St. Lidwina (1380 – 1433): Skateaway

Our daughter has taken to ice skating in a big way and raised the question of where the sport originated.   Google tells us that pre-historic types   strapped bones to their feet and trekked across ice with these and some sort of ur-ski poles.  Sounds more utilitarian than anything else.   As far as free form  goes, it was the Dutch who came up with the idea of metal blades and real boots some time in the thirteenth century.

What you see here is the first visual representation of ice-skates.  The girl in blue is named Lidwina, from the Dutch town of Schiedam, near Rotterdam.   Her father had come from a family that had once been rich  and respected but fallen on hard times;  her mother had never known any but poverty.   Together these two produced nine children, one of them Lidwina, who took an early and serious interest in matters religious.

At age fifteen, she was out skating with some friends when she fell down rather hard and broke a rib.  Not the easiest of things in the fourteenth century.  There were complications, possibly gangrene, which spread and settled in for the long haul.  From here on in, she was effectively bedridden, in constant pain.  Bedsores and ulcers and internal maladies took hold.  After some years she went blind as well;  in compensation, she got visions and even mystical voyages to the Holy Land.  She also got the stigmata.

She could not be cured, but she was able to cure others, and in time became something of a living shrine.  A local child who had been screaming in pain was laid on her bed and immediately fell silent, cured. He later went on to join orders, in honor of his extraordinary experience.

As will happen, there were doubters and mutterers of “witch, witch”,  but when the local priest brought Lidwina an unconsecrated communion wafer, she was able to spot its flaw immediately and refused to have anything to do with it.   She was by then subsisting on nothing else but communion wafers;  that, and  Meuse river water.

Caring for the invalid was tough going on the family.  To make ends meet, the father took up the job of night watchman – a serious come-down for one of his background – and in due course was himself disabled (frostbitten large toe).   Word of this came to Duke William, who forwarded him a small annuity.

Lidwina lingered on into her fifty third year,  and died, as they say,  in an “odor of sanctity”.  Within a year, a chapel was built over her grave and the place became something of a minor pilgrimage.   Canonized in 1890, she  is the patron saint for chronic illness and ice skaters.


The illustration comes from  Johannis Brugman’s  Vita alme virginis Liidwine.  He was not alone in his fascination.  None other than Thomas à Kempis wrote a lengthy life of  the saint, as did, of all people,  J.K. Huysmans,  best known for the strange minor classic A Rebours,  a favorite read of  Oscar Wilde and other advanced aesthetes.

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