Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pulling the Devil's Nose

Today is the Feast of St Dunstan - the saint who seized the devil by the nose with a pair of red hot tongs! Having put a Facebook status about him on the wrong date (two months ago) I was going to correct my mistake on FB today, but found Dunstan so interesting I will write about him here instead.

Briefly, he was a 10th century monk who became Abbot of Glastonbury and Archbishop of Canterbury. A skilled musician, manuscript writer and metal worker, he is invoked invoked by jewellers, goldsmiths, locksmiths and blacksmiths. Until 1975, in honour of St Dunstan, May 19 was the yearly changeover date for hallmarks on gold and silver. According to legend the devil appeared as he was making a golden chalice for the church. Refusing to be tempted, Dunstan seized Satan by the nose with his red hot metal-working tongs.

There's even an old rhyme about the meeting, quoted in John Vince's Discovering Saints in Britain:
"Saint Dunstan so the story goes
Once pulled the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more."
I'm fascinated by the tales of the saints, and by anniversaries of historic events, and I like to find ways of mark these occasions - but I don't recommend this particular action of Dunstan's, even with people you don't like! Instead you could celebrate his life by buying or wearing some jewellery (it doesn't have to be expensive, brightly coloured beads and bangles will do), listening to your favourite music or reading a beautifully illustrated book. Or you could do all three. Failing that, cakes and wine are always good for feasting - or simply sit and reflect about life, the universe and everything while enjoying a cup of tea and  biscuit.

Surprisingly, St Dunstan has no connections with the blind. The charity of that name, which supports blinded and visually impaired ex-service personnel (find out more at took its title from an early location, St Dunstan's Lodge, in Regent's Park - and the house only got its name because the original owner installed a large clock in the grounds, which he bought from a church called St Dunstan's (or, more correctly, St Dunstan-in-the-West, Fleet Street, London).  So it was pure chance that led to the adoption of Dunstan's name by the organisation, and it's chosen patron saint is actually Odilia, who was born in France in the seventh century. Because she was blind her father wanted her killed, but she was given to a peasant, and later miraculously gained her sight when she was baptised by a bishop.

Oh dear, I seem to have gone off on a detour again, but that's what so fascinating about reading: you end up travelling in other directions when something catches your interest and you want more information. Anyway, back to St Dunstan. Under his leadership Glastonbury became a centre of learning, while as Archbishop of Canterbury he revived and reformed the church, spearheading the rebuilding of religious buildings destroyed by Danish invader and encouraging monks to acquire skills which would enable help recreate their monasteries. More importantly, he restored discipline by insisting clergy lived according to their vows and that monks followed the Rule of St Benedict. Fostering the growth of education was always important to him and he eventually retired from his role as Archbishop, but continued to teach.

For many years he was one of the most important English saints, and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was an important place of pilgrimage.

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