Where Have I Been? – A Catch Up

Like lichen on a log! I may seem inactive, but I’m actually a remarkable form of life, and quite busy! (Credit: Me)

“Where the fuck have you been?” I hear almost no one cry.

I can only offer some very insincere apologies for my absence. They are apologies because I have truly missed working on WLD. They are insincere because I’ve been busy doing other things, and those other things were, unfortunately for anyone who loves reading my shit, more pressing, more important or else more likely to get me paid!

When you’ve been unemployed for coming up fifteen years and an opportunity almost too-good-to-be-true presents itself you work your arse off to get it! That’s what I’ve been doing since around November last year, at least.

I won’t go into too much detail but it is an excellent opportunity and I am now in the irritating ‘waiting impatiently to hear if I get an interview’ phase so – Just keep your fingers crossed for me.

Much like me this gorgeous peacock butterfly (Aglais io) also did not wait patiently. Not for me to get a better shot of it, anyway! (Credit: Me)

Prior to that – well around last summer I had some family stuff come up that started demanding a lot of my time and energy. It was time and energy I had to spend doing the sorts of things I, as an autistic person, am barely capable of doing for myself but I always find myself volunteering to do them for others.

People with autism will tell you this is hell. It completely removes your focus and all the energy and motivation I had for the travelling, the writing, the editing process – I kept the ember going but that fire went out and when the flames came back they were invested heavily in those job applications.

That all means that moving forward I don’t know what the future holds. The last time I wrote anything for the site in earnest gas and electricity cost half what they do now and there wasn’t a major armed conflict on the European continent! The world moves fast and sometimes in sinister ways. Things change quickly and we never know what the future holds.

My intention is to keep writing. But what would I be writing for? If a job opportunity comes through then I would expect my writing to be as sporadic as it has been. It is a sad fact that it can be difficult for my autistic brain to focus on two major strings at once. Perhaps I could write about what I am doing? Who knows?

Safe to say I’ve been busy as a March bumblebee! These early bumblers are mostly Queens, who emerge from their overwinter holes and start building their nests. This is likely a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

If none of these opportunities goes my way well a huge part of that application process was learning video editing. (And if you are reading this as someone involved in that application process –Yes, I mean that! I had not edited a single second of video prior to that application process! So if you were impressed by what you saw consider that’s my level of ability when I have NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING!) Something I had been intending to do for a long time and a direction I have always wanted to take WLD in for multiple reasons. Chances are I’ll end up writing more outlines and scripts than articles and I will look at what type of content I could make as video rather than as articles.

That said a camera is a must if I want to get out and about (and I would – bug season is starting!) and right now I can’t even afford nice coffee let alone a DSLR!

Whatever happens I just want to thank everyone who has supported me, encouraged me, boosted my confidence and put me in a position where even if I fail in a goal I’ve already got a new one lined up to shoot for! ‘Learned helplessness’ is a bastard and when you’ve suffered misfortune upon misfortune it’s easy to fall into and, on your own, ridiculously hard to get out of. It is odd to say but there are total strangers out there who have given me an immense sense of value in myself, something that has been missing for a long time. So thanks.

I have had some amazing interactions in my time with WLD and I hope for many more. But I have the utmost respect for those people who can empathise so much with my faceless logo on a computer screen, telling stories. Those faceless logos can be a bit fake, a bit of a smokescreen, but I can assure you – especially given my number of meltdowny tweets and posts! – there’s a real person here, and he appreciates the support and encouragement you give.

So if you want to see my face on videos send me your curses. Otherwise, wish me luck with these applications.

Until then I will simply wish you,

Peace and Curiosity.

Caturday Special: The Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocola)

What a pretty kitty! A Pampas cat in the Parque Zoológico de São Paulo. (Credit: Márcio Motta CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

It’s been a while!

If you were enjoying the Caturday Specials and wondering why they stopped the reasons were two-fold.

The lesser reason is other stuff got in the way. Such is life.

The main reason is I was running out of cats!

We consider diversity in all its glory and imagine there must be thousands and thousands of wild cats out there. Well there aren’t. There are only around 40 extant (not extinct – living, in other words) cat species on the planet.

Many of these are medium or small sized cats, endemic to a certain part of the world, shy and elusive. As a result we know little about them. Any article I write would likely be the words “It’s a cat!” with a bunch of photos. You may love that, but it’s not quite my style. I like to tell a story.

Cue the Pampas Cat (Leopardus colocola) – named after The Pampas, the temperate South American lowland grassy habitat. It is not endemic to this habitat specifically, though. It is also found in scrubland, forests and mountains. I am also going to have to try very hard not to write Leopardus cocacola…Hopefully we never get to the stage of global soft-drink companies paying for species names!

Las Pampas, in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. These lowlands are a huge area from the south of Brazil, through Uruguay, with most of their area in Argentina. They are an important habitat not only for the Pampas cat, but for Geoffrey’s cat, puma and maned wolves. They have many endemic species such as Pampas fox, Pampas deer and Pampas meadowlark. They also make for excellent and fertile agricultural land, however, and much of the habitat is lost to crop growth and pasture for cattle. (Credit: Alex Pereira, Public Domain)

It is a member of the Ocelot lineage, like many of the small South American wildcats. It is suggeted to be most closely related to the Andean Mountain Cat – another one I shall have to write about eventually, but another one about which we know so, so little!

They are fairly disperse across South America, from (possibly) the very southwest of Colombia, through Ecuador, Peru and into Bolivia and running down the Andes through Chile and Argentina. There are also populations radiating eastwards into Brazil and Uruguay.

Population size is unknown, as with many small cats. The IUCN has them listed as ‘Near Threatened’ due to the continued habitat loss and disruptive human activity to natural ecosystems in South America.

In terms of behaviour, that’s something we don’t know a lot about, too! It is a small cat, so it is safe to assume it is carnivorous and eats a lot of small things like rodents and birds. Given their spread through Peru and down the Andes, guinea pigs are likely a big part of their diet. Wheek!

Mood! Notice the stripey legs? We will get to differences in Pampas cat coats and morphology soon! But what a beautiful cat. (credit: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte, Public Domain)

At this stage I would usually describe the cat itself. But this leads us to the hook, the reason I decided to write about this cat today.

They’re a small floofer, about the size of a domestic cat, maybe a little bigger, maybe a little smaller, with fluffy fur. They range in size from around 45-75cm in body length, with a tail around 25-30cm long. Quite the range in size.

Their coats have one universal; they have dark lines on their face, going around the muzzle. Besides that there are around six variants. For the most part they are a dusty, grey-reddish colour. Some have faint stripes down the sides, some have dark stripes on the legs, some have rosettes, some are paler, some are darker, some have rings on the tail, some have faint spots etc. etc.

So what is going on!?

Well at one point the Pampas cat was considered one species. By the mid-90s scientists were checking this kitto out and thinking maybe there was more than just one species, and proposed it as three. However the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s Cat Classification Task Force (seriously give me honorary membership already!), after a huge amount of analysis, decided this 3 species split was not correct. The Pampas cat is one species.

With SEVEN subspecies!

L. c. colocola
L. c. pajeros
L. c. braccatus
L. c. garleppi
L. c. budini
L. c. munoai

and
L. c. wolffsohni

Kitten Tax! A clearly ‘done with their shit’ mother cat (left) and her two little kittens. Look at those deep blue kitten eyes! How can you not love them? (Credit: Bioparque M’Bopicuá, via Zooborns. Used without permission under fair use. If you would like this image removed please contact us.)

But! The saga doesn’t end there. An taxonomic revision was proposed in 2020 by Brazilian scientistic Fabio Oliveira do Nascimento and his team. This used what is known as the ‘integrative’ method of taxonomy.

I explained taxonomy a fair bit in my article about the red panda. It is the method we use to classify organisms and decide what species they are so we can slap a label on them. It also helps us figure out how they are all related to one another.

I’ve always been sceptical of taxonomy because so often the research related to it consists of back-and-forth letters between different groups squabbling about what box to put the flatworm in. It’s not for me! But it is incredibly valuable and I am glad there are people squabbling about these things.  

As much as I know life evolves on a continuum, that the designation of a ‘species’ is an entirely arbitrary one, it is also true that some stuff is more like other stuff. They have unique characteristics in genetics, shapes, life and morphology that give them an identity. Cats is cats, dogs is dogs, people is people, there are clear differences and understanding what gives rise to those successful forms – these groups, genera and species – is vital to effective understanding of life on earth.

Definitely a real, live, wild Pampas cat! Absolutely not a composite of a Pampas cat taxidermy seemingly floating about some scrubland. Pampas cats are not known for their abilities to look stuffed and levitate, however we do know little of their behaviours so you cannot rule out the possibility. (Credit: Hectonichus, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

What’s more this classification helps make sure, as far as research is concerned, that we’re talking about the same stuff. If I write a paper on “Aggression Towards Humans in Captive Pampas Cats: How I got Bitten Trying to Squish That Cat” other scientists would need to know what Pampas cat I’m talking about! What subspecies, for example. What if L. c. colocola is less aggressive than L. c. braccatus but I am handling exclusively L. c. braccatus?

We figure out these taxonomies by studying the animals. We look at morphology (DNA, their shapes, sizes, pelage (fur or skins – colours, lengths, patterns etc.), skeletal structures etc., we look at their geography (where they live, where they hunt or forage, where they breed, habitats, ecology, preferred prey etc.) and we look at their behaviour (what they do, how and when they do it etc.)

The integrative approach attempts to use all of these to provide as comprehensive a description as possible as to what an animal is and how to label it.

So this 2020 paper (Nascimento et al., 2020), erm, proposes that the Pampas cat is actually five species.

Not five subspecies.

Five species.

The five species (illustrated with their predominate pelage types) and their suggested distributions. (Credit: Nascimento, Ji Long and Feijó, Taxonomic revision of the pampas cat Leopardus colocola complex (Carnivora: Felidae): an integrative approach, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 191(2), pp. 575-611 – Used without permission under fair use. If you would like this image removed please contact us.)

It suggests that there are no sub-species and that the genus should have Leopardus braccatus, L. colocola, L. garleppi, L. munoai and L. pajeros as distinct species.

You may notice a distinct lack of photos of non-captive Pampas cats. These are ridiculously elusive cats. Notice this one seems to have an almost universal coat with no patterns. (Credit: ZooPro, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

I’m not going to go into detail about these matters. That’s beyond my pay-grade and sadly behind a pay-wall!

But the reason I chose to write about the Pampas cat, besides showing off this beautiful and little-known cat, is because something struck me.

Evolution is a continuum. Species change, adapt, move, migrate, get cut off from other populations, become new populations, populations find new niches to exploit and defend them, they may hybridise with other closely-related species, they never stay the same.

There are people out there who want to look at life as immutable. Creation happened, species were made and that’s that. They say there is no evidence that evolution happens. The fossil record is patchy and has gaps and there are no weird between-forms in the world.

A wood engraving of a Pampas cat from 1895, this one has a more distinct, striped coat. These diverse morphs of Pampas cats are one of the reasons behind their taxonomic controversy and debate about their status as species/sub-species will continue. But all of it will improve our knowledge and understanding of how organisms come to be species – to speciate. (Credit: Kevin Deacon, by GFDL)

Well…yes there are!

I would argue that the reason for the disagreement and controversy in terms of Pampas cat classification is entirely a matter of evolution. The Pampas cat challenges our notions of what a species or sub-species is entirely because this cat, that hundreds of thousands of years ago may have been one unified population with shared characteristics, is now 5-7 different populations with marked differences related to their elevation, habitat and population interactions. This cat is evidence of evolution.

This little known and adorable small cat is a poster-child for evolution in action. Who needs a missing link when this cat alone is a whole damn chain?

There’s no such thing as ‘too much cat’ so why not read more of our cat content.

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.
Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah – The larger cousin of our extant cheetah, if you think they’re impressive, wait until you read about these big boys!
Cats in Culture – A look at the importance of cats as an integrated part of human mythology, life and culture. From Freyja’s cat-chariot, the Maneki-Neko and cats in Ancient Egypt up to ‘Chat Noir’ posters and Meowth.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.



John’s Place: The Incredible Story Behind Hastings Museum and Art Gallery

John’s Place, just off Bohemia Road, Hastings. Seen here not long after completion in 1925, it is a truly stunning piece of architecture but what stories do those bricks hold? (Credit: Used under fair use, via Historical Hastings, if you are the copyright holder and wish it removed please contact me.)

Just Bricks and Mortar?

A beautiful view of John’s Place, the oriel window in the centre, the loggia to the right, the chimneys up above. It has so many interesting characteristics. The area to the left is an extension from 1932 and the building had reconstruction work done in 2006-2007. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Seldom do I start a little look at a museum with a focus on the building itself but it struck me immediately. This was an amazing building, and amazing buildings do not spring up from nowhere. Somebody must build them, and they must build them for someone. I wanted to know these people, and find out the story of this wonderful building.

John’s Place, as the house is known, is stunning.

The gulls are massing on the battlements! These crenellations are likely purely decorative and not for shooting from between. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

It has a stout, stoic, almost square main building with many interesting features. Most obvious is the crenellated roof, the style of jutting battlements most commonly associated with castles or fortifications.

There is an oriel window, like a bay window but suspended rather than touching the ground, on the approach-side, just above the main entrance, giving the impression that a Lord or Lady of the manor may well be observing visitors driving in from Bohemia Road.

The small loggia, a sort-of exterior roofed gallery (big fancy porch! Shh! don’t say that to architecture people) framed by scroll-topped ionic columns adds another touch of grandiosity.

Despite the fact that it looks like a tiny castle, the red-brick and sandstone used to build the bulk of the structure should give away the relatively modern construction date.  

The loggia, a roofed, often collonaded gallery stands at what may at one time have been the main entrance (which is now beneath the oriel window). Also I sat on that bench to the left. (Credit: © Copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

But I didn’t need it to be ancient to be interesting. I recognised what an odd and amazing building this was, I recognised that there was probably an interesting story behind it, but I could not have predicted the rabbit-hole it would send me down. I intended to write a short introduction on the architect of the place, a little bit about and the family who commissioned the building and then I was going to write about the museum itself and its various exhibits. Instead the story just kept getting bigger, the rabbit hole became a warren. 

I hope my research is correct. I am sadly locked behind paywalls from a lot of the archives to find the specifics and details. I would much rather have access to more of the primary sources, but there are sufficient threads out there that I believe this to be fairly well researched. If you know better of the history I go through, if I have made any errors or provided any falsehoods please do get in touch (Twitter is probably best) and let me know.

Who Was The Architect?

Bohemia Road, this portion is in St. Leonards-on-Sea, a town adjoining Hastings. Just off of this road, back in Hastings, is John’s Place. Records of architectural business show H. W. Coussens, the architect of John’s Place, worked on several properties on Bohemia Road. (Credit: © Copyright Chris Whippet and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

Plans for a dwelling on the site that would be John’s Place were first noted in 1923 in the local newspaper the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer. The to-be owner was one Mrs. Kidd and the architect was one H. W. Coussens.

H. W. Coussens was an architect local to Hastings and Sussex, indeed the surname is incredibly common in the area and there are still local building or construction companies with the name. I am unsure if they are related.

This Coussens is likely Henry Walter Coussens (1870-1949), born in Hastings to Walter Coussens and Elizabeth Long.

According to The British Architect from 1891 he appears to have passed his preliminary architecture qualifications in 1891. The Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects backs this up by suggesting a Henry Walter Coussens of Hastings was a Preliminary Associate in 1891 and a Student Associate in 1892. The Directory of British Architects 1834-1914 suggests he began independent practice in 1903.

Now you may think an architect bold enough to work on John’s Place would go on to great fame and fortune but it appears, more or less, that Coussens stuck around the Hastings and East Sussex area, sometimes building houses and the like, but more often performing alterations and extensions. He may even have been a council appointed architect for rural areas at one point. There seems to be a decent amount of information about things he worked on that I, sadly, do not have access to.

No doubt there are many buildings around Hastings and Sussex that bear the fruits of his work, whether he built them or assisted in their conversions into workshops, retail spaces or just stuck in an extension or two.

News just in (around 100 years ago!) but in looking for images related to Coussens I discovered that this former cinema, the Regent in Rye, was designed by a ‘Henry Coussens’ of Hastings! Possibly the same Coussens as the cinema was commissioned and built during his lifetime. It is itself an interesting building, both austere and decorative. It looks like a cross between a Victorian red-brick factory and art deco. The cinema was opened in 1932 but was sadly bombed to ruin in 1942, during World War II. The direct hit destroyed the building and killed the assistant manager. Every building has stories! (Credit: Mike_Blakemore, by Creative Commons)

I wish I could find out more. The building, John’s Place, is stunning in its features. It is almost a composite of styles that somehow defies sense and yet ties together into a perfect whole. This odd, squat 11th century keep style of a square house, with tall, Victorian stacks of chimneys, the medieval style oriel window and heavy, studded doors, and neo-classical, Ionic columned loggia – It shouldn’t work and yet it really does, so well is it executed.

Certainly I would like to know if Coussens ever built anything else like it. If not then what a remarkable building from someone whose body of work is otherwise so humble.

If you have any more information, I’d love to know. Please get in touch.

But that’s the story of the architect. What of the story of the owner, Mrs. Kidd?

The Remarkable Kidd Family

Note: I have often found competing dates for births and deaths – Dates may not be accurate

Frances Octavia Kidd (1857-1940?)
The birth and death years of Frances Kidd are hard to pin down!

Mrs. Kidd was the person who instructed Coussens to prepare, and build John’s Place. The house was named after her deceased son Gerald Christobel Kidd, called ‘John’ by his family, a medical student who died in 1909 aged just 24.

Given the size of the house the family clearly had money, so who were they?

Well to the best of my research Mrs. Kidd was Mrs. Frances Octavia Kidd, née Rouse. Sadly whilst I could find information on a lot of the men of the family, information about the women was very much lacking. So to tie things together let’s find out about her husband.

Joseph Kidd (1824-1918)

Dr Joseph Kidd in a family portrait photograph. Looking every bit the Victorian era doctor! (Credit: Public Domain)

Frances was the second wife of Joseph Kidd.

He was an Irish doctor born in Limerick and one of fifteen children.  He trained locally before moving to Dublin, and from there moved to London and worked at the Homeopathic Hospital.

However around this time the Great Famine happened in Ireland and he chose to move back to Ireland in order to help those suffering due to the famine conditions.

He moved back to London afterwards left the Homeopathic Hospital and appears to have mainly stopped prescribing homeopathic treatments.

In 1850 he married his first wife, Sophia McKern (1823-1872) and they had eight children together.

He established clinics in the City of London and Blackheath (then Kent, becoming part of the County of London in 1889) and became a very successful doctor, including being statesman and two-time Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s personal physician from 1877 up until Disraeli’s death in 1881.

The following information is mostly taken from:
Whitfield (1980), Disraeli’s Doctors, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians London, Jul: 14 (3), pp. 202-204.

Disraeli seemed a sickly sort, so he had many doctors to help treat his ailments through his life. He seems to have suffered from depressive symptoms in his early 20s, as well as later suffering gout and respiratory difficulties associated with asthma. He was very unhappy with his doctors at the time, Sir William Jenner (best known for discovering the distinction between typhus and typhoid fever) and Sir William Gull (appointed a physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria and more oddly embroiled in many conspiracies and theories regarding Whitechapel serial killer Jack the Ripper!).

“They are all alike,” Disraeli says in a letter to Lady Bradford, “First of all they throw it on the weather: then there must be a change of scene. So Sir W. Jenner after blundering and plundering in the usual way sent me to Bournemouth, and Gull wants to send me to Ems. I should like to send them both to Jericho.”

Benjamine Disraeli – Two time Conservative Prime Minister of the UK – He was baptised at age 12, which assisted him in a career in politics since, at the time, everyone had to swear into office by their “true faith as a Christian” making the occupation undesirable to practicing jews (though some did pursue the career). It’s all a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the basics. He is the only ever British Prime Minister who was jewish by birth. Despite his baptism he was still subject to much anti-semitic abuse in his life and career. (Credit: Public Domain)

Clearly unhappy with his treatments he was recommended Kidd by friends. Kidd recognised the asthma, as well as diagnosing Bright’s disease (nowadays called nephritis, inflammation of the kidneys that can have many causes) and bronchitis.

He prescribed something I wished I could have got on the NHS back when I had a kidney infection, the finest Chateau Lafite wine! This was to replace the previously prescribed port Disraeli had been drinking! On top of this he prescribed potassium iodide (nowadays more associated with treatment of hyperthyroidism, an overactive thyroid gland) and arsenic (nowadays pretty much only used to treat deadlier things than arsenic poisoning, such as certain leukaemias – it was also once used to treat syphilis).

Not available on NHS prescription! This is an 1861 Chateau Lafite. Approximate values are difficult (as supply/demand makes the prices vary wildly) but in 2010 three bottles of 1869 Chateau Lafite sold for a shade over $230,000 dollars each. (Credit: Ryan O’Connell, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

I’m not sure a modern GP would prescribe minimum £250 bottles of wine, potassium salts and poisonous metalloid chemical elements but this was the late 19th century and we have come a long way since then. Regardless Disraeli was very happy with his new doctor, saying, again in a letter to Lady Bradford, “I entertain the highest opinion of Dr Kidd.”

Naturally, though, Disraeli’s condition deteriorated and other medical opinions were sought. Because of his association with homeopathy many other doctors at the time refused to consult with Kidd regarding Disraeli, who maintained regular visits with the former Prime Minister. Upon being given assurances that Kidd was not prescribing homeopathically, and having checked on the ethics with his medical boards, one Dr Richard Quain did attend, at the request of Queen Victoria. Quain confirmed Kidd’s diagnoses of asthma and renal (kidney) failure.

By this point, though, all Disraeli’s doctors could do was offer comfort and on 19th April 1881, in the presence of Kidd, Quain, and others, Disraeli died. Kidd is sometimes reported to have been holding his hand when he died.

Just before all of this, though, in 1875, three years after the death of his first wife, Sophia, Kidd married Frances Octavia Rouse. They had seven children together.

On 20th August 1918 Joseph Kidd died in Hastings.

This cross marks the grave of Dr Joseph Kidd, and that of his son Gerald Christobel Kidd, known as “John” after whom John’s Place was named. The humble slab to the left marks the grave of Joseph’s second wife, the person who had John’s Place built, Frances Octavia Kidd. This is in Eltham Cemetary, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, London. (Credit: Used under fair use, via the Brethren Archive – If you own the copyright of this image and would like it removed please contact us)

So what became of his family?

Well, five years later we know his wife commissioned the amazing building of John’s Place. But many of his children also went on to influence society both locally and nationally.

A lot of them, funnily enough, became doctors!

The Kidd Kids

Sadly, having had around 15 children in total, an awful lot of them have little-to-no record. But here is quick look at a selection of a few of the children of Joseph Kidd, by both Sophia and Frances, and a couple of grandchildren too.

Percy Marmaduke Kidd (1851-1942)

The oldest child, by Joseph and Sophia Kidd, became a successful London doctor. He also tried his hand at first-class cricket but made only one appearance for Kent against Middlesex and, thanks to two ducks, ended with a first-class career batting average of 0.00!

Walter Aubrey Kidd (1852-1929)  

Another child of Joseph and Sophia who also became a successful London doctor and was also a supporter of Lamarckian evolution – A system of evolution that, unlike Natural Selection, proposes characteristics can be encouraged and passed on through use and disuse.

Eric Leslie Kidd (1889-1984)

What a dapper chap! Photographed around 1910 this is Eric Leslie Kidd in his cricket whites. Sadly his potential England cricket career was halted by World War I and subsequently he moved to Dublin where he worked at Guinness. He played internationally for Ireland instead, debuting for them against Scotland in August 1921. He continued to make sporadic appearances for Middlesex, too. (Credit: Peter Kidd, Eric’s Grandson – believed Public Domain)

The grandson of Joseph Kidd and son of Percy and (I believe?) Gertrude Eleanor Harrison. He was a first-class cricketer and played for Middlesex and Ireland. He moved to Ireland after World War I where he eventually became a director at Guinness – Yes, that Guinness!

Leonard Joseph Kidd (1858-1926)

Another child of Joseph and Sophia who went on to become a surgeon. There is little information available but he fathered quite a notable child;

Ronald Hubert Kidd (1889-1942)

A half-plate film negative of Ronald Kidd, by Howard Coster, 1940. The Council for Civil Liberties he would found, in 1934, with Sylvia Crowther-Smith, would include such founder members as author E. M. Forster, Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, nurse and writer Vera Brittain, Aneurin Bevan whose time as Labour Minister for Health saw the establishment of the NHS, polymath Bertrand Russel, Doctor and politician Edith Summerskill and many, many more. It was a ‘Who’s Who?’ of left-leaning, liberal thinkers and activists and under the name ‘Liberty’ is still active today. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0)

Grandson of Joseph Kidd, son of Leonard Joseph Kidd, an activist and campaigner against injustice who went on to found the Council for Civil Liberties (today known as Liberty) following his anger at the police response to the Hunger Marchers.

Francis Seymour Kidd (1878-1934)

Francis Seymour Kidd – he would go on to revolutionise urology in the UK after spending time in Berlin and seeing the success of the German School of Urology. (Credit: Used under fair use, image via the British Association of Urological Surgeons – If you own the copyright of this image and would like it removed please contact us.)

The son of Joseph and Frances who became a successful urologist, founding the British Journal of Urology and becoming its first editor.

And finally the remarkable story of;

Beatrice Mary Kidd (1876-1957)

Possibly the first child of Joseph and Frances, though I can’t be sure, she seems to have a very unsung but fascinating story. I am also unsure if sexism or privacy is the reason behind the lack of information about her, my suspicion would be the former. Regardless what I found was someone with quite an incredible tale.

You see Beatrice followed in the family footsteps and became a doctor herself.

Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson in 1889. She and others helped blaze a trail for the misogynistic universities and medical associations to accept female students and doctors. (Credit: Public Domain)

To put her life and career in some kind of perspective the first recognised, licensed female practitioner of medicine was Dr Elizabeth Garret Anderson, who obtained her licence from the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1865. This was somewhat of a loophole, as the society’s charter did not allow for discrimination. This loophole was closed the very following year.

There had been at least one licensed female doctor prior to this, however Margaret Ann Bulkley was not known as Dr Margaret, but Dr James Barry! She adopted a male persona and disguise. Women had long been associated with medical practice but the formalisation of the discipline created their exclusion as early as the 16th century and thus any woman seeking to get into medical practice, at least licensed medical practice, would have to resort to such methods.

Dr Anderson’s qualification hardly swung the doors open for women doctors. The likes of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake and the rest of the Edinburgh Seven would continue the struggle for women to be admitted to medical study and caused uproar, protest, riot and, eventually, change through their persistence. By 1876, thanks to the painstaking work of Dr Anderson, Dr Jex-Blake and many others the ‘Enabling Act’ or Medical Act 1876 finally, legally, allowed for the licensing of all qualified applicants regardless of gender.

Whilst the doors may have finally been opened, this did not remove the obstacles of organised, structural misogyny. It was an ‘enabling act’, that is to say whilst organisations could license female doctors they did not have to, and many didn’t. Even Queen Victoria was said to be quite opposed to women studying medicine, so you can only imagine the social pressures for organisations to continue denying women the right to become doctors.

These seven women would cause uproar, and even a riot, for daring to pursue a career in medicine. The Edinburgh Seven, along with many other women activists, including Elizabeth Garret Anderson, struggled for decades for the right to study medicine and be recognised as qualified medical professionals. (Credit: Believed Public Domain (if you own the copyright to this image and would like it removed please contact us), via Museums and Galleries Edinburgh)

It would not be until 1892, when our Dr Beatrice Mary Kidd was 16 years old, that the British Medical Association finally accepted female doctors.

Obviously the discrimination doesn’t end there, though. Medical association acceptance does not equal social acceptance, especially after hundreds of years of specific discrimination and a vociferous campaign against it in the 50-or-so years prior. Women doctors would still have faced huge social stigma, harassment and discrimination.

This is the context of Dr Beatrice Mary Kidd getting into the profession. Perhaps not one who blazed the trail, but still a pioneer of modern women’s medicinal practice, among the first wave of brave women willing to stand up to social castigation and pursue a passion for helping others using scientific knowledge and technical skill.

Much of the following information comes from Lady Doctors of the Malta Garrison; Beatrice Mary Kidd 1876-1957, accessed Dec. 14 2021, online.

Dr. Kidd passed her preliminary examinations in 1898 (link to PDF), aged 22, from Westfield College and Bedford College London. In 1904, aged around 28, she qualified from the London School of Medicine for Women as a Bachelor of Medicine.

The London School of Medicine for Women was set up in 1874 by many of the women we have already mentioned, and others. It was to provide a place free from the hostility those women had suffered as they struggled to learn and start a career in the medical field. The organisation would go on to be incorporated into the University College London Medical School. (Credit: Wellcome Images, CC-BY-4.0)

For the next ten years it seems that she took up a post as clinical assistant at two hospitals, and travelled to India for a residency at the Kinnaird Hospital in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh State.

By 1914 she seems to be a Schools Medical Officer in Bromley.

Shortly after this, having already made quite a bold trip to India, she seems to have joined the Lady Doctors of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) when they were sent to Malta in 1916. Casualties from the ill-fated operation at Gallipoli, and Salonika, were often sent to Malta for treatment.

The whole era around World War I was a time of dramatic change for women in the UK. The huge numbers of men who enlisted for the war, the huge numbers of men injured or killed, meant women had to step in and fill roles previously denied to them, and out of necessity even men who opposed this had to step aside. One of the roles where women excelled was as doctors.

Beatrice left Britain in September of 1916, having been employed by the RAMC as a civilian surgeon, on the Hospital Ship Essequibo. She returned to England around a year later, having served her residency, in September 1917.  

His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Essequibo, originally built as a Royal Mail carrier ship, here seen in Naples in 1916. This is the ship that would have carried Dr Beatrice and her colleagues to Malta to serve as doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps. (Credit: Believed public domain (if you own the copyright to this image and would like it removed please contact us) via Birtwhistle Wiki)

If I am not mistaken (and I may be) this record is that of the daughter of Frances and Joseph Kidd. A woman with a remarkable story. What is most unbelievable is that there is not more information about her but I can tell you some of her brother’s cricket records!

What’s more, to link back to the very building this all started with, one Dr B. M. Kidd was reported to be accessible by telephone at John’s Place – the very site of this wonderful museum – in the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer on 25th April 1925! Surely this, too, is our Dr Beatrice?

What stories of her experiences did this woman carry? What tales of her travels to India, or her time serving as a doctor in Malta? What trials, tribulations and discrimination did she endure to pursue a career she clearly felt a passion, as well as a strong familial connection, for?

Sadly I don’t know. Whether through social ignorance or her own desire for privacy there is little information out there about her. But if my research is correct and I’ve connected the right dots, what an absolutely incredible story all from being interested in one oddly beautiful house. A house connected to what must be one of the most prestigious medical families in UK history, given the number of doctors they produced. How many other grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of Joseph and Sophia or Joseph and Frances are currently practicing in the UK, or around the world?

Back Home, to John’s Place

So how come, in 1927, only 4 years after work was begun, the house was sold?

I don’t know.

Via Historial Hastings I know our friends at the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, and council records, tell us that the house at John’s Place and it’s 2¾ acres of land were sold to Hastings council for a very reasonable £7,500 on the 19th July 1927.

A snippet from the Hastings and St. Leonards Observer regarding the sale of John’s Place to the council for the purpose of using it as a museum. (Credit: Used under fair use, via Historical Hastings, if you are the copyright holder and wish it removed please contact me.)

One might ask why, when you have so many successful children and step-children you wouldn’t keep a house like that. There could be many reasons. Perhaps in supporting those children Frances’ funds got short. Perhaps the success of the children, their moving away to London and elsewhere, meant a large house and estate was not practical for the few who remained. Perhaps, knowing the council were looking for a new location to house their local museum collection Frances merely thought it’d be nice to sell it for such a purpose and move elsewhere.

The Observer, again, makes it apparent that she was at the museum opening ceremony in 1928, so clearly this was not an acrimonious sale by any means.

There is probably a lot to the story that I don’t know. There is probably much more I could find out. Sadly there is likely an awful lot of it now lost to time. I think there is a case to be made to try and find out more.

Finally

One of the things I love about researching is getting lost!

That’s exactly what happened here.

I was intending to write about the museum itself, the building, the interior, the various things on display. The place is one of those weird and wonderful local collections with a little bit of everything. I’m not much of a pottery guy (unless it’s Samian ware) but even I was converted by their gallery on working with clay!

I didn’t get to do that, though. Maybe some other time? Instead I popped down a rabbit hole just trying to find out who Kidd, the first owner of the building, and Coussen, the architect, were.

If you think the stories of this building end here, I didn’t even touch the Durbar Hall! Originally on display as part of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, South Kensington, 1868 it was purchased by Lord Brassey, gifted to the Borough of Hastings in 1919 by its inheritor the second Lord Brassey and installed at John’s Place in 1931 as part of the extension works. It is a replica of what the interior of an Indian palace would look like, two Punjabi woodcarvers were brought to Britain to help make this incredible room. If there aren’t dozens of stories attached to these ornate carved wood structures alone I’d be surprised! (Credit: Phil Sellens CC-BY-2.0)

I did not expect to find what I found, which is a mind-blowing tale that potentially links the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery to a significant family in UK medical history, potentially two Prime Ministers (Joseph Kidd is said to have also been a physician for Gladstone as well), a globetrotting female medical pioneer, many cricketers including one who played for the MCC, a globally famous Irish Stout company, an early supporter of evolutionary theory and a man who founded a civil liberties group in the UK!

I hope beyond all hope, as a total amateur historian, whose main tool and archive is a search engine, that I have not made a catastrophic error in these discoveries and deductions. If I have erred, please correct me.

But surely you can see by all the little threads, the connections that sew this amazing family into the very fabric of the history of Hastings and beyond that if I have made a mistake it would be because of one massive coincidence!

So here’s to John’s Place and the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery – A building that already houses enough stories from elsewhere via its amazing collections, but seems to have an incredible story of its own.

To find out more about the museum and its collections, or to book a visit, click here.

In Remembrance

In recent years, and much to the chagrin of many, a movement to use the white poppy has emerged. It represents remembrance of all victims of war. Not merely our own national service personnel, but all personnel, and civilians too. It represents remembrance of those resistors, imprisoned or killed for their stance of peace; or those shell-shocked, killed so callously as ‘cowards’ for experiencing overwhelming, and overwhelmingly human, feelings, emotions and mental disorder in the face of the most horrific of experiences.
It also represents peace, an acknowledgment that war should never be considered a simple solution.
I hope it will continue to rise in popularity, and put pressure on those in society, and those politicians, who pay lip-service to remembrance whilst sending more people off to die, excusing more civilian slaughter in the name of military campaigns, and promoting or protecting arms manufacturers and traders who profit from perpetuating a human cycle of suffering that is long overdue an end. (Credit: Public Domain via Pxfuel)

Content Warning: Contains descriptions of violence, sexual assault, conflict, and misery.

So much of history, particularly popular history, is aggrandising. It is a generator of a sense of identity for specific groups whether that is religious, national or even just a small group within society.

Military history is especially like this and it is disturbing how much history is militarily focussed. I personally dislike it. It is far too often presented as a condensation of conflict into simple narratives that ignore the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of lives lost or altered for the worst, in the most cold, brutal and disgusting of ways.

It has a tendency to lionise the aspects of conflict that people have endured. It creates simple spirits, attitudes and heroes that if they existed at all were merely a smile in the face of futility; a necessity. People did not have a choice. They endured or else died.

I fear we tend to celebrate that endurance without truly highlighting the savagery and the horrors that necessitated the endurance in the first place. We tend to suffer survivorship bias, whereby we praise those who endured, but forget those who did not, or could not. In some cases this is mere forgetfulness, but in others it manifests much worse; in blame. “They did not have what it took.” It is maddening, and saddening.

Where people do speak or write of this they are often accused of being bleeding hearts, trembling pacifists afraid to ‘stand up’, peaceniks and hippies, they are lambasted by people who perceive ‘pacifism’ to be a dirty word and not an acceptable path. These are people who see the concept before the person, who see the uniform before the wound and the blood.

Many of the people who think these things likely imagine themselves in the place of their heroes. They imagine themselves in those same situations, doing the right thing, leading the charge, protecting their friends and comrades and sacrificing their very lives for what is ‘right’. This is folly. The human brain has a tendency to overestimate our capacities. We cannot know how we will behave in a life-or-death situation until we are in one, and in those circumstances the so-called strongest people can find themselves paralysed and trembling, and the unlikeliest of candidates can exhibit remarkable feats of bravery.

The UK is particularly guilty of this glorification. We seem to have a popular narrative that promotes an unconquerable ‘spirit’, rather than a necessary grind of endurance.

The UK, through the years, has littered the world with misery and corpses through warfare. Many are the bodies unknown, at home and abroad, domestic and foreign, killed in our conflicts. Yet I find it hard to speak with many about the horrors without it having to be turned into glory.

How quick we forget the lessons of our secondary school World War I educations. The armchair generals, ill-thought-out tactics and sacrifices willingly placed upon an altar of violence by those who would never actually face the dangers or cast their eyes upon the hellish horrors of that blood-mudded battlefield.

We talk of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ as if that event wasn’t a misplaced attempt of an invasion gone awry, leading to one of the biggest retreats in history. Did it lead to some incredible acts of bravery in the face of danger? Yes, but in focussing on the bravery, rather than the danger, I fear we miss the point. Dunkirk happened because of a cock-up by the top brass who were bailed out by merchants and people who caught fish for a living. The failure of the invasion is merely an undercoat, glossed over with the shiny necessity that regular people had to step up or else the entire war could have been lost.

It talks of the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the supposed closeness that British people felt when they were being bombarded by explosives from Nazi Germany. Little is told of people starving under rationing and eating their pets, robbing and raiding bombed out homes, and black market trade in restricted items. Little attention in the popular narrative is paid to the pillage, violence and rape so endemic during those uncertain, dark, blackout years.

There is talk of ‘bravery’ and ‘courage’ from people who enlisted only to be broken. We speak little of the families of men who signed up becoming victims of those common themes in male PTSD; mental torture, substance abuse and physical violence.  We speak little of the families who suffered for generations because of it.

We skip over the number of men so shattered on the battlefields of World War I that they became ‘shell-shocked’, many of whom were killed as ‘cowards’ by the same kinds of people, and the same kinds of thinking, that insist on creating heroes out of what are, ostensibly, victims.

It has widely been acknowledge through history, by many of the greatest generals and tactical military thinkers, that the best way to win is the way without fighting. Yet there is always some vainglorious politician willing to throw lives away for even a hint of glory, a statue in Westminster and that least human, most obnoxious of titles – ‘hero’.

I do not wish to tell people what to think. That is for each individual to decide. Nor can I tell people how to think, that will be determined by a variety of factors relating to cognition, conditioning and capacity.

I will tell people, though, to at least think.

Abstract heroes did not die on our battlefields. Human beings did.

Nor did they find their peace in death. Instead, much as their corpses once lay used, twisted and mangled on battlefields; today they are twisted and mangled by those who would seek to use their deaths for glory, their sacrifices for honour and their spent lives to further the prosperity of their own. For all our talk of remembrance, we forget so quickly the attitudes, ideas and personalities that led us to such horrible mass slaughter.

To let them truly rest in peace the ultimate act of remembrance is not to consider them heroes. They died as pawns, we must let them rest as human beings and stop playing with them.

We seem, in recent times, to vote for those historical attitudes, for glory and grandiosity. We seem to be voting to send ourselves on an inevitable course to the next global scale mass slaughter. How quick we forget, for all our talk of remembrance.

There has never been a glorious war. There has never been a dignified death. Every struggle we romanticise and glamourise is another comforting lie in the face of often grim, uncomfortable truth.  

We should remember them. But we should remember them as they are, and as they were.

Here’s to the human beings, all of them, their lives ended or else dramatically changed by conflict. I will remember people, not concepts. I will remember suffering, not glory. I will remember, and always pursue, truth rather than fantasy.


The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen – World War I Poet
Born 18th March 1893 – Died in conflict, 4th November 1918 – only a week before the armistice.

Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi

Surrounded by wildlife and the natural, St. Francis is one of the most widely revered saints and for damn good reason. He is associated with a love of nature and his ability with animals. He is usually depicted wearing simple robes or a cloak, sometimes with a pilgrim’s staff. This is from the Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Coyoacan, Mexico. (Credit: Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca CC-BY-2.0)

I suspect no matter their views on religion or Christianity many people, especially natural scientists, have a soft spot for St. Francis. He is a patron saint of Italy, and the founder of the Franciscan order of monks. However he is probably most famous as the patron saint of animals and ecology.

He was born to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Assisi in the 12th century, and was baptised as Giovanni, but his father would call him ‘Francesco’. It was a bit of double entendre by all acounts, a play on both “Freedom” and “Lover of French things.” The young Francis was, allegedly, a carefree sort and a Francophile. The latter likely inspired by his French mother.

By many accounts he was a typical wealthy young man, dressing well, living well and throwing money about. However he became disillusioned.

One of the early stories is of St. Francis and the beggar. Whilst working at the market place selling his silks, cloth and velvet, he was approached by a beggar asking for money. Francis, after concluding his business, ran after the beggar and gave him everything he had in his pockets, to much mockery from his friends and anger from his father.

St. Francis giving his cloak to a beggar. There are few people, few saints, written about as performing so many small, but significant charities as St. Francis. A kind heart does not only look for the big gestures, but constantly delivers the small ones, too. This fresco is by Giotto di Bondone around 1300 CE. Giotto is widely regarded as one of the most influential of proto-renaissance painters. He painted many scenes of Saint Francis. (Credit: Public Domain)

It wasn’t until after his military career that he seemed to really develop those Franciscan traits to their full, though. He was captured in an expedition against Perugia and imprisoned, apparently becoming quite ill. This caused him to rethink his life but on returning to Assisi he got back to his wealthy lifestyle. In 1205, however, he planned to enlist in an army yet again but…didn’t.

He had a vision, and after that just wasn’t at all interested in living an earthly life, with all its trappings, anymore. He lived as a beggar. He lived like a hermit in a cave near San Damiano to escape the ire of his father. When he did return home his father beat him and locked him up. He was released by his mother and once again went and sought sanctuary in San Damiano, this time with the church.

He was pursued by his father during this time, seemingly to prevent his son having any of his wealth. St. Francis, at a trial before the Bishop of Assisi, is said to have renounced his father and any patrimony (money or property inherited from your father) he could provide. In some versions stripping himself naked as a token of this renouncement and being covered up by the Bishop with the Bishop’s own cloak; A sure endorsement of his holiness.

Another Giotto, this time of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. (Credit: Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

After this Francis was a wanderer and was given the iconic style we know him from today, humble robes and a pilgrim’s staff. He set about living a penitent life, a life of atonement, presumably in pursuit of spiritual forgiveness for his earlier lavish lifestyle. He is said to have restored several chapels and churches on his own. One such church is San Damiano’s in Assisi, which he apparently restored by going around the town begging for stones and carrying them, one by one, to the chapel to rebuild it.

St. Francis truly believed in creation, and believed all that God had made was good. It was human sin that the world’s ill. It is this attitude, his appreciation of life, nature and its beauty that would become his lasting, popular legacy.

So popular in fact that in the 14th century a collection of folk tales about Francis, the ‘Fioretti di San Francesco’ – Or ‘Little Flowers of Saint Francis’ – was published.

One of these stories is a parable that every wildlife enthusiast, biologist, zoologist and ecologist should read, the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio.

A simple statue of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio – The story is an incredible one and whether you want to think of it as merely a fable or whether you truly believe it the lessons it teaches us are profound and relevant to this day. I cannot find any details about this statue! But I like its gorgeous simplicity. (Credit: Wikiarius CC-BY-SA-3.0)

St. Francis spent time in the city of Gubbio, in Umbria (Central Italy, north of Rome and east of Tuscany) and whilst there a wolf was taking livestock and upsetting the residents. The wolf then graduated to taking people and so the city was determined to hunt the wolf down. St. Francis was unhappy with this, sure that the wolf must have its reasons.

He went up into the hills and found the wolf, and spoke with it. He found out that the wolf was alone, with no pack, and was stricken with hunger. He told the wolf he would ensure the people of Gubbio would feed him, and he would never be hungry again. In exchange he asked the wolf to promise not to harm any more people or livestock.

The wolf submitted to Francis, putting its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of their pact, and St. Francis led the wolf back to town. Francis delivered a sermon to the people of Gubbio, he told them of why the wolf had done what it had done, and of the pact he had made. Once again, publicly, the wolf put its paw in Francis’ hand as a sign of their agreement. The people were happy.

A bronze panel showing Saint Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio embracing. They are kindred spirits under God. There are other people and animals depicted, too. Showing how Francis did not have an exclusive connection to nature, rather he shared his bandwidth with all. It was sculpted by Farpi Vignoli in 1973 and can be seen at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittorina in Gubbio. (Credit: Christopher John SSF CC-BY-2.0)

The wolf lived in Gubbio, provided for by the people and never again attacking livestock or humans, for a further two years. It patrolled the town, kept people safe, kept people happy as this sign of holiness and miracles, this tamed wolf, wandered their streets.

You might think this total bollocks! However during renovations of the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace in Gubbio in 1872, a skeleton of a large wolf was found. It was reburied in the newly renovated church. Perhaps that is the very same wolf and this story is true?

I love this story because I think it speaks of the understanding and patience needed in matters of human-wildlife conflicts. One must understand both sides. The people were not horrible for wanting to kill the wolf. Neither, though, was the wolf horrible for killing and eating people. They were both doing what they had to do to survive. St. Francis recognised this and set out not to chastise or castigate anyone, but to listen and find a resolution that pleased the people and the animal.

Heaven’s acceptance of the benevolent Saint Francis. This is ‘Saint Francis on his Death Bed’. He is held tenderly by the angel at his side, a smiling comfort. Other angels beckon him, reaching out their hands or pointing to the heavens. There are also angels in anguish, so holy is St. Francis that angels do actually weep for him. The engraving is by Bernard Picart, ~1710. (Credit: The Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

It’s this Franciscan approach that many of our best ecologists and conservationists have adopted, whether knowingly or merely by figuring out, as he did, that this is best practice. As human populations grow and land use changes so that humans occupy and use more territory, particularly in developing nations, human-wildlife conflict is inevitable. An overly sentimentalised view of either the needs of people or the lives of animals is going to increase the difficulty of finding that middle way, that Franciscan compromise. That compromise is vital to protect human interests without doing harm to nature. We must find balance.

There’s a tendency, particularly in developed nations, to see persecution of native wildlife by native people as a symbol of barbaric practice, a sign of their lack of education or morals. It’s just not true! If lions, jaguars or bears are taking your livestock or if elephants are trampling your houses and destroying your crops it is reasonable to be upset. It’s reasonable to seek to remove the threat. It is also easy, from a comfortable house in a developed town in the UK, Western Europe or the USA to judge. Particularly in the UK where the largest, most dangerous predator we have is the red fox, it’s easy to see someone kill a lion in retaliation and say “That’s horrible.” But we don’t live with lions on our doorstep nicking our livelihoods, our food or, worse, our friends and family.

The Franciscan approach, then, is vital. We must understand the harm caused on both sides and seek measures to mitigate conflict, manage human-wildlife conflicts and ensure a good outcome for all sides.

St. Francis in his robe and with his pilgrim’s staff. You will notice that Francis, like Julian of Norwich, is rarely depicted in a grand fashion. Even when the piece itself is a grand, extravagant composition, St. Francis is simple, muted, in his brown or grey robes. You may also have picked up that I like this. (Credit: Public Domain via PXFuel)

Even removing my biological background, St. Francis is respected by me because if his story is true he is an excellent example of what I think a Christian should be. The teachings of Jesus Christ don’t exactly pussyfoot about the matter. The rich, successful, comfortable or selfish ain’t getting into heaven. It’s in Mark Chapter 10, verses 17-31. This is the famous “Camel through the eye of a needle” bit.

A wealthy young man approaches Jesus and asks how he may get in to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus is all like “Just do the commandments, mate.” And the man confirms he has. So Jesus says “Well sell all ya shit, give the money to the poor and come follow me.” To which the man is quite unhappy because he’s got designer shirts and a PS5 or whatever. This is when Jesus says “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

He doesn’t say “Give a bit away, that’ll do.” It is a complete renouncement of earthly possessions, and their use in aiding those less fortunate that is demanded by Jesus here. It is a commitment to that penitent type of life that St. Francis followed that Jesus seems to be demanding in order to guarantee your place at God’s side.

Those Christians that truly practice what is preached are scarce.

An oil painting of St. Francis. He is depicted with an almost grim severity here. His hair is messy and gnarly, his beard unkempt and in those tatty brown robes. But he is surrounded by his reasons. He studies, likely reading the Bible. He clutches a cross, complete with crucified Christ, and a rosary. Never releasing his grip, his stigmatised grip (notice the wound, the stigmata, on his hand), from the Lord and Saviour who is his guidance. The skull a memento mori, a reminder that his time on earth is fleeting.
This kind of imagery should not be the reserve of the Christian’s alone. It has deep meaning to many humans, it inspires something in most people. Admiration of religious art, from texts, through icons, to paintings and statues, is not something atheistic people should shy away from. (Credit: Lluís Ribes Mateu CC-BY-NC-2.0)

On charity Jesus says “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) Basically public acts of charity get you no Heaven credits but to a wider extent – Do not show off or be deliberately extravagant either!

On how to live Jesus says “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Basically there’s God and then there’s the golden rule – treat others how you would wish to be treated. If you aren’t doing that, no heaven for you!

“God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) It’s pretty clear! Christianity is not a part-time pursuit for people in big houses who want to feel they’re ‘blessed’. It is not for people who are dishonest with themselves in how they act in accordance with their faith. It is not a blessing to lie to yourself and pretend you’re holy when you’re not. One must worship in truth. People who do not worship in truth are the opposite of blessed according to what Jesus said! They are damned!

It’s led to a modern Christianity far removed from what seems to have been intended in the scripture. I look at it and think “Well at least I live in truth! I know I’m a piece of shit! It’s why I’m not a Christian!” But I am very bothered by hypocrites who claim to be Christian and yet they seldom practice what is preached. That is not acting in truth and it is my belief that, regardless of any faith or religious obligation, one should always act in truth.

A stunning mural of St. Francis from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You may notice this is a very modern piece. St. Francis is still relevant. Given our climate crisis, human overpopulation and the current extinction event, possibly more relevant than ever. This mural shows St. Francis, bathed in holy, yellow light, radiating holiness. Perched above his shoulder appears to be a white dove, perhaps symbolic of the holy spirit and where that spirit is most likely to dwell. St. Francis is on the side of nature. The wolf, however, stands within an obscuring mist. He is surrounded by vice, a spilled glass, a needle, pills and bags of drugs by his feet. The wolf of Gubbio was led astray by his hunger. What is it, then, that we truly hunger when we sate our appetites with intoxication and the trappings of modern life? The compassion and understanding of St. Francis come from a willingness to establish why animals or people behave the way they do. How else can you fix it? “God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But there is no truth in shying away from hard facts. There are lies. Animal suffering is. Animals can be cruel. St. Francis never denied this. Nor should we deny that poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and rampant misery are in our lives. In this mural the Wolf of Gubbio has come to represent a compassion for nature in all its forms, including our own human ones. (Credit: Jim McIntosh CC-BY-2.0)

St. Francis, though, he bloody went and did it. He lived in spirit and truth. He showed total devotion to a Christian lifestyle of service to the Lord, to the word of Christ, to nature and to others. He is a shining beacon for how Christianity should be practiced. For that I have a lot of respect for this saint.

Saint Francis, as I said, is enduring. His legacy is one of love and compassion for everything on our planet, for making charitable gestures, reconciliations and resolutions, big and small, to make the world a better place.

As the G20 meet, and COP26 carries on even I, an atheist, can look at the life and stories of St. Francis and take genuine, almost spiritual inspiration. His was a blueprint for how we should have been treating our planet and the other creatures we share it with since his life, since before he was born, even.

There are ‘Christians’ around the world living comfortable lives, in big houses, driving gas-guzzling cars, rooting, tooting and shooting a level of disrespect to the world that Saint Francis would be saddened by. He is a model not only of Christian behaviour, but of human behaviour. He is a solid, firm example of how we should all live to make everyone and everything’s lives just that little bit better.

It is now an even more desperate imperative. The world, its species and its climate, hangs in the balance for the wrongs we have done. We could all do with heeding the lessons, and emulating the life of Saint Francis.

For these reasons, Saint Francis of Assisi is my favourite saint.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!

Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel

You knew I couldn’t make it through 6 articles about religion without some Gustave Doré, I’ve already written about how much I love his work. This is from Doré’s illustrations of the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton. It tells the tale of the wars for the heavens, beginning with Lucifer’s rebellion against God. Here we see the result of that. The radiant Michael, top-centre, beams of light like lightning around him, casts the rebellious angels to their fall. Among their number is Lucifer himself, whose fall would see a name change to Satan, and the adoption of his ire and ‘evil’. The rebels are all in poses of defence or desperation, closed of posture or reaching for safety. The angels of heaven, meanwhile, are open, aggressive, in forward pursuit. Their power and dominance, the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ is evident. The rebels descend from the glorious light down to an unknown darkness. This is the essence of Michael. (Credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain).

We must – absolutely must – have something on our lists that is the exception to the rule. Saint Michael is not a true saint. He’s not even a folk saint like Julian. There’s good reason for that. How does one canonise an angel? If not for that reason Michael would be top billing!

His name, Michael (or, broken down, Mika El) translates from its native Hebrew as ‘Who is like God’, which many people take as meaning he is similar to God. Michael is, besides Christ, the closest to God. However it can be read in another way. It can be read as “Who is like God?” That question mark is important. He may not be a being similar to God. He may be the agent who begs the question; Which of you is actually anything like our supreme deity? Who is like God? It’s rhetorical. The answer, an answer Michael is the very enforcer of, is nothing and no one.

The Archangel Michael, then, is God’s spear, God’s hammer, and God’s righteousness. He is also the holy shield, the Aegis, of the pious and particularly is recognised as so in Jewish tradition. He is the protector of the Jewish people. He is the very authority of God and exerts the force of Heavenly superiority.

He’s metal as fuck!

Stick some flaming hills and shit in the background and how is this not a metal album cover? A modern interpretation, I think. Either way it shows Michael at his Michaelest. A foot upon the figure beneath him in dominance, the figure is bound in a chain, Michael twisting his body, sword raised and pointed ready to strike and kill evil itself. Angels are said to be unwavering, emotionless in their service to the Lord. Is that look on Michael’s face a minor imperfection, then? Or is there anger from the lords servants, are they permitted to feel when what they feel is disdain for evil? He is righteous angry and on a warpath. (Credit: NightmareCreaturesOnline, Used Without Permission)

I’m a huge Satan fan. When you put aside deliberate propaganda, Satan seems less evil and more misunderstood. I know that’s a trope, I’m sorry but it’s just how I feel. It’s not Satan who performs untold horrors on Job in the Book of Job, it’s God at Satan’s dare. If Michael begs the question “Who is like God?” then Satan begs the questions “What makes God so great?” and “Who is not capable of being like God?” Satan prods at the imperfections of God that Michael covers up.

Satan is often described as a deceiver, a trickster and a corrupting force on humanity. However, again, reading further around the scripture and particularly other non-biblical translations of the Hebrew books in the Old Testament, and old Hebrew stories, to me it always seems more like he is encouraging people to know they can be bad. They can be, but they don’t have to be. This makes sense since ‘Satan’ is not necessarily used as a proper noun, a name, much at all in the Bible. Rather it is a role, a job title, translating from Hebrew roughly as “Opponent”, “Accuser” or “Adversary” – It is a legal role. The Satan is literally playing Devil’s Advocate!

My favourite image of Lucifer, as a fallen, dejected now former angel. This does not show unbridled evil, it shows despair and vulnerability. Lucifer is ambition itself, ambition so great it seeks to dethrone God. He has failed in his first attempt and his pride, his purpose, his strength is all wounded and in question. His mission is an impossible one yet still he strives and in opposing God he incurs the wrath of God’s sword, Michael. They will become great enemies. The portrayal of Lucifer/Satan in Paradise Lost is a surprisingly nuanced one. (Credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain)

So Satan, to me, shows one can have knowledge of evil, one can have an awareness of the advantages that can be gained through that evil, but one can also choose to do good regardless; to give up the advantages of evil in the pursuit of good. I find that quite powerful, and it makes those who pursue holiness knowing evil that much more powerful to me.

It’s one of the reasons I hate the ‘fall of mankind’ shtick. That came about not because Eve ate some errant apple God forbade her to eat. The fruit she was forbidden to eat was the ‘fruit of the tree of knowledge good and evil’. Adam and Even were not pious or chaste in Eden, they were just ignorant. Likewise, after eating the fruit they were not impious or evil, they were embarrassed and ashamed.

I’ve got a bible series so read about it there. It just makes me second guess the whole idea that the serpent (not identified in Genesis as a deity or ‘the Devil’ but given that meaning later – There’s a nice article about it here) tempted Eve in a deliberate plot to make humanity ‘evil’. The temptation was to give them knowledge of things God had deemed them to be not worthy of knowing and…Well…Look at my website! I’m totally against any authority claiming there are things the supposedly ‘lowly’ should not know! If we take the serpent as being Satan, I situationally agree with him here.

Needless to say I think Satan is one of, if not the most powerful angel in the Christian lore.

Yeah, get used to this pose from Michael. He is the symbol of good’s triumph over evil – that’s what this motif represents. Michael is stood here, righteously, dominant, his foot on the throat of his opponent, usually a devil, demon or dragon. He cuts a perfect, Platonic, form. Angels are often presented in this idealised fashion, the angels, the divine, removed from men but the very picture of ideal manhood. Is this God’s image, in which both angels and humans were made? His opponent is a chimaera, an abomination, by comparison. He has a man’s body but with bird-like feet, and what were once his feathered angel’s wings are now creepy, fleshy and bat-like. They are less than angels now, and Michael proves it. (Credit: Marco Dente, 16th Century, Public Domain)

So when I say Michael kills him, and pretty soundly too, well it gives you an idea of Michael’s place. This angel is the very guardian of God, his ways and his people.

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: He was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

Revelation 12:7-9

The ‘dragon’ is clearly identified as Satan and the Devil. Michael leads the armies of heaven into battle with Satan and his unrighteous horde and casts them out into the Earth. Now this may not sound like he kills him but Revelation is a prophetic book, it foretells the end times. Being left on the earth when that happens is akin to death and damnation.

From Doré’s illustrations of the bible, this shows not only the scene of Michael plunging, sword aimed at his enemy, the great dragon, Satan himself, from Revelation 12:7-9, it also depicts a woman holding a child, presumably Mary and the infant Christ;
“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” Revelation 12:1-2.
Michael, then, is not merely an aggressor. He is protector. He shields those who are vulnerable, and delivers them from the ills and evil that would seek to do them harm.
This is a masterful composition. The dragons below are huge, bellowing creatures. They dwarf Michael and his angels. Yet we see in the background, bathed in divine light, that no matter how big the dragon there are far too many angels, they appear to be forming, being shaped, by the holy light itself. (credit: Gustave Doré, Public Domain)

The Book of Revelation is believed to have been written sometime around the end of the 1st century CE – around 90-95. Yet there is an earlier reference to the same event in the Book of Daniel, an apocalyptic book from around 200 BCE. In this book Daniel, the prophet, is having a vision during a period of fasting, foreseeing troubles, conflicts and the end of time. He is told;

“And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.”
Daniel 12:1

Michael is the protector.

An icon of Archangel Michael, from, I think, the Cathedral in the name of Archangel Michael in Mozyr, Belarus. The Orthodox tradition of the East inherited much of its art style from the Byzantines. Iconography like this is common. Here we see Michael the protector. His spear is more like a staff, topped with a radiant cross. His shield has a big sun-like motif, possibly symbolising God, and a cross symbolising Christ. Could the pure white background be symbolic of the holy spirit? If not there is the emblem on his chest. An 8-pointed star with the triangular motif usually associated with the trinity. (Credit: Bielpincet CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Whatever you think of the religion or the theology, Michael is the hero, the angel who shall lead the armies of heaven and ‘goodness’ to victory against the armies of hell and ‘evil’.

I’m well into eschatology (the study of the apocalypse, the end of time itself, the destruction of the universe and life as we know it!) I’m a morbid sort but there’s something about the transformational imagery invoked in almost all end-of-times prophecies that I love. Seldom are these true ends, often they are just a doorway to something new, something different. It takes a subject that could be looked at very nihilistically and instead makes it pose more transcendental questions that warrant thinking about even if you’re not religious.

Life evolves, it always has and it always will. But we do not know if the universe is permanent, we do know that through entropy it is likely to find a state inhospitable for life and organisms as we know them. The earth itself is unlikely to survive the end of the sun’s life. The sun, as it cools, will grow its hellish exterior until it is likely to end up consuming everything between itself and Jupiter. If life is to survive that, how is it to do so? Can it, even? All life will end, life will have an exodus moment and spread to safer parts of the cosmos, or else it must adapt and become something wholly different. This is what eschatology does for me. It makes me think of how life, a physical, chemical, biological process, could transcend these seemingly insurmountable challenges the future almost certainly holds.

A more modern interpretation, from the church of St. Stephen the Martyr in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Here his face is placcid, peaceful even. Despite the fact that he is clearly prepared for battle, wieding his fiery sword. His shield, this time, is triangular – a symbol of the trinity? And the Latin inscription, so often seen on his shield, “Quis ut Deus” translates to “Who is like God?”, his name in Hebrew, and that strong, rhetorical question. (Credit: Workman, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

There are few more important figures in Abrahamic (relating to the major religions with Abraham as their root – Islam, Christianity and Judaism being the main three) eschatology than Michael. He is so important that some believe Michael is merely the angelic form of Christ himself. On Earth, during his incarnation, he was Yeshua ben Joseph, Joshua son of Joseph, the man we would call Jesus Christ. In heaven, before his incarnation and after his ascension, many believe he is Michael; God’s sword, God’s shield, the very leader of the resistance against evil and the deliverer of the righteous to salvation. I have read it is a particularly prevalent belief among Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

a 19th Century mosaic of the four archangels from St. John’s Church, Warminster, UK. Note that they are all referred to as saints despite their being angels and not really able to be canonised. They are widely considered saints regardless.
St. Michael is in his usual pose. His face here is particularly disdainful.
St. Gabriel, the messenger archangel holds a white flower, symbolising purity, and a sign reading “Ave Maria”. A reference to his role in delivering the message of her impregnation by God to Mary. He is also the angel who helped the prophet Daniel to translate his divine visions, and the angel who, in Islamic tradition, dictated the Qur’an.
Saint Raphael is here seen with a small child. This is likely not Christ, but Tobias, son of Tobit from the Book of Tobit. Tobit becomes blind and, shunned by society, seeks money he is owed and sends Tobias off to collect it. A boy could not make the journey alone and so seeks a companion. He finds the statuesque and stoic Raphael. Raph is often depicted as cold, matter-of-fact – but kind. He is the archangel of healing. He is very interesting to look up.
Finally we have St. Uriel, holding a holy book. This is because Uriel’s role is as a teacher, a deliverer of divine knowledge. Uriel is sent by God to help answer the questions of Ezra in the Second Book of Esdras, and to help Enoch interpret his vision and prophecies.
The remarkable thing is only Michael and Gabriel are mentioned by name in the Bible. (Credit: Public Domain)

Needless to say such an important figure has also achieved the status of being a symbol. The winged warrior, his holy sword or spear and shield in hand, slaying a dragon, demon or monster that symbolises evil itself. I never tire of seeing Saint Michael the Archangel depicted in paintings, statues, sculpture or stained glass. I love to mock art and yet I have few chances to do so with Mike here, because how can you? Unless someone has done a very bad job he just tends to look…cool!

As much as my morals and ethics may empathise with Satan, I try to stand on the side of good. Michael is the very symbol of the unconquerable fighting strength of good. Together they represent a dichotomy, the yin and yang of the human psyche. As much as I may love how Satan enables my questioning and pursuit of knowledge – two things I could never give up. Michael is always there as a holy light. No matter what I learn, particularly where what I learn is a means to gain wealth, status or advantage to myself, I should still follow Michael’s lead and do right.

Michael from a stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral, UK. We have discussed his arms and protection so let’s focus on the scales. Michael slays evil, but first he must judge what is evil. Thus Michael is associated with judgement. When not depicted as a Holy Warrior he is often seen weighing souls in judgement, furthering his eschatological role. After the second coming, after the battle between good and evil is done, we shall all be resurrected and judged this way by Michael himself.

I know full well I’m likely to fail his standards. Especially if those standard include an unwavering loyalty to God. But I’d rather it be Michael do this than the Heavenly Father himself. I at least believe the archangel fit to judge me.
(Credit: Robin Croft CC-BY-2.0)

Michael is the angelic embodiment of good triumphing over evil. He is the symbol of all that I want to see achieved. For that reason, despite the fact that he has not been officially canonised a saint, Michael makes the list. It is also for that reason he is only number two. But our number one is no less deserving of the spot, in my eyes.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.

Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich

Saint Julian of Norwich holding her book “Revelations of Divine Love” from a statue on Norwich Cathedral. Her face is a picture of measured piety. There are few representations of Saint Julian of Norwich, I am going to assume outside of the area of Norwich she is hardly regarded at all. But there’s something to her that is truly captivating and I think she deserves a little bit more love. (Credit: rocketjohn CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Admittedly I was unaware of Saint Julian of Norwich, at least in any detail until very recently. I had heard the name, I am a former Norwich-dweller. However friend of We Lack Discipline, incredible author, and overall generally nice person Vivienne Tuffnell has a soft spot for her and when I looked into Julian it became apparent why.

She is not, sadly, a ‘true’ saint. She has not been officially canonised. Hence she is more often referred to as ‘Mother Julian’, ‘Dame Julian’ or ‘Lady Julian’. But I don’t care too much for what the church thinks! She is regarded as a saint by many and I am one of them.

Saint Julian of Norwich lived between around 1343-1416, in, unsurprisingly, the English city of Norwich. At the time Norwich was very prosperous as a centre of trade and commerce. It could be argued it was the second city of Britain after London, it was that important. The whole region of East Anglia, of which Norwich is part, was wealthy at the time and it is one of the reasons for the significant number of medieval churches in the area.

As Alan Partridge once famously said of his home city in the wonderful ‘Knowing Me, Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge’ – “After the bombing of Dresden, Norwich became the city with the largest number of pre-reformation churches in Europe.” I don’t know if this is true, but Norwich has a huge number of gorgeous medieval churches.

Saint Julian of Norwich from a stained glass window at Norwich Cathedral. She is shown clutching a book, indicative of her role as a Christian author. She is also depicted with a cat. Whilst Julian is not the patron saint of cats she did, apparently, have a cat companion. Her only company in her secluded cell and a necessity to manage rodents (especially important since plague was decimating the population of England in her lifetime – though the medievil britons would not have known the significance.) Her face is often depicted as fiercly stoic. She is a woman of true holiness, the weight of the world and its sins carried upon her shoulders with the alleviation being salvation. As she wrote “All shall be well.” (Credit: Amitchell125 CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Around 1373, at the age of 30, Julian suffered an illness that had her on her suspected deathbed. We don’t know if she was devoted to Christian life before this but we do know she was wholly devoted after it. She did so as an anchoress (or anchorite). These are people who withdraw from secular life and live in seclusion, devoting themselves to holy study. She lived in a tiny cell attached to Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich. Some people suggest this is where she took her name from, others say there is no evidence anchorites assumed new names and she may have already been called Julian (Little is known of her life before she became an anchoress). It’s a remarkable church, built around the 11th or 12th century and possessing a very East Anglian round tower.

She’s also very unlikely to be a myth or a legend. Several legal documents, specifically wills, leave sums to an anchoress named Julian in Norwich. There are also documents of people having visited her, such as that of mystic Margery Kempe.

The title page of a 1670 copy of the ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ as it is known for shorthand because that’s the full title right there and it’s long! As far as I am aware no original manuscript exists, however copies and prints were made. There are two versions, the short text and the long text. This is from a long text version. (Credit: Public Domain)

So what makes her special to me? For one thing she wrote the first known English language book by a woman. Her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ are, I believe (I haven’t read them) a description of a series of visions she had during her illness.

But there’s something about the anchorite lifestyle that just strikes a chord with me.

Unlike Julian I am permitted to leave my confinement. However I do spend an awful lot of time reading, thinking and writing in the same tiny space. I feel this is important, the seclusion is important. Free from trappings and distractions I find my mind is better able to focus on what I am thinking and doing. In my social circles little is taken seriously. I like that in a social context. I’m irreverent. But I also believe irreverence is only earned through consideration. To hold something in irreverence is not merely to mock it for no reason. It must have been seriously considered before you can be joking and irreverent about it.

To that extent Julian resonates with me. She, too, thought what she was doing was important, was a means to be seen in heavenly eyes as a good person. She, like me, wanted to live not a good life, but a righteous life. ‘Good’ lives can merely be comfortable, true righteousness requires sacrifice. Whether you agree that locking yourself in a house-cupboard is the means to do that is irrelevant. We all have our different paths and she committed to hers 100%.

She did what she thought right and is remembered for it, she’s considered a saint for it. As mentioned, she was donated to in more than one will so clearly other people, her contemporaries, were affected by her too. Unlike many of the other saints on this list I am not drawn to the art and imagery of her. She is sparsely depicted, often austere when she is, and little known. This lack of art, this austerity, is something of which I think she would approve, though. That’s remarkable.

Christ makes quite clear in his teachings that deliberately performative acts of piety, charity or goodness earn you no credit in Heaven. So those saints, like Julian, who just did what they thought holy, followed through with it and didn’t seek attention, didn’t inspire mass fervour, didn’t obtain huge patronages and didn’t spread their influence across the ages – they’re saints I can respect. These are quiet saints and humble saints.

One of the most stunning images of Julian from stained glass at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich. The scroll reads “All shall be well.” A quote from Julian’s ‘Revelations’. She herself is a humble figure, in bland blue robes, kneeling before an ostentatiously depicted Christ. So ingrained in nature, in the creation of the whole world, is the Son of Man that he grows from a flower vase, surrounded by ornate leaves and flowers. He’s also throwing his hands in the air like he just don’t care! These humble depictions of Julian speak volumes of how she is considered. She’s very much a People’s Saint! She’s normal, like us – yet somehow holy in a way incomprehensible to us. (Credit: Evelyn Simak / St Julian’s church in Norwich – modern stained glass / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s pretty incredible to think about, really. This is, as far as we know, the world’s first female English language author. This is a woman who imprisoned her body not for safety, nor was she confined in penitence or punishment, but instead she restricted herself to stop her body being an impediment to the freeing of her mind and soul.

Perhaps my admiration merely comes down to my neurology. I am autistic and for me a retreat to solitude every now and then is not merely a nice thing to do to ‘get away from it all’. It is vital to stop me getting consumed by it all, or more worryingly, consuming it all. Sadly seculsion is often represented as weakness, a withdrawal, a hiding – It isn’t. I am not shielding myself from the world, I am shielding the world from me. It is not a weakness I seek to protect, but an uncontrollable strength I seek to trap.

I love stained glass. Here is a rare depiction of Julian from outside of Norwich. This is from St. Chrysostom’s Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. It should be unsurprising. A huge number of Early English settlers in the USA were puritanical ‘pilgrims’, many of them from East Anglia. To what extent did Julian’s austere lifestyle inspire devotion to puritanism? Depravity – to be deprived – was one of the core tenets. Religious art, imagery and pomp were curbed by puritanism. Is Saint Julian really representative of that? Regardless the iconography in this image is staggering. Julian is shown with a trademark stoic face, clutching a scroll to indicate her role as a religious writer. This is enhanced by the quill to her left. She looks up at a glowing cross, symbolising her looking towards holiness, the aim, the direction of her pious life. To the bottom right is a bleeding crown of thorns. Her isolation through devotion recognised as a suffering, but she was crowned, revered, through it. (Credit: A K M Adam CC-BY-NC-2.0)

But it could also be a recognition that modern, developed life regularly means a detachment from what is truly awesome, worthy of thought and consideration and fundamentally meaningful. We live in a world of trappings, of constant attention-grabbers and distractions. These are becoming so integrated into our lives that emotional states can be determined by little ‘like’ icons that people click on a computer. We also appear to be in demand of more information in less time. Online media content shrinks itself further and further, lengthy blogs lost out to short tweets, Vine crumbled but was replaced by TikTok and Youtube Shorts, and people pay less attention to that which takes more time to consider. Many people are glued to screens – I can’t talk, I’m one of them – yet in Saint Julian we have the remedy.

Saint Julian’s Church, Norwich. Its once tall round tower (right) now cut short. This humble flint-and-stone 11th-12th century church is where Julian had her cell, the place of her confinement as an anchoress. (Credit: © Copyright David Dixon CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Put your body in a box free from distractions and let your mind and spirit be free.

You may as well get some practice in while living. It happens to us all eventually, anyway.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.

Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian

Oh Sebastian. The depictions of his attempted execution by arrows fall into two camps – either gruesomely beautiful or else…Well…This! Look at his face. That is not the face of a man bothered by being turned into a human game of Pop-Up Pirate! That’s the face of a man who is done. The others have facial expressions that tell of their mood; disappointment or anger. Seb has a face that says “I could be at home right now watching Netflix…” This is why I love Saint Sebastian. (Credit: Gun Powder Ma, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Saint Sebastian is a bit of an awkward one. There are two reasons I like him. One is because I am absolutely enamoured with Christian imagery and the image of Saint Sebastian is an incredible one.

Two, I’m a big fan of Roman history and Sebastian, to give him his Roman name, Sebastianus was not only a Roman (he wasn’t from Rome, but was a Roman citizen, from Gallia Narbonensis – roughly the south of France) but he was also said to have been a captain of the Praetorian Guard – the emperor’s elite bodyguard unit – under Diocletian and Maximian. Neither of those guys particularly liked Christians. So how did that go?

This will likely be the only image of Sebastian that I don’t make fun of! By José de Ribera, who did many works on the martyrdom of Sebastian, all of them with this same sense of vulnerability. His body is lithe, toned, not quite the Platonic ideal of a Greek statue but similar. He is clearly a strong man. Yet his form is contorted, melting into the earth, a final resting place. He will be saved, only to suffer more later on. I believe the original of this was lost in a fire. (Credit: Public Domain)

Seb kept the fact that he was a Jesus stan pretty secret. During his life, the mid to late 3rd century CE, Christianity was all over the place in Rome. Different emperors had different tolerances leading to intermittent persecutions. Being an out Christian, then, was dangerous until Flavius Valerius Constantinus (Constantine I) made an official declaration, the Edict of Milan, promoting tolerance of Christians in 313 CE.

Sadly for Sebastian, Diocletian was not so tolerant of Christians. In fact he was the first emperor to instigate a formal state persecution of Christians, the Diocletianic, or Great, Persecution. This was, as far as we know, the most severe persecution of Christians in Rome, covered the Eastern and Western Empires and led to the creation of many martyrs and saints. It was started in 303 CE and lasted the decade until the Edict of Milan.

“Erm, mate, you’ve err…You’ve got an arrow in you?” A concerned passer-by said to Sebastian.

“Yeah, so?” He replied.

“Well I thought you might be worri…”

Sebastian cut him off. “Look, I appreciate your concern but I’ve got other stuff to deal with right now. I can’t be worrying about arrows!” He said with such casualty the passer-by wondered if he felt pain at all!

I love “don’t give a shit” Sebastian. I find it hilarious. It’s such a common motif that I suspect it’s deliberate. A reflection of his mind-over-matter strength caused by his faith. (Credit: Giambattista Cima da Conegliano, ~1500, Public Domain)

Sebastian was discovered to be a Christian before this though, in 286 CE. Diocletian apparently felt betrayed that one of his guard captains was Christian so he ordered that Sebastian should be taken to a field, bound to a stake and shot with arrows.

Early Christianity was also nowhere near as sexist as it became. Because of the nature of the religion, and the humility and equality that were fundamental to it (until it got co-opted by power…That’s another discussion). Roman ladies were some of the first to offer places of worship by opening up their houses to meetings of the Christian community. One of these women, Saint Irene of Rome, went to collect the body of Sebastian and give him a proper, Christian burial. She discovered him to be still alive, despite being a human pin-cushion, and nursed him back to health.

How did he become a martyr then? Well because, the cojones on this guy, he decided that turning Christians into hedgehogs with arrows was a bit against-the-word-of-God. Instead of fleeing and living as a hermit for the rest of his life he went to a stairway he knew Diocletian would be passing and lambasted him for his treatment of Christians as Diocletian passed him.

Having a Christian bloke who’s supposed to be dead calling him out as a sinner and suggesting God will damn him if he keeps up his persecution must have upset Diocletian somewhat. He ordered his guards to beat Sebastian to death on the spot, and had him thrown into the sewer. Thus did Sebastian become a martyr.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake! You wait. Just you wait!” This Sebastian is not amused. (Credit: Public Domain)

But that’s not why I love Saint Seb. It’s for the art. Anyone who has read any of my art stuff on here knows I like a bit of brutal imagery and the form of Sebastian, usually propped or tied up against a tree, studded with arrows, rarely disappoints.

Because they either do it really well and demonstrate this most beautiful holy suffering. Or they don’t and it’s hilarious! I’ll include my favourite artistic depiction of Seb at the end, but there are so many where, facially, he is indifferent to his pain and suffering. He either looks happy, which is a bit weird in its own right, but my favourites are where he looks…Concerned with something else!

So Saint Sebastian makes the list because of his interesting Roman history and the fact that he either looks like a beautiful death or utterly hilarious.

Finally we’ll finish with my personal favourite Sebastian. The “Shit! I’m gonna die and I think I left my oven on!” Sebastian.

He is probably, actually, looking up to the heavens to seek mercy for his pain but for me it just looks like his mind is elsewhere and he’s internally bothered by something. “Did I really say that!?” or “What am I gonna have for dinner tonight?” are things he could easily be thinking. He looks less pained and more in embarrased thought. Oh, dear, I’m such a philistine. (Credit: Andrea Mantegne, 1470, Public Domain)

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!
Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.

Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, by Peter Paul Reubens, 1626. In this case it’s not the kind of assumptions that make asses of you and me! Rather it is the transportation of a person from earth to heaven, similar to Christ’s ascension. There are numerous mirrors between the Mother Mary and the Son Jesus. Here Mary is a beautiful woman, her face emitting a holy glow and the kind of pacific expression you’d expect of someone truly beyond human. She is surrounded, carried effortlessly to heaven by babes, angels, cherubim who all look as though they are heavenly orphans finally getting a kindly mother to adopt them. Seldom does Mary not cut a striking figure (Credit: Rolf Kranz CC-BY-SA-4.0)

More commonly known as ‘The Virgin Mary’, ‘Holy Mother of God’, or ‘Jesus’ old lady’, Saint Mary is very interesting. As the mother of Jesus she is considered by many as the greatest, most holy of saints.

I mention in other articles in this series how early Christianity owes an awful lot to women. Jesus himself had female followers, whose role as disciples seems to have been downplayed by a male dominated church. The most famous is probably Mary Magdalene. His mother Mary is another significant woman in the Christian tradition.

Women were also important for their role as leaders, prophets and preachers in the early Christian movement – when it was still basically a Jewish sub-sect. This is apparent even in scripture, especially the Pauline Epistles – the Letters of Paul that make up a huge amount of the New Testament. In them Paul mentions meeting in women’s houses, where they were leading a home-church, and of their activity as preachers, teachers and a very public face of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

I’ve written about the Sacred Heart before. The symbol of Christ’s internal world, his pains, his powers, his passionate devotion to the Lord. Well this is Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Another symbol mirrored between Christ and Mary. On the Sacred Heart we usually see wounds, or a spear, symbolising the stigmata. With the Immaculate Heart we see wounds, or a piercing through with a sword as in this case, symbolising the Seven Sorrows (or Dolours) of Mary. Christ’s heart is ringed with thorns, a reference to his ironic crown given at his crucifixion, and his inevitable suffering. Mary, though, has her heart ringed with flowers, symbolising her purity, her love and devotion. Flowers often spring from it, such as here where a pristine, white flower survives the burning flames of Mary’s passion for God, the Father and Christ, the Son. (Credit: Lawrence OP CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Even once Christianity took on a more patriarchal and sexist attitude, they could not deny the importance of women, though they tried. Jesus’ female followers were effectively scrubbed. Sometimes they can be seen standing in the background of artistic pieces. But some aspects of femininity and its importance could not be denied, even by a church determined to be a right bloody sausage-fest, and the Holy Mother is a perfect example of that.

She’s also got some stunning imagery and the motif of “The Virgin and the Child”, a glowing Mary, usually dressed in dazzling blue robes, holding a beautiful infant Christ, has been reproduced by so many artists, with such beauty.

Our Lady of Sorrows – When not associated with pacific, maternal beauty Mary and Christ end up having another mirror. Mary is associated with suffering. Here she is on a paso – a religious float paraded during celebrations, from the Church of the True Cross in Salamanca. Here a Catholic fraternity, the ‘Illustrious Brotherhood of the Holy Cross of the Redeemer and the Immaculate Conception, his Mother’ worship Christ and his mother, The Virgin of Sorrows, and are said to have a reliquary containing a piece of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. Whether you believe any of that or not this image is compulsive. Mary’s beautiful sorrow is the world’s salvation, like the Passion of the Christ this muddles the morals. How can something so gruesomely violent be representative of our salvation. Are these images intended to stir up guilt and penitence? A reminder of the duty we owe to fulfil Christ’s mission that he and his mother suffered so much for? (Credit: Zarateman CC-BY-SA-4.0)

But I’m not really interested in her for that. It’s when we get to the comparative that my ears twitch and a smile comes over my face. You see Mary is also sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Heaven” and this epithet, this title, puts her in esteemed company for what is, seemingly, a universal symbol. A feminine ruler of the heavens.

Even in religions of the most sexist of cultures female Gods are present, and can often be very important. Hera, or Juno, in the Greco-Roman pantheon, Inanna or Ishtar in the Sumerian-Babylonian pantheon, Isis of the Egyptian pantheon and the ancient Semitic goddess Anat all bore this title of ‘Queen of Heaven’, or ‘Queen of the Heavens’.

I couldn’t leave it out. This is my single favourite representation of the Virgin and the Infant – Mary and Jesus. Not because it’s good, but because in this recreation both Jesus and Mary are being played by famous British Mr. Bean actor Rowan Atkinson for some reason. This is from a reliquary in the Aachen Cathedral Treasury. (Credit: Me)

It is widely considered that the Greco-Roman pantheon owes a lot to the Gods and Goddesses of the East. In that tradition there were many feminine rulers of heaven, such as those mentioned above. The symbolism of Mary being referred to this way is huge, then!

I can only speculate as for reasons why. Obviously as the mother of Jesus Mary is a significant figure in Christianity but her being placed in a position of reverence may also have helped early Christians adapt to their new religion, especially if they were following ancient pantheistic (multiple gods) religions. Perhaps it was deliberate, a specific intent to put the mother of Jesus on equal or greater footing than other prior female deities. Or could it be that the symbol of the ‘mother’ – however she is portrayed – is something of importance to a human psyche that, as a reproductive animal, places a massive weight of importance on parenthood? After all one of the first demands God makes of humankind is “…Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:28).

The Coronation of the Virgin – Mary becomes the Queen of Heaven. This motif became very popular in Christianity, especially during the early renaissance movement in Italy between the 14th-16th centuries. It is Mary at her most potent and an excellent display of the importance of women in the Christian movement and in life in general. Mary is no longer the sorrowful virgin or the doting mother. She is now among the highest powers in heaven. She is crowned by her son, Christ (left) and God the Father (right). Both exhibit golden halos from behind them, Christ’s being cruciform (cross-shaped) to show the suffering and redemption he was born to fulfil. God’s is a triangle, a representation of his completeness as the sum of the trinity. The trinity is also in the composition, arranged triangularly! God the Father, Christ the Son and the Dove of the Holy Spirit above them. In this image, during this moment, a woman is being permitted the highest honours of heaven and even God himself gazes upon her still very pacific face with reverence. This is from the Lady Chapel of the Dominican Church of San Esteban in Salamanca, Spain. (Credit: Lawrence OP CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

What I do know is all of this places Mary as a very important figure not merely in Christianity, but in the study of the culture and influence of worship and religion itself. That’s cool!

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Happy All Saints’ Day!

Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.

Happy All Saints’ Day!

I’ll admit, I was tempted to put an image of underrated 90s pop group ‘All Saints’ for the card image, but figured I’m already an atheist discussing Christian shit, I should probably hold back some irreverence! This is a painting of ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’ by Fra Angelico, an early renaissance painter from Florence. His works, and those of his contempories, would go on to inspire the great works of renowned renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael but don’t sleep on the names you don’t know. Many of the greatest works of religious art I have ever seen have been on church walls in Italy with only a date and no name. (Credit: Fra Angelico, Public Domain)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains an image of a dead saint. Also some sacrilege and blasphemy, probably.

Yeah, unfortunately this is a case of the morning after the night before. The secularised celebration of Halloween (31st October) very much absorbed the Christian All Hallows’ Eve (31st October) the adjacent All Saints’ Day (1st November) and All Souls Day (2nd November).

What is All Saints’ Day? It’s a pretty self-explanatory thing. It is the official celebration of all saints. Many saints have their own festivals, days and celebrations but with a huge range of saints to choose from some people were bound to be excluded. As such celebrations of just about everyone holy have been going on since around the 4th century CE. All Souls’ Day is the equivalent for standard dead people. This time of year, then, is about remembrance of the dead.

Pokémon’s recognisable mascot, Pikachu, holding…a bunch of keys? Yup, that’s Klefki. A Pokémon, along with others like Trashy, an actual refuse sack, spoken of as being indicative of a loss of design direction by Pokémon’s creators. A similar thing sort of happened with saints. (Credit: A Pokémon Plushie Database, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0)

I can’t blame you for not really knowing about, or caring about, the saints. Those Christians did get a bit Pokémon after a while. They added too many and muddled up the designs. Did they have their Klefki moment? Well there’s Saint Zita, the patron saint of domestic servants and maids, and also lost keys! That’s not an association she has, it’s a role she has as recognised by the church. They gave her the role of being patron of lost keys.

What is a Saint? It is literally someone holier than thou. They are people the church considers to have had a particular closeness to God, often they are renowned for performing miracles, perhaps they were a martyr, or perhaps they just devoted themselves especially to worship. In some doctrines, indeed theologians correct me if I’m wrong but in most Christian doctrines, everyone who enters the Kingdom of Heaven is a ‘Saint’. So the saints we venerate on Earth are just especially holy people – of course according to the church that canonises (the official process of making a saint) them.

In many ways the saints mirror the multiple major, but especially minor, deities that trace their roots back to pantheism (beliefs in multiple gods) and animism (a belief in the spirit in all things). Many belief systems have their ‘spirits’ of various things; the forests, the rivers, the buildings, the – I dunno – cakes, etc. The saints sort of replicate that through their system of patronage. Saints aren’t just holy people who did some shit, they represent certain things and can be given official recognition, or patronage, of that link by the church.

As mentioned above with Saint Zita. She was herself a domestic servant to a wealthy family of silk merchants in Tuscany, so her being patron of domestic labourers and maids is appropriate. She is said to have been very pious, giving a third of her wages in alms to the poor, a third to her family and keeping only a third for herself. She lived a very holy life by all accounts, hence her canonisation.

Saint Zita in her resting place on display at the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. She lived between, roughly, 1212-1272. When her remains were first exhumed in 1580 she was deemed to be ‘incorrupt’ – where a person’s remains are found to be resistent to decomposition, presumed as being because of their holiness. Looking at her now I’d question that judgement, she just looks like a very well preserved dead lady. But such is faith. One thing is for sure she cuts a striking figure, and is a fascinating reminder that our time on earth is short. (Credit: Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Looked at through my atheist eyes it seems like she was just a nice person. But miracles are ascribed to her. For example she is said to have been in charge of baking the bread but one day abandoned her duty to attend to a poor person in need. When she returned to the kitchen, angels had prepared the bread for her. Nobody else could have done it because apparently nobody else knew how to make bread…Seems suss, but welcome to Saints! There’s a lot of suss in there!

If you wish to visit Saint Zita you can do so in the Basilica di San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Lucca is a lovely town anyway and I’m sad I’m only just learning about Zita for a gag because I definitely would have paid her a visit when I was in Tuscany.

Patronages in Saints, then, are often based upon proximity or association of the person to a place, an activity or a characteristic. This is why we have patron saints of towns and cities, patron saints of jobs and social roles and patron saints of weird shit like unattractive people. I should carry around an icon of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes!

Karl the Great’s canonisation was declared invalid but Saint Charlemagne, the late Frankish King and Holy Roman Emperor, would definitely be the Patron Saint of Curious Idiots™. He already is in my eyes, which is why I wrote about it.

Karl the Great! “Talking about yourself again?” I hear you ask. No, Karl der Grosse, Karl the Great is what Charlemagne is referred to as in Germany. Charlemagne is, itself, a French version of the same epithet – ‘Charles Magne’ or Charles the Great. This stunning reliquary bust is available to view at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury (Credit: Me)

The many saints and their patronages are an affirmation that God is in everything.  The church keeps up with the pace, too. There are patron saints of explosives (Saint Barbara), motorcylists (Saint Columbanus) and the internet (Saint Isidore of Seville). This system means no town, no role, no job, and few phenomena remain untouched by holiness. All is holy and so all has a saint.

Following this I am going to write We Lack Discipline’s Top 5 Favourite Saints (So Far…). I say ‘so far’ because, as mentioned, there’s a saint for everything. There are over 10,000 saints in the Catholic canon, and other Christian groups have their own saints beyond just the Catholic bunch. There are also ‘folk saints’, people who have not been officially canonised but who have a special regard to certain countries, people or groups.

Saint Columbanus on the window of the crypt at Bobbio Abbey, Italy. Columbanus established the Abbey at Bobbio, despite being Irish. He was a wanderer, a travelling missionary who established abbeys across the Frankish empire. This wanderlust is probably the reason for his association with motorcyclists. Behind Saint Patrick he is considered one of Ireland’s most regarded saints. (Credit: Trebbia, By Wikimedia Commons)

I talk and write about Christianity a lot but I, myself, am an atheist. Why would I write about the subject when I am not a believer? The Christian faith provided the blueprint for western morality. The entire fabric of the societies of nations like Britain, France, Germany and the United States of America is a delicate weave of Christian values and secular ideals. Christianity is still dominant in many areas of the world, western Europe, Central and South America and Africa, for example. There are social conflicts, structures and rights in our times; marriage rights, reproductive rights, gender and sexuality, crime, leadership, governance etc. that all trace root aspects back to Christian values, morals, considerations or organisations – For good or for ill.

This still affects us. I think this makes it very important to study.

There is also another aspect. I may not like the God or the religion as an organisation, but the imagery in Christianity is some of the finest. I love religious architecture, religious art and religious iconography. The saints epitomise this. Their often remarkable lives, or deaths, make fascinating studies for artists who can, in their composition, use a saint or religious figure as an allegory for aspects of the human condition. It all takes on a lot of symbolism and I love looking into that sort of thing, studying its contexts and meanings and how they have changed over time.

So thanks for joining me in this little look at All Saints’ Day and what saints are. Now sit back piously, put on some ambient choral music and enjoy our top 5 saints.

Want to know about more saints? Read our full list.

Top 5 Saints #5: Saint Mary – Our Virgin of Sorrows and Mother of Christ.
Top 5 Saints #4: Saint Sebastian – A former Roman guard turned arrow-filled Martyr.
Top 5 Saints #3: Saint Julian of Norwich – Locked herself in a cell for holiness.
Top 5 Saints #2: Saint Michael the Archangel – The heavy metal sword of God!
Top 5 Saints #1: Saint Francis of Assisi – Pious, compassionate and a role model.