Travel in medieval times was often slow, unpleasant, and dangerous. At any time, someone could break a wheel, a person or animal could get sick, a storm could arrive suddenly, or brigands or demons could attack. You needed all the protection you could get and who better than Saint Christopher, a giant of a man so tough that only God was a worthy master?
Belief in Christopher was so strong that just seeing his image assured the viewers that they would not die that day (or at least not faint or fall). He was popular everywhere, but churches in medieval England had the most murals with his image.
Yet the one certainty about Christopher is that he was a martyr in Asia Minor, probably in the third century. The image in my mind is of a huge man who goes by a name that means Christ-bearer in Greek and decides that he will not stop preaching. He would rather die and go to heaven than renounce his faith and condemn his soul to hell. (Reports that the Church ruled in 1969 that he didn’t exist are wrong. Christopher is still a saint, but his feast was reduced to local cult rather than universal.)
Like many early saints, most of what we know about Christopher comes from legend. Originally named Offerus, he was a big guy and vowed to serve only a master who feared nothing. First, he served a king, but the king was afraid the devil. Then Offerus served the devil until the devil admitted he frightened by the cross.
Offerus decided Christ was the master for him and met a hermit who instructed and baptized him. Renamed Christopher, he decided to serve God by carrying people to safety across a raging stream.
One day, a child asked to be carried. No big deal, right? Well, the kid got heavy, so heavy Christopher feared he would drown. On the other side, Christopher asked the child why it felt like the world was on his shoulders, and the child revealed he was Christ and yes, he was carrying the whole world. To prove it, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground, and the next morning, it was a tree bearing flowers and dates.
Christopher then decided to travel and preach and perform miracles, winning a lot of converts. But that’s when he got into trouble. The authorities were unhappy and had him tortured and executed.
Over the centuries, the story has variations. As early as the fifth century, a church was dedicated to him, and in the eighth century, his legend was written in Greek and Latin. Its final form appears in the 13th-century Golden Legend.
You could argue that Christopher’s story is an allegory of what it means to bear Christ in your heart and endure the trials of following the faith. But I suspect Christopher’s legend was true in the minds of medieval folk. Although Christopher wasn’t a knight and dragon-slayer like Saint George, he was a brave and strong man, one who helped ordinary people in the travails of travel. Perhaps that is why he captured the medieval imagination and is so beloved.
“St. Christopher” by Francis Mershman, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, 1908
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, by David Farmer
“The Life of Christopher,” The Golden Legend, from the Medieval Sourcebook
Butler’s Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler
“St. Christopher was demoted but remains a saint,” by Ellen Creager of Knight Ridder Newspapers, Abilene Reporter-News, June 6, 1998
EWTN, Fr. John Echert answering a question about St. Christopher
This post was originally published at English Historical Fiction Authors on Aug. 5, 2014.