Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Saint Christopher: A Tough Guy Protecting Medieval Travelers

By Kim Rendfeld


Travel in medieval times was slow, unpleasant, and dangerous. At any time, someone could break a wheel, a person or animal could get sick, a storm could arrive suddenly, or brigands or demons could attack. You needed all the protection you could get and who better than Saint Christopher, a giant of a man so tough that only God was a worthy master?

Belief in Christopher was so strong that just seeing his image assured the viewers that they would not die that day (or at least not faint or fall). He was popular everywhere, but churches in medieval England had the most murals with his image.

St. Christopher,
from the Westminster Psalter, circa 1250
(public domain image
via Wikimedia Commons)
Yet the one certainty about Christopher is that he was a martyr in Asia Minor, probably in the third century. The image in my mind is of a huge man who goes by a name that means Christ-bearer in Greek and decides that he will not stop preaching. He would rather die and go to heaven than renounce his faith and condemn his soul to hell. (Reports that the Church ruled in 1969 that he didn’t exist are wrong. Christopher is still a saint, but his feast was reduced to local cult rather than universal.)

Like many early saints, most of what we know about Christopher comes from legend. Originally named Offerus, he was a big guy and vowed to serve only a master who feared nothing. First, he served a king, but the king was afraid the devil. Then Offerus served the devil until the devil admitted he frightened by the cross.

Offerus decided Christ was the master for him and met a hermit who instructed and baptized him. Renamed Christopher, he decided to serve God by carrying people to safety across a raging stream.

One day, a child asked to be carried. No big deal, right? Well, the kid got heavy, so heavy Christopher feared he would drown. On the other side, Christopher asked the child why it felt like the world was on his shoulders, and the child revealed he was Christ and yes, he was carrying the whole world. To prove it, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground, and the next morning, it was a tree bearing flowers and dates.

Christopher then decided to travel and preach and perform miracles, winning a lot of converts. But that’s when he got into trouble. The authorities were unhappy and had him tortured and executed.

Over the centuries, the story has variations. As early as the fifth century, a church was dedicated to him, and in the eighth century, his legend was written in Greek and Latin. Its final form appears in the 13th-century Golden Legend.

You could argue that Christopher’s story is an allegory of what it means to bear Christ in your heart and endure the trials of following the faith. But I suspect Christopher’s legend was true in the minds of medieval folk. Although Christopher wasn’t a knight and dragon-slayer like Saint George, he was a brave and strong man, one who helped ordinary people in the travails of travel. Perhaps that is why he captured the medieval imagination and is so beloved.

Sources

"St. Christopher" by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1908.

The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, by David Farmer

The Life of Christopher,” The Golden Legend, from the Medieval Sourcebook

Butler's Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler

St. Christopher was demoted but remains a saint,” by Ellen Creager of Knight Ridder Newspapers, Abilene Reporter-News, June 6, 1998

EWTN, Fr. John Echert answering a question about St. Christopher

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Saint Christopher is important to the early medieval characters in Kim Rendfeld’s forthcoming novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press). In fact, they pray to him, and one of them sometimes assumes the saint’s name. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, a story of the lengths a mother will go to protect her children, is a companion to Kim’s debut, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.


4 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your post. I always tuck a tiny St.Michael's medal in with my husband's suitcase. He does not believe, but I do!

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  2. OOps! Sorry, I meant St. Christopher not St. Michael. Altho I don't suppose that would hurt either!

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  3. My brother was killed in a plane crash. He was the pilot and only person on board. We found his St. Christopher medal at home in his belongings. That left my sister and me to wonder, "What if...?"

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