A terrorist verses a saint.
Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated on November 5th and commemorates the day Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were busted for trying to blow up the British parliament and kill King James 1 in 1605. It’s otherwise known as Bonfire Night, traditionally accompanied by a large hot pile of burning stuff, fireworks and spiced warm red wine. Quirkily, the celebration these days is almost commemorating Guy Fawkes the man, and what a damn fine chap he was. At the time he was noted as a fun guy to be around, and now in today’s reading of him, as someone with the balls to blow up the government, not an uncommon desire amongst any populace from any time to time.
His mission was a religious one, that of radical Catholic conquering moderate Protestant, which all things being equal, should actually be offensive to us these days, just as we might be offended by jihadists putting the boot in to anyone thinking differently. I was even a little shocked to hear that burning effigies of the Pope is part of the tradition, and while I don’t believe in mickey mouse, I can understand a whole lotta people getting their knickers in a knot over that.
So Guido Fawkes is like the patron saint of anarchy, or at least of critics and lefties. In more recent years burning effigies of Margaret Thatcher and George W has become the the trend (and I wonder if any Tony Blairs got done on the weekend). As an Australian I can understand this: our heroes are anti authoritarian. Never mind that James I appears to me to be a pretty moderate sort of bloke, the cheeky little political stirrer that Guy Fawkes represents is the hero of November 5.
Come November 11 in Portugal, Saint Martin gets a look in, and it would not be considered unusual to invite your friends around, light a big bonfire, roast some chestnuts and warm yourself with this year’s wine to celebrate. Martin of Tours (b.316) had somewhat of a grand career, being one of the most famous early Christians. He apparently became a Christian at age 10, when it had only just been recognised as a legal religion but was far from being a popular one.
Martin’s story starts with a “all round good bloke” type tale of him ripping his cloak in two and sharing it with a beggar. That night he dreamt of Christ wearing the cloak, and thus Martin’s vocation was confirmed. During the middle ages, the cloak itself became a big-time holy relic, which means it must have spent a really long time in the back of Martin’s cupboard before anyone remembered it was there. Like, a couple hundred years at the very least.
A number of small events seemed to lead up to his fame. He went conscientious objector at 18, moved to Tours in France where he made radical Christian friends, then became a hermit in Italy, did a bit of evangelical preaching and then became bishop of Tours. According to Wiki he “made an impression” not only with his nice personality but by smashing up old temples and other nice old pagan bits which today would have fetched a high price at Sotheby’s.
But Martin was really one for the quiet life and set up a nice cave-dwelling monastic order which became remarkably popular. The followers of this puritanical sect did nothing at all, had nothing at all and wore rough clothes. Other than that, Martin was recorded as unsuccessfully intervening on the part of other Christian sects against the Romans. It’s hard to tell just how well known the guy was during his lifetime, but he did have a personal biographer, so that puts him in league with say, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Victoria Beckham.
Not unlike photo editing software altering a picture the way we prefer it to be, history gave St Martin a little more saturation, a little softening around the edges. He was taken on by French royalty as a mascot, made patron saint of France, soldiers and horses (do cats have a patron saint?), and his cult grew so that they had to build him a new shrine because he received so many visitors. St Martin’s shrine is a stopping point for pilgrims walking on their way from Santiago de Compostela to Rome. Probably without St Martin, Tours would not see so many tours. Boom boom.
Multiple miracles were attributed to St Martin, as devotedly told by his contemporary biographer Sulpicius Severus. Just the usual stuff, raising people from the dead, curing the paralyzed and casting out devils. Once he avoided being killed by a falling tree, another time he seemed to possess some extraordinary fire-fighting skills. Nothing too overwhelming.
What’s really missing from St Martin’s story is a gruesome and untimely martyrdom. Maybe that’s the real miracle, that as an early Christian pot stirrer he avoided being strung up, bled or otherwise subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Apparently instead he lived to the age of 81, which in the 4th century has got be quite remarkable, or complete bullshit.
Not so Guy Fawkes. First he was tortured, until he confessed and gave up his mates. For treason in the 17th Century, the in-vogue punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered, which I’m afraid means exactly that: hung until you were not quite dead, then have your nuts chopped off and your guts cut out, then beheaded and cut into four bits. But our hero Guy managed rather cunningly to jump off the gallows and break his neck before the savagery could begin.
So there we are; these are the stories behind our motives to get together with friends around a roaring fire with a glass in hand. Two men with intentions of changing the world, but is that enough? I’d hate to think that in 500 years they’ll be a Feast of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I wouldn’t be a true Australian if I didn’t mention here that November 11 was also the day the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General sacked the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. Whitlam had been elected in 1972, following 23 years of conservative government, after proposing what’s remembered as the most “definitive statement of policies ever proposed at an election”. The first three years of his term witnessed profound change, reform, and controversy as he led Australia into a more forward looking, creative, humanitarian era. His policies included significant health care reform, the end of conscription and the implementation of free legal aid. Leading up to his dismissal as prime minister, the senate (with a majority of conservative coalition members opposed to his policies) blocked bills of supply to the government and produced a stalemate. This ended when for the first and only time in Australia’s history the Prime Minister was dismissed by the Monarch’s representative (a position appointed by the Prime Minister himself). It provoked immediate and widespread protests in the streets and is still considered the most controversial constitutional event in Australia’s history. Gough Whitlam continues to contribute to and comment upon the political landscape today. He is 94.