Friday, 25 May 2012


For several years, I have had an ambition to see something I read about in a history book. It said that there was a misericord in the Cathedral at Auch with a carving of the popular medieval saint, Eloi, performing one of his miracles - namely shoeing the devil (who was in disguise as a horse) and overcoming the wild and dangerous stamping of the horse by the ingenious method of cutting its leg off, putting the new shoe (Christianity) onto the horse's foot, and then restoring the leg to the horse.
I have seen a marvellous early English alabaster carving of this episode in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the one in Auch has called to me for about 15 years, maybe more. Today was the day to go and find it!  Auch is about 50 miles from my sister's house, and we passed through the particularly pretty town of Fleurance (with a lovely arcaded place and ancient covered market), on our way to the Cathedral. Auch is quite a city, well appointed and bang central in the department of Gers.... very historic and rich.
The Cathedral is quite something - most of the ancient work has long since been swept away, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all built up again and then adorned. The choir is stupendous - almost a closed room on its own account, with utterly amazing oak carvings all round. The scenes are a mish-mash of Biblical, Classical, imaginative and and monstrous - literally hundreds of panels, portraits, stalls, ledges, seats, morals, lessons and so on. Dazzling.  Earlier work would have been scriptural only, but here they did not stint on the new ideas of the Renaissance, so everything is jumbled up together. It's absolutely terrific. You pay €2 to go in, and that is worth every penny.
My hopes were high, as there is actually a whole chapel dedicated to St Eloi down the nave - he stands carved in wood on top of a marvellous wooden Nativity, with his anvil and his hammer (patron saint of blacksmiths).
However, I could not find him in the misericords. There is a nice George and the Dragon, with a spirited and beautiful horse, and a false hope in a carving of a decapitated woman being restored to life, but no misericord of  St Eloi.
I am really downcast. I cannot remember where I read about this little work. It may be that it is in a different church in Auch.
The reason I want to find images of this saint, who appears twice in the Canterbury Tales, by the way, as St Loy, is that this story of a saint shoeing the devil-in-disguise-as-a-horse, is duplicated for another early saint, Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a metal-smith, and patron of metal workers including blacksmiths.  Dunstan and Eloi were both real people, working for royalty, who had been missionaries to the Low Countries (where as we know great horses were bred for centuries), and both may well have taken Christianity into horse-worshipping territory at the end of the Dark Ages. So the metaphor of shoeing the horse may be quite important.
And the back-story for all this is that I do just wonder if the old, widespread, pre-Christian religion of Europe was horse-worship.  You are not allowed to take horses into churches. You will find almost NO images of horses in early churches, despite their fantastic importance throughout history as beasts of burden, war, aristocratic connection, intelligence, farming, etc etc.   Why should that be?
Anyway, don't get me started.
If I had found St Eloi in Auch I would have been ecstatic. But this setback won't stop me.
I have more questions - especially after spending all this time in rural France. Who on earth are (or were) all these saints who gave their names to so many obscure places? St Clar, St This, St That.....   Hundreds, thousands of them. I bet they are not all post-5th century. I bet a huge number of them go back way before Christianity - local deities, of water, woods, light, fertility, war and love.....  Their names are especially well preserved in Gaul - by the Romans and then the Roman Church.  A treasure trove of names and stories.... if only we can work out what it all means.

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