ST. CATHERINE'S ALMSHOUSE

Illustration

Dr Ross as a good Protestant is not to be numbered among the worshippers of saints, even although on the eve of the festival day of St Catherine, the patron saint of libraries, learning and philosophers, he gave notice of a motion for the building of a great library on the site familiar to all Dunfermline people as St Catherine's Wynd. St Catherine also figures in algological records or the aurea legends as the type of virginal purity. It is thus she is recognized by Longfellow in his Evangeline when Basil the blacksmith's pitying the maiden whose life has been cruelly surrendered from that got, his son to whom she had plighted her troth in perfect love, counseled her to accept another lover saying –

"Thou are too far to be left to braid St Catherine's tresses."

It is not, however as a Christian Artemis or Diana "the modest, spotless goddess," but rather as a Christian Athene or Minerva, the patron of wisdom and art, that St Catherine is known; and without accepting the extravagant stories invented in an ignorant age to justify her canonization, one may yet – in view of the homage to be paid to literature and learning of which she was a devoted lover – regard her as one of the "The dead but accepted sovereigns, who still rule, our spirits from their urns."

St Catherine’s Hall – Door on the left. Watercolour painted by Adam Westwood c.1909

THE STORY OF CATHERINE


Catherine was a virgin of royal descent who lived in Alexandria. The Emperor Maximin loved her, and wished to possess her.  She steadfastly rejected his overtures, and thus increased the hatred of the autocrat.  Having at a sacrificial feast, appointed by the Emperor in 307, publicly confessed herself a Christian; she was put to death after having endured the torture of the toothed wheel – an instrument like a chaff-cutter. Hence the name "St Catherine's Wheel," a sort of fire work, or in architecture a wheel-window or a rose-window with radiating divisions.  Before she was subjected to the torture of the wheel, she was visited by fifty heathen philosophers sent by the Emperor to convert her in prison, but so skilled was she in argument and eloquence that she made the philosophers believe in her belief and won them to the Christian faith. Thus it was she, as a representative of the Christian church, became the patroness of philosophers, libraries, and learned institutions.

Some merciless critics of the Christian legends have suggested that the mental gifts and invincible devotion associated with the Catherine of the opening of the fourth century were really derived from Hypatia, who at the end of the same century and the beginning of the next made for herself a foremost name in philosophy, attracting to her school in Alexandria students from all parts of the east, but arousing the mortal enmity of Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. "With his connivance, if not at his investigation, certain savage monks from the Nitria desert, headed by one Peter, the reader, attacked Hypatia in the streets as she was returning from her lecture room, dragged her room her chariot, hurried her to the Casareum (then a church), there stripped her naked, then hacked her to death with oyster shells, after which she was torn to pieces, and her limbs carried to a place called Cilnars and there burnt to ashes." Charles Kingsley found his story Hypatia (which appeared in 1853) on the later version. [Dunf. Journal 3.12.1904]

THE CHURCH LEGEND


The Rev. Dr Stonghton, in his "Golden Legends of Olden Times," thus described the legend on the strength of which Catherine was given a place among the Saints with the 25th of November as her festival day:-

St Catherine with her four wheels full of sharp spikes emblem of the torment she endured is familiar to all who are versed in legendary art. She was one of the richest and noblest ladies of Alexandria, and was renowned for great learning, that city being famous for its schools and libraries. The tyrant Maximin falling in love with her, wished she would live with him; this she felt determined not to do. He sent her into banishment. A long story is told of her being a king's daughter, and how she resolved to marry, no other who was not worthy of her. To this end she consulted her lord and counselor, who said that such a husband as she desired there never was and never would be. A hermit received a message from the Virgin, who meant that Catherine should be married to her only Son Jesus Christ, whereupon she was carried up into heaven, and saw the Virgin, who presented her to the Lord.

Jesus betrothed Himself to her with a sacred ring. The Emperor notwithstanding, resolved to have her and when refused commanded her to be cast into a dungeon, which became filled with light and fragrance. She was sentenced to be broken on the wheel, when fire consumed the instruments of torture, and she was beheaded. After her death she was carried to the top of Mount Sinai, where the angels buried her.  Poets and painters have delighted in the picturesque legend, but some learned men are ashamed of it.

Butler says: - "Her acts are so much adulterated, that little use can be made of them." He quotes with approval the words of an Archbishop respecting Catherine's translation. "As to what is said that the body of this saint was conveyed by angels to Mount Sinai, the meaning is that it was carried by the monks of Sinai to their monastery, that they might devoutly enrich their dwelling with such treasure.  It is well known that the name of an angelic habit was used for a monastic habit, and that monks, on account of their heavenly purity and functions were anciently called angels." This is a rationalistic kind of dealing with legend, which would explain away a good many of them. As to this translation of Catherine, it is most likely a dream, or simply a nautical invention. The whole story reads like a fable, but, after all, here is a touch of spiritual beauty in the idea of a soul being wedded to Christ, though not after the fashion described in the legend.

The union of a soul to Christ, under the image of a betrothal or marriage, appears both in the Old Testament and the New; and it seems to have been an idea much in favour with legendary author. An instance of it is founded in a later legend, that of a Sultan's daughter.  She walked in her father’s garden, gathering bright flowers full of dew, wondering more and more who was the Master of the flowers. In my heart she said 'I love Him, and for Him would leave my father's palace to labour in His garden.' Jesus stood before her window.  She opened the door.  He said, 'I am the Master of the flowers. My garden is in Paradise, and if thou will go with Me, thy bridal garment shall be of bright red flowers.' Then he took from his finger a golden ring, and asked the Sultan's daughter if she would be His bride. So runs the story in Longfellow's "Golden Legend." [Dunf. Journal 3.12.1904]

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