Monday, August 18, 2014

St. Julian: TripAdvisor of the middle ages, or Lizzie Borden meets the Bates Motel?

St. Julian the Hospitaller (Piero della Francesca)

A medieval traveler with many miles ahead of him needed to give some thought to his lodgings.  Would he find an inn when he needed one, or a religious house that would offer hospitality, or even some kindly person whose home could serve as a sort of Air B&B? 

He knows he'll need something, some space that will keep him safe and dry till morning.  The road holds many dangers even during the day; the thought of spending a night in the open, vulnerable to wolves and bandits and things supernatural, would have been terrifying.

But how to ensure he'll find what he needs?  One very common tactic:  offer a prayer to Saint Julian the Hospitaller.

St. Julian, Domenico Ghirlandaio

We find an example of this practice in Boccaccio's Decameron (second story, second day), in which Rinaldo says this:
I know very few prayers; nevertheless, it is my usual practice when traveling never to leave an inn in the morning without saying one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the souls of St. Julian's mother and father, after which I pray to God and to St. Julian to grant me a suitable lodging for the coming night.  And in my journeys I have often found myself in grave danger, from which I have nonetheless managed to escape and find myself in a safe place with good lodgings that same evening; so I firmly believe that St. Julian, in whose honor I say my prayers, has obtained this favor for me through his intercession with God, and if I had not recited my prayer that morning I don't think I could manage to travel safely during the day or arrive safely by nightfall.  (Translated by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella)
So who was Saint Julian?  Did he actually exist?  And did he really murder his parents messily as the result of a misunderstanding?

(The answer to that second question is probably "No."  The Bollandists, a tenacious bunch of religious scholars who were followers of the Jesuit Jean Bolland in the 17th century, existed to study and publish the lives of saints, and they doggedly tried to separate truth from legend in the hagiographies, but even they were never able to verify any aspect of this saint's life.  As one scholar said, Saint Julian "has no date, no country, no tomb.")

St. Julian, tavern sign

But many people believed the story, which has a number of sensationalistic elements.  Multiple versions of the tale exist, going back at least as far as the 13th century, but they mostly agree on the following points:

Julian, a wealthy young man, learns that he is fated to kill his parents.  This information variously comes to him through a talkative stag while he is out hunting, or via his mother as she spills the beans about a prophecy made before his birth, or by a vision that comes to him while he is hunting.  However he learns of his fate, he decides to avoid it by leaving his parents' home and going far away.  Eventually he marries and settles down, possibly in Galicia.
One day, years later, his parents come seeking him.  They reveal their identities to Julian's wife, who welcomes them graciously (Julian is off hunting again...) and gives them the best bed in the house, the bed in Julian's own chamber, where they fall asleep, no doubt dreaming about being reunited with their son the next day.  When Julian returns, he mistakenly believes that the two figures he sees in his bed are his wife and her lover.  (In some versions "the enemy" - the devil, perhaps? - has told him his wife was being unfaithful.)  So Julian, who is not what we would call a reflective sort of person, hacks the two sleeping figures to death in his rage.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
And then he sees his wife.  In some versions she is chatting with other women outside the church, and as he stands there with his mouth agape she happily tells him that his parents have arrived for a visit, and she has given them their bed.  In other accounts, she is standing by, horrified, watching as he does the deed.  (See my favorite depiction of her, below.)

Julian is, of course, immediately filled with remorse.  In most versions he makes a pilgrimage to Rome (or some other distant place), after which he founds a hospital (or a hospice or an inn), where he and his wife dedicate themselves to providing charitable hospitality, including ferrying travelers safely across a nearby river.
St. Julian, Agnolo Gaddi
 There are also suggestions that a leper to whom Julian granted hospitality turned out to be an angel (or, in some accounts, Christ himself), who then informs Julian that God has forgiven his sin.
Let's think for a moment about Julian's wife.  (You knew I'd get to that, didn't you?)  She's usually said to have shared his pilgrimage and his penance, yet she'd just seen that (1) her husband didn't trust her, and (2) he was willing to murder her without first verifying what was going on.

At least in Gustave Flaubert's 1877 telling of the story Julian goes off alone, having first given all of his possessions to his wife.  Really, it's the least he could have done, under the circumstances.

Julian is the patron saint of a diverse assortment of people, including ferrymen, circus performers, fiddlers, innkeepers, jugglers, travelers, pilgrims, shepherds, wandering musicians, and - logically enough - murderers.  Who knew that murderers even had a patron saint?!


Circus performers






There's one picture of Julian's dastardly deed that I wish I could show you, but I can't.  It's in the Pinacoteca Comunale (city art gallery) in Assisi, where photographs aren't allowed, and I always respect such rules.  I've not been able to find an image of it, there or anywhere else.  It's quite extraordinary - a massive anonymous 14th century painting showing the poor couple after the murder, with slit throats, gaping wounds, lolling tongues, and lots of blood everywhere.  If that artist were alive today, he'd be making slasher films.

Lizzie Borden
Sign, Madame Tussuad's, London

I'll leave you with one more Julian story, this one from the 13th century Golden Legend of the Genoan Giacomo da Varazze (de Voragine):

The enemy (remember "the enemy"?) came to Julian's hospice disguised as a pilgrim.  At midnight he woke and completely trashed the place, rock-band style, after which Julian swore never to let anyone into his home again.  But that night Jesus went to him disguised as a humble pilgrim.

Julian told his visitor he could not enter, because the last pilgrim had vandalized his home.  Jesus asked Julian to hold his walking-stick, and the stick stuck to Julian's hand.  Julian finally recognized his guest and repented, promising to give shelter to anyone who had need of it, whereupon Jesus forgave him.

St. Julian, Taddeo Gaddi

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  The two photos of paintings by Agnolo Gaddi are licensed to Sailko, the photo of the jugglers is licensed to DerGrosse, and the photo of the Bates Motel sign is licensed to Nevit Dilmen.  All are using the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike-3.0 Unported license, and are found on Wikimedia Commons.


Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Oh, yeah, I'd for sure pray to a saint who killed his wife out of jealousy (or at least intended to.) ;>{} In most every legend there is a seed of truth. I wonder, sometimes, how the objects of protection of any particular patron saint are related. I suppose there might be a murderous, fiddle playing, juggling clown who, in addition to making his annual summer pilgrimage to Sarasota, offers a ferry service along the way--a package deal, perhaps, that includes one free night in one of his motels or his sheep farm-themed B&B. Could happen! (Thanks, again, Tinney, for making my historical research day.)

Tinney Heath said...

Kathryn, I love your scenario! It just begs to be written. I think you should tackle it - there must be a niche market for a story that involves a circus psychopath who runs a sheep farm-themed B&B. (Me, if nobody else.)

Deb Atwood said...

I'm pretty sure if I had received the prophecy that this saint received (or Oedipus for that matter), I would probably make it a point not to kill anyone. Think of the problems solved!

A fun re-telling of a little known legend.

Tinney Heath said...

Good point, Deb. Though if Oedipus had shown that much good sense, think of all the plays and operas and art and other stuff we wouldn't have had. Plus, of course, he would have had to decide also that he wasn't going to marry anybody, or else first check the I.D.s of any potential candidates very carefully for date of birth...