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Lay for the Day
20th July

The feast of St Wilgefortis, also known as St Uncumber and St Liberata. According to medieval legend, she was one of septuplets born to a pagan king of Portugal. Her father wanted her to marry the king of Sicily, but she had taken a vow of virginity. She prayed that she might become unattractive, and thereafter grew a beard and moustache. When her suitor withdrew, her father had her crucified, and on the cross she prayed that those who remembered her passion would be freed of their burdens and troubles – hence the names Uncumber and Liberata.
The help of St Uncumber was particularly sought by wives having trouble with their husbands. Thomas More noted scornfully the custom among women in his day of making offerings of oats to the saint’s statue, which he said was so that she might “provide a horse for an evil husband to ride to the devil upon… because that they reckon that for a peck of oats she will not fail to uncumber them of their husbands”. The conjunction of the bearded ears of oats with the bearded saint, and the association of oats with male libido – ‘sowing his wild oats’ and so on – is intriguing.


XVI. The Down

If I romanticise what loves I’ve known,
Little loves as brief and bright as spark-falls,
I’ll remember, when on me the dark calls,
Your love as true to itself as a stone.
Cold to each other as may have grown,
Each eyeing through the slits of steep, stark walls,
We’ll remount the high air where the lark stalls
Over the down in the wind’s pleasant moan.
Harsh to each other as we’ve often been,
Sharpening on our hearts knives of resentment,
Heavy and piercing, serrated and keen,
We’ll lie again like two empty crosses
In the deep meadow of our contentment,
Concurring as the grass nods and tosses.

John Gibbens
from Legacy

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar