Columns Cultures

More than a Fairytale: the Saint/Kardashian showdown

Illustration by Chen (Cornelia) Chen

Why do jokes never seem to land? I guess, more precisely, why do my jokes never ever ever land – even when in my head they are insanely witty and funny (clearly in my head I live some parallel existence as a comedienne, a career that, unfortunately, is yet to translate into the real world). I would like to think that this is an amusing column, or at the very least it’s engaging enough to make it worth reading. Who knows…?

But what I do know is that the joke which inspired this column certainly failed to land. The story is that I was sat in my third Old English class ever in Michaelmas, we were studying the stories of early-medieval saints (which as you will see are really cool stories!!) and I decided I would end the lesson with the incredibly astute comment, ‘so they are basically like the Kardashians then, yes?’   

I should probably have realised that, given it was only my second week, I was far too much of an Oxford foetus to be making jokes. On balance, it was a bad joke – bringing up the Kardashians is rarely funny, they get far too much media attention as it is, and certainly didn’t need to appear in my class. I mean, it’s stupid; what could the saints, figures extensively idolised, worshipped to the point of imitation, who’s stories are packed full of dramatic twists and turns possibly have in common with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner? I wouldn’t have blamed my tutor if she made me rusticate there and then. 

(although I am very glad she didn’t – because this wonderful, hilarious, beautiful column would not exist and that would be a real tragedy)

But the thing was, I wasn’t entirely joking, somewhere, tucked far far back in my head was a logical connection between the saints and every LA plastic surgeon’s favourite family. I mean, the Kardashians act like they are God’s gift to fashion, Instagram, Snapchat, Birkin bags, the Met Gala, etc, etc; and the saints literally were God’s gift to our world.

Think of saints as the first ever English celebrities. Because the early-medieval people saw them as God’s presence on Earth, because they believed that God worked through his Saints (it sounds kind of creepy but it’s God I guess?) finding figures more famous would be a futile endeavour. A comparison with the Kardashians is pretty flawed, mainly because the Saints were much much more famous. 

Be prepared for a three step crash course in why ‘keeping up with the early-medieval saints’ is actually kind of fun (I too am disappointed in my inability to find a saintly simile that alliterated with K). 

1. ICONIC-ography – ‘Saint Agatha bares all in powerful protest against male oppressors’

How many followers does Kylie Jenner have on Instagram? Answer: too many. If the Saints had Instagram I am sure they would have billions of followers. Especially Saint Agatha, gosh I know she would have loved social media. Kim Kardashian may have made her billions through selling a sex tape, but is she prepared to carry around a plate of her castrated breasts? You think I am joking; I assure you I am absolutely not. 

Clicking on Agatha’s name will take to the Agatha fresco in the Chiesa di San Maurizo, Milan – just one part of this wonderful woman’s extensive presence in hagiographical iconography (hagiographical being a posher, shorter and less sibilance-heavy way of saying ‘stories and studies about all things saints and saintly’). I absolutely love everything about it. It’s the attitude, the side-eye, the fact that it proves so perfectly that ‘diva-tude’ still reigned supreme in 600 A.D. 

Questions I am sure you have: 

What on earth did this poor woman do to end up condemned to carrying around her breasts on a plate? Why is such behaviour considered saintly? Why put this on a painting? Isn’t it a bit male-gazey? 

To the last question the answer is surprisingly, ‘no’. Agatha’s tits are a symbol of her triumph, proof of her ability to survive the disgusting men around her. 

So here’s the story behind the plate situ. Like so many fairy stories, Saint Agatha was a beautiful virginal young woman. The men around her didn’t like that, those animals saw her virginity as a challenge, a crux to conquer (imagine a man thinking that… shocking!). When Agatha refused to yield to one of these many many men he became so enraged that he castrated her. She died pretty soon after that, obviously – although not before she had to lie naked on a bed of hot coals for absolutely no apparent reason. 

In the early-medieval period Agatha is a Saint because she remained a virgin and virginliness is next to Godliness and all that. In the modern day, Agatha is a Saint because she was strong enough to stand up to those (men!!) who tried to supress her. Her carrying her breasts proudly in the fresco represents a taking control over her own narrative, a reclaiming of her body as her own. Yay! Finally!

Saint Agatha, the patron saint of #metoo. (and breast cancer survivors, believe it or not!)

Cooler than Kylie Jenner? I absolutely think so, 

2. I’m Like Realising…You’re a Woman?!?! – ‘Millions witness Saint Eugenia ‘break the internet’ over 1000 years before the internet even existed’ 

Saint Eugenia, the patron saint of being whoever the fuck you want to be and being endlessly worshipped and loved for it. The patron saint of being your own best fantasy. 

Gosh, I cannot state enough how wow wow wow she is. Okay, so remember when Kim Kardashian was acting like she invented biker shorts? Remember that then everyone decided that biker shorts were the highest of fashion and LA went through this phase where absolutely everyone was wearing muted grey bikers with puffer jackets and ridiculously large sunglasses and calling it fashion… no? I would rather not remember either- unpopular opinion, it was a low moment. 

Well, where Kimmy K helped inject life into the cycle-wear economy, Eugenia kickstarted a revolution in gender expression. 

The potted history of Eugenia’s forays into gender experimentation starts when she moves to Rome to try and get a monastic university-esque education. Importantly, Eugenia also decided to attend the monastery as a man. Whether this was because she recognised that the Christian church had a backwards opinion on feminine scholars or because she saw this as a projection of her truest self is actually pretty ambiguous. I like to think it’s a bit of both. But what is so awesome about Eugenia’s story is that she ends up becoming Abbot. It’s fair to say she was a pretty legendary Abbot, to the extent that she enacted reforms and men began to imitate her perfect and very ‘masculine’ behaviour. 

Fancying a change Eugenia then moved to a nunnery and re-acquainted herself with her feminine half. There, she preached love, acceptance and the fierceness of femininity. She inspired such a revolution in behaviour that people began to worship her as a sort of Goddess incarnate. She is still deified in some minor denominations across the areas of the old Holy-Roman Empire, even after one-thousand years. I wonder how long bicycle shorts will remain a trend? 

The best thing about Eugenia perhaps is that historians, artists, poets, playwrights seem pretty happy with accepting her existence as simultaneously male and female. This is revolutionary when we consider how she potentially existed nearly two thousand years before the term ‘non-binary’ was first used. 

3. You’re doing ARM-azing sweetie – Watch the arm of Saint Oswald defy all the laws of science 

Only true Kardashian fans will remember Kardashian Kloset (gosh the incorrect spelling infuriates me). For like three months, you too could spend thousands of pounds to acquire Kris Jenner’s cast off, and quite possibly rotten, fur coat from the 70s. Why spend all your money on cast offs you might ask? Well, because it has the name Kardashian on it. 

Now the idea of selling, displaying and desiring rotten cast offs is nothing new. It’s something which has been embedded in saintly relic culture since time began. A relic is a sort of memento, an object or token believed to be connected to a saint’s life. Far too many people were convinced that God Himself lived within these teeny tiny saintly offcuts. 

Need healing from a deadly, incurable disease? Just one touch from Relic Number 3 and all your problems will be wondrously cured (for a small price of course – (oh and did I mention there is no scientific way to prove a relic’s authenticity: you just have to take our word for it)). 

Unfortunately for you these ‘relics’ were more-often-than-not rotten pieces quite literally cast off from the body of a dead saint. I’m not sure I’d go touching that, it might make my incurable deadly disease even more incurable and deadly. 

Also, the stories surrounding these relics are certainly dubious. Take the arm of St Oswald for example. Poor little Oswald lost his arm (and his head, he was really having a bad day) in a fight against Viking invaders. Now, instead of doing the normal thing and sewing the arm back onto his body for burial, Oswald’s soldiers decided to march it miles and miles up to Lindisfarne monastery. Now, this was because someone had heard somebody’s friend say somewhere that a bishop had called his right hand blessed. According to the stories it certainly was; when the arm finally arrived at Lindisfarne monastery it was placed outside in a special tent (I mean would you want your monastery to smell of putrid flesh?). God then apparently bathed the tent in his heavenly glow giving the arm healing properties. Anyone who drank from water used to bathe the arm would be miraculously cured. Or more accurately, they would die from necro-related diseases too quickly to question the authenticity of this very strange story. 

Okay, on balance, this time I prefer Kardashian Kloset…but you cannot deny that relic culture is as delightful as it is disgusting. 

* * *

This has been fun. In my head I’m totally counting this as Prelim revision – I am absolutely sure my examiners are going to love hearing about how the Kardashians cower in the shadow of the Saints…

In all seriousness, check out the stories of the Catholic Saints, they are so weird and wacky but at the same time they are incredible. Think of anything, literally the most random thing in the world and it will most certainly have a patron saint…if not, just make one for yourself. 

Happy saint-searching…

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.