When the Saints go marching in

Arrive in Calais, and all you have to do is drive about 700 miles south, as straight a route as you can, to find our house.  En route you’ll pass scores of towns and villages dedicated to saints you’ve never heard of.  Holy men and women such as:

  • Aignan
  • Cyr
  • Inglevert
  • Mesmin
  • Outrille
  • Pardoux
  • Pryvé
  • Sulpice
  • Ybard

I thought it was time to unearth a story or two.  So I dug out our dictionary of saints, which dates from my student days when I needed to know about such things, and then I put Google to work.  Nothing.  Almost nothing.  Not even on the websites of the communes themselves. There was the odd reference to a bishop who’d led a blameless life, but positively no ripping yarns.  Where’s the fun in that?

The story of St. Wilgefort was the kind of thing I had in mind.  In England we know her as St. Uncumber (you knew that, didn’t you?).  Her father, a Portuguese nobleman, wanted to marry her off to some pagan king.  As she’d taken a vow of virginity, she was not inclined to fall in with the plan.  Her prayers to become repulsive to her suitor were answered when she grew a beard.  Enraged, her father had her crucified.  For many years during the Middle Ages, she was venerated by people seeking solace from tribulation, and particularly by women who wanted to be liberated – unencumbered – from their abusive husbands.

St. Wilgefort in the church of St. Étienne, Beauvais
St. Wilgefort in the church of St. Étienne, Beauvais

If you have any stories of forgotten French saints, I’d love to hear them.

11 thoughts on “When the Saints go marching in”

  1. I love the story of St. Uncumber. When I lived in Italy, I loved how alive the saints are for people, and I thought it was cool how people set up little altars everywhere. For as much as Americans fight to protect religious freedom, we are essentially a nation of talkers. I wish people knew more about their own faith and were well-versed enough to explain things to friends of other backgrounds. You REALLY are making the most of your time in France.

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    1. I love the fact that your own Jewish background is so central to the life of your family, and how you convey that feeling of its being your anchor. As I know few Jewish people, it’s been a real and positive introduction to a living faith that has ancient roots.

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      1. It is, but I LOVE history and have always been fascinated by all these patron saints. I like the idea that these are real people did great deeds. We have the same concept in Judaism, called mitzvot. We are commanded to do good deeds. I like that in other traditions people do this, too — and they can receive recognition for it later. It’s cool.

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  2. I thought they were pagan heroes who were sanctified to make Christianity acceptable when countries were being converted. I thought Gauderic was an 11 year old boy who had his head chopped off, can’t remember why.

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    1. I think that’s often right, Kathryn. Our friend Wilgefort however was a 14th century maiden. And Gaudreic? I shall check with Marianne. who made the observation

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  3. So I had to find out about a local saint and I found one, King Æthelberht’s pious and wise. Apparently. He was pledged to marry against his will Eadburh, the daughter of Offa of Mercia, and set out to visit her, despite his mother’s forebodings and his experiences of terrifying events (an earthquake, a solar eclipse and a vision). It would put you off wouldn’t it? Eventually beheaded at the behest of his wife’s family and his head thrown in a ditch, where somewhere along the way it made a blind man see.

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    1. Goodness. I’m impressed. One word from me and you’re off studying the history of kings and queens. Earthquakes in Mercia. Whatever next? Thanks for that. It’s the kind of useless information I have a tendency to remember 😉

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  4. Hi Margaret, bonsoir Marianne, hi everyone !

    Here is my humble contribution : Gaudéric lived in the IXth century, in the village of Viéville, now called ” Saint-Gaudéric » after his name. (« Viéville « means « old town », which is no really original name for a town, no matter the period concerned … ). He was a very religious man, only busy with praying and tilling his fields. He would go to church every day and would always sign himself before setting to work. He was of course generous with paupers and would leave his door open in case anyone needed shelter.
    One Summer when he, his brothers and friends were treading out corn in the village square, after working hard all morning, they paused for a while and marvelled at their grain crop. All of a sudden, a storm brew up and threatened to carry away all the precious grains. Gaudéric knelt down, then walked towards the storm with his arms open and the rain opened like a curtain before the village square and closed after passing the village, thus saving the harvest.

    A second miracle took place some time later. Gaudéric was well-known in his village for being extremely religious and for falling down to his knees as soon as he could hear the church bells ringing. One man in the village wanted to make fun of him and started ringing the bells as soons as he saw Gaudéric and his oxen half-way across the river. Miracle : up-stream water stopped, down-stream water ran on … So, Gaudéric could pray and stay dry ! Funny the way Gaudéric alwas got involved in water problems … even after his death ! (People in Southern France would take statues of saint Gaudéric out of churches and plunge them head first into rivers when they needed some rain … )
    To cut that story short, several years after Gauderic had been dead and buried in Viéville, lots of people came to visit his grave and the villagers and local priest thought that might raise problems. It was then decided to transfer his remains either to Fanjeaux or to Mirepoix. How to choose ? Gauderic’s remains were placed into a cart drawn by a pair of oxen, a black ox and a white one. The black one drew the cart towards Fanjeaux (by the way, lovely etymology : fanum Jovis, Jupiter’s temple … By Jove ! ) while the white one drew the cart towards Mirepoix. Would you believe it ? I bet you would ! The white ox was stronger and the holy remains were carried to the cathedral of Mirepoix. That story you can see in a large painting by a local XIXth century artist, Cazebat (I never found anything about him but keep my spirits up !), in a North side chapel of the cathedral.

    Sorry for writing so long, Margaret ! To help you forgive me : I could have written much longer about saint Gaudéric ………

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    1. What wonderful stories. Thanks so much for sharing them. I think those statues of Gauderic don’t have much to worry about this year: nobody will want to douse their heads in the river at the moment.

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