oday is St. Lucy’s day. Standard reference sources say that all we know of Lucy is that she lived in Syracuse and was martyred during the Diocletian persecutions of 304 CE. So the Britannica, so the Catholic Encyclopedia, so Wikipedia. I have no idea on what they base this claim. There’s supposed to be a late fourth-century (CE) inscription in Syracuse supporting this, but I haven’t been able to get the text of it anywhere, and it appears that all it says is that her feast day was 13 December even back then. Even this minimal claim seems to be a considerable overstatement, unless there is something more substantial than her name appearing in ancient lists of martyred Christians.
Where evidence is lacking legend rushes in. And so it is with Lucy. Thus we read in Pedro de Ribadeneyra’s Lives of Saints with Other Feasts of the Year According to the Roman Calendar (Ioachim Carlier, 1669) “The glorious Virgin and Martyr Saint Lucy, was born of honorable, and rich parents in the city Syracosa in Sicily. She was a Christian from her Infancy, and much inclined to all things of vertue and piety especially to conserue the purity of her soul, and to offer to God the flower of her Virginity.”
These things—her parents being rich and honorable, for example—aren’t really data, so much as the stage-machinery necessary to make the legend work. Or, to look at things the other way round, they are details deducible from the subsequent course of events. And the setup continues: “Her father being dead, her mother, who was called Eutychia, against the will of the damzel, promised to marry her to a yong Gentleman of prime quality, although a Pagan; but she went on deferring it, and seeking occasion to hinder it from taking effect.”
The version of Christianity that won out made a big thing of virginity. It was a way for showing contempt for the flesh—for the physical world. (Other versions seem to have shown their contempt for the flesh by indulging it, to judge from the condemnation of both pagan and Christian sources, but we have to infer their beliefs from the invective of their opponents. Sorry about that, Carpocrates.) In ordinary terms, easily graspable by most present-day Christians, Lucy’s father had left her money and/or property so she could make a good marriage and live the rest of her life in reasonable comfort. Eutychia looked around for just such a good match, and promised her to a likely young guy with good prospects.
This is the way things have been done for generations. I don’t say they’re right, but they are how our forebears managed their affairs. Marriage was an alliance between families, arranged by the parents, and essentially a financial transaction. At least that’s how it was until some wise guys decided to redefine marriage a few hundred years back. Literature from Romeo and Juliet to Love and Friendship to Fiddler on the Roof derived conflict from the effects of this redefinition.
Lucy was faced with a familiar dilemma—familial duty vs. love, with the twist being that this love was not carnal, but the spiritual love of her lord and savior. She needed a way out. “And our Lord presented her with a very fit one,” according to de Ribadeneyra, “by sending her mother Eutychia a long and troublesom flux of blood, which lasted her four years, without finding any remedy in Physitians and medecins.” Good move, Jesus. Afflict the mother with something incurable—there’s a miracle for you. A very Christlike thing to do.
“Then it happened,” (and now we’re switching to St. Ælfric’s account, as translated by W. W. Skeat) “at the mass, that the gospel was read how the woman was healed, that had a flux of blood, when she touched the Saviour’s robe.” Lucy seized her chance. “Then said Lucy, full of faith, to her mother, ‘'If thou believest, mother, this well-known gospel, believe that Agatha has merited something from Christ, since she suffered for His name that she might ever behold Him in her presence, in eternal bliss. Touch now her tomb, and thou shalt soon be whole.’”
This plan they carried out, and Lucy was assured by St. Agatha that her mother was now healed. (Agatha of course had long since died, but dreams were apparently considered valid methods communication in this world.) Lucy seized on this fortunate occurrence to promote her scheme. “Mother,” she said (and these speeches come from the Caxton-Elliot translation of The Golden Legend), “ye be guerished and all whole; I pray you for her sake by whose prayers ye be healed, that ye never make mention to me for to take an husband ne spouse, but all that good that ye would give me with a man, I pray you that ye will give it to me for to do alms withal that I may come to my saviour Jesu Christ.”
Eutychia replied, “Fair daughter, thy patrimony, which I have received this nine years, sith thy father died, I have nothing aminished, but I have multiplied and increased it; but abide till I am departed out of this world, and then forthon do as it shall please thee.”
“Sweet mother, hear my counsel: he is not beloved of God, that for his love giveth that which he may not use himself, but if thou wilt find God debonair to thee, give for him that which thou mayest dispend, for after thy death thou mayest in no wise use thy goods. That which thou givest when thou shalt die, thou givest it because thou mayest not bear it with thee. Give then for God's sake whiles thou livest: and as to such good as thou oughtest to give to me with an husband or spouse, begin to give all that to your people for the love of Jesu Christ.”
Apparently this now sounded like a good idea to Eutychia, or maybe Lucy just kept at her until she was fresh out of reason, but however it went Eutychia started selling off the jewels and land left for Lucy’s benefit, and Lucy had the pleasure of distributing necessities to the poor. One apparently quite recent account has it that when taking food down in the catacombs for the persecuted Christians hiding there she would wear a wreath with candles on it around her head to find her way—presumably a retrojection of the modern practice into the ancient story. They gave to the “poor and to strangers, to widows and exiles, and wise servants of God” (according to Ælfric), a form of wealth redistribution that would have infuriated de Sade, his disciple Ayn Rand, and the mad tea partiers alike. The old accounts say nothing of what tests they administered to the recipients—did they have them pee into a cup, or what?—but those widows and wise servants of God must have been living it up on Lucy’s inheritance.
In time word came to the ears of the guy Lucy was supposed to marry. He went (according to The Golden Legend) to Lucy’s nurse to try to find out what the hell was going on. She told him they were selling off their stuff because they’d come up with something “which had a more fairer and nobler heritage than his was, the which they would buy tofore ere they should assemble by marriage.” The guy helped them out, but “when he understood that she gave all for God's love … he felt himself deceived” and turned her in to the authorities.
Dragged before the Governor, Paschasius, Lucy defended herself as best she could. Sabine Baring-Gould observes “The Acts contain the particulars of a long discussion between the judge and the virgin, which bears a family resemblance to all other such discussions, and which, if genuine, would oblige the reader to believe that all early Christian martyrs were imbecile, and all their judges fools.” Ælfric observes “Then was Paschasius wroth, and they spake much, until he promised her a beating if she would not be silent.” Not content with that he moved on to threatening rape, and then to attempting to burn her alive, without success. Lucy simply refused to either be raped or set on fire. Baffled by her noncooperation Paschasius finally simply ordered a soldier to cut her throat, which for some reason worked when the other expedients failed.
And so passed Lucy of Syracuse on the 13 day of December. Sabine Baring-Gould observes, “It is not improbable that a virgin Lucy did suffer at Syracuse, and died by the sword, but the Acts are worthless.” A couple of centuries before Pedro de Ribadeneyra felt a bit more confident, saying “the story of her life and Martyrdom is taken out of very ancient, and authentical books,” though he notes that he does not know why she is “commonly painted with her eyes in a dish, which she holds in her hands”, nor does the story recount “that she plucked out her eyes to deliuer herself from a lasciuious yong man who persecuted her, as some do write.” Personally I’m not even that confident that she ever existed. And yet she is still celebrated, even if none of his really have the faintest idea why. There’s glory for you, of a sort.