Sancti Obscuri – St. Crispin and St. Crispinian (October 25)

Jacob Gruber

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, King Henry overhears a soldier lamenting how few men have come from England to fight in a battle against the French at the Battle of Agincourt, leaving their odds of carrying home a win rather low. He responds with a bold appeal to all the courage left in the hearts of that “band of brothers” who did show up for battle and unites the hope of their victory with the celebration for all time of St. Crispin and Crispianus (Crispinian). It’s worth the watch:

Fictional though this speech may be, the king’s prediction seems to have unfortunately come true: “and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered!” In this article, it is my hope that on the feast of Crispin and Crispinian this year (October 25), Crispin and Crispinian themselves will be remembered for once!

These two saints lived the in middle of the third century in the Roman empire. Allegedly, they were brothers from a noble Roman family. The story from the Bollandists (from which the Catholic Encyclopedia draws their information in the case of these men) tells us that they went to Soissons in Gaul together to preach the faith. While there, they supported themselves financially primarily by making shoes. Their missionary work there was so effective, however, that it caught the attention of the high Roman authorities. A short historical detour is necessary at this point.

Crispin and Crispinian lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Any Christian familiar with some Roman history should be feeling the shiver run down their spine – this man was ruthless. He was Roman emperor from 284 to 305 AD, and in his rule he initiated one of the biggest, cruelest persecutions in early Church history (which is no small statement when the bloodbaths of Emperors Nero and Decius are taken into account). So bad was Diocletian’s persecution that, before Anno Domini (AD) came into fashion for marking years, the Christians (especially of the Alexandrian Church) used Anno Martyrum (AM), or the Era of the Martyrs, to mark their years. The Anno Martyrum system began year 1 in 284 AD – the beginning point of Diocletian’s reign and persecution.

With this in mind, consider that Crispin and Crispinian were preaching the Christian faith rather effectively at this time in Gaul, an important territory of the Roman empire. It did not take long at all for some action to happen. In the year 285 AD (or the year 2 in the Anno Martyrum), Maximianus Herculius, who had been made a sort of co-emperor with Diocletian, called the two men before him. After his efforts to persuade them to give up the faith, they responded,

“Thy threats do not terrify us, for Christ is our life, and death is our gain. Thy rank and possessions are nought to us, for we have long before this sacrificed the like for the sake of Christ and rejoice in what we have done. If thou shouldst acknowledge and love Christ thou wouldst give not only all the treasures of this life, but even the glory of thy crown itself in order through the exercise of compassion to win eternal life.”

Maximianus handed them over to Rictiovarus, the Gallic governor, who had them tortured terribly – stretched on a rack and flesh torn, among other horrible inflictions. After all of this, he had millstones fastened to their necks and had them thrown into the Aisne River. Miraculously, they managed to swim to safety. The Roman Martyrology succinctly finishes the story: “after [these] horrible torments, they were put to the sword, and thus obtained the crown of martyrdom.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia questions some of the credibility of this story, since its sources may be somewhat unreliable. However, we must examine a certain important principle in the matter of saintly stories, since credibility will always loom as an issue in the stories of the obscure saints. I simply quote a section from St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God in which he defends the practice of believing holy stories:

“Charity willingly believeth all things; that is, it is not so quick to believe that any one is lying, and if there are no apparent marks of falsehood in things which are told, it makes no difficulty about believing them; but above all when they are things which exalt and magnify the love of God towards men, or the love of men towards God … in matter of religion, good souls have more sweetness in believing things in which there is more difficulty and admiration.” (Chapter XII)

By means of this argumentation, St. Francis de Sales was insisting that a certain miraculous story told in a homily by St. Bernard could be believed, even though he simply had no evidence whatsoever to prove it. We are in a similar situation. We’ve been handed a story of the miracles and martyrdoms of Crispin and Crispinian with only the written testimony of writers centuries later to show for it. But the good souls have more sweetness to believe stories such as these. Our charity willingly believes all of these things.

Thus,  I would suppose that we can accept the story handed onto us from the works of the Bollandists – but I’ll leave that up to the reader.

So, what if Crispin and Crispinian hadn’t fallen into obscurity? They are already known as patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers, and tanners. But their legacy is more than cobbling. While the modern imagination tends towards Shakespeare’s reference in “Henry V,” it turns out that this reference is not so far from the original spirit of these men. The Battle of Agincourt was a battle in which England triumphed against great odds over France in 1415 AD. But Saints Crispin and Crispinian in their own way triumphed against great odds in France (Gaul at their time), albeit in a spiritual battle for souls.

So let us hail them today as victors all the same! May St. Crispin and St. Crispinian pray for us!