The patron saint of spinners and spinsters

Catharine is the patron saint of scholars, educators, philosophers, and librarians, but also of wheelwrights, spinners, lacemakers, ropemakers, and of young unmarried women.

Writing this month’s feature on church wall paintings (see Lost and Found: wall paintings and rood screens in Welsh Churches) got Sherds thinking about the reasons for the popularity of St Catharine (other spellings are available!). She must rank with St Christopher as the saint most-frequently depicted in medieval wall paintings and stained glass. The Church of the Holy Rood in Woodeaton, Oxfordshire, has a 14th-century St Christopher with a Norman French inscription that explains why every church in Britain probably once had some representation of him on the north wall, facing the main entrance to the church. Ki cest image verra la jur de male mort ne murra, it says, meaning ‘Who looks on this image, that day shall not suffer an ill death’, which is to say will not die without the last rites. Visiting the church and addressing a quick prayer to St Christopher before setting out on any journey was therefore an advisable policy.

But why St Catharine? According to the hugely popular Golden Legend, a gathering of saints’ lives first compiled c.1260, St Catharine prayed before her martyrdom to ask God to look kindly on anyone who appealed to her for help at the moment of their death. A voice from heaven affirmed that a place in heaven awaited anyone who devoutly revered St Catharine.

Perhaps to bolster this passport to Paradise, in 1473 Robert Wodelarke marked the feast of St Catharine – 25 November – by founding a college of priests in Cambridge, commanding them to pray for their founder daily while completing their theological studies. St Catharine’s College continues to mark her feast day by remembering women and girls facing violence and persecution around the world. In 2000, the United Nations officially designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

LEFT The 14th-century wall painting of St Christopher at the Church of the Holy Rood in Woodeaton, Motacilla, CC-BY-SA 3.0
The 14th-century wall painting of St Christopher at the Church of the Holy Rood in Woodeaton, Oxfordshire. Photo: Motacilla, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Spinners and spinsters

Catharine is the patron saint of a number of communities – of scholars, educators, philosophers, and librarians, but also of wheelwrights, spinners, lacemakers, ropemakers, and of young unmarried women. In France, the latter marked her feast day by dressing in elaborate hats in the hope of attracting a husband. Sherds is assured by the French ‘Connexion’ website (search for ‘Catherinettes’ if you want to know more) that this rather one-sided custom is no longer observed, although French milliners still launch their latest hat designs on this day and New Orleans hosts a hat parade on the Sunday before Thanksgiving (open to participants of any age, gender, or marital status, of course).

As for the lacemakers, a book called Cattern Cakes and Lace, by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, celebrating foods associated with particular dates in the calendar, tells us that spinning and lace-making communities around Britain celebrated the feast of St Catharine by making Cattern Cakes, spiced with cinnamon and caraway seeds. Sherds has found numerous internet recipes for these cakes, but all seem to omit one vital point: before they are baked you need to incise a swirl on the surface of the dough with a sharp knife so that the baked cakes resemble a Catherine Wheel.

(As a footnote, Protestants who wanted to continue the tradition but did not want to be accused of idolatry invented the idea that the feast was really in honour of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, claiming that she was being honoured as a generous patron of the English lace trade.)

Calendric events

While on the subject of calendric events, Rhiannon Comeau has been in touch with some further thoughts to supplement the item in CA 380’s ‘Sherds’ column about her book Land, People, and Power in Early Medieval Wales. She warmly recommends Ronald Hutton’s book The Stations of the Sun to anyone who wishes to know more about the history of the ritual year in Britain – a big book that provides ample evidence that we were once a lively nation and have become a dull one when it comes to seasonal celebrations.

Sherds asked whether this was because the Protestant Reformation put an end to feast days and jollification. Rhiannon thinks that there were other factors: ‘many traditional seasonal festivals, like the midsummer and cross-quarter day bonfires, wither away in the 19th century’, she says, ‘under the impact of censorious “improving” vicars [see Thomas Hardy’s poignant first novel Under the Greenwood Tree for more on this] as well as 19th-century nonconformity and clampdowns on “riotous informal assemblies”.’ She also suggests that the growth of a monetary economy helped to sever the connection between people, seasons, and the land. One of the first significant changes, for Wales, was the move to monetised rent payment on the March and September quarter days, replacing the pre-Norman system where annual rents of cows or sheep were made on one of the cross-quarter days, either in May, August, or November.

Save our gas lamps

Sherds is not aware that there is a Society for the Protection of Historic Gas Lamps – if there is one, let us know and we will feature it in ‘Odd Socs’. On the other hand, there is the wonderful William Sugg History website, written by Chris Sugg all about his great-great-grandfather William’s claim to a place in history as a gas industry pioneer.

LEFT Julien Lorieux’s 1908 sculpture La Sainte Catherine depicts a lively cluster of ‘Catherinettes’ in Paris’ Square Montholon.
Julien Lorieux’s 1908 sculpture La Sainte Catherine depicts a lively cluster of ‘Catherinettes’ in Paris’ Square Montholon. Photo: FLLL, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Chris says William would be turning in his grave at Westminster City Council’s recently announced plan to convert 299 gas lights to ‘gas-effect LED lighting’. The Council argues that gas lights are difficult to maintain and don’t cast sufficient light to illuminate the highway. Inevitably they cite the climate emergency as another reason compelling the switch to LED bulbs.

Chris Sugg’s distress is shared by a number of influential advocates. Dan Cruickshank, who campaigned to save the gas lamps in Covent Garden in the 1970s, said that Westminster should take pride in being the first place in the world to install gas lamps (in 1819 on Westminster Bridge). Their introduction represented ‘a significant moment in the history of London’ that ‘transformed city life’.

He argues, too, that the environmental impact of switching from gas to electricity would be offset by the need to dig up the roads to lay new cables and the carbon footprint involved in the generation of electricity – electricity is not by any means a carbon-free panacea. Worse still, previous projects to replace London’s gas lights have resulted not just in the introduction of electricity, but the replacement of the Victorian lamp head or the entire lamp post with a pale and spindly modern imitation that, according to one campaigner, ‘looks like something bought from a garden centre’.

All told, there are some 1,500 gas lamps still in use in London, and those that light the Royal Parks and the area around Buckingham Palace are not under threat (to find them all, search online for ‘Exploring London’s Gas Lights’ for Steve Fraser’s 7km walk around London’s gas-lit streets). They are maintained by five lamp attendants employed by British Gas, who travel around London by scooter and who clearly take pride in their work (go to for the team’s short YouTube video explaining the history of gas lamps).

Other towns and cities take a more positive attitude: 25,000 gas lights remain in Berlin, with gas-light tours offered by foot, bus, and bicycle. Prague has some 700 working gas streetlights, and Hong Kong has four (manufactured by William Sugg & Co).

Since half the affected lamps have listed status, Westminster will in theory have to obtain Listed Building Consent for their conversion, but – irony of ironies – local planning authorities can effectively grant themselves consent if the relevant committees pass the appropriate resolutions. Even so, Westminster says it is seeking advice from Historic England. Let us hope that they can persuade the City Council to take a more enlightened attitude.

The museum in a telephone box

CA 379 featured the Telephone Box Appreciation Society in ‘Odd Socs’, and mentioned a variety of uses to which redundant telephone boxes had been put. Sherds recently learned of another inspiring example of reuse: thanks to a £9,300 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Friends of Neath Abbey Iron Company have managed to fit an entire heritage centre into an old kiosk. It tells the story of Neath’s Cistercian Abbey and industrial heritage – every inch of space has been used, including the ceiling, with its collage composed of works of art produced by the pupils of the local comprehensive school.