Ulysses CCD: St. Ursula

—I pinched it out of the skivvy’s room, Buck Mulligan said. It does her all right. The aunt always keeps plainlooking servants for Malachi. Lead him not into temptation. And her name is Ursula.

Part of an occasional series on Catholicism in Ulysses.


Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan discuss, as Stephen puts it, a symbol of Irish art – the cracked looking glass of a servant, a literal looking glass that Mulligan stole from a literal servant. “Skivvy” means a menial laborer or a servant. Mulligan laments that his aunt only keeps unattractive servants to keep her nephew out of trouble. “Lead him not into temptation” is a play on a line from the Lord’s Prayer. But it’s her name, Ursula, that we’ll focus on today. There’s no wrong time to learn about the religious allusions found in a Buck Mulligan insult.

Naming the servant “Ursula” connects her to a saint with a distaste for the less fair sex and an interesting legend attached to her. “Ursula” is  Latin for “little female bear” and she is the patron saint of archery, England, and the cities of Cologne, Germany and Binangonan, Philippines. Her feast day was on the 21st of October until it was removed from the liturgical calendar in the late 1960’s. St. Ursula lived in the 3rd or 4th century and, based on several biographies I read, is either a valiant warrior for women’s rights or a total fabrication.

 

caravaggioursula
The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, Caravaggio, 1610

St. Ursula’s story varies from telling to telling, but some details remain steady. She was princess from Roman-era Britain. The pagan ruler of an area in modern-day Brittany sent out a request for more wives, and Ursula’s father sent his daughter and 11,000 virgins to meet his demands. In most versions, Ursula was none too thrilled with this plan. Sometimes, her ship is blown off course by a miraculous kamikaze wind. In other versions, she takes her virgins on a whirlwind pilgrimage of the great holy sites of Europe on the way to meet her betrothed. Whatever course they took, Ursula and the virgins ended up in Cologne, Germany, where they were gruesomely beheaded to the last virgin by the invading Huns. Ursula herself was shot through with arrows. Sometimes, Ursula and the virgins went there knowingly in order to become martyrs, and in other versions they are the hapless victims of barbarians.

The most notable hard evidence for Ursula and her virgins is the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne. The earliest inscription in the church dedicates it to her martyrdom and claims to be built on the final resting place of Ursula and her virginal retinue. In the 12th century, graves of a large number of people were discovered on the church grounds, and because the medievals couldn’t help themselves when it came to macabre memento mori, the bones were used to cover the walls of the Golden Room inside the basilica. They are arranged in elaborate decorative patterns to catch the eye and to remind us all we too will one day be food for worms. If you find yourself in Cologne, feel free to stop by and have a look.

What a story, Mark!

The problem is, there aren’t any credible sources from Ursula’s time that back up the accounts. She is supposed to have met a Pope Cyriacus who abdicated his papal throne in order to follow Ursula and the virgins, but there is also no record of a pope by that name during Ursula’s lifetime. In fact, there isn’t much mention of Ursula at all until the 9th century, hundreds of years after her martyrdom took place. One would think it would take way less time to notice 11,001 dead virgins, but I suppose information didn’t travel as easily before the internet.

One detail that stands out amongst the others in this story is how would a regional British king gather 11,000 virgins to accompany his daughter through Europe? Believers in the legend might tell you, well, maybe she didn’t start out with 11,000, but people began joining her holy procession along the way. Even the Pope was on board! Also, as fearsome as the Huns were, murdering 11,000 people is still an enormous feat. The devil is, as always, in the details. The earliest Ursula legends usually number her ladies-in-waiting at 11, but a translation error in the Latin by the bishop of Cologne in the 900’s rendered her more reasonable 11 virginal companions to a whopping 11,000.

As for the bones buried beneath the church in Cologne, upon further inspection, the bones of men and babies were discovered amongst the graves. In a few whispered accounts, so were the bones of mastiffs.

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Flag of the British Virgin Islands

One reason the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins is so enduring was that the cult of St. Ursula was quite popular in the Middle Ages, with literal tons of relics of Ursula and the virgins venerated in churches across the continent. Pilgrims coming to view the relics were likely a steady part of many local economies. The Order of Ursulines, founded in the 1500’s to support the education of girls and young women, further contributed to their notoriety as many generations of Catholic women were educated by Ursuline nuns. Such was their popularity that the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea were named after St. Ursula’s companions. An image of a young woman in white appears on both the flag and coat of arms of the British Virgin Islands.

Back to Buck Mulligan. I doubt that the servant’s name is actually Ursula, but rather Mulligan is disappointed in her chaste manner. She is not likely to be seduced by the wiles of the young Buck. St. Ursula is commonly associated with the rejection of both sex and marriage, more likely to conjure to one’s mind the image of a stern nun rather than a randy sex-kitten. While red-headed women are said to buck like goats, Ursulines most certainly are not.

 

Further Reading:

Filz, G. (2016, Oct 11). The story of St. Ursula the warrior princess and her 11,000 companions. Get Fed. Retrieved from https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/st-ursula-and-her-11000-companions/

Harper, E. (2016). St. Ursula and her 11,000 BFFs. All the Saints You Should Know. Retrieved from http://www.allthesaintsyoushouldknow.com/st-ursula-and-her-11000-bffs/

Johnson, B. Saint Ursula and the 11,000 British virgins. Historic UK. Retrieved from https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Saint-Ursula-the-11000-British-Virgins/

 

Ulysses CCD: St. Columbanus

His mother’s prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode.

Part of an occasional series on Catholicism in Ulysses.

The line above appears on page 27 of ‘Nestor’ in the midst of Stephen’s musings on young Sargent, the student receiving the young Artist’s tutelage in algebra. It’s a random line in the midst of Stephen’s musing on amor matris – a mother’s love. Columbanus is the name of Irish saint who did exactly what this line states – stepped over the body of his own mother in order to follow a holy calling. This is a reference you could easily step over and get on your way, but let’s take a moment to learn about who this Columbanus fellow was.

St. Columbanus, pronounced like Call ‘em, Bannus, lived in the late 6th and early 7th centuries. His name is the Latinised form of Columbán, which means “white dove” in Irish (modern spelling is colm bán). There’s also an Irish saint who’s called both Columba and Colmcille, but he’s an entirely different person, so set him aside for now. St. Columbanus’ feast day is November 23, and he is patron saint of motorcycles, though they didn’t have motorcycles back in the 6th century.

Most of what we know about St. Columbanus’ life comes from an account written a few years after his death by a monk named Jonas. You can read the entirety of his account here if you’re interested. It’s certainly the most colorful of the accounts I’ve read.

Columbanus was born around 540 in the province of Leinster in the southeast of Ireland. Columbanus was a clever, handsome young man, which attracted many comely maidens and lead to worldly temptations, if you follow my drift. He met a nun around this time that told him he would continue to be lead astray by lust unless he took extreme measures. He needed to leave the place of his birth and dedicate his life and talents to holy matters, which he promptly did. His mother begged and pleaded him to stay, going so far as to lay her body in his path to prevent him leaving. Columbanus stepped over her instead and made his way into the wider world.

After spending time in a couple of Irish monasteries, Columbanus journeyed to mainland Europe, first in the Burgundy region of France and later in Bobbio, Italy. For most monks, monastic life meant staying in one monastery for their entire career, but Irish monks tended to travel abroad to spread their message. Traveling was encouraged during this era because the fall of the Roman Empire in the previous century had allowed “barbarians” (aka non-Christians) to gain ground on the continent. Young men like the handsome, charismatic Columbanus, an originator of this peripatetic practice, would bring the Faith to these godless heathens.

Though he was able to found several monasteries in Burgundy, controversy began to grow around the Irish monks’ peculiar customs. For example, the Irish monks under Columbanus’ leadership celebrated Easter on a different date than the French monks. Shocking, I know.

The real conflict arose when Columbanus butted heads with the Frankish Queen Brunhilde who was acting as regent until her son was old enough to rule. Her son Theuderic was living out of wedlock with a woman. Brunhilde allowed this arrangement because she feared a marriage would weaken her power. Columbanus was imprisoned and driven out of France. He landed on his feet, though, and was embraced by the king of Lombardy in modern-day Italy. Columbanus founded a monastery at Bobbio where he lived the remainder of his life. He wrote against the Arian controversy at this time, which is of interest to Ulysses readers since it appears elsewhere in the novel.

To bring it back to our boy Stephen, St. Columbanus leaps to mind while he contemplates that weak, willowy boys like Cyril Sargent (and Stephen Dedalus) owe their lives to the love of mother. Stephen bears an enormous guilt for refusing to pray at his mother’s deathbed because of his rejection of Catholicism, metaphorically stepping over her body, while Columbanus is venerated for physically stepping over the body of his weeping mother in order to embrace the call of Catholicism.

 

Further Reading:

Jonas the Monk’s account of St Columbanus’ life:

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/columban.asp

 

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04137a.htm

 

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/saint/st-columbanus-716

 

https://www.catholicherald.com/Faith/Your_Faith/The_Saints/A_patron_saint_for_motorcyclists/

 

https://www.ancient.eu/Saint_Columbanus/

 

James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan

Ulysses CCD: Mulligan Mocks Mass

To hear a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

Part of an occasional series on Catholic allusions found in Ulysses.


In 2017, I was a founding member of the Ulysses Support Group at T.C. O’Leary’s pub in Portland, Oregon. Our goal was to read the entirety of Ulysses aloud between two Bloomsdays. On the first night, as we started analysing the opening lines of the novel, I pointed out that Mulligan’s actions atop the Martello tower were a blasphemous mockery of the Catholic Mass. One of the other participants blurted, “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??” It caught me off guard, but another member deftly responded, “Joyce was Irish. Of course it’s about Catholicism!”

I was raised Catholic in a small town where most people were Catholic. I went to Sunday school (called CCD) every week. Monty Python and the Meaning of Life was banned in our house because of the “Every Sperm is Sacred” song. One thing I learned through our book club is that a lot of the religious references and imagery don’t necessarily stand out for those of us who didn’t grow up steeped in Catholicism. I also notice a lot of reading guides and annotations for Ulysses assume the reader’s familiarity with Catholicism. In this post and many posts to come, I hope to answer the question of Book Club Dude: “How do you KNOW it’s about Catholicism??”

Today, I’m taking on that very first passage of Ulysses about stately, plump Buck Mulligan.
Continue reading “Ulysses CCD: Mulligan Mocks Mass”