Feast Day: April 12th; sometimes given as April 20th and 27th, but these are probably errors.
Really Existed? Almost Certainly.
Timeframe: Seventh and Eighth Century. Died 714, or perhaps 723, or maybe 742. There seems to be considerable confusion on this point.
Place: Northern France.
Credentials: Recognized by Tradition in the Catholic Church.
Patron Saint of: lame children.
Symbolism: Old shoes are left in offering. May not be prominent enough for an individual artistic tradition.
Ah, these are interesting times to be practicing amateur hagiography. There have always been inherent uncertainties that attend the studying of times long past, of course. And, when you’re looking at saints you also have to consider what skeleton of fact might underlie deep tissues of legend, conflation of facts with folklore, exaggerations driven by long histories of personal and institutional advocacy, and so on. But now, we add in the internet’s incredible power to generate, store, and disseminate misinformation,* and the murkiness of the subject matter grows to another order of magnitude.
Most internet sources, for example, will tell you that St. Erkemboden hailed from Ireland and began his career “as a monk of Sithiu at Saint-Omer.” This is all very illuminating, but I confess I was a little confused as to what a "monk of Sithiu" might be. It turns out that “Sithiu” was the medieval name of the modern French town of Saint-Omer. Therefore, we can divide both sides of the equation by “Sithiu” and determine that St. Erkemboden began his career as a monk in the French town of Saint-Omer. Catholic Online, which has it that Erkemboden was “a monk of St. Sithin, at St. Omer, France,” is just one step more confused than everyone else. There is no St. Sithin.
A Long Digression
To say much more about St. Erkemboden, we’ll have to take a look at his more high-profile predecessor, Saint Audomar (AKA St. Audomarus, St. Odemaars, or -- here comes a connection -- St. Omer). Back in Audomar’s day, which is to say the Seventh Century, the Franks hadn’t coalesced into any newfangled nation-state of “France.” Instead, they occupied a handful of loosely-knit kingdoms with frequently shifting borders and alliances. Thus it wasn’t the King of France who appointed Audomar to be the first Bishop of Thérouanne, but King Dagobert I of Austrasia.
Dagobert wanted a Bishop in Thérouanne to help him spread the benefits of Christianity and advanced civilization to the local tribes. The town was problematic because it had been the de facto capital of the Morini, a Celtic people who were annoyingly successful at polder farming and who, although they had been converted to Christianity by Saints Victoricus and Fuscian, had shown the bad form of converting right back to their own religious practices when the Franks stopped paying attention. Dagobert's fond hope was clearly that Audomar would re-re-convert them and integrate them into his sphere of control. St. Audomar’s mission to southern Flanders, in other words, was part and parcel of the gradual, ebb-and-flow expansion of centralized, Christianized government in Europe, and of the centuries-old westward migration and conquest of peoples stretching from before Attila the Hun all the way to Andrew Jackson and beyond. Isn’t history interesting?
So there’s your context: St. Audomar was engaged in bringing the blessings of civilization northward and westward on behalf of the Church, Austrasia, and the Frankish peoples. He settled down in Thérouanne and asked a relative, St. Bertin (AKA St. Bertinus), to help him with the work. Here’s how the Wiki article on St. Bertin describes the process, as of April 9, 2012:
This country, now in the département of Pas-de-Calais, was then one vast marsh, studded here and there with hillocks and overgrown with seaweed and bulrushes. On one of these hillocks, Bertin and his companions built a small house whence they went out daily to preach the word of God among the natives, most of whom were still heathens. Gradually some converted heathens joined the little band of missionaries and a larger monastery had to be built.And it was St. Bertin’s monastery where St. Erkemboden of Thérouanne – remember him? our Saint of the Month? – began his career. Most online sources says that when St. Bertin died, St. Erkemboden became Abbot of the monastery, but this is probably not true. To be absolutely sure, I would have to consult Henri de Laplane’s 1854 Les abbés de Saint-Bertin d'après les anciens monuments, a copy of which I do not happen to have on hand. However, I have reason to believe that a list of St. Bertin’s monastery’s abbots is given therein, and that St. Erkemboden isn’t on it.
Back to St. Erkemboden!
It is probably true, however, that Erkemboden succeeded St. Audomar as Bishop of Thérouanne, although sources differ on whether he was the immediate successor. Some sources say he was “elected by the people,” but if bishops have ever stood for local election this is news to me. He served for quite a while and then died, though I have no idea when. A man who has one website bookmarked, as the old saying goes, always knows when his saint died, but a man who has two websites bookmarked is never sure. After Erkeboden's death, according to one very prominent saint site, “So many miracles occurred at his shrine that pilgrims came in droves, leaving so many offerings that within a few years of his death it was possible to built a cathedral in his honor.” No specific miracles are mentioned by this or any other source, however, and I have found not a whit of evidence that there was ever a cathedral dedicated to St. Erkemboden.
Why is he associated with the feet? Most sites say something to the effect that “pilgrims left their worn-out footwear as an offering after having walked a long way.” This is a silly line of reasoning. All pilgrims walk a long way -- that’s what pilgrimage is -- and you don’t see people leaving their old shoes at other saints’ shrines, nor is it an especially intuitive offering. Could be construed as kind of rude, actually. Obviously there’s something else going on.
The Thérouanne diocese, it seems, was very, very big! After all, it was a wild-west, frontier sort of place, so one bishop had to cover a lot of territory. During St. Erkemboden’s tenure, it is said, he “walked it constantly, looking for land he could buy to give to the poor.” By the time he died, he himself was lamed up from all that walking. That leaves us without a signature miracle, but it at least establishes a connection with troubles of the feet. Or as a French language site has it, under the deft translation of the Babelfish:
Why shoes on this tomb? " as of the death of Erkembode Saint, Pilgrims came to request everywhere on this tomb, undoubtedly saying themselves: ' It went so much for us, go in our turn towards lui'. These pilgrims deposited on the tomb, their shoes out of use in ex voto to attest their long walk. Today one comes to request it each time a child has evil to start himself and the moms deposit here, while requesting with confidence, the shoes of their child. Erkembode was always the saint who makes walk! "Want to visit Thérouanne? You can’t; it was razed in 1553 by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. St. Bertin’s Abbey, the monastery where Erkemboden got his start, survived a millennium of tension, wars, and shifting borders on the Franco-Flemish frontier before getting shut down by the French Revolution; its last remains were bombed to rubble in World War II. But St. Erkemboden’s tomb, remarkably, is extant in the Notre-Dame Cathedral in the town Saint-Omer. People still leave shoes there.
|The tomb of St. Erkemboden in Saint-Omer, France, with shoes given in offering.|
2004 photo by Alastair Ross from this website.
Use permissions unspecified. If you are Alastair Ross and want me to stop usin' your picture, just say the word.
* In which I of course play my humble part.