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.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Seizing Serendipity (Guest post by Debra Atwood)

 Today I'd like to introduce a guest post by Deb Atwood, author of Moonlight Dancer, a timeslip novel rich in Korean history and the paranormal.  Here's the blurb:

A doll... a ghost... a love that transcends time.

Kendra JinJu MacGregor can resist neither the antique Korean doll in the dusty warehouse nor the handsome Hiro Peretti who sells it to her.

Once she brings the doll home, Kendra pays little attention to misplaced objects or her beloved dog's fear.  That is, until one terrifying night forces her to question her very sanity.  Soon, the ethereal, brooding NanJu manifests herself, and Kendra begins her travels through time to 16th century Korea into a history of conflict and intrigue.  For Kendra is about to discover the dark past of her ghostly visitor.

Now it's up to Kendra, with Hiro by her side, to interpret the past and prevent murder.  Everything depends upon Kendra's success, even -- she discovers to her horror -- her own life.

Deb Atwood has some fascinating research experiences to share with us.  Here's Deb, and her bio:

Deb Atwood

Deb loves Korean history and time-slip novels and feels a ghost is the perfect medium to bring history to life. She holds an MFA and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and former shelter dog Nala. Deb’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies. Her time-slip novel Moonlight Dancer was selected as a front page Featured Review by Book Ideas.

Please visit Deb on Twitter here or at her blog.   She’d love to see you there!

To buy a copy of this wonderful book, click here.

On Seizing Serendipity

Serendipity with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack.

You know the movie, right?

If the planets align or the fates allow (you choose), John C. and Kate B. aka Jonathan and Sara will find each other via a recycled $5 bill or an inscribed copy of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Silly you think? Kate is content (at least initially) to bow to destiny, a sort of que sera, sera on steroids approach. Not John. He hunts down every used bookstore in town, riffles through each Garcia Marquez tome in search of the novel bearing his love’s phone number.

In other words, he gives serendipity a nudge.

Those of us who write often take a page out of John’s book. (Sorry.) That is, we seize serendipity. In my own case, a desire to portray a strong woman in a neo-Confucian culture led unexpectedly to a dance, a battle, a bridge, and a myth.

The historical backdrop for my time-slip novel is 16th century Korea when Japan cast its covetous eye on Korea. The ensuing war pitted trained, merciless samurai against scrappy, inventive peasants. My favorite story involves a sea invasion in which Japanese invaders scaled a cliff wall to stage an attack. The Korean militia was vastly outnumbered, so following the direction of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, women donned soldiers’ uniforms. Under the moonlight at the edge of the cliff these brave women brandished torches and performed the traditional gang gang sullae dance. This display so frightened the Japanese that they rappelled back down the cliff wall, jumped in their boat, and sailed away. As my dad would say, “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

Traditional gang gang sullae dance

Of course I had to use this story in my novel, but my first task was to locate that cliff. I read Admiral Yi’s diary Nanjung Ilgi. Alas, he made no mention of this event, so with a little authorial license, I chose a likely spot—the island of Jindo—in the southernmost province Jeallanamdo near Yi’s famous Crane formation battle. Ready to explore, my husband, daughter Hillary, and I traveled by train, then car to this remote locale. Interestingly, no Korean of my acquaintance has ever been to Jindo, and no Westerner I know had ever heard of this place.

That all changed on April 16th of this year when the ferry Sewol capsized, killing 304 people. One hundred seventy-two survived and were transported to Jindo for first aid and shelter. The waterways of Jeollanamdo are indeed treacherous, which the ingenuous Admiral Yi was able to exploit in his famous turtle boat battle against the Japanese.

No one would have predicted the Sewol disaster on that hot afternoon when husband, daughter, and I first rumbled along country roads in Jindo, nauseous from some questionable sushi in Myung Dong the day before. (Note to self: Never eat raw fish in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a hot and humid afternoon.) Rumbling along that road, surrounded by high grasses tossing in the wind, I had no idea what I’d find.

Turns out, a remarkable natural phenomenon occurs in Jindo’s archipelago, a parting of the sea. Yes, it really happens. For one hour in the fourth lunar month, roughly May and again around July, the waters recede so that you can walk across a land bridge to a little island called Modo.

Archipelago off the island of Jindo

As is the case with many natural phenomena, this one comes with its own creation myth. I was delighted to discover the myth involves a streak of tigers, a family fleeing to safety on Modo, and a grandmother stranded and left to the mercy of the tigers. (Ditching Grandma is a pretty bad thing in a culture that venerates elders.) At any rate, Grandmother prays, and the Sea King conjures a rainbow path and parts the sea so she can run across the land bridge to her family. Here you can see a monument dedicated to the faithful grandmother.

Grandmother monument

What an unexpected gift was this find, so welcome after all the research that brought me to this point! I didn’t know it at the time, but this myth of the grandmother and the tigers, coupled with a true story of the war heroine NonGae, would figure into my novel Moonlight Dancer, would, in fact, provide the setting for the crisis that changed the life of my ghost NanJu.

So, a historic dance in a famous battle led me to a cliff, which overlooked a land bridge, which led to the discovery of a myth. Writers, particularly those invoking history, spend hours in research. Sometimes in the course of that research, if we’re lucky, a little serendipity comes our way. We’d be fools not to seize it.         


Thanks so much to Deb for this great post, which is true to the original (and often deviated from) purpose of this blog.  

The picture of the traditional Korean dance "Korean.Dance-03" originally by photoren - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -