Saturday, October 25, 2014

Shedding blood on St. Crispin's Day

It’s St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, the anniversary of the 1854 Battle of Balaclava—that’s the English cavalry fiasco memorialized by Tennyson in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But of course, we really remember it because of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Or more accurately, we know it because of Shakespeare’s epic speech at the climax of Henry V. As if you need a reason to watch Sir Laurence:

So who was St. Crispin to get a day of his own? Actually, he shares October 25 with his brother, St. Crispian. Their story’s pretty standard for martyrs of pre-Christian Rome. Back in 285 or 286, the boys were making a living in Belgic Gaul as shoemakers, while they proselytized the illegal faith. They got hauled before the prefect of Gaul, Rictiovarus. And this brings us to the good part of any martyrology: the torture. Here’s the story from a Victorian collection about saints:

The judge, then, ordered the two brothers first to have spills of wood thrust between their nails and the quick. Then S. Crispin and S. Crispian prayed, and instantly the spills started out of their fingers, and turning in the air, rushed at their tormentors and stabbed them, so that several fell dead on the spot and others died soon after of their wounds.

Then Rictiovarus commanded a couple of millstones to be hung round the necks of the martyrs, and that they should be cast into the river Aisne. S. Crispin and his brother swam across without feeling the slightest inconvenience from the mill-stones.

He then had boiling lead poured over them, but that refreshed rather than injured the indomitable shoemaker martyrs. Then pitch, oil, and fat were stewed together, and they were plunged in the bubbling caldron. This failed to injure them, therefore Rictiovarus, disgusted at his want of success, pitched himself headforemost into the fire under the caldron, and stifled his dissatisfaction in the flames.

Seeing their chief persecutor thus disposed of, the martyrs placidly devoted their necks to the sword, and their heads were struck off without difficulty by the executioner.

One may be quite sure, when in the Acts of the Martyrs a series of tortures and miraculous cures leads up to a decapitation, that all but the decapitation is a pure invention of the writer.

The saints lived and died in Soissons, where a nice cult grew up around them for a millennium and change. One day, in the middle of the Hundred Years War, French soldiers staged a massacre of English bowmen garrisoned in Soissons—then kept going, and killed and raped the citizenry. When the English forces faced the French at Agincourt, King Henry claimed to be avenging the saints and city on this, their day.

Shakespeare sources turned that bit of royal PR and the astonishing military victory into a legendary episode in English history. But ironically it’s Shakespeare's speech about remembering the battle, and not the battle itself, that keeps alive the observance of St. Crispin’s Day and the legend of Agincourt.


quote from The Lives of Saints, Rev. S. Baring-Gould, vol. 12, p. 628-630 (1870-1877)

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