Friday, 20 January 2012

And what wilt thou do with my heart?

St Agnes (c.292 - 305) may have only lived to the age of 13, but she was not a young lady who could be easily pushed around. Her life, and sadly her death, is a brave declaration of independence. She died because she was not going marry, or sleep with, any bloke who felt he had enough money to buy her off her father. That was the way things worked in those days. She was going to wait for the right man, someone she could fall in love with, and at 13 who could blame her. As she was so beautiful many men did try to persuade her, but to no avail. In the end, a disappointed suitor told the authorities she was a Christian and she was brought before a Roman court. When an offer lavish gifts would not change her mind about the marriage (as if that ever worked), the governor threw her into a house of prostitution so as any man could have her way with her.  The story goes, that she radiated such an aura of purity no man would touch her, and one went blind for looking at her lustfully. Exasperated men sentenced her to die by the sword. They could not possess her. She went to her death, it is said, as cheerfully 'as others go to their wedding.'

Tradition has it that St Agnes is invoked by single women in search of a husband. She sends visions of the man they are to marry on the eve of her feast. Scottish girls would meet in a crop field at midnight, throw grain onto the soil, and pray:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.

An old book called "Mother Brunch's Closet Newly Broke Open" speaks of this St. Agnes Eve custom:
There is, in January, a day called Saint Agnes's Day. It is always the one and twentieth of that month. This Saint Agnes had a great favour for young men and maids, and will bring unto their bedside, at night, their sweethearts, if they follow this rule as I shall declare unto thee. Upon this day thou must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must not eat or drink all that day, nor at night; neither let any man, woman, or child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure, at night, when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou mayst speed; and thou must have clean cloaths on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean cloaths when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and both thy hands are laid underneath thy head, then say
Now good St. Agnes, play thy part, 
And sent to me my own sweetheart, 
And shew me such a happy bliss, 
This night of him to have a kiss. 
And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst, and before thou awakest out of thy first sleep thou shalt see him come and stand before thee, and thou shalt perceive by his habit what trademan he is; but be sure thou declarest not thy dream to anybody in ten days, and by that time thou mayst come to see thy dream come to pass.

Keat's, of course, writes one of his most brilliant epic poems in honour of this Feast: The Eve of St Agnes The evening is so cold, the old beadsmans' hands  are numb as he tells his rosary. He hears music and dancing in the hall of the castle, and prays for Madeline, the daughter of the lord of the Castle, who dances inside. Madeline believes the ancient traditions of St Agnes Eve, and is prepared to go to bed without supper to ensure that she will see a vision of her future lover. Porphyro, madly in love with her, but an enemy to her family, has used to party to sneak into the family home undetected. With the help of his friend Angela, an old nurse, he intends to make Madeline's dream come true. Before she retires, Porphyro hides in Madeline's closet. Madeline comes to bed, says her prayers, and drifts quickly to sleep. Her mind is filled with beautiful visions of Porphyro, immortal and beautiful, and nothing the earthy Porphyro can do will stir her. Eventually, he plays a lute to wake her. As she opens her eyes she is horrified! The mortal Porphyro before her stands in such contrast to her dream she thinks him on the point of death. She prays to return to her dreamlike vision. Her prayer is granted and she and Porphyro enter into a mystic marriage. When the magic visionary state comes to an end, Madeline expresses a fear that her lover will leave her, "a deceived thing; — /A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing." Porphyro, who now addresses her as his bride, urges her to leave the castle with him. "Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be, / For o'er the southern moors I have a home for thee." The two leave the castle, and walk out undetected into a storm. 

Well, that was a quick ramble through an epically long poem! Do read it, it is wonderful. The title of this post are the last words of St John Houghton. Perhaps that does not seem quite relevant, but when I heard them I thought, well that is the point isn't it? You can want to marry someone for their looks, or their money, their power or prestige, but it is never going to work unless you treasure their heart. St. Agnes knew that. From memory though, I think John Houghton said these words as the judge was reading what was to be done with various body parts during and after his execution. I guess St. Agnes would have had  some sympathy with that point of view too.

Today, I think Madeleine's - great with coffee - are a suitable treat for this wonderful feast full of strange superstitions, dreams and traditions.
I ate these for breakfast everyday walking to Santiago!


2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
125g icing sugar
100g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
125g butter, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 190 C / Gas mark 5. Grease and flour 24 Madeleine moulds.  Then, in a medium bowl beat eggs, vanilla and lemon zest with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes. Gradually beat in the icing sugar. Beat for 5 to 7 minutes or until it is thick and looks like satin.  Sift together the flour and baking powder. Sift 1/4 of the flour mixture over the egg mixture, gently fold in. Fold in the remaining flour gradually. Then fold in the melted and cooled butter. Spoon batter into the prepared moulds, each about three-quarters full. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges are golden and the tops spring back. Cool in moulds on a rack for 1 minute. Loosen with a knife. Invert onto a rack and cool. Sift icing sugar over the tops or melt plain chocolate and dip the tips in the chocolate. Store in an airtight container. 

1 comment:

Eva said...

Just wanted to add an addendum to St. Agnes. Even more than not wanting to be given to just any man who could offer enough, she had committed herself to live as a virgin for her beloved, Jesus Christ. It is said that her words were, "Christ is my Spouse. He chose me first and His I will be. He made my soul beautiful with the jewels of grace and virtue. I belong to Him whom the angels serve."