Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dunstan deals with the Devil

St Dunstan and the DevilFeast day of St Dunstan

(Monk's hood, Aconitum napellus, is today's plant, dedicated to St Dunstan, whose feast day this is.)
Dunstan (909 ? - May 19, 988) was an Archbishop of Canterbury (961 - 980) who was later canonised as a saint. He gained fame for the many stories told about his cunning in dealing with the Devil.
He is the patron saint of goldsmiths, and himself worked as a blacksmith, painter, and jeweller. His patronage also includes armourers, blacksmiths, blind people, gold workers, jewellers, lighthouse keepers, locksmiths, musicians, silver workers, silversmiths and swordsmiths.
Dunstan was a highly intelligent nobleman whose parents incited him to study hard, and he acquired 'brain fever'. Though his friends gave him up for dead, in his delirium he climbed into a locked church at night and the next day was found asleep there, apparently miraculously cured.

Born in King Arthur's 'isle' of Glastonbury (Avalon), England, he became abbot there in 945, and the abbey flourished under his administration, with a substantial extension of the irrigation system on the surrounding Somerset Levels. At the court of King Athelstan (c. 895 - 939), he was a favourite with the ladies, who took his advice on embroidery. Once, he was embroidering with Lady Ethelwyne, when his unattended harp began playing by itself. Banished from the court for witchcraft, he returned to Glastonbury and established the Benedictine rule throughout English monasteries.
Following the accession of King Edwy of England, he became less influential and went overseas to Flanders. Despite this tenth-century saint's prestige as the initiator of Benedictine rule, he was banished when he offended the sixteen-year-old King. Dunstan heard the Devil laughing and told him to contain his joy as it wouldn't last long. 
According to one legend, the feud with Dunstan began on the day of Edwy's consecration, when he failed to attend a meeting of nobles. When Dunstan eventually found the young monarch, he was cavorting with a noblewoman named Ethelgive and refused to return with the bishop. Infuriated by this, Dunstan dragged Edwy back and forced him to renounce the girl as a "strumpet." Later realizing that he had provoked the king, Dunstan fled to the apparent sanctuary of his cloister, but Edwy, incited by Ethelgive, followed him and plundered the monastery. Though Dunstan managed to escape, he refused to return to England until after Edwy's death.

On his return, in 957, he imported Benedictine customs, becoming bishop of Worcester and London in 959. In 961, Edgar made St Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, from which position he, rather than the king, virtually ruled England. His innovations in Britain included the standardising of measures and the establishment of regular justice circuits.
Having crowned Edgar in 973, he performed the same service for his successor, Edward the Martyr, and later for Æthelred II (Ethelred the Unready). The service is still used as the basis for contemporary British coronations. He died in 988 and was canonized in 1029.

St Dunstan and the pegs
St Dunstan introduced to England a practice to prevent fights among drinkers. He ordered that ale tankards be fitted with pegs marking equal intervals, so that when more than one drank from the same cup they would drink equal amounts. Hence the expression "I am a peg too low".
St Dunstan's tongs

Dunstan was famed for his cunning in dealing with Satan. In one celebrated incident, he used a red-hot pair of tongs to pinch the nose of the Devil when he tried to tempt him in the form of a girl. For many years the tongs were on display at Mayfield, England. From this tale, tongs have become a symbol of St Dunstan and are featured in the arms of Tower Hamlets
Another story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof when he was asked to reshoe the Devil's horse. The Devil was only allowed to go once he had promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door. This is claimed by some as the origin of the lucky horseshoe.
English literature contains many references to him; for example in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and in the folk rhyme quoted above.


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