Do saints ever get angry? Anger is certainly not an emotion that one would immediately associate with saints. Instead, they tend to be thought of in the image of St. Francis, surrounded by his birds and animals, or remembered through their performance of healing miracles, enacted for those seeking divine intercession.
When the question of saintly anger arose recently on social media, the medieval hive mind was asked for examples. Two examples immediately sprang to mind, the first from the Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fidis (or The Book of Sainte Foy’s Miracles) and the second, taken from the Liber Eliensis. These are just two that I have encountered over the course of my studies but they serve to illustrate a point: saints most certainly do get angry.
The first two books of the Liber Miraculorum Sancte Fidis were written in the early part of the eleventh century by Bernard of Angers (rather appropriately). Throughout, Sancte Foy appears as decidedly gold-grabbing; demanding jewellery and other adornments from devotees who face miraculous consequences until they relent.
In one particular account, a man found gold which had been left over from the smelting process in the smithy which had produced the saint’s golden altar front. He had thought to keep the gold for himself, but Sancte Foy had other ideas. The Liber Miraculorum recounts that: “It seemed to him that Sainte Foy appeared to him in a vision … She rather severely demanded the gold that Gerbert had hidden away; then she seemed to leave as if she were angry.
On the next night she seemed to appear again in the same terrifying way, and to leave as threateningly as before”. When Gerbert still refused to give up his gold, Sancte Foy appeared to him a third time, saying “Tell me, you worst of criminals, why haven’t you returned my gold to me when I’ve demanded it back so many times?” She threatened the suffering Gerbert with a hazel wand and he was terrified to the point that he finally gave up his gold “… back to God and Sainte Foy”.
The second example which sprang to mind is a particularly memorable episode from the Liber Eliensis, written at the end of the twelfth century as a historical record of the community of Ely and its female saints.
In the years following the Norman conquest, the community, its people and its saint, Æthelthryth, are said to have been greatly oppressed by a certain Gervase. The people of Ely are described as chanting psalms before Æthelthryth’s tomb, hoping for divine mercy.
They were not disappointed: “St Æthelthryth appeared in the form of an abbess with a pastoral staff, along with her two sisters, and stood before him, just like an angry woman, and reviled him in a terrifying manner … She lifted the staff which she was carrying and implanted its point heavily in the region of his heart, as if to pierce him through. Then her sisters St. Wihtburh and St. Seaxburh [who had come along with her] wounded him with the hard points of their staves.”
The fact that these two examples have stuck in my head over the years may suggest that such anger was out of the ordinary. This is not the case, however, as there are numerous examples of vengeance miracles, throughout Late Antique and Medieval hagiography, many featuring the saints in similarly active roles. Nor is saintly anger a specifically female phenomenon. As one of my colleagues pointed out, Wulfstan of Winchester was known for having a fiery temper. What these examples have in common, however, is that the anger is in response to a threat to the saint’s community, integrity, or possessions. Anger is perfectly saintly behaviour, therefore, as long as it is righteous anger.
‘The Book of Sainte Foy’s Miracles’, in The Book of Sainte Foy, trans, Pamela Sheingorn (Philadelphia, 1995), I.25, pp. 92-3.
Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Compiled by a Monk of Ely in the Twelfth Century, trans, Janet Fairweather (Woodbridge, 2005), II.32, pp. 251-3.