So I’ve been following up my Paradise Lost and Divine Comedy reading with an exploration of two women saints friends of mine are involved with – one is Catherine of Siena (I’m just starting her book), the other St. Ursula, patron saint of education.
Turns out, confirmed by all kinds of sources, including my favorite, wikipedia, that there was no St. Ursula, no company of 10 more virgins, or 11,000 other virgins, all beheaded by a Hun King in the the City of Cologne. Nor did they go to Rome through the 11,000 Virgins Path in Basel Switzerland, nor was there a Pope Cyriacus, who turned over his papal tiara to a successor, in order that he could return with the virgins, nor was his non-existent self murdered with them.
It is telling that a pope horned in on the legend, some five hundred years after the first telling. And that Ursula’s never actual fiance, in one version, was also murdered, and there’s a fine painting of all that in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is rather awful, not artistically, but in sheer gore, and shows the non-existent prince in the act of dying – you can nearly see his life force leaving the body.
There’s also the issue of virginity’s value to men, when it is our concern and our decision.
But the really interesting thought is the sheer existence of 11,011 virgins, led by Ursula, traipsing around Europe for 3 years in boats in somewhere around 383 C. E. And in the clothes they are pictured in – medieval finery. And that all this was delivered and relished and commemorated until fairly recently.
It was based, perhaps, on a massacre in Cologne at some point in early historical time – though that included women, men, children and even mastiffs, from the possible burial site. Also – the name Ursula means little female bear – might she have been involved?
Angela Merici, who founded the Company of St. Ursula, certainly venerated that saint, and has established an order still in existence, and continually reinventing itself – very modern in that sense. So this patron saint of education is still making a difference in the world – though it is very unlikely she ever walked this earth.