Friday, July 15, 2022

Saint Swithin’s Day, July 15

St Swithun, Benedictional of Æthelwold, 963-84 AD

Saint Swithin’s day never made it to the universal calendar, but his feast occupies a charming niche in English folklore.

Swithin or Swithun (800-62) was an Anglo-Saxon dean of the Old Monastery in Winchester, and a trusted advisor to Egbert, King of the West Saxons. The king trusted Swithin so much that he charged the Saint with the education of his son Aethelwulf. When Aethelwulf succeeded his father, he arranged for Swithin to be chosen Bishop of Winchester; and like his father, he continued to heed Swithin’s sage advice. As a result, the kingdom flourished, even though Aethelwulf is described as a man of “slow disposition,” which I take to mean that he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. [1]
Swithin was a learned and abstemious man. He never ate to satisfy his appetite but only to sustain his body, and when he had to dedicate a church, he walked to the location barefoot. When he hosted a banquet, he invited the poor rather than the rich, and he built a bridge over the River Itchen to enable the poor to sell their wares in the city. One of these, an old woman, dropped her basket of eggs as she was crossing the bridge; seeing that all they were broken, she began to weep in a most pitiful manner. The Saint heard her wailing and, filled with compassion, miraculously restored the eggs.
But the Saint’s most famous patronage came about after his death. He died on July 2, and his relics were transferred from the graveyard of Winchester Cathedral to its interior a century later on July 15; the English keep his feast on July 15, while Norway and the Roman Martyrology keep it on July 2. His earliest biographers declare that the transfer took place in accordance with his wishes, which were communicated in a vision. Later legends, however, offered a different interpretation. Some say that the humble bishop had insisted on being buried in the churchyard, “where rain and the steps of passersby might fall on his grave,” and that after his remains were moved inside, a great storm ensued in protest. Others say that every time they tried to translate his relics into the cathedral, torrential rains stopped them from doing so, since even posthumously the Saint did not consider himself worthy of such an honor.
The shrine of St. Swithin, where his relics used to be.
Either way, like the feast of the Purification on February 2 (a.k.a. Groundhog Day), Saint Swithin’s became a holy day with alleged prognostic value. If it rains on this day, the legend goes, there will be forty more days of the same; if it does not, there will be forty days of drought (one variation is more specific: it must rain on St. Swithin’s bridge in Winchester). Hence an old rhyme:
Saint Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
Saint Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.
Saint Swithin is not alone when it comes to summer meteorological lore: the French say the same things about St. Gervais’ Day, July 19, and the Germans about the feast of the Seven Sleepers (July 7). The similarities may have something to do with the fact that, in Europe, summer weather patterns in early to mid-July tend to be consistent for several weeks in seven to eight years out of ten. The position of a jet stream at that time helps determine whether the weather will be hot and dry or cold and wet. [2]
There was one storm that Saint Swithin did not predict: the Reformation. After all that trouble getting him into Winchester Cathedral, his shrine was destroyed in 1538 and his relics scattered.
[1] Butler’s Lives of the Saints, vol. 3 (St. Bonaventure Publications, 1997), 61.

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