As winter approached, Nov. 25, was another special day of celebration in the medieval world. It was St. Catherine’s Day, observed for St. Catherine of Alexandria. And as the name suggests, it’s a feast day particularly dear to women.
St. Catherine, who died a virgin martyr in 305 AD, was recognized as a patron saint by several groups such as lawyers and wheelwrights. But most prominently, she was “revered a women’s guide and guardian” (Cosman 87), especially of unmarried women, including female students.
Because of her association with women, St. Catherine Day (Catherning) could be considered a ‘woman’s day’ as St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas could be considered a man’s day. As Madeleine Pelner Cosman says, “Many Cathernings, therefore, are women’s feasts” (87). On that day, various kinds of celebrations were conducted featuring wheels or wheel-shaped objects.
One of the primary objects in these festivities was a Catherine Wheel. A wagon wheel, or something in that shape, was decorated with lighted candles at the ends of the spokes. In much later years, after the Guy Faulks uprising, fireworks might replace the candles when the wheels were outside. In medieval times, the lighted wheels could be hung above diners in the great hall.
Many other decorations and food items were in the shape of wheels as well. Catherine or Cattern Cakes were baked. Rich with sugar and caraway seeds, they have long been a delicacy associated with the celebration.
Why is everything in a wheel or spoke shape? The wheel commemorates the remarkable story of the death of St. Catherine.
Condemned by the Roman Emperor Maximinus (a truly despicable guy who killed, among others, his wife and 200 of his soldiers for converting to Christianity), Catherine (who converted them) was ordered put to death on a wheel. To the astonishment and consternation of onlookers, the wheel broke. (It must be pointed out that the story about him killing his wife may have been a legend. No historical data has yet confirmed that.)
However, he had ordered Catherine imprisoned and, the story goes, even proposed to her. Rather than accept and become a queen, she refused, citing her devotion to Jesus. She then was condemned to death on a wheel, a particularly cruel form of execution where a person’s limbs were placed around the spokes and their bones broken with a metal rod or clubs. (Hence the term “broken on the wheel”.) She reportedly touched the wheel and it fell apart.
Many people viewed this as divine intervention, but officials were not to be deterred. Catherine was removed from the broken wheel and beheaded. She was considered one of the most important female martyrs in early Church history. Hers is one of the voices Joan of Arc was said to have heard.
One tradition in France reportedly was for unmarried women between the ages of 25 and 30 to wear headgear called ‘crispins’ hence becoming known as Crispinettes.
Because she was such a symbol for unmarried women in many countries, sayings, songs, etc., developed over the years. So on her day, Nov. 25, one could often hear girls chanting:
“St Catherine, St Catherine, O lend me thine aid
And grant that I never may die an old maid.”
”A husband, St. Catherine
A handsome one, St. Catherine
A rich one, St. Catherine
A nice one, St. Catherine
And soon, St. Catherine”
(Interestingly, modern allusions to it still are made. On a British TV show I watched recently, a mystery, one character referred to someone behaving like a ‘Catherine Wheel.’)
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1981.
NOTE: Be sure to visit my fellow Medieval Monday Roses (The Wild Rose Press) Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud . They always have something interesting planned. You can find them here:
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