The Relics of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins

i-3e5eb3648f4b75958a8987c8cdefa490-St_ursula.jpgReading a good paper by Sten Tesch (in Situne Dei 2007) about porphyrite tiles scavenged from Roman ruins and re-used as portable altar slabs in 11th century Scandinavia, I was reminded of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. It’s a really good story about relics, up there with the cross of Jesus being tens of meters tall if all its alleged fragments were actually genuine.

St. Ursula is most likely a fictional character, but according to legend she was a Christian British princess who went on a pilgrimage to Rome before her planned marriage to the pagan Roman governor of Armorica. Early versions of the legend have it that Ursula was accompanied by eleven virgin handmaidens, but for some reason these girls were multiplied by a thousand after a few centuries, thus the 11,000. Anyway, whatever the number of virgin pilgrims, they got in the way of some Huns who were besieging Cologne in AD 383, and slaughtered all and one. If I understand correctly, the idea here is that Ursula is holy because she went on a pilgrimage and got killed by pagans rather than marry a pagan and lose her virginity, and her 11,000 girlfriends are holy because… something about virginity and Huns and stuff.

In the early 12th century, a Roman-era inhumation cemetery was discovered in Cologne (which had been a major city already from AD 50 onward). Soon someone had the idea that the cemetery belonged to the 11,000 maidens, and so every scrap of bone counted as a relic of St. Ursula. How awe-inspiring! And lucrative. For about three hundred years, the cemetery was quarried, supporting a booming trade, until the Pope cracked down on this quite uncommonly silly source of relics.

Tesch reports in a note that Sweden’s first known prose writer, Peter of Denmark (!), studied in Cologne in the late 13th century and bought some relics. Nine skulls of alleged ursuline virgins he brought home to St. Nicholas church in Visby.

St. Ursula is the patron of archers, orphans and students. However, since 1969, not even the Church of Rome believes in her anymore.

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16 thoughts on “The Relics of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins

  1. That’s too bad, because my 5th grade teacher was Sr. St. Ursala, one of the nuns from The Holy Order Of Pain, and she is gonna kick our butts for dis-believing in her. BTW – Yes, she was proably a virgin because she was so ugly.


  2. This will come as a shock to my wife who was brought up in a Dutch school run by the “Ursulinnen”. However, are those skulls still kept in Visby?

    The business with relics continues to this day. It might be moderately -and I use that word on purpose- interesting to know that a rib of the grandfather of one Swedish MP quite recently was split up and distributed all over the world as a remedy for hernia.


  3. I don’t think the skulls can be identified today. St. Nicholas’s church has been in ruins since it was torched in 1525.

    Tell us more about the MP and his/her holy grandfather!


  4. With pleasure. The Princess Walburga Habsburg Douglas is a conservative Swedish MP since 2006 (previously in the City Council of Flen). Her grandfather was the last (?) Austrian Emperor, Karl I, who was “beatified” by the pope in 2004. On the occasion one of his relatives (not Walburga I hope) presented the Pope with a rib of the deceased which after the usual ecclesiastic investigations was found to have cured a nun from her hernia. (A proven miracle is necessary for the canonization process). The Vatican split the rib into a number of pieces which were distributed to churches all over the world. The recipients, however, had to go to Rome to pick up the pieces, as it were, because as a Vatican spokesman said: “we cannot very well send them by mail.”


  5. The question arises whether the chemical composition of the bone structure of His Imperial Highness Karl, that cured hernia, was genetcial. In which case, of course, all of the countless Habsburg descendents finally could come to some good use for humanity (at least after they are dead).


  6. 11,000 virgins together, and they all make it to Rome? Intact? Okay, this isn’t fiction, this is fantasy. Even if they were all butt ugly, in Italy there is always enough wine on hand.


  7. St Ursula and her companions have inspired a lot of nifty art, especially the casket painted by Memling, but the absolutely most fabulous thing is the Guldene Kammer in the little church of St Ursula in Koln. An entire chapel covered floor-to-very-high-ceiling in bones. Decoratively arranged bones, bones spelling out words, skulls partially wrapped in embroidered cozies and encased in elaborate Baroque (okay, that was redundant) carved wooden display cases, bones in reliquaries, bones, bones, bones. The 17th-century-ness of it all is breathtaking.


  8. Once a nun friend told me that her real name is Ursula, and i immediately wanted to apologize, for my Hungarian origins,
    but after reading your post, i’m now a bit relieved


  9. Well, you know, Hungaria is one of those areas that keeps getting invaded by the steppe nomads. I don’t think you guys count as Huns any more, you’re more like Magyars. So you might as well find someone else to apologise to. (-;


  10. Martin
    Yeah, i’ve been thinking about this Magyar/magor thingy and have read different history versions around when Huns came/went/stayed/invaded.

    I prefer to be proud around France’s patron saint Martin de Tours (in Sw. Sankt Mårten) ’cause they write he was born i Pannonia (today’s Budapest area?), so they might call you Márton over there….


  11. St. Martin was a funny character. Didn’t want to be elected bishop, hid among geese, was betrayed by their angry squawking, was forcefully made bishop, spent the rest of his career avenging himself upon the geese by eating them.


  12. Ridicule of the unknown or seemingly unbelievable is always a prevalent sign of ignorance. Are you SURE there are no absolutes in this life or the next???


  13. The reality of St. Ursula can only be proven through the miracles she does through the prayers of the sincere soul, regardless of what the Masonic infiltrated church says or does not say. She is a saint and will always be a saint.


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