Friday, May 19, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we head to medieval England to hear about a famous saint and why horseshoes are considered lucky.

It is the 19th of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today’s story is one that gets into some of the murkiness of Medieval England, the story of monasteries- especially Benedictine in the Southern half of Great Britain and perhaps why we consider horseshoes to be lucky.

It is the story of St. Dunstan- a very popular but truly curious character who was born near Glastonbury in 924 and died on this, the 19th of May in 988. So he is living and working in the Kingdom of England after the various English kingdoms (Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, and the like) combined into one Anglo-Saxon kingdom before the Norman invasion of 1066.

Dunstan was trained by Irish monks- his uncle was the Archbishop of Canterbury and believed his energetic nephew would benefit from the monastic life. In a small cell he built himself he practiced the arts of smithing and music- two things he would become renowned for… but also for some fantastic tales and rumors that he practiced black magic.

That, and tales of being particularly troubled by the devil himself. One story has the devil coming to him in the appearance of a young woman who tried to seduce him- how he made the devil flee was made into a rhyme found in Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” we read:

St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose

With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,

That he was heard three miles or more

One more devilish story seems to be a kind of “just so” story. The devil came to him again, requesting his smithing skills to fix his cloven hooves. Dunstan, unable to deny the request, took a red hot horseshoe and nailed it to the devil's hoof- screaming in pain, Dunstan only agreed to take it off if the devil agreed to never enter a house through a door on which hung a horseshoe- hence, the good luck symbol with shades of the Passover.

Through his uncle and noble connections, he would be called to the court of the new king Edmund I- he was called to be Abbott of Glastonbury and oversaw a famous school there. He was also known for his reforming zeal- and this may have been part of the rumors of black magic- as he found enemies amongst those who would be less zealous to reform. Stories included him causing a crucifix to speak during a debate over whether clergy could be married (he was not in favor and is said to have bewitched the crucifix to seem to talk).

In 955, with the ascension of Eadwig to the English throne, Dunstan was received of his position and sent into exile. There he traveled to Flanders and the abbey of Blandinium, where he studied the thriving monastery culture there- he saw at their root was a common rule of life- the Benedictine.

In 957, England was divided between Eadwig in the North and his brother Edgar in the South. Edgar recalled Dunstan from Flanders, and despite being a “licentious wretch,” he let Dunstan free to reform and was named the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 959, Eadwig died, and Edgar became sole king. It was during this time that Monasteries would begin to flourish across the entire kingdom- following the Benedictine model. Taking religious orders, or at least studying under monks, would become popular- thus helping to cement something of a unified church culture across the kingdom.

But he retained his enemies- and they would attempt to discredit him as the “arch miracle monger” with stories that ironically drew people to Dunstan- one was that at a council meeting held on the second floor of a house when it came time to defend his case, Dunstan said Christ himself would be the judge, just then the floor gave out under his opposition and many of them died. This would be seen as divine justification by some- such is the strange murky world of Early Medieval England. In 978, Dunstan retired black to Glastonbury, where he spent the rest of his days teaching at the cathedral school. He died on this, the 19th of May, in 988.


The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- from Ephesians 2, after reading that we are dead in our own sins, we read:

 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite horseshoes include the Canadian Canyon, the stadium in Ohio, the Vegas Casino, and the purple marshmallows in his favorite breakfast cereal- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man reminded of the 90s film Dunston Checks In- he was a specially trained orangutan who checked into a hotel while working with a jewel thief. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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