by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the December 1996, A.S. XXXI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
One of the minor holidays of the Middle Ages is St. Catherine's day. Celebrated on November 25, it has several unusual aspects, including the use of fireworks.
St. Catherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular and well known saints during the Middle Ages. She was supposedly martyred in 310 by the Emperor Maxentuis. High-born, some legends have her as a queen, and learned she had protested to the emperor about the persecution of the Christians. She refused to recant her faith and marry the emperor, who lusted after her. She debated fifty philosophers on questions of faith, and they were burned when they lost. Imprisoned to starve, she was feed by a dove. Sentenced to die on a spiked wheel, which became her emblem, but the wheel was shattered by lighting. Her consistency caused the conversion of the empress, her attendants, and two hundred soldiers all who were killed. St. Catherine was finally beheaded, and out of her veins flowed not blood but milk. Her body was then carried by angels to Mt Sinai.
Her body was supposedly found in the early 9th century and a shrine was built at the Orthodoxy monastery of St. Catherine's. This is the first historical record of her existence. It is likely that her story is a fiction by a Greek writer to illustrate the concept of the mystical marriage to Christ. But that is a viewpoint that emerged only long after the end of the Middle Ages.
St. Catherine was the patron saint of lawyers, wheelwrights, rope makers, carpenters, philosophers and scholars, lace makers, spinners, unmarried women, and women students. It is because of the latter that the St. Catherine feasts, known as Cathernings, tended to be patronized by women.
The central motif at these Cathernings is the wheel, St. Catherine's emblem. The windows would be covered with wheel designs. The feasters would have wheel shaped jewelry and decorations on their clothes. The food and entertainment would also have wheel elements in them.
Wheel shaped Cathern Cakes were made with sugar, eggs and caraway seeds, though could be triangular to represent a broken wheel. Also triangular shaped were Wiggs, made of currants, glazed orange and caraway. Centered on the high table will be a large bowl, filled with cider, above which was a wheel from which was suspended apples. This was the Cathern Bowl. Sometime during the course of the festivities everyone is suppose to drink from this bowl. This was to pledge a year of study, learning and using elegant language, commemorating St. Catherine's victory over the philosophers.
Musicians would sit in a semicircle. Dances were in the round. Servers would walk in serpentine patterns. Acrobats would do their routine in cartwheels. Jugglers using lighted torches would inscribe flaming circles in the air known as Catherine Wheels.
The traditional game was the Cathern Candle Jump. This involved placing a wide candle on the floor. Every guest was to jump over it without knocking it over or putting it out. The catch was that the run to and from the candle could not be in a straight line. Those successful would have good fortune in the coming year.
The finale would be fireworks mounted on spinning wheels, again called Catherine's Wheels. In incremental weather the juggler with his flaming torches would be substituted as the rest of lights were put out.
Each holiday and festival has it own unique aspects and traditions. This went beyond the major occasions of the year. They all relive the tedium of day to day living and were eagerly looked forward to. Feasts need never to be boring.
Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1983.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays & Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983.
Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.