5: The Cinderella Saints
I discover Dymphna's sisters
This is the fifth part of a series. You can find part one here.
Now I knew there were once many sites with rituals like those connected to the Saint Dymphna shrine, some of which were well known places of pilgrimage for the afflicted and which also provided foster care.
Not only are the stories and rituals of Geel not unique to Geel, but they are a trope. What at first seemed odd to me – the incest, the irrelevant details, the lack of a logic between cause and effect – are standard for stories of young female martyrs. I’ll blame my Protestant upbringing for how long it took me to discover something so obvious.
“But, whatever "facts" or truths might be associated with the early legend are inconsequential in the face of a new documented legend: Geel's centuries old system of foster family care for the mentally ill.”
That quote from 2008 feels quite dated. The origins of our institutions do matter. Our history continues to shape our lives today, in terms of the actual conditions of our life and what we view as possible.
In Making Care Count: A century of gender, race, and paid care work Alice Kessler-Harris is quoted: “without a history, public policy follows the path of social myth”.
I remained determined to use the myth to uncover the history. Thanks to Amanda Leduc’s Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space,1 after reading several dozen versions of the Dymphna story, I had a hunch that it was a version of the Cinderella story.
“Medieval writers and audiences were much more interested in stories of marriageable daughters who are forced to leave home when their fathers try to seduce or marry them. This Flight from the Incestuous Father is also found in many other parts of the world, in forms such as the folktale Catskin and Peau d’Âne, one branch of the Cinderella tradition;…We may be rather alarmed by the popularity of this grim story in the Middle Ages: sometimes the horrified daughter flees of her own volition, sometimes she is exiled by her furious father when she rejects him, and in both cases she may have one or both hands cut off (they are of course miraculously restored at the end of the narrative). The earliest known Latin version is in the Vitae Duorum Offarum, an historical narrative attributed to Matthew Paris and written about 1250.”3
The literary trope goes:
A queen dies
The king will only marry her equal, so he decides to marry his daughter
The princess comes up with an excuse to delay and then flees to another kingdom (or locks herself in a chest that’s sent abroad or is locked in a chest and thrown into the sea)
The princess lives in hiding, performing menial work
Consequences, like having your heads or head chopped off (and, occasionally, a happy ending where the dress or ring magically fits and she marries a prince)
I quickly came up with a collection of Cinderella saints:
Saint Juliana was beheaded by her fiancee, chosen by her father.
Saint Markella has a holy spring with her blood on the rocks.
Saint Margaret had a whole thing with a dragon and then was beheaded.
Saint Winnifred was brought back to life by her uncle after being martyred.
Saint Wilgefortis prayed asking God to make her repulsive and she grew a beard.
I came across so many similar stories about saints, magical cures, and foster care systems I started feeling annoyed, rather than excited, to find new leads. I felt even more foolish for taking so long to piece it together – and baffled that writing from actual academics with actual credentials emphasizes the uniqueness of Geel without mentioning any of this.
The Invention of Saintliness explains how Dymphna came into being. Belgium is lousy with Cinderella saints. Each sacred site – a megalithic grave, a Roman grave, an ancient sacred site – had a variation of the Cinderella story attached to it. When the site needed to be disturbed to increase cultivation or expand the city, the “relics” were moved to a church. These saints were the mascots and protectors of settler communities, claiming land from the civilizations they’d displaced. The author suggests that it’s no coincidence that the original Dymphna vita is said to date from the year Geel was granted the privileges of a city.
The reindeer lady
I found it quite confusing to read about the Gasthuis, Sint-Dimpnakerk, and other sites. The same terms are used to describe them, they burnt down at various times, they were controlled by the same people, and they contained altars or chapels dedicated to Dymphna. Eventually I realized that this was at least partly because the cult of Dymphna did not begin in Geel.
“According to the contents of the donation letter [from 1270], this chapelry was originally founded in the chapel of the castle of Oosterloo, inhabited by Hendrik Berthout, commonly called Hendrik van Oosterloo. But the landlord and his wife, Aleidis, had reserved the right to move that chapel wherever they or their successors would deem it preferable. It is certain that she had already been transferred to Ste-Dimphnakerk in 1357, because at that time the house the Borgtgracht, is mentioned as belonging to the chapelry of Ste-Dimphna on the high choir. From the beginning the chief chapel or Administrator servedder Ste-Dimphnakapel this foundation, of which Jan Posson, who died in 1531, was the last owner.”
This letter, summarized by Kuyl, suggests that the shrine of Saint Dymphna was created in the castle of Osterlo. Later, Sint-Dimpnakerk was built in Geel next to the Gasthuis, both on the site of Geel’s former fortified villa, and the shrine was relocated to Geel. Kuyl clarifies that the letter is not entirely correct and “this displacement took place when Hendrik or one of his successors came to live in the glorious house of Gheel, the Borgtgracht.”
Then I realized there were two Cinderella saints in town.
Saint Douceline de Digne
P. D. Kuyl’s 1863 account of the history of Geel casually notes “There were also in Gheel Laat the parish church of St-Amands and the church of the reynder lady, Sinte Digne” while describing the working of the municipal council in 1517.
Saint Douceline de Digne was born in Digne-les-Bains in 1214, founded a beguinage in 1240, and died in 1274.5 Her beguines take a vow of chastity and pledge themselves to serve the poor and sick without the strict rules of being a nun.6
She must have been a big fan of the donkey skin story, since she wore a pig’s skin that she never took off. This was fastened with a belt of thorns. Her wounds were infested with worms.7 She spent her time in prayer and ecstasy.
Her vita, written in 1297, is noteworthy for having been written by a woman. It features her levitating during ecstatic trances, which sounds a bit more like ballerinas standing on their big toes rather than actually leaving the ground. She was famous in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands for her mysticism.
At first I thought Saint Douceline had been left out of the story of Geel. Then, what I took to be misspellings now seemed more ambiguous:
A 1415 bequest refers to both the church of Saint Dympne the Virgin and the chapel of Saint Dimne the Virgin.
Letters from the Bishop in 1531 and 1532 which discuss Saint Dimne and the “chapel of the blessed Dimne”.
In 1534 Baron Merode refers to Saint Dingnen in a letter that could refer to either of Geel’s virgin martyrs.
In 1650 Saint Digne Church was part of the Dymphna [here Sanctæ Dympnæ] procession.
In 1841 we’re told there were four churches in Geel and that Sint-Dimpnakerk was the main one, without being given names for the others.
In 1929, A. van Doninck, a doctor at the State Colony at Geel, writes of Ste-Dignen and Saint Digna.
It’s not clear if Digne and Dymphna are the same saint. The various spellings, the way churches are referred to by their owner and general location, and the fact that all of the churches in the area had an altar to Saint Dymphna make it impossible for me to be certain if there are two Cinderella saints in town or just one. Many of the letters refer to Sint-Dimpnakerk as the church of the Virgin Mary.
I’m not the first one to wonder about this. In 2007 a scholar wrote:
“On July 14, 1542, someone was convicted for insulting a mayor who had also been obstructed in the performance of his duties. The person concerned had to beg forgiveness and then leave the city within three weeks for a “pilgrimage... to St. Inge in Gheel." That designation St. Inge has cost me a lot of headaches. Geel is known for the veneration of St. Dimpna, a veneration that is particularly useful for mental health care, which still makes Geel special as a place for patient care. Inge and Dimpna seem to be very different names, but on closer inspection they appear to be the same saint. I came to that track via the St. Dignepolder near Steenbergen, from which the name unmistakably refers to Dimpna. From Sint Digne it is only a short step to Sint Inge. Such corruptions occurre more often as a result of pronunciation peculiarities, as did the phenomenon of such phonetic matters penetrating the spelling.”
Ferdinand Heuckenkamp wrote:
“In Latin texts the saint is always called Dympna, Dymphna or Dimpna, Dimphna, while in Flemish texts it is usually called Dingne, Dingee, Dinge, which are obviously corruptions of Dimphna. On the fragment of a brick found in the saint's coffin (and kept as a relic) is the name Dimphna. Since the manuscripts mention this inscription, we have the oldest surviving form of the name.”
Only the brick fragment doesn’t say Dimphna. It is a piece of red tile with a hole in the middle which says DYPH and NA underneath. Or maybe NA is on top and DYPH is on the bottom. It’s hard to say, since it’s broken. Still, that gives us a plausible explanation. The peasants were worshiping the beguine Saint Douceline de Digne while the nobles were concocting the story of Saint Dymphna.
One modern historian writes of Dymphna’s being the subject of a vita: “She now enjoyed an extent of authority she could never have dreamt of in Donkeyskin disguise.”
Now that I’m paying attention, Crazy about Dymphna: The Story of a Girl who Drove a Medieval City Mad hints that Digne morphed into the jester accompanying Dimphna.
“When we speak of fools, we immediately think of court jesters. Buffons are universally recognisable: either by their dementia, their mental or physical impairment, or via their uniform. Jesters wear vibrant clothes and a hood with donkey ears or bells to announce their arrival, and they carry a fool's staff - a fool's bauble or club - in their hand. A man with their characteristics can also be seen on the third panel of Goossen Van der Weyden's triptychch standing behind Gerebernus, the confessor, and Dymphna.”
There were beguines everywhere in Belgium, but I couldn’t find reliable information on a beguinage in Geel. The only reference I could find was from Dorothy Day’s goddaughter, the social pyschologist Clare Danielsson. She referred to Geel as a town “in Belgium where, from medieval times, the Beguine community had evolved so that now all the townspeople opened their homes to the mentally disturbed.”
Inspired by this experience, Clare Danielsson and Adrian Hofstetter began finding homes for the elderly and giving workshops in dream, myth, and fairy tales. They then went on to become involved in anthroposophy. Anthroposophy being the spiritual tradition of the Camphill Movement. And Glenora Farm, which motivated me to go to Geel, is a project of the Camphill Movement.
I’m pretty sure this book is where I learned about the Cinderella stories. I didn’t verify it, so maybe I’m lying.
Francesco Saverio Bersan, et al, suggest that the causal relationship goes the other way, that Charles Perrault may have written Peau d'âne based on the story of Dymphna. https://www.giornaledistoria.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Bersani-Riboni-Prevete-Borghi-Geel-e-Santa-Dinfna-1.pdf
Yes, this is after Dymphna’s vita was supposedly written.
“In the places where the cults of saints were not suppressed by the Reformation, the end of the virgin martyr legends coincided with the beginning of the fairy tale as a literary genre, when the well known stories such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Red Riding Hood were produced.” A Maid with a Dragon: The Cult of St Margaret of Antioch in Medieval England, p205
She is buried next to her brother, Saint Hugues de Digne, who was a friar. Louis IX, who was both the king of France and a saint, was a big fan of Saint Hugues. Louis IX founded hospices for the blind as well as for widowed and poor women. He also instituted a single currency throughout his kingdom.
As the Cinderella saints proliferated, the beguine movement was forming. Women were living together as beguines, mostly in small households and sometimes in large communities. It was a socially acceptable way for women to be single or live apart from their husband. They did not take vows of poverty or lifelong chastity like nuns and they remained in the secular world. These were independent communities that were outside the formal Catholic hierarchy.
Famous beguines, like the Cinderella saints, were known for their devotion to the poor and sick. They also engaged in extreme self denial and/or mortification. It appears that it was normal for them to live far from home and travel between beguinages. They published widely read works, typically in their local language rather than Latin. Some beguines were famous Christian mystics.
It was the mysticism that didn’t go over well. In 1310 a beguine was burnt at the stake as a heretic. The movement lost support and struggled during the Reformation. Still, they persisted into the 20th century. The last beguine might have died in 1971, 2013, or still be alive, depending on who you ask.
This doesn’t seem particularly impressive to me, since at the time they used maggots to clean infected wounds.