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13 February 2019

Though the historical realities and facts of many saints have been confused and combined with Christian mythology and ever-evolving religious and celebratory traditions throughout history, their stories, origins and contemporary relevance remain engaging in our modern world.  


Stories of the Saints

By Lauren Throup


Though the historical realities and facts of many saints have been confused and combined with Christian mythology and ever-evolving religious and celebratory traditions throughout history, their stories, origins and contemporary relevance remain engaging in our modern world. 

There are currently over 10,000 saints recognised by the Catholic Church, numbering roughly 1 for every 100,000 of the 1.2 billion modern Catholics around the world. These range from the well-known and recognisable to the obscure, with the existence of saintly patrons for categories, collectives and ailments that perhaps surpass expectations. For instance, St Apollonia, who is often depicted holding one of her own teeth - apparently pulled out by an angry mob - is the patron saint of dentists, whilst St Ambrose represents the divine interests of beekeepers everywhere and Sts Arnold and Bibiana (Vivian) are, respectively, the patrons of beer and of hangovers.

Elsewhere in the heavenly pantheon of saints, and relevant to our interests here at ACE, St Christopher is heralded as the patron saint of travellers, and St Catherine of Alexandria is a prominent patron saint of learning and knowledge. Over the coming days, join us here as we explore some of the odd, interesting, and occasionally gruesome stories of the saints.  

St Ambrose with a Beehive.


Saint Valentine

February 14, ‘Valentine’s Day’, derives its name from a third-century saint, Valentine of Rome.  However, the legends attributed to this mysterious saint are as inconsistent as the actual identity of the man, and understanding of how his name came to be synonymous with romance and courtly love is muddier still.

One story about St Valentine holds that, at one point of his life, he was placed under house arrest with a judge who presented Valentine with his blind daughter and demanded that Valentine, a Christian Bishop, restore her sight. Placing his hands onto her eyes, Valentine miraculously restored the child's vision. Another variation of the legend says he refused to sacrifice to pagan gods, was arrested and, whilst imprisoned, healed the jailer's blind daughter. On the day of his execution, he purportedly left the girl a note signed, "Your Valentine".

Contemporary scholars feel that the feast day of February 14 first became associated with romantic love as a result of fourteenth century inventions by English writer Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle. One scholar, Jack Oruch, names Chaucer the “original mythmaker” in terms of fabricating the association between romance and the Roman saint. This fabrication was further perpetuated by antiquarians in the eighteenth century and eventually popularised and commercialised in the twentieth, evolving into the celebration of love we know today.

Saint Martin Luther

Whilst, as mentioned above, the Catholic Church currently recognises thousands of saints, other branches and denominations of the Christian faith have their own categories and collections of canonised individuals. For example, Martin Luther, the bishop whose 95 Theses sparked the Reformation of the Church in Europe in the early sixteenth century, is venerated by many modern Protestant branches of Christianity.

Luther’s writings argued against the Catholic policy of indulgences and the belief in sacerdotalism, whereby repentance and forgiveness for sin require the intervention of a priest. His teachings eventually saw him excommunicated by the papacy in 1921, four years after the publication of his well-known 95 Theses.

Statue of Martin Luther in Wittenberg

Luther is currently honoured on 18 February with a commemoration in the Lutheran Calendar of Saints and in the Episcopal Calendar of Saints in the USA, whilst in the Church of England's Calendar of Saints he is commemorated on 31 October.

The current pope, Pope Francis, released a document in 2016 calling Luther a “teacher of the faith” when he joined a Lutheran World Federation observance in Sweden, commemorating the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Though this marks an interesting example of the continually shifting nature of ecumenical opinions, Luther has not been formally recognised as a saint within Catholicism.

Pope Francis with a statue of Martin Luther

Our 2019 tour In the Footsteps of Luther with Richard Rex will examine the work of Martin Luther in a historical context, visiting key locations from throughout his life and career, as well as discussing the impact his writings went on to have not only on post-Reformation Christianity, but also on the German language and national identity.

Learn More Here

Saint Catherine

St Catherine (or Katharine) of Alexandria, also known as St Catherine of the Wheel was, according to her hagiography, both a princess and a noted scholar, who became a Christian around the age of 14, converted hundreds of people to Christianity, and was martyred around the age of 18. 

Some modern scholars posit that the legend of Catherine was probably based on the life and murder of the Greek philosopher Hypatia, swapping the roles of the revolting Christians and ruling Greeks. Harold Davis writes that "assiduous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage", and has consequently theorized that Catherine was an invention intended to provide a Christian counterpart to Hypatia of Alexandria who was brutally murdered in 415 CE by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent government figures in Alexandria.

Whether she was a real person or not, the story goes that Catherine was ordered to be put to death on a large, spiked wheel, designed to tear her body apart as it span. Though the wheel purportedly broke apart at her touch, provoking her captors into beheading her, this particularly cruel method of attempted execution is the origin of the term ‘Catherine Wheel’ as the name for the popular spinning fireworks still used at celebrations in the present day.

Saint Christopher

According to legendary accounts of his life, ‘Christopher’ was initially called Reprobus, a Canaanite standing 5 cubits (7.5 feet or 2.3 m) tall with a fearsome face. After travelling as a young man with an aim to find and serve ‘the greatest king there was’, Reprobus met a hermit who introduced himself as a servant of ‘the King of Kings’ and instructed Reprobus in the Christian faith. The hermit suggested that, because of his immense size and strength, Reprobus could best serve Christ by helping people to cross a dangerous river.

One day, a small child asked Reprobus to take him across the river, leading to a crossing that tested Reprobus’ strength and faith. Arriving on the far bank of the river, the child revealed himself to be Christ, and thanked Reprobus for his good work.

The name ‘Christopher’ is derived from the Greek ‘Christophoros’ or Christ-bearer, and whilst there is some debate over whether there was a singular model for St Christopher, or if the contemporary figure is an amalgamation of several individuals who received the title ‘Christ-bearer’ and were eventually confused, St Christopher is today recognised as the patron saint of travellers. Small images of him are often worn or carried by Christian pilgrims on their travels.


Saint Joan of Arc

Born at Domrémy in the North of France around 1412, Jeanne d’Arc, better known to English speakers as Joan of Arc, is a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of recognised saints.

After apparently receiving a vision of the Archangel Michael and the Sts Margaret and Catherine (mentioned above), her intervention and military leadership on behalf of France towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War saw the lifting of a siege at Orléans after only nine days and a series of other victories that paved the way for the coronation of Charles VII at Reims.

Shortly after this coronation she was captured in May of 1430 by a Burgundian faction, allied with the English, who tried her for the crimes of heresy and cross-dressing. The historical trial record describes how Joan astonished the court when faced with a trick question.

When asked “Are you in God’s grace?”, she responded, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am may God so keep me.” If Joan had replied with a simple ‘yes’, she could have been found guilty of pride and heresy, however a ‘no’ would have meant she was admitting her own guilt. Her nuanced answer seemed beyond the capabilities of an illiterate peasant girl, and was perceived by some present as evidence of divine intercession.

Whilst her answers in court may have delayed her execution slightly, Joan was nevertheless eventually sentenced for heresy as a result of her having worn men’s clothes on multiple occasions throughout the war and during her imprisonment. She was burned at the stake aged around 19 in 1431.

A quarter of a century after her death the Catholic Church, under Pope Callixtus III, authorised a posthumous retrial for Joan, which declared her innocent and martyred her in 1456. Over 300 years later in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte declared her a national symbol of France and, following her canonisation in 1920, Joan is recognised as one of the nine patron saints of France.


Saint Nicholas

Another saint whose role in contemporary cultural representation bears scant resemblance to their religious origins is Saint Nicholas of Myra, a patron saint of sailors, archers and repentant thieves, amongst others, whose purported habit of secret gift-giving influenced the model of Santa Claus, or ‘St Nick’, who is celebrated during the Christmas season today.

Very little is known about the historical St Nicholas, who in some tellings of his story saved three sisters from life on the streets by anonymously providing their penniless father with a dowry for each of them, and in others performed a miracle by calming the sea during a vicious storm whilst sailing to the Holy Land.

The Charity of Saint Nicholas by Girolamo Macchietti

The evolution of Santa Claus seems to have arisen, via ‘Sinterklaas’, from Nicholas’ role as the patron saint of children, though the links to other aspects of the contemporary figure of Father Christmas seem harder to trace back through history. For instance, it seems safe to assume that the fourth century Nicholas of Myra was not the proud owner of nine flying reindeer!

Tour Director Cathy Oakes will give an in-depth lecture on the historical understanding of St Nicholas and the role he has played in Christmas celebrations throughout history as part of our Advent Cruise on the Rhine this December, ACE’s first festive cultural cruise. This tour promises to be a particularly special occasion and will also feature an onboard gala dinner to commemorate St Nicholas’ Day on December 6.

Learn more about our Rhine Advent Cruise here,

Or browse our full range of history tours here.