The Feast of St Michael (and his cute little dragons)

Today is the Feast of St Michael.  While other saints might be a martyr, a confessor or a virgin, Michael is the chief of the angels.  He appears four times in the Bible, but is best remembered for his part in a brief but exciting twist in the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse):

Et factum est proelium in caelo, Michael et angeli eius, ut proeliarentur cum dracone. Et draco pugnavit et angeli eius, et non valuit, neque locus inventus est eorum amplius in caelo.  Et proiectus est draco ille magnus, serpens antiquus, qui vocatur Diabolus et Satanas, qui seducit universum orbem; proiectus est in terram, et angeli eius cum illo proiecti sunt.

And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels: And they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduceth the whole world; and he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:7-9, Unbound Bible

Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.10.2, 22r

In this fourteenth-century manuscript, the dragon looks pretty fierce, so much so that Michael needs some of his subangels to help out with the battle.  But in another manuscript, this one from the late eleventh century, the dragon is sitting very obligingly whilst the archangel carefully inserts his lance into its mouth:

London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C. vi, fol. 16r.

If you look closely, you will notice that the dragon’s tongue is, in fact, another, smaller dragon:

Who’d have thought that a demonic beast could be so cute?

But let’s zoom back out a bit:


Strangely, it looks as if someone has been clawing at the image of the dragon.  I initially regarded this as a little odd, but didn’t think too much of it.  However, the very day after I noticed it, I chanced upon this tweet by Allie Newman of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture, with an image from another Apocalypse, in the fifteenth-century manuscript Glasgow, University Library MS Hunter 398:

Newman notes that this image shows how a reader physically interacted with the manuscript: maybe he or she was joining with St Michael in the act of attacking the Satanic dragon?  Clearly it wasn’t just one person doing this.

With Michael being such a powerful saint, he features in benedictionals, books of blessings for a bishop to read at the masses of the saints’ feast days.  Here is an example from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, written for a tenth-century bishop of Winchester:

London, British Library Additional MS 49598, fol. 108r-v.

Multiplici uos Dominus benedictione locupletet qui sollempnitate principis archangelorum mundi gaudia infert.  Amen.

May the Lord enrich you by his manifold blessing, who, on the solemnity [feast] of the prince of archangels, brings in the joys of the world.  Amen.

I really love this manuscript, both the no-expense-spared illumination on the opening page of the Feast of St Michael, and also the gorgeous Caroline minuscule hand in which the main text is written.

More informal prayer collections, of the kind that I generally work on, also find space for the prince of angels.  St Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester in the late eleventh century, had a small but plump little service-book now known as the Portiforium of St Wulstan (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 391): towards the end of this is another such informal gathering of prayers to various saints, like this one on p. 593 of the manuscript:

Tu es michael in cęlo benedictus in christo rogo michaelem archangelum sanctum et gloriosum qui ad animas susscipiendas [sic] potestatem accepit ut animam meam suscipere dignetur …

You are Michael in heaven, blessed in Christ; I ask Michael the holy and glorious archangel, who has taken the power of receiving souls, that he may deign to receive my soul …

The manuscript page can be viewed here: the prayer begins with the large red T.

But what interests me most of all is collections in which several prayers were gathered together into a group on the same theme, outside of formal liturgical collections.  I’ve written before about London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, a tiny little prayer manuscript so disorganised and scruffy that it is unlikely to have been used as a liturgical book.  Yet it does contain groupings of prayers – to the cross, for the monastic hours, for Trinity Sunday – some of which originated in liturgical use, yet appear to have been assembled together in the manuscript for private devotion.  On the prayers for Trinity Sunday, Bernard Muir, the editor of the manuscript, suggests that the scribe had ‘brought these texts together to form a short devotional text for Trinity Sunday for his or her own personal use’, drawing upon liturgical texts for that feast (A Pre-Conquest Prayer-Book, p. 147).  It’s an excellent idea that I picked up and ran with in my thesis on prayer programmes of this kind.  Coincidentally, right about now I am writing some new material (for my future book) on these prayers to the Trinity, and also on some prayers to St Michael which can also be found in this manuscript: Muir identifies these as the mass prayers for the feast of St Michael (pp. 174-5).  I’m considering the possibility that these prayers were selected from the mass for the saint’s feast day and put together for some kind of personal devotional use.

I will finish with one of the offertory prayers from this collection:

Michael offertory Gal.Axiv.145r.PNG
London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 145r.

In conspectu angelorum psallam tibi, domine, et adorabo ad templum sanctum tuum, et confitebor tibi, domine.

Bernard Muir, A Pre-Conquest Prayer-Book, p. 174.

In the sight of the angels, I will sing to you, O Lord, and I will worship at your holy temple, and I will confess to you, O Lord.

[EDIT 04/10/16: My thanks to all the people on Twitter who pointed out that the Tiberius C. vi dragon is, in fact, an early design for Ridley Scott’s Alien.]

Works cited:

Bernard James Muir, ed., A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book (BL MSS Cotton Galba A.xiv and Nero A.ii (ff. 3-13)), HBS 103 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988).

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