Popular Superstitions - Ancient Charm Against Fire
( Originally Published 1884 )
Among the figured tiles in Great Malvern Church engraved in your Magazine for (844, plate 1, figure vii. (and at large in Nichol's " Specimens of Encaustic Tiles," fig. 75, where it is mentioned as having been found also at Shrewsbury) is one which I will request you to introduce again to the notice of your readers.
It bears the following inscription: Menton sanctam stontaneum honorem deo et patrie liberationem.
Mr. Way, when describing the Malvern tile, mentioned that the same inscription was placed upon the great bell erected in Kenilworth Church at the beginning of the fifteenth century ; and also that it had been found as a charm " for fyre " in a monkish manual of the same period, now in the British Museum. (MS. Addit. 12,195, fol. 136 b. It is also written twit e in fol. 121 b.)
I have recalled the attention of your readers to this subject, in consequence of having accidentally discovered that the same superstition which prevailed in England in the fifteenth century is continued in Germany in the nineteenth. Among a lot of views on the Continent which I recently purchased at a print sale, I have chanced to become possessed of a slip of paper which was removed " From the door of a Cottage on the Rhine." Its ends on either side are notched into two points, and rudely daubed with red lines, intended to represent flames. The three crosses are also inserted with red paint. The charm is thus inscribed :
Mentem Sanctam Spontaneam
St. Agatha, virgin and martyr, is related to have suffered at Catana in Sicily, under Quintianus, consul of that island in the time of the Emperor Decius, about the year of our Lord 253. After enduring a long series of torments, which are detailed in her legend, she died in prison, and the following circumstances are stated to have followed her interment.* A youth never seen before appeared, clothed in silk, with more than a hundred others clothed in albs ; coming to the body, he placed a marble tablet at its head, and having closed the tomb, he disappeared with all his companions. On the tablet it was thus written : Mentem sanctam spontaneum : honorem deo : et patrie liberationem.
On this miracle being made known, not only Christians, but even heathens and Jews, began to venerate the tomb of the virgin. After the lapse of a year, towards the day of her birth, the neighbouring mountain of Etna burst forth into fire, which, as a torrent descending from the mountain and burning everything, was approaching rapidly to the city. Then the multitude of the Pagans seized the veil with which the virgin's tomb was covered, and opposed it against the fire. And immediately, on her birthday, the fire ceased, and proceeded no further.
On this legend, it seems, the supposed influence of St. Agatha against fire was founded. The like virtues are still ascribed to Saint Januarius by the inhabitants of the country round Vesuvius, as is well known from the narratives of many modern travellers. His legend is palpably borrowed from the fiery trial to which the three officers of the province of Babylon were subjected by King Nebuchadnezzar. It relates, that during the persecution of Diocletian, Timotheus was sent to the city of Nola to exterminate the Christians. Having imprisoned Januarius, Bishop of Beneventum, and finding that he could not, either by threats or promises, induce him to sacrifice to the heathen gods, he commanded a furnace to be kept burning for three days, and Januarius to be cast therein. When that was done, the bishop was seen walking in the midst of the fire, praying and singing with angels. On this being reported to Timotheus, by his soldiers, he commanded the furnace to be opened, and thereupon the flames breaking forth slew many of the Pagans that were standing by ; but Januarius leapt forth from the fire so entirely uninjured that neither his hair nor his apparel appeared in any wise burnt. Such is the legend of St. Januarius, as told by the same author as the former.
Thus it will be seen that both Vesuvius and Etna were alike provided with their tutelary saint, with powers derived in a corresponding manner from their alleged sufferings.
In what way the words of this charm first originated, or what may have been the hidden meaning of the author, is a deeper mystery, and one upon which I can throw no light. In the words " patrise liberationem" some political sentiment appears to lurk. I once thought they were conceived by one of the English patriots of the middle ages, with whom many of the clergy are known to have sympathised. But now that the same charm is shown to have been equally prevalent on the Continent, and is carried back to St. Agatha's tomb in Sicily, it seems rather to associate itself with some of the secret bands of Italy or Germany.
A friend very learned in " folk lore " has favoured me with the following quotation, which proves that the merits of St. Agatha were known and appreciated in England:
"Saint Agatha defends thy house from fire and feareful flames."
(Barnaby Googe, " Popish Kingdome.")
Yours, J. G. N.