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Headless and limbless: Germany's best saints

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Headless and limbless: Germany's best saints
Saints Hildegard, Corbinian and Alban. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
12:23 CET+01:00
Germany is a land infested with saints. Travel more than a few miles in any direction and you're liable to trip over a shrine to some ascetic or hermit with the reputation for performing miracles.

It seems like every village church has an ornate shrine dedicated to their local holy hero, usually incorporating a grisly, preserved body part.

For those not used to it, especially those from outside Europe, it can seem just a little bit strange and morbid. 

For the most part, these saints are known for their charitable work - feeding the poor, establishing monasteries and standing up to psychotic warlords - your standard, everyday altruistic acts.

However, scrape away at the history books and you'll find stories of German saints that make The Avengers look like an episode of Tatort.

Here in Germany nothing is done by halves and this is especially true of those the Catholic Church has seen fit to canonize. 

Take St Alban of Mainz.

This 5th century bishop sent from Milan to preach to the heathens was so caught up in his work that he lost his head to angry locals.

Not particularly perturbed by this change in his circumstances, he picked up his severed noggin and walked (accounts vary on the distance) to where he wanted to be interred. 

St Emmeram of Regensburg demonstrated similar levels of endurance when he was martyred in the 7th century.

Having taken the blame for getting a duke's daughter pregnant (the real father being a member of the Duke's court), the understandably upset father and his son ambushed him, cutting him into pieces and reducing him to a limbless trunk.

Amazingly, this wasn't enough to kill him and he lingered on until he was found by some of his followers. They carried the (still alive) bishop to a green and lovely place where he saw fit to die.

Some say at this point a ladder extended down from Heaven to take him up (though I'm not sure how Emmeram was supposed to climb it).

Upon being interred, legend states that it rained for 40 days and nights, until frustrated locals dug him up and floated him down the river to Regensburg, where his various bits and pieces can be found today. 

It's not all severed appendages though. 

St Corbinian, who also lived in the 7th century in Bavaria, was said to have power over beasts.

Once, on a pilgrimage to Rome, a bear attacked and killed his horse. Without missing a beat, the saint commanded the unruly bear to take his belongings and carry them to Rome.

Once he arrived, he released the bear, who quite happily loped back into the woods (presumably to spread the Good Word against the local ursine population). 

Another super-powered saint was Eucharius of Trier.

He was said to have been given St Peter's staff, which he used quite liberally to bring the dead back to life.

Another saint with this gift was St Fridolin, who was once memorably employed by a nobleman to raise a dead man so he could testify in a legal case.

As is the case with many of these tales, it is not recorded whether those resurrected were fully intact or just mindless zombies, but as a life-long horror fan, I like to think it was the latter. 

A saint of many talents

I could go on with far-fetched tales of saints performing amazing feats, but my favourite German saint was very, very real and had her life meticulously documented.

Hildegard of Bingen was just a girl when she entered the convent at Disibodenberg, in what is now Rhineland-Palatinate, during the 12th century.  

Over the years she grew in status and importance until she was elected the leader of that community.

At this point, she raised a ruckus and had the entire community moved to Rupertsberg, where she felt she could do more. 

Do more she did.

Hildegard was a polymath, excelling in many different fields.

At a time when superstition reigned, she wrote treatises on medicine and healing, advocating the use of many herbs that would later turn out to have significant medicinal properties.

She wrote poetry, based on visions that she had, that are still being printed and reprinted to this day. She staged deeply mystical plays, using her nuns in an early form of liturgical dance.

She was also a cryptographer, inventing an alphabet that she used to communicate with the nuns under her care in a confidential manner.

But she is probably best known for her music, both for choirs and musical instruments, which is still performed today. 

What makes Hildegard the greatest German saint is that she did everything at a time when the role of women was predominantly one of producing children and laboring around the hovel.

Considering the attitudes and prejudices throughout medieval Europe, it is extraordinary that she was able to achieve as much as she did, and it is a real testament to her fortitude, faith and true grit. 

By Mike Stuchbery

Mike is a teacher and writer originally from Australia and now living in Stuttgart.

Expat Dispatches is a weekly post from an English-language blogger or writer in Germany. It covers everything from lifestyle and food to history and culture. Email news@thelocal.com to have your blog considered for publication.

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