From miles away you could see the smoke rising over English towns. You had to be closer to hear the screams and cries of the victims. In one place after another — Lynn, Stamford, Norwich, Bury St. Edmunds, York, and many others, “raging and riotous mobs” were invading Jewish neighborhoods, plundering homes and burning them, and murdering anyone they found there.
In medieval England Jews and Christians often lived peacefully, if warily, together. But every now and then an underlying Christian animosity toward Jews would erupt into vicious and violent anti-Semitism, and the year 1190 was just such a time.
News of these pogroms spread to the city of Lincoln, and soon the talk in Christian homes and taverns there turned dark and angry: From illness and pestilence, to bad crops, to the ruinous expenses of the Third Crusade — as far as the talk was concerned, the Jews were to blame. Other towns were taking care of the problem, why not Lincoln?
Tankards were hoisted. Rumors and whispers of dark Jewish deeds were spoken aloud. Grumbling turned into growling. Talkers soon morphed into a mob. With the wealthier citizens carrying swords and the poorer brandishing the sharpest farm implements they could find, the mob moved as one loud, snarling mass down the dirt street toward the Jewish quarter.
They picked up people along with way. Torches were lighted. And more than a few in the crowd were thinking of the nice things they’d acquire by looting before burning the Jewish quarter to the ground.
The mob turned a corner — and paused. A man stood alone and unarmed in the street in front of them, blocking their way. One unarmed man was no match for a mob, but there was something regal in the way he stood there — shoulders square, head up, no sign of fear — that made the people in front hesitate, causing a chain reaction that brought the whole group to a stop just a few feet in front of him.
The man had had no time to put on the garments of his office before rushing to the street, so it took the mob a moment to recognize him. Then a surprised voice exclaimed “It’s Hugh!” and the word spread quickly.
With a voice that rang with authority, Bishop Hugh of Lincoln told the mob to disperse and go home. The leaders in front threw obscenities back at their bishop, and several raised swords to split open his head, but Hugh stood his ground and his sharp rebuke to drop their weapons was so strong that they obeyed in spite of themselves.
As their swords clattered to the ground Hugh again raised his voice and rebuked the crowd. And then speaking sometimes sweetly, sometimes harshly, but always persuasively, he calmed them down and sent them home. There would be no pogroms in Lincoln while he was there.
It was not the first time Hugh had single-handedly protected Jews, and it would not be the last. In this regard he was one of the bright Christian lights of Jewish-Christian relationships in the medieval world, and it is said that Jews came from all over England to weep at his funeral.
Hugh of Lincoln — St. Hugh of Lincoln — was canonized in 1220, just 20 years after his death. It’s no wonder: He was well known all over Europe for his sanctity, his wisdom, and his fearlessness. His reputation for sweetly charming the animals and birds was second only to that of his younger contemporary, Francis of Assisi, and yet he once had the fearless audacity to seize Richard the Lionheart by his tunic and shake him violently when he thought the king was in the wrong. Kings Henry II, Richard, and John all thought of him as a friend and adviser, and Richard once said “if all the prelates of the Church were like him, there is not a king in Christendom who would dare to raise his head in the presence of a bishop.”
I could go on about Hugh — his passion for the poor; the way he reformed his local church; his attitude against clergy collecting honorariums for their services; his not only designing the rebuilding of Lincoln cathedral after it toppled in an earthquake, but his rolling up his sleeves and pitching in to help the workers; the genuine grief the people of Lincoln felt when he died — but the story of him standing alone against a mob is my favorite; it’s a story I think worth telling and remembering.
Our Catholic tradition is filled with stories like this — stories of courage and strength, stories of heroism and villainy, stories of faith and miracles, stories of the lives and legends of the saints. Sensitivities and cultural tastes change over time, but for the most part these are stories still worth telling and remembering.
As editors of Catholic Digest, we often come across these stories in the course of our work, and they attract us and fire our imaginations just as they did for all the generations of Catholics before us for the past 2,000 years. At the same time, we heard from you, our readers, in the extensive survey we conducted last year, that you want more about the lives of the saints. So, our plan took shape: Why not take these stories, especially the ones not frequently told, and, using our best storytelling abilities, bring them to you in fresh and (we hope) exciting ways.
So, starting in the current, January 2011 issue, in this, our 75th anniversary year, the editors of Catholic Digest have made plans to tell these stories in our new column “Lives and Legends of the Saints.”
In January, assistant editor Kathryn Oates starts off the series with a sensational piece on one of her favorite saints in “St. Mercurius and the silver spear,” about a Roman soldier who saves Rome, dies for his faith, and then appears later when Rome’s Christians are desperately in need of rescue. (Kathryn is also doing the artwork for the series; I am privileged to work with a very talented team.)
In February our copy chief, Traci Neal, who has contributed many great stories and Q&As to Catholic Digest tells the story of “The saint who couldn’t be martyred,” the wise and venerable Dionysius of Alexandria who was willing and available to be martyred for the Lord, but the Lord always had other plans for him. Our story is based on Dionysius’ own written accounts, preserved by Church historian Bishop Eusebius in the third century.
In March managing editor Julie Rattey, who has contributed more terrific stories to Catholic Digest than I can count, tells the story of St. Genevieve and the sea monsters, how Genevieve — a remarkable saint in so many ways — saved Paris from a siege in the fifth century.
In later months, we’ll look at other saint stories — including the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the Christian Thunderbolt Legion of ancient Rome, stories of St. Mark the Evangelist saving sailors, and even a fun medieval tale of the Virgin Mary playing a trick on the devil. We’re having a lot of fun finding and telling these stories. I hope you enjoy reading them and telling them to others. Please let us know. May Hugh of Lincoln and all our saints inspire our minds and hearts to follow our Lord more closely and passionately.
P.S. We’ve got other new features on spirituality and Church tradition starting in January. I’ll talk more about them next month.