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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

September 22, 2003

In the Café

The village had just the one café, connected to a hotel. There was a small garden terrace with a fountain. There was a view down the street to the church, or you could face the other way onto the covered market place. We'd walked through the market place to get to the café. A sign on one of the walls next to the market said, "Défense de uriner."

We'd just about stopped laughing about it when our café crèmes arrived. Lucy broke a sugar lump in half and stirred it in, looking back down the street to the church.

"I get the impression," I began.
"Your mind seems to be working overtime. This village has a mystery to it, which I'd love to know."
"I was trying to think of a way to explain it. Saint Guthlac is important in all of this. He's not a major saint you know, and I'm not catholic, not practising anyway, so it's not like I'm an expert on saints. But I know about him, because of his connection with the Lincolnshire fens."
"Go on," I said.
"Before he was a saint, he was a hermit. You know there used to be a kind of a career progression, where you'd start off by being a regular monk for several years, then you'd become a hermit for a while, and then you were made a saint. So you just make a decision to be extra holy, and go for it."

When Guthlac decided to be a hermit, she explained, he went off into the fenland. The significance of this was that the fens were considered beneath human notice. It had no utility, so it was judged worthless, in much the same way as parts of the American plains are called Badlands. Bad, as in, too poor to sustain a crop or livestock. The fens weren't valued for their beauty, either. This was in the 9th century, before the Romantic era and all the stuff about beautiful landscapes, or those American theories of the sublime.

So Guthlac, in a way, was like Stig of the dump. He's living in the natural equivalent of a landfill site, or a toilet. But by becoming a holy man, a hermit, then a saint, he suddenly makes the place important.

"Important how?" I asked.
"It's like one of those blue plaques on a building. So-and-so lived here, and now you can't pull this building down or change its façade. Because he lived on the fens, he brought them to people's notice. So the fens became valued. It's like being saved, you know, for born-again Christians. There's a judgement passed on the fens; they now have a value, and they're now worth saving. So if not for Guthlac -- or someone like him -- nobody would have thought, a couple of centuries later, that the land was worth reclaiming."
"So that's when the Dutch engineers show up with their pumping machines and drain the swamps, and turn what was worthless land into farm land."

"So you were asking, why is a village in France named after this saint-of-the-fens..."
"There's a connection, because this land was reclaimed too. Or you could say it was saved or redeemed. And I'm wondering if there isn't also a supernatural element."
"What do you mean?"
"Like somebody thought there was some magic in Guthlac's name."
"Or his bones."
"Exactly. Or his bones."


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