Friday 13 March 2020

Emma of Halberton

Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral - Holly Hayes / CC-BY-SA-3.0
Stained glass window of Thomas Becket in
Canterbury Cathedral - Holly HayesCC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1898 book St Thomas of Canterbury: His Death and Miracles by Edwin A. Abbott, there is a story from the late twelfth century regarding a local "miracle":
But we also learn from William many new and interesting facts illustrating the abuses that rapidly attached themselves to the cultus of St Thomas. Emma of Halberton ventured to stitch on a hook and eye that had come off her little sister’s cloak — and this on the Wednesday in Whitsuntide! Her fingers were immediately contracted. With tears and prayers she resorted to the relics of St Thomas in the village church, and in the presence of the priest and dame Caecilia, the respected wife of a neighbouring knight, the casket containing the sacred treasures was applied to the girl’s hand. Virtue came forth, her fingers were restored, the church bells were set ringing, and they blessed God.

Next day, however, the girl fell into so heavy a slumber that she was thought dead. When her friends succeeded at last in rousing her, she blamed them bitterly. She had had a vision of St. Thomas, she said : he had assured her that her chastening was not on her own account but for the cure of the sins of others. “Thy hand,” said the Martyr, “is my hand. Whomsoever thou shalt bless with this hand [of thine] shall be healed from his infirmity” ; and he was on the point of uttering the mystic word that would have imparted the divine power, when she was awakened and deprived of the celestial benefit. However, she had other dreams and visions, one, for example, warning her mother to continue her customary eleemosyna — three masses a week for her deceased husband, and a candle as well — as long as she had a farthing.

A more doubtful revelation was that her mother was to dismiss her maid-servant. But this did not seem to have been acted on. “We know not,” says William, “the cause of this precept : but it happened that some little time aftewards the maid voluntarily gave notice.” Perhaps Emma had made her life uncomfortable, though Osanna (the mother) had not discharged her. Lastly, Emma revealed to William at Canterbury that she “had seen punishments prepared for a young kinsman of hers, a fellow-pilgrim, because he had sinned with a certain maid, and had not duly brought forth fruits of repentance.” On being cross-examined by William, the young man replied that “she (Emma) knew nothing at all about his offence till it was [divinely] revealed to her” : but how this negative was proved, William does not explain. In any case, Emma does not seem quite a satisfactory character, or the sort of person to whom the real St Thomas would say, “Whomsoever thou shalt bless shall be delivered from his infirmity.”
The story gets a brief mention again in The Senses in Late Medieval England by C. M. Woolgar (2006).

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