My fav Saints: St Procopius of Sázava, a spooky saint

There are a lot of medieval ghost stories. So many, in fact, that there is a whole really great collection of them, Andrew Joynes’s Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies, which I unhesitatingly recommend if you want some more medieval ghost content in your life. To surprise and delight you, I was thinking back through some of my favs to do some casual Halloween posting. Should I do the ghost story about incest? Some of the great Icelandic revenant stories? How about my fav Emperor Charles IV’s poltergeist story that he just throws in randomly in the middle of his autobiography? That’s when I realised that actually some of my scary stories are directly related to one of my favourite saints – St Procopius of Sázava, aka Sv. Prokop. So that is who we are going to talk about today.

But first, ghost chat. See, the fact that ghosts are showing up in the hagiography of a medieval saint at all is actually a really interesting phenomenon, what with all the Christianity in Europe at the time. From a Christian perspective in the late antique period, no one was supposed to believe in stuff like ghosts. According to theologians such as St Augustine, “The dead by their nature are not able to involve themselves in the affairs of the living”.[1] This is partially a reaction to, you know, all the pagans who were still about the shop and very much in the business of placating the spirits of the dead. Whether you were trying to define your religion in opposition to decadent Romans, or simply the Germanic and Slavic tribes to the north who you were trying to win over to the cause, one of the main ways for Christians to do that was to say when you are dead you are dead and your spirit moves on to purgatory, Hell, or heaven and that is that.

As a result of this position we don’t have a whole lot of ghost stories from the early medieval period. I mean hell, we don’t have a whole lot of anything from the early medieval period, so that probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but still it is worth pointing out that what does survive usually doesn’t involve that much ghost shit. This is a shame. However, all of that begins to shift a bit as Christianity found its foothold. We do still see rather a lot of ghost stories earlier on from societies which are Christanising. The Scandinavians are absolutely mad for it for example. We also see an increase in ghost stories around the time of the first millennium where concerns about the End of Time had people telling stories about the returned dead come to warn other of the Last Days.

Later we also see a lot of ghost stories that seem to be functioning as forms of Christian propaganda as well. There are a tonne of ghost stories about knights who were really big dicks and whose souls roam the land all tortured until their families give money to the local monastery, for example. Similarly, we see a lot of ghost stories about people who are being tortured in purgatory and intercede with their families to pray for them or donate cash in their name to ease their suffering. You get the picture.

Cross section of a grave, from British Library MS Add 37049.

All in all the medieval period ends up chock full of ghost stories no matter how Augustine felt about it. Sometimes they are regular old ghosty ghosts. Sometimes they are the wandering corporeal revenant dead. All of the time I want to read about it.

So, enter St Procopius whose legend is basically an amalgamation of all of these factors. As readers of this blog probably guess as he is one of my favourite saints, and not a dog, he is also, of course, Bohemian. (Sorry not sorry.) More specifically he is from the time period that most Czech saints are, which is to say relatively early on in the Christianisation of the Czech lands. My boys came to the whole Christian thing pretty late in the game. As a result most of the Czech saints start cropping up in the tenth century when the kingdom was being amalgamated into the Ottonian Empire and generally getting better connected to the rest of Europe. This is where St Wenceslas comes into play, for example. St Procopius is actually an eleventh century saint, but still as things go that is fairly early on in the Czech speakers are Christians timeline.

According to tradition, St Procopius was born at the end of the tenth century. He studied in and was ordained in Prague at some point and also probably had a son named Jimram. It isn’t super clear if he became a father before he was ordained or after, as it was technically pretty chill for clergy members to have families up into the twelfth century when the Church got super into writing rules. At any rate one way or another he eventually became a Benedictine monk, possibly at the celebrated Břevnov Monastery.

Eventually though Procopius decided he wanted to go walk about and live as a hermit. This is where stuff starts taking a supernatural turn. He took himself off to the Sázava river to do the hermit thing, and like the desert fathers before him went to find a cave in which to not wank and think about God. Turns out though, that cave? Full of demons.

Now demons, unlike ghosts, have a very firm place in the Christian canon, given that they are emissaries of Hell or what have you. You know what they are also? No match for a holy MFer like Procopius. He yeeted them TF out the cave, and as a result his attribute is often times a demon which he seems to be in some sort of complicated D/s relationship with. Sometimes this is modified to show him using a demon to plow his field because he is that powerful. Observe:

Anyhow, what with all the demon kicking out and what have you, Procopius started to make a name for himself in the local area. Eventually he attracted other monks and started up his own Benedictine monastery at the site. However, it was a monastery with a difference: St Procopius and his monks were doing their thing in the Slavonic Rite as opposed to Latin. This meant that they were speaking and writing in Old Church Slavonic the whole time, like bosses.

Now the Czech lands have a long and storied connection to the Slavonic rite going back to when Sts Cyril and Methodius who came up with the whole Slavonic thing posted up the Empire of Great Moravia and first had a crack at the whole Christianising Czech people thing. St Procopius was apparently also about that life and so he and his monks were holding it down in a very Slavic manor up until his death.

When Procopius died in 1053 the management of the monastery was thrown into confusion. Eventually a group of German-speaking Benedictines moved into the joint. They insisted that the Slavonic rite be abandoned in favour of Latin, (probs because they had no idea why anyone was saying and were too lazy to learn) and in general decided to be mad German about the whole thing.

Procopius was not happy about this. But he was also, quite notably, dead at this point. Did that stop him from doing some violent xenophobia? No it did not. My man’s GHOST showed back the fuck up in the middle of the night complete with a ghostly flail and chased the German monks out of the monastery, reclaiming it for the Slavonic rite and the Czech monks who had been busy being oppressed.

This is regarded as one of St Procopius’s posthumous miracles and is, therefore, pivotal in his cannonisation. In the Czech lands everyone agreed that a dude who came back as a ghost to terrorise Germans was worthy of reverence in 1204, when his body was translated to the altar at the monastery. Eventually the Catholic Church as a whole got on board the cannonisation train and he was officially recognised in 1804, which would have been news to the legions of Czech speakers who had been stanning a demon wrestling ghost with a whip for six centuries beforehand.

What I love about the Procopius legend is, well, everything. More specifically though I like how it is a repository for medieval ideas about the supernatural in a way that manages to straddle Catholic expectations about the afterlife. On the one hand, you have the acceptable supernatural concern of the demons which he bests. On the other, you have the fact that he shows up as a ghost to start shit with people from other kingdoms. As wild as all this is, it makes perfect sense within the framework of a time period that was experiencing serious millennial tensions, and also opening up to the fact that maybe there was a way forward for older folk beliefs about ghosts to exist alongside Christian conceptions of the afterlife.

It is also a great story because interestingly, while medieval versions of St Procopius’s life are absolutely chock full of th,e “Yeah his ghost showed up and got really rowdy” part of the legend it is not something that people like to repeat now. Have a look through the (admittedly, basic) English language Wikipedia and there is nary a mention of all the ghost shenanigans. It tends to show up in Czech versions of the legend, however, which people who speak the best language can see for themselves.[2]

This little omission is interesting because it also says a lot about our own relationship to the conception of ghosts. The people who were busy crafting a legend of St Procopius that would help establish the Czech pantheon of saints saw absolutely no problem with having an entire miracle which hinges on intervention from beyond the grave, and being explicit about couching the discussion in terms of a vengeful ghost. Medieval people were like, hell yeah this rules. Dude seems pretty holy to me, let’s roll with this. And they were right. Our own sensibilities now are what stops us from retelling this extremely good story.

On the left here is St Adalbert, another of the Czech saints. Look at Procopius’s weird chicken demon tho.

When we relate to medieval stories we have a tendency to immediately say that people should be working within a particular Christian framework. One of the things that is unfailingly wonderful about medieval people is their absolute refusal to play that game. Sure we don’t get to hear ghost stories from the early medieval period, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t being told. It just means that the fussy dudes who were writing stuff down didn’t want to dignify them with a response. And you know what? We are doing that same thing now! Every time you read some stripped-back biography of Procopius you are seeing this same sort of editing in action, and it is unspeakably uncool.

I am here to repeat the weird ghost stories from the medieval period. I do not care whether you think it is holy or not. I am team demon slayer, whip brandisher, and vengeful haunting. I am also historically correct. So there.

Big up St Procopius a man for all seasons, but especially Halloween.

[1] St Augustine. ‘De Cura pro Mortuis Gerenda’, PCCSL, Migne, XL, col. 607.
[2] Good options include Josef Hrabák (ed.), ‘Legenda o Svatém Prokopu’, in, Joseph Hrabák and Vaclav Vážný (eds.), Dvě Legendy z Doby Karlovy. Kegenda o svatém Prokopu. Život svaté Kateřiny, intro. Antonín Škarka (Prague, 1959), pp. 17–90.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on medieval saints, see:
On Michaelmas
On martyrdom and nationalism
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
My fav saints: St Wenceslas
On St Nicholas

For more Czech history, see:
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of, or, Martin Luther jacked Jan Hus’s whole style
On Prague, preaching, and brothels

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

8 thoughts on “My fav Saints: St Procopius of Sázava, a spooky saint”

  1. Besides taking me to see Twelfth Night in the basement of the Jan Hus House in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, my Dad also acquired (I don’t know why, since he was more or less a Stalinist) an English translation of the Golden Legend, which I think I recognize bits of in your St. Procopius post. I used to leaf through it, more or less truffle-hunting. (Yes, I had an odd childhood, what of it?) One of my finds was a saint who not only mortified his flesh by wearing coarse, skin-lacerating garments, but triumphed over the temptation to pride in his own sanctity by wearing rich raiment (and that’s the first time I ever got to use that phrase) over the horsehair. I don’t think Jacobus explained how this became known; maybe the charitable explanation is that after he died and was being prepared for burial, horsehair or burlap were found under the brocade and linen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! That is why you have to indicate “of Sázava” to differentiate. It was common for Bohemian saints then to take on Latinised names. For example another of the foundational Bohemian saints is St Adalbert, which … is not very Czech. His birth name was Vojtěch, but he changed it in order to be a fancy man.

      Liked by 1 person

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