Meet the medieval Avengers

medieval avengers lego

LEGO Marvel custom medieval Avengers

The Fourteen Holy Helpers (a.k.a. the Intercessors) are a special saint team of the late Middle Ages. I like to think of them as the medieval Avengers. 

Praying to the Fourteen as a group was seen as more effective than praying to only one or two individual saints. (The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) People started praying to them when an unimaginable calamity struck Europe – the Black Death. In the 14th century alone, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 200 million people, so it was a mysterious and terrifying force to be reckoned with.

avengers

The Avengers in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). [Image from Kotaku blog post]

The Avengers are, of course, ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes [who] must come together and learn to fight as a team’ (IMDb: Avengers Assemble). In Avengers Assemble (2012) they must stop a power-hungry Norse god and his alien army from enslaving humanity. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) they have to prevent humanity’s destruction from an all-powerful AI. Granted these movies are sci-fi (emphasis on fi), but their villains represent some of the modern world’s greatest fears: a dictator or terrorist group seeking to take over the world and our self-destruction from advances in technology. In 14th-century Europe people had a very real fear, which, while real, could not be understood by the greatest minds. That fear was the most deadly disease outbreak in history.

Burying_Plague_Victims_of_Tournai

The burial of the victims of the plague in Tournai. Detail of a miniature from The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis (1272-1352). Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, MS 13076-77, f. 24v. [Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Veneration of the Fourteen Holy Helpers began in Rhineland (modern-day Germany) in the 14th century. While this veneration could have developed for a number of reasons, it can be no coincidence that fourteen saints with the power to heal became a disease-fighting team at a time when a third of Europe’s human population were dying from bubonic plague. While each of these fourteen saints could protect against different illnesses – a sore throat, a headache, epilepsy, even the plague itself – their team intercession was believed to be particularly effective. Why pray to just one saint when a team of fourteen could be fighting against the most deadly evil the world had ever seen? The cult of the Fourteen Holy Helpers spread in the 15th century, and while each saint has her or his own feast day, in some places they were also venerated as a group on August 8 (although this was never a universal Catholic feast day).

holyhelpers1

Carving by Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460- 1531) of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, at Mainfränkisches Museum Würzburg. [Image from blog post about Würzburg, Germany]

If you want to learn more about the medieval Avengers, see the series of posts below. Each post focusses on 2-4 of the saints on the team.

Wonderwomen: Margaret the dragon slayer, clever Catherine of Alexandria, and Barbara, who’s got lightning on her side

Animal-friendly supersaints: Eustace (The Huntsman Who Wouldn’t Hunt), Giles (Deer Man), Blaise (The Firstaider with a Pig Sidekick), and Elmo (Raven-loving Bishop of the Sea)

Don’t lose your head: Denis (Super Cephalophore) and Christopher (The Giant Dog-head)

Soldier saints: Acacius (The Forgotten One) and George (Captain England / Lebanon / Germany / Greece / Lithuania / Portugal / et al.)

A doctor, a miracle boy, and an exorcistPanteleimon (Medical Martyr), Vitus (Miracle Child), and Cyriacus (Philanthropic Exorcist)

This post is based on an original post from Hana’s beoshewulf blog.


Dr Hana Videen (@beoshewulf) teaches medieval literature at King’s College London. She was awarded funding by the Cultural Institute at King’s to lead the Medieval Comics project, collaborating with comic artist Karrie Fransman. She reimagines medieval animals with artist James Merry through her Deorhord project (@deorhord), and she tweets the Old English Word of the Day (@OEWordhord).

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