On St. Agnes and 12-year-old girls


Saint Agnes by Domenichino


Today – January 21st – is the Feast Day of St. Agnes, “martyred at Rome.”   She’s one of the lesser-known saints, but her story deserves some notoriety, in a good way.

Agnes was born into a wealthy Roman family in 291 and was martyred when she was 12 or 13. (The dates are a little iffy.)   This happened in large part because her wealthy Roman family was secretly Christian.  At the time, Christianity was an illegal “cult.”

(At least it was a cult to the powers that be; the authorities of the Imperial Roman Empire.  It wasn’t until 313 – some 22 years later – that the new Emperor Constantine converted and then issued “the Edict of Milan decriminalizing Christian worship.”)

But Agnes was also martyred in part because she wouldn’t “put out” for the local hotspurs:

Agnes, whose name means “chaste” in Greek, was a beautiful young girl of wealthy family and therefore had many suitors of high rank…  [T]he young men, slighted by Agnes’s resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity.

See Agnes of Rome – Wikipedia.  But that wasn’t the worst part.

The worst part was the “Prefect Sempronius condemned her to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel,” where the local Roman troops would have their way with her.   But one legend said “as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body.”  In another legend all the men who tried to “rape her were immediately struck blind.”  Then for some reason Sempronius excused himself, and another judge sentenced her to die.  Then this happened:

[S]he was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat.

So for reasons that by now should be readily apparent, the 12-year-old Agnes was deemed the patron saint of [chaste] young girls.  “Folk custom called for them to practice rituals on Saint Agnes’ Eve (20–21 January) with a view to discovering their future husbands.

This superstition has been immortalised in John Keats‘s poem, ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes.'”

Incidentally, the article on Keats’ poem added an interesting twist (shown in the painting below):

Keats based his poem on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes;  that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind.  Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

All of which is fascinating, but we digress…

The fact that Agnes is one of the lesser-known leads to a reasonable question.  What’s all this patron-saint business anyhow?  On that note see Patron saint – Wikipedia:

A patron saint [is] regarded as the tutelary spirit or heavenly advocate of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, clan, family, or person…  [A]lready transcended to the metaphysical, [they] are able to intercede effectively for the needs of their special charges.

See also Patron Saints – American Catholic:  “Certain Catholic saints are associated with certain life situations.  These patron saints intercede to God for us.  We can take our special needs to them and know they will listen to our prayers, and pray to God with us.”  (Wikipedia said such practices are deemed “a form of idolatry” by “branches of Protestantism such as Calvinism.”)

Be that as it may, patron saints are remembered each year by celebrating Feast Days:

The calendar of saints is [a] Christian method of organizing a liturgical year by associating each day with one or more saints and referring to the day as the feast day or feast of said saint.  (The word “feast” [here] does not mean “a large meal, typically a celebratory one”, but instead “an annual religious celebration, a day dedicated to a particular saint”.)

See also CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Ecclesiastical Feasts:  “Feast Days, or Holy Days [‘holidays’] are days [commemorating] the sacred mysteries and events recorded in the history of our redemption…   A feast not only commemorates an event or person, but also serves to excite the spiritual life by reminding us of the event it commemorates.”

Which is also what this blog tries to do:  “excite the spiritual life.”

In today’s case we remember Saint Agnes, patron saint of young girls.  (In folk custom, young girls lying abed, awaiting a vision of their future husbands…)


Madeleine undressing, painting by John Everett Millais…”



The upper image is courtesy of Agnes of Rome – Wikipedia.

Re: “hotspurs.”  See Henry Percy (Hotspur) – Wikipedia, which noted: “Henry Percy, ‘Hotspur’, is one of [William] Shakespeare’s best-known characters,” based on a real-life “Sir Henry Percy KG (1364-1403), commonly known as Sir Harry Hotspur, or simply Hotspur.”  Sir Henry was known as “one of the most valiant knights of his day, and was a significant captain during the Anglo-Scottish wars.  He later led successive rebellions against Henry IV of England, and was slain at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 at the height of his career.”

Today a hotspur is generally defined as “an impetuous or fiery person  an impetuous or reckless person; a hothead,” or someone “who is rash, impetuous or impulsive.”  In other words, “a typical [young] guy.”  There is also the Tottenham Hotspur, an “English football club whose home ground is at White Hart Lane in the north London district of Tottenham.  It was established in 1882 and has had many successes. In 1961 it became the first club in the 20th century to win both the League Championship and the FA Cup in the same season. It has won the FA Cup eight times and the League Championship twice.”

The lower image is courtesy of in “John Keats‘s poem, ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes.'”  The latter site provided the caption, referring to Madeline, one of the two main characters in the poem.  “Madeline pines for the love of Porphyro, sworn enemy to her kin…  In the original version of his poem, Keats emphasized the young lovers’ sexuality, but his publishers, who feared public reaction, forced him to tone down the eroticism.”


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