Friday, January 18, 2013

The Patron Saint of Virgins

January 21 marks the feast of St. Agnes--which makes January 20 a date of even more significance, at least in terms of English folklore. If you were an unmarried girl living during the regency, according to superstition, by following the proper steps on the night of St. Agnes’s Eve you could expect to see your future husband in a dream.

This 17th century painting of St. Agnes by Massimo Stanzione shows her with a lamb, her iconographic symbol ("agnus" being the Latin word for "lamb," and sounding like the Greek word for "pure one").
The original Agnes of Rome was a girl of patrician family, born in the third century. When she was just twelve or thirteen, the son of the prefect Sempronius fell in love with her, offering her "rich gifts and possessions" if she would marry him. She was a committed Christian, however, and so, as the Archbishop of Genoa wrote in The Golden Legend nearly a thousand years later, Agnes told the young man, "Go from me thou fardel of sin, nourishing of evils and morsel of death, and depart, and know thou that I am prevented and am loved of another lover, much more noble of lineage than thou art, and of estate... To him I have given my faith, to him I have commanded my heart...and when I take him then am I a virgin, this is the love of my God."

The young man was so disappointed that he took to his bed. When Sempronius attempted to get to the bottom of Agnes’s refusal to marry his son, he discovered she was a Christian. Sempronius had her condemned, but since it was against Roman law to execute a virgin, Agnes was given a choice: "One of two things thou shalt choose, either do sacrifice to our gods with the virgins of the goddess Vesta, or go to the [brothel] to be abandoned to all that thither come, to the great shame and blame of all thy lineage."

Agnes chose the brothel, and "was delivered naked," but a miracle saved her modesty: "anon as she was unclothed God gave to her such grace that the hairs of her head became so long that they covered all her body to her feet, so that her body was not seen." In addition, an angel clothed her in such brightness that none of the brothel’s customers could look at her. Then, as The Golden Legend puts it, "At last came the son of the provost with a great company for to accomplish his foul desires and lusts. And when he saw his fellows come out and issue all abashed, he mocked them and called them cowards. And then he, all araged, entered for to accomplish his evil will. And..anon the devil took him by the throat and strangled him that he fell down dead."

Fortunately, Agnes prayed for the young man, and he was raised from the dead. For some reason this failed to mollify his father, who had a lieutenant named Aspasius cast Agnes into "a great fire." Once again divine protection came to the girl’s aid, saving her from the flames.

Not one to give up easily, Aspasius had her run through with a sword.

"They told her how, upon St. Agnes Eve/Young virgins might have visions of delight" -- Illustration from Charles Wentworth's 1885 edition of Keats's "St. Agnes' Eve."

So Agnes became a martyr, and the patron saint of virgins everywhere. In the best slumber-party tradition, unmarried girls came to believe that on St. Agnes's Eve they could conjure up a vision of the man they would marry.

Though there were numerous versions of the proper ritual to be followed, Keats gives one popular version in his poem St. Agnes’s Eve:

As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

Chambers’ Book of Days gives this version of the ritual:

Or, passing into a different country from that of her ordinary residence, and taking her right-leg stocking, she might knit the left garter round it, repeating:

"I knit this knot, this knot I knit,
To know the thing I know not yet,
That I may see
The man that shall my husband be,
Not in his best or worst array,
But what he weareth every day;
That I tomorrow may him ken
From among all other men."

If you’re a single woman, you might consider giving it a try this St. Agnes’s Eve.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25, 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great, but sad story. I wonder why God didn't save her from the sword.