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Saint of the week

A singularly beneficent power in a period without orthodox medicine

St Giles (September 1) is the patron saint of smithies

By on Thursday, 25 August 2011

The only certain facts about Giles are that he was born in the seventh century and became head of a monastery in Provence. This slender biography, however, is entwined with multiple legends and traditions which made him one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.

His shrine in Provence became an important pilgrimage centre on the long road to Compostela, and his reputation spread throughout Europe. In England some 162 churches (never forgetting St Giles in Edinburgh) were dedicated to him before the Reformation, as well as 24 hospitals.

The churches bearing his name are often to be found at road junctions, where horses would have been shod nearby. Giles was the patron saint of smithies.

He also became the patron saint of the lame, lepers and nursing mothers. However doubtful the stories that clustered around his name, they clearly exercised a singularly beneficent power in a period when orthodox medicine was severely limited.

By the end of the 10th century there was a considerable apocrypha devoted to Giles. The faithful learned that he had been born in Athens, where he had become so celebrated for good works that he was forced to leave his native land in order to obtain some peace.

Attracted by the renown of the Bishop of Arles, Giles became a hermit who lived in a cave near the mouth of the Rhone. One day, though, Wamba, the king of the Goths, was hunting in the area and the arrow which he shot at a hind wounded and crippled the man of God.

Giles refused all offers of help, asking only to be left in peace. King Wamba therefore founded a monastery for him between Arles and Nîmes. It seems, though, that once again the saint’s reputation for sanctity leaked into the wider world, for one tradition presents him as confessor to the King of France at Orleans.

It was also thought that Giles had travelled to Rome to visit the Pope, from whom he acquired privileges and protection for Wamba’s foundation. When His Holiness gave him two doors of cypress wood, the saint threw them into the sea, which duly carried them to a Provençal beach conveniently near to his monastery.

Giles, though, was obviously in Provence long enough to establish a strong local cult. After his death huge numbers of pilgrims flocked to the abbey, which in turn yielded a flourishing commerce and the development of the town of St Gilles.

By the 12th century the community had become rich enough to build a new abbey, recognised as one of the glories of the Romanesque in France. It still survives, albeit severely damaged both during the 16th-century Wars of Religion (when the area was notably Protestant in sympathy) and at the Revolution.