For your late advent delectation, it is part one of a serious on my favourite medieval saints, why they are important, and what they have to tell us about medieval society.
For those who’d rather read, today I’m talking about St Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and the star of that Christmas carol that you can sing the first four lines of. My man lived at the beginning of the tenth century and was the first Christian king of Bohemia. Raised by his Christian grandmother, St Ludmilla, the first Czech saint, he ascended the throne with the intent of making the kingdom Christian. He was responsible for joining Bohemia with the Holy Roman Empire, founded the cathedral in Prague, and was all around a good guy.
He was a saint not just because he did great things for the kingdom, but also because he was a seriously devoted Christian who did all the right Christian things. He wore a hair shirt under his fancy robes. He fasted and abstained from meat. He never had sex, and he was super into helping the poor.
We sing about him at Christmas to commemorate one of his miracles. On Boxing Day, or St Stephen’s day, aka the second day of Christmas, aka the 26th of December one year, he looked out his window to see a poor man foraging for wood for fuel. Moved by his plight, he asked a page to find out where the man lived so that he could go deliver food, money, and fuel. Having done this good deed, he turned around home, but it was snowing hard and his page was struggling. He told the page to follow in his footsteps, literally, and when the page did so he was miraculously warm and able to return to the castle. Some medieval versions of this legend have the footsteps filling with blood, which keeps said page warm.
So far so cool, but what is the point of this? Well, St Wenceslas is a great example of exactly how someone becomes a saint in the medieval period. First, it helps to be royal. If the papacy and your people know about you then you are already ahead of the game. Secondly, you’ll notice that part of what makes Wenceslas holy is his willingness to eschew the finer things in life. This is only impressive if you have nice stuff to give up. If you have to live vegetarian and wear rags it’s not holy when you do it. When royal people make a decision to live a more difficult life, however, it’s proof that they are holy. It also helps if you intervene with the poor and actually attempt to help them too, of course, because local worship is often the impetus that begins a cult of saints. If the locals believe in you, and you’ve started performing miracles after your death (St Wenceslas cured some blind people, as well as freeing some Christian slaves) then it’s hard for the Church to tell a newly Christianised people “sorry he wasn’t holy after all”. It’s the miracles and charity that average people wanted, and Wenceslas had that.
I think in this time of creeping fascism and austerity it is great to remember people like Wenceslas anyway just because this is the sort of leadership that we want to see in the world. Wenceslas was so much more than a self-centred leader. He wanted to make the world better for his subjects and servants, and was willing to sacrifice his own comfort to ensure that it happened. Which leaders today could we say would bleed for their pages?
This Christmas let’s all try to be a little more like Wenceslas: giving, outgoing, and seeing ourselves as responsible for our communities.