Monday, 2 February 2009

Whiter than snow: a miscellany for the snowed in

Those of you who don't live in London or south east England will have to forgive this post, but I haven't seen this much snow in eighteen years! I will now attempt to provide a thin veneer of relevance to my excitement.

Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives was once the name for the feast of the dedication of S Maria Maggiore. Our Lady of the Snows was once the popular name for the Basilica because of its foundation legend:

"During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed that she might make known to them how they were to dispose of their property in her honour. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. In obedience to a vision of the Virgin Mary which they had the same night, the couple built a basilica in honour of Mary on the very spot which was covered with snow."

Though, even the Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to admit "From the fact that no mention whatever is made of this alleged miracle until a few hundred years later, not even by Sixtus III in his eight-line dedicatory inscription ... it would seem that the legend has no historical basis." So, despite the loss of the romantic name, for once, change is perhaps a good thing.

Eulalia of Mérida was a virgin martyred during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian. Her mother feared that her daughter would only get herself into trouble during the persecution with her outspoken piety and so hid her in the countryside. Eulalia escaped to the court of the governor and challenged him to martyr her. She was stripped, tortured and burnt but continued to mock her torturers throughout. John William Waterhouse's painting, now in the Tate, shows a cross as an instrument of torture but includes the white dove that flew out of her mouth at her death and the miraculous snowfall, symbolic of her sainthood, that covered her naked body.


"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow"

The Neck Verse was a name for Psalm 51 from which the lines above are taken. Until 1827, anyone convicted of a felony could escape the death penalty by a legal loophole called benefit of clergy. As secular courts had originally had no jurisdiction over the clergy, anyone appearing with a tonsure would be handed over to the church for trial, where the sentence was likely to be significantly more lenient. This was not hard to fake, so a reading test from the Bible was added. However, the test was always the same passage, begining "Miserere mei Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam..." so not even literacy was necessary, just a good memory.
Eventually, benefit of clergy became a way for first offenders to obtain a light sentence automatically, but they were branded to stop them taking advantage of it again. Amusingly but absurdly, it was extended to women in 1624.

I hope this has been diverting and I notice that it has now stopped snowing here.

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