December 27

The Feast of St John

December 27 is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, the son of Zebedee, companion of Jesus and reputed author of the Fourth Gospel. In the Middle Ages the day was marked by a blessing of the wine, derived from the legend that John had drunk poisoned wine and not been harmed. As Barnaby Googe in the sixteenth century related:


Nexte John, the sonne of Zebedee

hath his appointed day,

Who once by cruell tyraunts will,

constrayned was they say

Strong poison up to drinke, therefore

the papistes doe beleeve

That whoso puts their trust in him,

no poyson them can greeve.

The wine beside that halowed is

in worship of his name,

The prestes doe give the people

that bring money for the same.

And after with the self same wine

are little manchets made

Agaynst the boysterous winter stormes

and sundrie such like trade.

The men upon this solemne day

do take this holy wine

To make them strong. So do the maydes

to make them faire and fine.


It was also a custom for people to bring wine or cider to the church on December 27 to be blessed and then to take this liquor home to be poured back in the barrels. This “St. John’s Wine” was considered a protection for travellers setting out on a journey or for those near death. Because the gospel of John proclaims Jesus as the light of the world, a German custom allowed children named John or Joan to be the first to light the Advent candle.

December 26


The Feast of St Stephen

December 26 is the feast day of the first martyr of the Christian church, St Stephen. What little we know about him can be found in the Book of Acts where we learn that he had been chosen one of the seven deacons in Jerusalem and that his defence of Christianity resulted in his being stoned to death for blasphemy. Legend, however, has surrounded the protomartyr with a host of stories which link him to Herod’s household at the time of the birth of Jesus, to horses and to the stoning of the tiny wren.

Ever since the tenth century Stephen’s Day has been associated with horses, probably because the season was a time of horse sacrifice in pagan northern Europe and a time of rest from agricultural work for both man and beast. In England it is a time to bleed horses to ensure their health for the coming year. In the sixteenth century Tusser noted:

Yer Christmas be passed,

let Horsse be lett blood,

For many a purpose

it dooth him much good:

The day of St. Steeven,

old fathers did use.

If that do mislike thee,

some other day chuse.

Across Europe December 26 is a time for horses to be fed extra food, raced, decorated, blessed by the priest or ridden in ceremonies honouring their species. This is particulalry true in Sweden where “Staffan Riders” would race from village to village and sing songs in honour of the saint. Some have tried (not very successfully) to explain the connection between horses and St Stephen’s Day by claiming it has stemmed from confusion between the martyr in the Book of Acts and a later saint, Stephen of Corvey, martyred c. 1075, whose feast day June 2. This Stephen was a lover of horses and was said to ride five of them in turn. When he was murdered his unbroken colt took him home to Norrtalje which became a shrine for horse-healing.

The water and salt blessed by the priest on St Stephen’s Day would be set aside and used as medicine for horses should they fall ill during the rest of the year or to sprinkle liberally about the barn and yard to bring prosperity. The salt could also be thrown in the fire to avert danger from thunder-storms. In some places the blood drawn from horses on this day was thought to have healing powers. In Poland, the blessing of food for horses led to other peculiar rituals on St Stephen’s Day. In what has been interpreted either as a remnant of pagan fertility rites or a re-enactment of the stoning of Stephen, people would throw the consecrated oats at each other and their animals. Moreover, it was customary on December 26 for boys and girls to throw walnuts at one another.

St Stephen’s Day is also marked in Ireland and other parts of Britain by hunting a bird considered protected every other the day of the year, the wren, and parading about with its body. Wren Boys used to carry a dead wren on a branch from house to house, and sing an appropriate song which solicited money:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

On St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze;

Though is body is small, his family is great,

So, if you please, your honour, give us a treat.

On Christmas Day I turned a spit;

I burned my finger; I feel it yet,

Up with the kettle, and down with the pan:

Give us some money to bury the wren.

Other customs associated with St Stephens’s Day include holming. In Wales holming or holly-beating was the practice for young men to beat each other (or female servants) with holly branches on December 26. In Britain generally December 26 is a day for sporting events and hunting and the day observed as Boxing Day.

December 24

19th-century illustration, "Boniface Struck by Colonna," drawn by Vierge. In an incident that is probably popular lore rather than factual, Sciarra Colonna slaps Pope Boniface VIII. in 1303 during a conflict over the extent of papal authority.


The election of a dreadful pope

Benedetto Caetani (1230-1303) was an ambitious Italian churchman, serving the papacy as a diplomat, lawyer and cardinal. In 1294 he convinced the unworldly (or perhaps simple-minded) Pope Celestine V to resign and was elected pope in his place, taking the name Boniface VIII. Celestine was arrested and soon died in jail. At his coronation two kings led the pope’s horse and later served him at the banquet – symbolic to Boniface of papal superiority over mere monarchs. His reign was marked by quarrels with political leaders in Italy and with cardinals who opposed his election – he excommunicated some of them and ordered their home town burnt down and the land sown with salt.. He interfered in the politics of Scotland, Germany and Hungary and excommunicated the King of Denmark. But Boniface’s biggest fight would come in his struggle with England and France.

One of the most jealously guarded privileges of the medieval church was its claim to be exempt from local taxation. This claim always infuriated kings and other secular rulers — the church was by far the biggest landowner in most countries and always one of the wealthiest components in the economy, why should it not pay its fair share of taxes? Because, said the church, we are doing God’s work: we are the ones running the schools and the welfare system; we operate the orphanages and hospitals and leper asylums; we ransom Christian prisoners from the Muslims. The more money kings take from us in taxes is that much less money for the poor.

In the 1290s both the kings of England and France began to tax the holdings of the church in their countries. They were at war with each other, always an expensive business, and both were running larger bureaucracies and court systems than their predecessors, so the need of these nations for cash was greater than ever.

In 1294, Edward I sequestered all moneys found in the treasuries of all churches and monasteries. Soon he bullied the English clergy into giving him one half their incomes. In the following year he called for a third or a fourth, but they refused to pay more than a tenth. When, at the 1296 Convocation of Canterbury the king demanded a fifth of their income, the archbishop, Robert of Winchelsea, in keeping with the new legislation of Boniface, offered to consult the pope, whereupon the king outlawed the clergy, and seized all their property. In France Philip IV seized money set aside by the church for a crusade and instead used it to make war on English holdings in southern France.

Boniface replied in 1296 with a papal bull Clericis laicos which restated the immunity of the church from unwilling taxation (the church often paid “voluntary” donations when under real pressure — in France for example it was customary for the pope to agree to a 10% tax on church income to go to the king) and the automatic excommunication of anyone who tried to enforce it.

Like Edward I, Philip the Fair was constantly in need of money for his wars. And he was prepared to raise it by almost any means. In 1306 he arrested all the Jews in his dominions, and after seizing their property and loan accounts, he had them expelled from France. Edward I had treated English Jews in the same cruel fashion and for similar reasons. Philip likewise despoiled his Lombard bankers. Another of his targets was the rich crusading order of Knights Templars, from whom he had been borrowing heavily. He darkened their reputation by a campaign of malicious propaganda, much of which he may actually have believed. His charge that the Templars venerated the devil was repeated by Edward II of England, and even by the papacy. Philip had more than fifty Templars burned at the stake as heretics, and some of their wealth trickled into the royal treasury – though the papacy was able to keep Philip from most of it and diverted it to the Hospitallers. He launched a similar propaganda campaign, as we will see, against Pope Boniface VIII.

When Boniface issued Clericis laicos, Philip replied by forbidding the export of any money outside the country — if Philip couldn’t get any money out of the French church the pope wasn’t going to be able to either. Philip continued to tax his clergy. At the same time he set his agents to work spreading scandalous rumors about the pope’s morals and exerted financial pressure on Rome by cutting off all papal taxes from the French realm, forcing Boniface to submit for the moment. But a vast influx of pilgrims into Rome in the Jubilee Year of 1300 restored the pope’s confidence. He warned Philip in 1301 that the pope was the Vicar of Christ, who is placed over kings and kingdoms . He is the keeper of the keys, the judge of the living and the dead, and sits on the throne of justice, with power to extirpate all iniquity. He is the head of the Church, which is one and stainless, and not a many-headed monster, and has full Divine authority to pluck out and tear down, to build up and plant. Let not the king imagine that he has no superior, and is not subject to the highest authority in the Church. The French took this as a threat that the pope might depose Philip and throw the French throne open to someone else – an established right of the pope in the Middle Ages – and they cranked up a vicious campaign against Boniface including circulating forged documents.

He withdrew his concession to Philip the Fair on clerical taxation and in 1302 issued the bull Unam Sanctam, which asserted the doctrine of papal monarchy in uncompromising terms in 5 elements: (1) There is but one true Church, outside of which there is no salvation; but one body of Christ with one head and not two. (2) That head is Christ and His representative, the Roman pope; whoever refuses the pastoral care of Peter belongs not to the flock of Christ. (3) There are two swords (i.e., powers), the spiritual and the temporal; the first borne by the Church, the second for the Church; the first by the hand of the priest, the second by that of the king, but under the direction of the priest (ad nutum et patientiam sacerdotis). (4) Since there must be a co-ordination of members from the lowest to the highest, it follows that the spiritual power is above the temporal and has the right to instruct (or establish–instituere) the latter regarding its highest end and to judge it when it does evil; whoever resists the highest power ordained of God resists God himself.  (5) It is necessary for salvation that all men should be subject to the Roman Pontiff. No pope had ever before enunciated such claims to power.

Philip the Fair now summoned a kingdom-wide assembly, and before it he accused Boniface of every imaginable crime from murder to black magic to sodomy to keeping a demon as a pet. A small French military force crossed into Italy in 1303 and took Boniface prisoner at his palace at Anagni with the intention of bringing him to France for trial. Anagni, symbolized the humiliation of the medieval papacy. The French plan failed—local townspeople freed Boniface a couple of days later—but the proud old pope died shortly thereafter, outraged and chagrined that armed Frenchmen had dared to lay hands on his sacred person. (His assault is pictured above). Contemporaries found it significant that his burial was cut short by a furious electrical storm.

In Dante’s Inferno Boniface VIII is found in the circle of Hell reserved for the punishment of the financially corrupt.

December 16


The Feast of St Adelaide of Burgundy (931-999).

Even princesses need patron saints.

The actual tangled lives of the royal families of medieval Europe are not far different from episodes in The Game of Thrones, though with fewer dragons. Adelaide was born into the ruling family of Burgundy and was married at age 15 to the head of a rival kingdom, Lothair II. When Lothair was poisoned, his murderous successor tried to make the royal widow marry his son but Adelaide refused and was thrown into prison. She managed to contact Otto, King of the Germans, who not only secured her release but married her. In 962 Otto was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and Adelaide became an empress. After Otto’s death she experienced difficulties with her daughter-in-law and was forced into seclusion on several occasions but spent much time in charity, founding monastic institutions and sponsoring attempts to Christianize pagan barbarians of the north.

Adelaide, because of her position and many adventures, is the patron saint of (in alphabetical order) abuse victims; brides; empresses; exiles; in-law problems; parenthood; parents of large families; princesses; prisoners; second marriages; step-parents; widows.

December 11



Birth of Joseph Mohr, author of “Silent Night”.

Mohr was an Austrian priest. Ordained in 1815 his first parish was the Alpine village of Mariapfarr where he wrote a poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”. Transferred to the St Nicholas church in Oberndorf in 1817 he struck up a friendship with the organist Franz Gruber whom he asked in December 1818 to set “Stille Nacht” to music. Gruber obliged and the new work was premiered with guitar accompaniment at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Mohr spent the rest of his life as a parish priest in a number of Austrian villages, dying poor but well-loved.

The song would probably have only been performed on that single occasion and been forgotten had not a visiting musician seen the music in the church in 1825 and taken it away with him. It was played throughout Austria for the next few years, growing in popularity under the title “A Tyrolean Folk Carol”. The authorship of the piece remained a mystery until the 1854 by which time its lyricist was dead. The carol had been attributed to many different composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven but the director of the Royal Court Choir of Berlin, where “Silent Night” had become the favorite of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, researched the origins of the carol and succeeded in having its true creators credited for their work. The song has been translated into over 200 languages. Its English version was written in 1863 by American Episcopal priest John Freeman Young.

December 10



Luther burns Exsurge Domine.

In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a bull against 41 errors promoted by the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther. Like most papal decrees of this sort it was known by the first few words of its Latin text, in this case “exsurge domine“, “Rise up, O Lord.” The inept Leo (born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) proclaimed:

With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected . . . We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication.

Because of Luther’s popularity in Germany it took some time before the bull was officially proclaimed there. Luther received notice of it only in October and denounced its writer as the Antichrist. He wrote two replies to it and on December 8, when the bull would have taken effect, he joined students and colleagues of the University of Wittenberg in burning it along with books of canon law and scholastic theology. This irremediable break with Rome on his part was followed by his excommunication early in 1521.


December 5


1484 Pope Innocent VIII issues the witch-hunting bull Summis desiderantes.

Though using magic in harmful ways (maleficium) was illegal in most cultures, we cannot speak of a witch craze in Europe until the late fifteenth century when Dominican Inquisitors began to persuade the Church that witchcraft was a variety of heresy and thus worthy of extirpation. Two documents were instrumental in provoking a social concern with witchery that lasted over two centuries. One was Malleus Maleficarum or The Hammer of Witches by Sprenger and Kramer, two German Dominicans; the second was the papal decree of 1484 Summis desiderantes. The latter begins:

 It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, as well as in the provinces, cities, territories, regions, and dioceses of Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herds and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that, moreover, they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they received in holy baptism; and that, at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.

Over the next 200 years the Church and local authorities in some parts of Europe, especially Germany, arrested thousands of suspected witches, executing probably about 50,000 of them. This was not a “Female Holocaust” with 9,000,000 victims as some, including the National Film Board of Canada, have laughably asserted but a set of panicked reactions to an age of upheaval and violence. The Church feared heresy, secular officials feared disorder and ordinary people feared supernatural harm. Where judicial torture was legal, bizarre confessions were the result; where torture was illegal, as in England or Ireland, witchcraft confessions were few. Despite its black reputation the Spanish Inquisition was among the first to call a halt to these trials, seeing in them only deluded ravings.

November 29

A great day for massacres

On November 29, 1729 the Natchez tribe rose up against French settlers in Louisiana. Vexed by French encroachment on their territory the Natchez attacked Fort Rosalie and settler farms, killing over 200 colonists. The French reacted vigorously and allied with Choctaw warriors, traditional enemies of the Natchez, they destroyed many villages and enslaved hundreds. By 1736 the Natchez had ceased to exist as an independent people.

On this date in 1781 the crew of the English slave ship Zong, faced with a lack of drinking water, threw 130 enslaved Africans overboard. As was customary, the lives of these slaves had been insured and the woners of the Zong made a claim for their losses. A jury found that the slaavers could recive compensation for the people thay had murdered by an appeal court reversed that ruling. The incident was a great spur to the abolition movement, leading to laws prohibiting such insurance claims, mandating better treatment in shipping slaves, and finally an end to British participation in the African slave trade.

In the early years of the American Civil War, the Cheyenne tribe took advantage of Washington’s preoccupation in subduing the southern rebellion by fighting back against white settlement in the territory they claimed, carrying out a number of massacres and atrocities. On this date in 1864 a troop of volunteer cavalry under Colonel John Chivington attacked and destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado Territory, killing and mutilating an estimated 70–500 Native Americans, about two-thirds of whom were women and children. A subsequent inquiry was scathing in its assessment:

As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.

On November 29, 1986 the Surinamese army attacked the village of Moiwana, killing at least 35 of the inhabitants, mostly women and children, and burning the house of rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk who was leading a fight to protect the rights of the maroon (descendants of escaped African slaves) minority. The survivors fled with thousands of other inland inhabitants over the Marowijne River to neighboring French Guiana. An end to the conflict was eventually negotiated and Brunswijk is now vice-president of the country.

November 28


1628 Birth of John Bunyan

John Bunyan was born in Bunyan’s End, Bedfordshire to a family of small means. As a teenager he followed the tinker’s trade and then served in the rebel armies during the English Civil War. At the war’s end in 1649 he returned home where he underwent a religious conversion and joined a congregation of nonconformist Protestants. In 1655, though unlearned in anything except the English scriptures, he began to preach and write tracts. He had been cautioned for unlicensed preaching in 1659 but his real troubles began with the return of the English monarchy in 1660 and the reestablishment of the Anglican Church which cracked down on the radical sects and demanded that all services be conducted according to the Book of Common Prayer. Bunyan refused to abandon his calling and was arrested and imprisoned numerous times for unlicensed preaching and abstaining from attendance at a lawful church. After 1672 the government relaxed its oppression of nonconformists for a time; Bunyan was released from prison and became a popular minister, even being named chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London.

Bunyan was an indefatigable writer, producing some 6o tracts and books of a religious nature. His spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and The Life and Death of Mister Badman are still read, but most of his other works such as Seasonal Counsel or Suffering Saints in the Furnace – Advice to Persecuted Christians in Their Trials & Tribulations are not. His masterwork is Pilgrim’s Progress or to give it its full title, The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, published in 1678. It follows the journey of sin-burdened Christian from the City of Destruction past the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, the Valley of Humiliation, the Hill of Difficulty and other trials to his destination in the Celestial City. Along the way he will meet Evangelist, Mr Worldly Wiseman, Simple, Sloth, Presumption and the demonic Apollyon. Pilgrim’s Progress is the most famous allegory in the English language, a monument of religious literature which has inspired many. It has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print. Modern-language versions are now being produced for those whose taste does not run to seventeenth-century English prose.

November 27


511 Death of the first Christian king of France.

Early in the 400s the Roman empire was invaded by a host of Germanic tribes moving down out of northern and central Europe. The empire in the east with its capital at Constantinople had the money and troops to defend itself, but the western half of the empire was overrun. Rome was sacked, the last emperor was deposed by a German warlord, and what had once been a single state was now a motley collection of barbarian kingdoms established by Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Angles, Saxons, Vandals and Jutes. One of the most formidable of the new states was the Kingdom of the Franks which covered most of what had been Gaul and which was ruled by the ruthless Clovis who managed to claw his way to the top over the bodies of rival Frankish leaders.

Most of the original inhabitants of Clovis’s new kingdom were Catholic Christians while invaders such as the Franks were either pagan or Arian Christian. On Christmas Day in 496 Clovis agreed to a Catholic baptism in order to better secure his rule, associating himself with the religion of his people and of Rome. This baptism was miraculously marked by the arrival of a container of holy oil from heaven which was used to anoint Clovis and many subsequent kings of what became France. French monarchs could thus claim the title of “Most Christian King”.

Clovis had brutally united his kingdom and many historians consider this the foundation of the French nation and Clovis the founder of the Merovingian dynasty. However, the Franks followed the custom of partible inheritance whereby a father divided his land equally among his sons and on the death of Clovis in 511 his kingdom was partitioned among his four sons. The tawdry history of the Merovingian Franks is one long story of conquest, unification, partition, battle and reunification. Why Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code chose the thuggish family of Clovis to be the supposed bloodline of Jesus remains a mystery best left unsolved.