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Saint James the Mutilated

Welcome, welcome! I hope this third philology feature still finds you all well. Unlike the previous two philology features, this feature will not explore the actual development of a word and/or expression. Mind you, this is not because of a lack of interest. Well actually, it is a little bit. You see, the words related to the theme of this issue – Ode to James – do not, in my opinion, have an interesting etymology I can explain to you.

So instead of tracking down the history of a word, I will tell you about Saint James. The story following below is a summary of a saint’s life, which explains how Saint James became Saint James the Mutilated, showing you – in the process – that not all words or expressions are related linguistically only.

To inspire people to live properly, the stories of saints were drawn up in both Anglo-Saxon and medieval times. Depending on the function of the story, they would be cast into the form of a passio (explaining how the saint died for his/her faith), a vita (explaining how the saint lived a holy life even before his/her death), or an exemplum (the life of the saint to serve as an example of a proper Christian life). The story of the saint that is the subject of this feature, Saint James the Mutilated, has been committed to parchment in a Middle English exemplum, found uniquely in Salisbury Cathedral MS 103 (Carruthers 13, note 1). That is not to say that this is the one and only version of his life. This is the English translation of the saint’s Latin passio found in the Legenda Aurea, the Gold Legend (like the legend of a map, not a legend like a myth). It explains how the saint became known as James Intercisus, or James the Mutilated. Warning: as the name of the saint implies, gore is ahead.

James was born a Christian Persian, who started to worship false gods (i.e., the Persian, pagan gods) after being pressured by the king he served as a knight. After having been scolded by both his wife and his mother in a letter for worshipping those false gods, James became a devout Christian once again. Unfortunately, someone else told the Persian king about James’ conversion.

When James refused to recant (give up his Christian faith), the king ordered his men to cut off his limbs one by one and afterwards behead him. The men started by cutting of the thumb of James’ right hand, and once again asked him to recant. James declined. They cut off his index finger, middle finger, ring finger and his pinky. James still refused, dedicating his lost limbs to God. When they started to work on his left hand, James even somewhat encouraged them, saying that you also would not sheer only half the sheep. The chopping process continued with his right foot, left foot, arms and legs. After each part of the limb or the limb itself had been chopped off, James would invoke God or remember how Jesus had suffered on earth. (Most remarkable, for a man who must have obviously been in hellish pains, he supposedly continued to do this in rhyming couplets!)

The king’s men were busy cutting James into smaller and smaller pieces from early morning till noon, yet James still refused to convert to the Persian faith and make sacrifices to their gods to save his life. It was taking them so long that they themselves got tired of tormenting James. When nothing remained of his limbs, James prayed to God to deliver him with death, even though he could not kneel in prayer or raise his hands up to the heavens. Then, the Persians beheaded James. (Carruthers 14-18)

Reading this story, it becomes clear how James got the epithet (a phrase expressing a characteristic of a person or thing) “the Mutilated”. The epithet was probably given to him so that he could be distinguished from the apostle Jameses (James the Great and James the Less). His Latin name, James Intercisus, is actually a little more accurate than the English version. Although no one will contend that James was mutilated by the Persians, the Latin “intercisus” actually means “cut into pieces”. Given the meticulousness with which the king’s orders were followed, “cut into pieces” certainly is more appropriate than a generic reference to mutilation. Then again, it does not sound nearly as good as James the Mutilated, now does it?

Also, for those of you who might be wondering: Intercisus is not related to the modern English word “incision”, even though this does mean “to cut” (OED). Instead, it is related to the verb “intercide”, which ultimately derives from Latin intericidere. Rather than “to cut (into)”, this verb means “to cut through” (from Latin “inter” – between and “caedere” – to cut (OED).

The moral of the story was that we, the audience, should follow James' example in his steadfastness in the face of pain and death and remain true in our Christian faith. Being much more explicit about the excruciating details of his martyring, this gory story may have inspired many medieval men and women to behave just a little less bad (however, medieval people did not really live such devout lives and generally tended to ignore the rules of the Church). Even we, as modern readers of the story, can most likely only admire James’ resolution to stay true to his faith in the face of such excruciating pains and even death. Even if we are no longer as religious as medieval people (supposedly) were, standing up for what you believe in is still very much an ideal in our society, and stories such as those of James the Mutilated may help us remember that.

by Aranka Leonard

Works Cited

Carruthers, L. “A Persian Martyr in a Middle English Vernacular Exemplum: The Case of St James Intercisus”. Medieval Sermon Studies vol. 55 (2011), pp. 13-30.

"† intercision, n.". OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 17 February 2014
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