Christina the Astonishing and the saints of epilepsy

I’ve just read a fascinating article on the wonderfully named Christina the Astonishing, a 12th century saint who died during an epileptic seizure, rose from the ‘dead’, and according to some accounts, levitated to the roof of the church.

The paper, published in the medical journal Neurology, discusses her case because while various people have suggested that the supernatural experiences of the saints can be nowadays explained as epilepsy, Christina was thought to both be holy and have epilepsy by her contemporaries.

However, the paper begins with this fascinating bit about the history of the relationship between saints and the long mythologised condition:

In 1930, Kanner catalogued no less than 37 saints associated with “the falling sickness” and the eventful lives of many of these are illuminated in Murphy’s excellent paper “The saints of epilepsy.” While many made their name casting out demons and curing epilepsy, Pope Benedict XIV tightened up the rules relating to miraculous cures of seizures in 1743, particularly in relation to a relapse of the condition. No one has been canonized on the basis of a miraculous cure of epilepsy since.

Other saints have a more oblique connection to the condition. For example, St. Albanaus of Mainz (400 AD) was decapitated and the subsequent writhing of his headless body apparently resembled a convulsion, hence his connection. St. Sebastian, who survived being shot by arrows only to be later clubbed to death, is invoked as his initial recovery from near death represents the recovery from a seizure, which at first may seem fatal.

The three wise men of nativity fame, who bestowed gifts on the infant Christ, are also sometimes invoked against epilepsy as they “fell down” before the infant when they found him. In the 14th century, it was thought to be beneficial to whisper the names of these saintly wise men into the ears of people as they convulsed to stop the seizure.

A number of the saints of epilepsy are thought to have suffered seizures themselves, including those from the very highest echelons — see St. Paul. While these diagnoses remain speculative and can often only be inferred from minimal fragments of information, some have gone to considerable lengths to examine their hypotheses, including the investigation of the original court manuscripts in the case of St. Joan of Arc and the examination of a 600-year-old skull in the case of St. Birgitta.

Christina’s case is fascinating in itself and the article is well worth a read.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 23, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I was an active epliptic into my middle twenties.and my uncle a doctor researched my particular type and its location and people who had it previously such as Vincent van Gogh. He informed me I would be psychic at an older age. This has happened. The wise men were part of a discussion we had on the history of psychic people. Yes head injuries are a cause but epilepsy has the lead. I know know what brings on psychic states and how creativity plays a part.
    There is a Blog by the same name.


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