St Vitus appears in early lists of Christian martyrs, and probably died during the persecution of Diocletian, which reached its climax in 303.
He is a patron saint of Prague, coppersmiths and actors, and his intercession has been invoked against snake bites, lightning and sleeplessness. Chiefly, though, he has been associated with St Vitus’s Dance. Historically this term has been used to describe all kinds of nervous disorders involving rapid, jerky, involuntary movements; it has also been applied to epilepsy. Today, St Vitus’s Dance is more austerely defined as Sydenham’s Chorea, a disease which induces grimacing and jerking in children and pregnant women, and which is often linked to rheumatic fever.
Nothing certain is known of Vitus, apart from the fact of his martyrdom. There is a legend that he expelled an evil spirit from Diocletian’s son, though it is not clear whether this is the cause or the consequence of his association with neurological symptoms.
As to his origins, tradition relates that Vitus hailed from Sicily, where he was converted to Christianity while still a boy, to the great disgust and rage of his father, a senator.
Guided by an angel, and sustained with food brought by an eagle, the youth escaped to Italy with his tutor Modestus and his maid Crescentia. The miraculous cures he effected led to accusations of sorcery, while his refusal to worship pagan gods attracted the malignant attention of authority.
Flung into a cauldron of molten lead, Vitus apparently emerged as from a refreshing bath. Then a lion to which he was exposed crouched before him and licked his feet. Yet Vitus eventually perished from the tortures he suffered, as did Modestus and Crescentia.
The church of St Vitus on the Esquiline Hill in Rome dates from the eighth century. In 775 his relics found a home at St Denis (now in Paris) until translated in 836 to Corvey in Saxony.
Subsequently his cult became popular throughout Germany. In the early 10th century King Wenceslas obtained one of Vitus’s arms from the Emperor Henry I, and dedicated to the saint the cathedral he was building in Prague
During the Black Death, in the 14th century, there were outbreaks of hysterical dancing in Europe, seemingly caused by mental breakdown in the face of the irresistible incursion of mortality.
Prayers were offered to St Vitus in the hope of allaying this “dancing plague”, and he became recognised as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers to those in extremis. Their group feast, on August 8, was abolished only in 1969.
“If St Vitus’s Day be rainy weather, it shall rain for 30 days together,” ran the old saw, a forecast applied with equal unreliability to the feast of St Swithin on July 15.