Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

20 April 2020

The Holy Helpers

Medieval men and women often sought help from saints — holy figures who were considered to be miracle workers. Thousands of saints were venerated across Europe, and some of the most popular were known as the Holy Helpers. Written accounts of their lives typically told that, just before they died, they had asked God to grant their future worshippers specific forms of protection or rewards, and that a voice from Heaven or an angel had confirmed their requests. Their legends suggested that venerating them was a sure-fire method to obtain divine aid.

A cult of ‘Fourteen Holy Helpers’ was founded in the 14th century. It originated in the Rhineland (western Germany), before spreading to other European regions. The group’s number and members varied regionally but often included early Christians who had been martyred during Roman persecutions, such as Saints Christopher, Dorothy, Blaise, Apollonia, and Cyricus and Julitta.

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary in a blue robe (centre), holding the Christ Child, and with a female patron in a black robe and displaying her coat of arms kneeling at her feet. The group features many familiar saints who can be easily recognised from their attributes, such as St George (first row, second from the left, in grey armour and with a green dragon at his feet), St Barbara (first row, third from the left, holding a golden chalice), St Katherine of Alexandria (first row, third from the right, with a sword in her hand and standing on top of a broken torture wheel), and St Margaret of Antioch (first row, second from the right, holding a a staff and standing on or emerging from a green dragon).

The Fourteen Holy Helpers with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 190v

Groups of Holy Helpers were also venerated in England. In Harley MS 2255 (ff. 70r-71v), the poet John Lydgate (c. 1370–1449/50) praised ten of them for securing a special boon for their followers:

‘God granted you while that you were here

to each of you remarkable privileges:

whoever prays to you wholeheartedly and sincerely,

to hear all their requests graciously

[and] remedy worldly dangers and misfortunes

Because of this remember in your special prayers

all those who have you devoutly in memory’

(‘God grauntyd you whil that ye wer heere

to ech of you synguler prerogatives

who prayeth to you of hool herte and enteere

Alle ther requestys graciously to heere

Geyn worldly tempestis and troublys transitorye

For which rembemrith in your special prayeere

On alle that have you devoutly in memorye’ (f. 71r))

Three stanzas written in brown ink and opening with gold initials against blue and purple grounds with foliate penwork decoration. They contain John Lygate’s Middle English prayers to St Denis, St George, and St Christopher whose names are written in red ink in the right margin.

John Lydgate, Prayers to Ten Saints (Bury St Edmunds, c. 1460–c. 1470): Harley MS 2255, f. 70r

Late medieval English religious manuscripts often detailed how and what forms of protection could be obtained from individual Holy Helpers. An example of this is the prayer to St Christopher, patron saint of travellers, added to the 13th-century Mostyn-Psalter Hours (Add MS 89250). The prayer states that ‘wherever Christopher is venerated, snow, famine or plague, and evil death will not prevail there’ (‘ubi Christoforus memoratur / Vix fames aut pestis mala mors ibi non dominatur’ (f. 159v)). The 14th-century Neville of Hornby Hours (Egerton MS 2781) specifies that one needed to look at an image of St Christopher so as not to faint on that day:

‘Whoever shall behold the image of St Christopher shall not faint on that day’

(‘Christofori sanctam speciem quicumque tuetur / illo nempe die nullo languore tenetur’ (f. 37r))

St Christopher in a pink robe and holding a staff in his hand while standing in a river with fish in it, carrying the Christ Child, clad in a red robe, on his shoulders.

St Christopher carrying the Christ Child in the Neville of Hornby Hours (London, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Egerton MS 2781, f. 36v

St Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, was believed to have secured protection for the homes of her followers. Those who wanted to gain her protection, according to a Latin poem added to a Middle English rendering of her life in Arundel MS 168, had either to write her name in or to place an image of her in their houses:

‘In whatever house the name or image of the excellent virgin Dorothy will be: no dead [or premature or stillborn] child will be born there, nor will the house experience fire, thievery or destruction, nor can anyone in there die from an evil death and the dying shall die with heavenly bread’

(‘In quacumque domo nomen fuit vel ymago / Virginis eximie dorothee virginis alme / Nullus abortivus infans nascetur in illa / Nec domus nec ignis furtique pericula sentit / Nec quisquam poterit ibi mala morte perire / Celestique pane moriens quin moriatur’ (f. 6v))

St Dorothy, kneeling in prayer and directing her gaze at an angel descending from heaven (upper right corner), wearing a golden crown, and a red and gold dress partially covered by a blue mantle. To her left stands a Roman torturer who is drawing his sword in order to execute her. To her right stands a boy carrying a basket with red flowers and fruits.

St Dorothy petitioning God for protection for her followers (south-western Germany, 1509): Add MS 24153, f. 117v

The protection of the Holy Helpers could also be invoked in medical contexts. St Blaise, according to the South English Legendary, had asked God that whoever venerated him and requested his help would be protected against obstructions in the throat. This explains why medical practitioners such as Thomas Fayreford (Harley MS 2558) added prayers for the saint to their recipes for throat ailments:

‘Lord Jesus Christ, true god, our father, through the virtue of the name and the prayer of St Blaise, your servant, deign to liberate your worthy male or female servant of the infirmity of the gullet, of the throat, of the uvula and of their other limbs, who lives and reigns, God throughout all ages. Amen. For this reason it is recited and say three Paternosters and Aves.’

(‘Dominus ihesus christus verus deus noster per virtutem nominis tui oracionem sancti blasii servi tui liberare digneris famulum tuum vel fa[mulam] tuam de infirmitate gule gutteris uvule et aliorum membrorum suorum qui vivis et regnas deus per omnia saecula · saeculorum · Amen [igi]tur dicatur et iij pater noster et Ave maria’ (f. 87r))

  A prayer to St Blaise written in brown ink in the lower margin of a page of Thomas Fayreford’s medical manuscript.

Thomas Fayreford’s prayer to St Blaise (South-West England, 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 2558, f. 87r

St Apollonia can also often be found in medical manuscripts. It was believed that, while her own teeth were being smashed by her persecutors, she requested God to give her followers relief from toothache. Her protection is invoked in a spell against toothache (‘charme for þe tothache’) in Harley MS 1600:

‘St Apollonia endured a grave martyrdom for the Lord by a tyrant who shattered her teeth with iron hammers and in this torment she prayed to the Lord, that whosoever will wear her name on him will have no toothache’

(‘Sancta Appollonia pro domino grave sustinuit martirium tyranni eius dentes cum malleis ferreis fregerunt et in hoc tormento oravit ad dominum ut quicumque nomen eius portaverit secum dolorem non habuerit in dentibus’ (f. 39r))

A charm for toothache that invokes St Apollonia with a title in Middle English, written in red ink, and text in Latin, written in brown ink.

A charm for toothache invoking St Apollonia (England, 15th century): Harley MS 1600, f. 39r

St Jullita and St Cyricus, a mother and son who had been martyred together, were believed to offer protection for women in labour. Because of this, they were invoked on amulet rolls that pregnant women used as birthing girdles. Harley Ch 43 A 14 and Harley Roll T 11 both explain that the two saints had asked God to protect pregnant women who carried amulets of the Holy Cross on their bodies while giving birth:

‘þe childe schall have cristendom [be baptized] and þe moder schall have purificacion [be blessed] ffor Seynt Cerice and Seynt Julitt his moder desirid þise graciouse gyftis [gifts] of god which he grauntid un to þem’ (Harley Ch 43 A 14, f. 1br)

A green Tau cross on a red ground flanked on the right by a Middle English text in brown ink that explains that it is an amulet that protects pregnant women. The illustration and text are badly damaged, presumably from having been used as a birthing girdle.

A birthing girdle invoking St Cyricus and St Julitta (England, 15th century): Harley Roll T 11, f. 1r

The requests for protection that the Holy Helpers were believed to have made to God for their followers formed the foundation for their joint cult. In England, it flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries when prayers dedicated to them identified more than 25 saints as Holy Helpers. This suggests that, whatever the effect of the prayers, spells and amulets that invoked them, their promises were important sources of hope, comfort and solace for those in need.


Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval