Friday, February 16, 2024

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember St. Juliana, the mysterious and popular martyr and saint from the early church.

It is the 16th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today, we head back to the early church- to the Roman Empire in the days of Emperor Diocletian and his chosen Augustus in the West: Maximian.

The year is 304 or 305, and Christians are being persecuted. If you heard the Weekend Edition two weeks ago, you might remember the point I made about Christian martyrs: in the earliest church, they were martyred, but not specifically for being Christian; rather, it was for refusing to bow the knee to Roman Gods and their representative on earth: the Emperor.

It was under Diocletian from 284 to 305 that Christians were targeted specifically. Although Diocletian would warn against spilling blood (imprisonment and confiscation of goods would do the trick, he thought) it was his zealous underlings who put Christians to death. But this was not akin to a modern ethnic cleansing- the number, perhaps in the low thousands, was still significant. The martyrdoms that did occur became headline stories of the day, with Christians reporting and repeating these stories to great effect, and the church grew in size on account of those who trusted their Lord, even unto death.

If I may nerd out for one minute- the Oxford website “The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity” is a remarkable, publicly funded database of texts that, in grad school, would require me to arrange time in a special reading room at certain libraries. Thanks to them, I was able to track down the story of St. Juliana, whose feast day has been celebrated on this, the 16th of February, for centuries. But her story is told by many medieval and early modern sources such that her origin story- the first one told- was difficult to discern.

But we can trace the story of Juliana back to Jerome’s Martyrology from the 4th century; she would be referenced by Gregory the Great in the 500s and appear on lists in both Roman and Greek traditions. Most curious to me is her popularity in the Middle Ages and her iconography in stained glass- often either hanging from her hair or attached to a flying dragon or devil with a chain. Her story doesn’t disappoint.

It is written that she was a Christian convert, secretly Baptized despite being engaged to a Roman Senator. He tells her to renounce her God, and she claims that Jesus Christ is her “emperor,” and she refuses to recognize the mortal Roman emperor. For this, she is beaten by rods and hung from her hair. When she didn’t react, molten lead was poured on her head, but she was not affected.

Thrown in prison, she is met by an Angel who says she should accept the Roman gods and be released. Juliana then grabbed the angel and demanded to know who his father was. It responded “Beelzebub”. She demands to know more about this devil in disguise and asks questions about his role in the world. The demon responded that he does the bidding of his master and “I love homicide, luxury, battle, and make debate and war." 

She binds the demon and, upon leaving her cell, throws it into a pile of excrement. She is tortured on the rack and set on fire, to which an Angel exterminates the fires. Seeing this, many of the Roman guards believe and are thus sentenced to death with her. At this point, she is to be beheaded by her would-be senator husband. He hesitates and she leads the martyrs in prayer and song until a devil appears to the senator and convinces him to get on with it. He does and her remains are gathered by a faithful woman and taken to Campania in Italy and buried. The senator attempted to retrieve the body but was shipwrecked and eaten by wild beasts.

It is hagiography (writing that exaggerates the saints) of the highest sort but undoubtedly griping, and you might see why she would be a favorite. She held her faith amidst persecution by the Empire, devils, and drastic physical punishments.  And sure, the penitential system whereby prayers to Saints garnered God’s favor would become a strange Medieval economy. It is certainly understandable that telling the story of St. Juliana and her faith in the direst of situations, both physical and spiritual, would be a favorite and even edifying form of entertainment. Sometimes referred to as St. Juliana of Nicomedia, she was more likely from the west, possibly Italy. A happy feast of St. Juliana as we remember a story that captivated the church for centuries.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, a good word from an Epistle to Timothy:

 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Juliana’s include the saint, Berners the medieval Falconer, Jones nee Brewer, and E.R.’s Margulies- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who was a fan of Juliana Hatfield, who was once in the Blake Babies with Evan Dando from the Lemonheads- 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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