days of Adam she had by heart; the poets and the philosophers were to her what childish recreations are to others; but, above all, she was profoundly versed in theology and school divinity, so that the doctors were astonished and confounded by her argumentative powers. To these accomplishments were added the more excellent gifts of humility, piety, and charity, so that she was esteemed the most accomplished princess of the time". 

Not to be outdone, the young man she was to marry was a prince, "as celebrated for his beauty of person, his warlike prowess, and physical strength, as Ursula for her piety, her graces, and her learning".  However, he was also a pagan, so before she would marry him, she demanded that first, he become a Christian (accepted), second, that he send her ten virgin noblewomen as companions, and that each young woman be accompanied by one thousand virgins, plus another thousand for herself (accepted), and thirdly, that she be allowed three years to make a pilgrimage to Rome and other shrines, while he was studying to become a Christian (accepted).

Once the eleven thousand+ virgins "spotless and beautiful and of noble birth" "fair and accomplished in all female learning, and attired in rich garments, wearing jewels of gold and silver" were converted to Christianity, there was nothing left to do but go on that pilgrimage, and the large company of women embarked on several ships.  They made it to Rome, and the reigning pope, Ciriacus (whom you will not find in the papal lists, but don't worry, there's a reason for that) resigned his triple tiara and went with the women on their return journey.  In this he was joined by several bishops.

When they reached Cologne, they found that the Huns were besieging the area.  The Huns, for their part, fell upon this company, slaying the men first, and then offering the women their lives if they would abjure their faith and sacrifice their virginity.  Incited and encouraged by Ursula, they wouldn't give in, and the whole lot of them were massacred.  Ursula was the last, but her beauty so captivated the Hun leader that he offered to make her his wife.  The outraged princess "all glowing with indignation and a holy scorn" made her refusal quite clear: "O thou cruel man! — blind and senseless as thou art cruel! Thinkest thou I can weep?  Or dost thou hold me so base, so cowardly, that I would consent to survive my dear companions and sisters?  Thou art deceived, O son of Satan! for I defy thee, and him whom thou servest!"  Rather etiquette-challenged, you might say, and the Hun leader was equally rude in reply. He shot her with arrows (accounts differ whether it was one arrow or three), and so she died.

Not content with even these embellishments, the writers kept adding to the story, giving Ursula more companions, including her aunt, the Queen of Sicily, and her daughters; the daughter of the king of Constantinople and her uncle, the bishop of Greece; the bishops of Antioch, Lucca, and Ravenna; and a host of knights and men-at-arms.  The erstwhile pope, Ciriacus, so angered the clergy with his abdication, that they removed all mention of his name (now you know why you won't find him in the list of popes).  The Huns were apprised of this great company of Christians by two pagan princes of Rome, who commanded all the Imperial troops in Germania. "They, being astonished at the sight of this multitude of virgins, said one to the other, 'Shall we suffer this? If we allow these Christian maidens to return to Germania, they will convert the whole nation; or if they marry husbands, then they will have so many children — no doubt all Christians — that our empire will cease; therefore let us take counsel what is best to be done."  They deceitfully ascertained the route of the returning pilgrims and then wrote to their cousin the chief, suggesting that that the Christians be slain at Cologne.  Ursula's betrothed husband, now converted and baptized, was told in a vision to go to Cologne where he would be martyred - he took his mother and little sister, and joined Ursula in death.

That is one version, which you can read in full in the Golden Legend.  Other versions, along with the theories of how a simple misunderstanding multiplied the number from eleven young women to something greater than the population of my home-town, can be found at the Catholic Encyclopedia.

In art, she is usually depicted crowned and richly dressed, holding arrows and a white banner bearing a red cross (the cross of St. George) signifying not only her country of origin, but the Christian standard of victory.  In the Dutch woodcut here, she holds an enormous arrow and shelters her companions under her cloak.

Then let us devoutly give laud and praising unto the blessed Trinity and pray Him that by the merits of this great multitude of martyrs He will forgive and pardon us of our sins, that after this life we may come unto this holy company in heaven. Amen.