The Martyrdom of St Ursula
German art - 16th century
It’s been my name day today. In mainly catholic countries in Europe as well as Latin America, somebody’s name day is at least as important as their birthday, sometimes more so. In olden days a child was christened the day after birth and given the name of the saint who had died or been martyred on that day. For instance, Martin Luther was born on the 10th November and christened on the 11th, the feast day of Martin of Tours.
Birthday celebrations have taken over in secular life and when I mention name days I always get “what’s that?” in return. But for my aunt Katie and her friends, who lived in a small rural community on the Lower Rhine, name days were the highlight of their personal year. Each one of them baked cakes and pastries in advance of their own great day and invited the others and anyone whom they valued, brothers and sisters and cousins, to ‘Namenstag Kaffee und Kuchen’ and a little something home brewed to round off the festivities. They made fruit liqueurs in those days, potent enough to redden checks and loosen tongues; wine and ready bottled alcohol was beyond their means. Everybody brought flowers, often pot plants, and a small present. The more friends and family you had, with whom you were on good terms, the more often you were part of this harmless indulgence. My father disapproved and when he made his usual dog-in-the-mangerish remarks, my mum said “nothing to do with you; let them have their fun”; living in town she wasn’t part of aunt Katie's jolly circles. I am sure she often regretted it.
I got my Christian name quite by accident. Mum and Dad had lost their first child and may therefore not have wanted to be too certain that the second child, i.e. me, would live; anyway, they didn't discuss names. When the nurse came to enquire, they looked at each other and said “we don’t have a name for her.” (Good start, wouldn’t you say?) Babies were kept away from mothers in communal nurseries until they were handed over to be fed. The next time the nurse distributed her squalling and hungry charges, she said to my mother: “and for you I have a little Ursula”. “So be it”, my parents said, “one name’s as good as any other.” That’s how I became “the little bear”.
The legend of Ursula is based on a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula (on the Ursulaplatz) in Cologne. It states that the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed. St Ursula is no longer wholeheartedly endorsed as a Christian martyr, too many different versions of her story exist and there is little evidence that any of them are true. Ursula and 11.000 virgins were supposedly killed by the Huns when they overran Cologne. The figure of 11.000 is probably a misreading of the Latin text, and the 11.000 virgins were more likely 11 ladies of Ursula’s royal train.
Be that as it may, I quite like the idea of being named after a Romano-British royal personage, who did good deeds and led a short but exemplary life. Granted, her ending wasn’t much fun, I’d have probably married the Hun prince rather than opted for martyrdom - where there’s life there’s hope of getting out of a sticky situation - but she wouldn’t have become famous if she had.
I didn’t celebrate my name day but I had a lovely present anyway: the absolutely delightful Frances of City Views Country Dreams came all the way from New York to Ludlow, in the pouring rain, to spend a glorious afternoon with me, no sacrifice required.
PS: that’s Ludlow in the UK, so from New York, NY to Ludlow, UK, is quite a distance.